Many Christmases past had a Western theme

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 17, 2012

As I recall them, many of those days of the late 1950s and well into the 1960s were definitely “western” in character, and by that, I don’t mean the subjects covered in a Western Civilization course at Appalachian. When I was growing up on the Old Concord Road, prime time television was predominated by many series depicting life in the Old West. (such programs were also referred to as “horse operas.”) Just as now, what was popular on TV often translated into popular Christmas presents, especially for little boys.

In this “Western Tradition,” stone was sometimes prominently featured, not the carved stone of Corinthian columns, but something cruder: boulders. Behind such boulders, bushwackers might lie in wait, or Roy Rodgers and Gabby Hayes might take shelter when eluding outlaws on their trail.

Some of those portrayed badmen operated in groups, and some were solitary. Paleontologists tell us that they suspect some dinosaurs of having hunted in packs like Deinonychus (The Clantons), or singly, like Tyrannosaurus Rex (Billy the Kid). It seems fitting that the remains of some of the predatory outlaws of the Old West lie buried at Boot Hill, not terribly far from the remains of some of the predatory creatures of the “really old west,” who rest in the consolidated sediments of the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods.

Just as those badmen of the Old West had their “modus operandi,” so did the men who were deemed to be “good,” the “righters of wrong.” Some operated as a duo: The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Wild Bill Hickok and Jingles, Red Ryder and Little Beaver, and the brothers, Bret and Bart Maverick. A few of the solitary doers of good included: Matt Dillon, Paladin, Bat Masterson, Cheyenne, and some of his Warner Brothers siblings: Sugar Foot and Bronco Layne.

Some of these characters were traditional, and some had bridged the gap from the Old West to 1950s “cool,” such as the Maverick Brothers and Bat Masterson. In retrospect (a good deal of my perspective nowadays) when the Maverick brothers were together on screen, a foretaste of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” could be had. Bat Masterson, cane in hand, foretold the “coolness” of Sir John Steed, umbrella in hand, in the 1960s spy show, “The Avengers.”

In all of this Western “aura,” Paladin was truly unique, and not just in his inclination to dress totally in black! His television character was characterized by deep introspection. He was like some existential gunman-philosopher who wandered through the West (not unlike Nick Adams’ character, Johnny Yumah, who “roamed” through it, as per the theme song sung by Johnny Cash). I have no trouble at all of visualizing Paladin carrying a copy of something by Nietzsche in his back pocket (since paperbacks didn’t evolve until the 1930s, this would have been difficult, or at least uncomfortable).

The children of the Old Concord Road in those days had all of the paraphernalia made popular and profitable by the TV westerns. I remember gun battles in the neighborhood with the smell of powder (cap), and instead of littering the ground with spent shell casings, we littered it with spent cap paper. Just partway into Christmas Day, our Christmas tree’s cedar aroma was already smothered by the odor of cap smoke.

I had Red Ryder pistols and a Red Ryder outfit which I received one Christmas. I also owned one of those “cool” toy versions of what gave the TV show “The Rifleman” its name. In my possession was also a Duncan “Butterfly” Yo-yo, and with those rapid, similar yo-yo like motions of the wrist and arm, I could cock my Rifleman Rifle with its circular band of metal, bring it back up, and quickly dispatch a host of imaginary villains.

Additionally, I owned a Christmas-procured Bat Masterson cane and a Davey Crockett hat (which also hearkened back to the Daniel Boone look of the “colonial West,” when Rowan County was Boone’s jumping-off place for his western explorations). One Christmas, I received a couple of holstered “Paladin” guns including an ample supply of his cards of introduction, with their famous statement: “Have Gun Will Travel – Wire Paladin – San Francisco.” Of all the televised heroes of the Old West, Paladin was the one most ahead of his time in having the media savvy to have his own business card printed (being so much ahead of the rest, he was probably not too far away from having the word “wire” replaced on that card with the symbol “@”followed by some letters and a “dot” or two).

Some of the characters portrayed in those old TV westerns of the 1950s and 60s were partially factual, and a great many were fictitious, but had their basis in a sort of collectively inspired fact. With our television-inspired “gunfights” and western “trappings,” we children of the Old Concord Road were an imitation of a series of preceding imitations of the real thing. Television impressions followed those of old movies (both “talkie” and silent) and vaudeville, extending all the way back to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

In our childhood portrayal of the Old West, we were in a sense, a third or fourth reflective ripple of the original splash, or a ricocheted bullet on its third or fourth bounce.