Here's a post from 2004 that is newly relevant.


Should there be a National Cowboy Day?

Times change. The cowboy doesn't. While our culture might sell out; the cowboy stays true to his values (and his horse). Rock stars, rap stars, movie stars come and go--loudly. The cowboy remains--quietly. When our children watch the Twin Towers crumble on CNN, they worry for our security, our future, our very foundation. The cowboy represents that foundation, that self-reliance, survival instinct, and integrity. We know that he'll ride out of that dusty ruin and survive, and with the grace of God he'll get the cattle to Amarillo. There's a little bit of him in every American. That's why we need him.

John Fusco, Screenwriter; Hidalgo

My father liked to watch Westerns when I was a boy. He was a big television watcher when he was home, which was only on the weekends. His job had him up and gone before the sun rose, and the only time of the year you'd see him before sunset was the summer -- because the day was longer in the summertime. On the weekend, though, he'd be at home, working at home and car repair, and serving as a volunteer fireman, instead of doing his regular job.

He would usually find some time on Sunday afternoon to watch some television. The TV was always on when he was home, and it would usually show one of three things: a football game, a NASCAR race, or a Western movie. These were dependable features.

I had no time for Westerns -- I very much preferred Star Wars movies, more progressive, not mired in the past. We lived out on the edge of civilization, it seemed, although I knew that there was more civilization if you just kept going: run far enough from Atlanta and you'll hit Chattanooga. But there was a large swath of country that lay out beyond the uttermost suburb where you'd find cattle country and timberland. North Georgia ground isn't very good, so other forms of farming don't work well. But you can raise cattle, and you can raise short needle pine for pulpwood. This all felt very far from the action, to a boy; I recognized Luke Skywalker's complaint about being on the planet farthest from the bright center of things, and greatly admired Han Solo.

So, I would usually leave my father to his Westerns. I still spent a fair amount of time with him when he was home, though, helping him work on the cars and with other tasks around the property. He spent a lot of that time telling stories, one right after another. Almost all of them were about growing up with my grandfather, who had run a body shop and service station for long haul truckers on I-75. In the imagination of youth, it sounded a great deal like Mos Eisley: there was a cantina filled with dangerous, armed men where my young father sometimes had to go to get and carry back family friends, and which produced occasional fights and drawn guns. Hot rods as finely tuned as any starfighters had occupied my father's free time as a young man. Freightliners paused there to gas up, seeming like smugglers, hauling over their limit, often running on amphetamines as much as gasoline. High stakes poker games ran in the back, while mechanics fixed up the rigs in the bays.

In the center of it all was my grandfather, a great and heroic figure, always armed with his revolver, so fearsome that none of the dangerous men who occupied the fringes of the story ever dared to trouble him. This part of the story I knew to be perfectly realistic, for I'd met the man myself. He had no exact Star Wars comparison. Star Wars would have been a different movie with "Jack T." in it. He was big, and strong, and fearless, hard-drinking but not controlled by the whisky, dangerous but kindhearted to the weak. He took care of his family and his friends, kept the peace among those who were passing through, and ran off the ones who wouldn't abide by his rules.

I always wanted to grow up to be just like him. He was the best man I'd ever heard of or met, so I thought as a boy.

Of course you've realized by now what kind of movie features a man like that.

You never know, with stories, exactly how much is an expression of the great archetypes. A lot has been written about Star Wars archetypes: Han Solo the pirate, Obi-Wan the Wizard, Luke as the Young Hero. The most resonant fiction is built on these archetypes, which speak to the depths of the human heart.

It happens with true stories too, though. Jack T. was the Sheriff, or the Marshall; but the Sheriff in the Western is also the King. Like all of these archetypes, he can be good or bad. The Bad King is a tyrant. The Good King keeps order in the world, upholds and cares for the weak, looks out for the poor, drives off the vicious. He has the power to punish and to pardon, which is seen in every Western: the bandit is run off or killed, but the harmless town drunk is endlessly forgiven and helped in his times of particular adversity.

The world can be violent and cruel, filled both with lawful and the lawbreakers. But the stories tell us that it can also be a good place, a happy place, if there is a good King. If this is the story of the Western, it is also the story of the Beowulf, whose time as king is peaceful in spite even of the existence of dragons. His death brings wild mourning, and the folk expect both death and slavery to follow, even though the dragon was slain.

Americans don't want Kings, but we still need the man even if we don't want the office. We want a free-born man, chosen by his equals rather than by his birth -- and in this, it happens that we are following precisely in the footsteps of the Geats, whose kings were elected by the folk.

I inherited my grandfather's Stetson after he died. I wear it often, when I don't wear my own. I carry a revolver, legally and licensed in several states. I find, when I have time that I don't have to spend working, that there's little I want more than to settle in with a good Western. In this, I am just like many Americans, apparently including Doc. We are seeing in our own way the same, ancient things:
It was decidedly cool for Houston, a harbinger for the frost that would set in that night. Anyway, I was walking along in the cool of the evening with a Justin cowboy hat on my head, and Alice on my hip, when I looked up and I saw a most amazing sunset. It was all gold and burning over the rooftops. Little broad streaks of copper and gold clouds fixed high above in a sea of ultramarine blue, while I was drowned beneath in a cool breeze. It was just gorgeous. I paused from my errand for a minute, awed by a beauty that must have awed man in discrete moments throughout the ages, from ancient Greece to a greek eatery in modern Texas.
In the end, I suppose I did turn out to be just like my grandfather. I'm old enough now to know that he wasn't exactly the man who was painted for me. Having become him, I can see only too clearly some of the flaws he must have borne, which now I bear.

Also, I realize -- not quite too late -- that Jack T. was not the best man I've ever known. My father is. I wanted to be like his father not because his father was better than him, but because his father was the man he most respected and admired in the world. All I wanted was for him to respect and admire me just like that.

If the stories proved not to be completely accurate, they were nevertheless perfectly true. I may not always succeed at being a good man, but I know how. I know how to be a good man because my father told me. He told me about his father. Now I have a son, and I have to tell him. Nothing can capture the value of this gift, or the weight of this duty. I have heard only too often the laments of those who did not receive what I was given, who do not know how to pass on what I must.

The Western is our national epic. It is the way in which Americans, the ones who still remember how, pass on the eternal truths to the next generation.


Eric Blair said...

Americans may not need kings, but I think it is clear that some Americans want kings.

But Grimm, you're repeating Turner's "Frontier Thesis". I'm not sure that "the Western" is the National Epic. It was a tremendous fad in movies and early Television, which probably had a greater impact than anybody really realizes--through simple repetition on TV again and again and again and again, not to mention Turner's Frontier thesis was the conventional wisdom when all that stuff was made.

Grim said...

Well, I wrote all that 12 years ago. The parts worth repeating weren't the original question of whether we should, or should not, have a National Cowboy Day.

On the other hand, I am persuaded of the epic quality of the Western by noting that there are close connections between the best Westerns and the great epics. The Alamo starring John Wayne is really a kind of inverted Iliad, with Jim Bowie as Achilles and Col. Travis as Agamemnon (and Wayne's Davy Crockett playing the role of Odysseus).

Shane, as I've written before, has the form of a 14th century story of a knight errant taking sides in a feudal dispute out of chaste love for a married lady. The substitutions necessary to set that kind of classic epic poetry on the frontier were surprisingly minimal.

Tom said...

Grim, it's a beautiful eulogy. Your father and grandfather both were great men. A lot of Americans are growing up without fathers, and that is a great loss not only for them, but for all of us.

Eric, I'm not sure that all of Turner's thesis was wrong. The frontier was a powerful part of the American imagination from the beginning, and it did play a powerful role in forming our national character. It was also politically important right up through the Civil War. That war was in part about what would happen when we incorporated the frontier: Would the frontier give the free states the power to abolish slavery, or would it secure the institution of slavery?

Did the end of the physical frontier take something away from us? I don't know, but I think American society had to change as a result of that ending. How did it change? I don't know.

About the same time the frontier ended, Progressivism began here. Mere correlation? Likely so. But part of it could have been a shift of the romantic idea of the frontier away from physical land and toward the future, which became the new, endless frontier for opportunity and conquest.

Or maybe I'm just killing time on a Sunday afternoon. I need to go edit a syllabus.

Beautiful eulogy, Grim.

Eric Blair said...

I'm not saying Turner was wrong; just noting the context of the movies and TV shows that featured the West.

Besides, the real national myth of the USA is the immigrant's journey. The Western Frontier is certainly a part of that, but not the only part.

Anonymous said...

I think I will sit down and watch a triple header..........

The Good , The bad, and the Ugly.

A Fist full of Dollars

For a Few Dollars more

- Mississippi


Anonymous said...

Actually, Americans do have kings, we just do not have royalty.

I was watching the TV series "Once" which is all about fairy tales, and was amused to see that the Evil Queen got translated into the mayor of a very small town. The placement was fitting, and actually historically correct.

In the "1633" series by Eric Flint and David Weber, the local librarian is seen as commanding as a duchess, and all of the main characters have no problem slipping into the roles of nobility, because they ARE nobility. The observation is that, by getting rid of royalty, we all acquired the habits and stature of nobility. It is a very different mindset from that of serfs or even commoners.


Grim said...

That was Sidney Painter's basic understanding of how feudalism lead to liberty.

Tom said...

Yeah, Eric, I agree. Immigrant ... but something more. Pioneer, maybe? Not sure.

Interesting, Valerie. I'll have to check out those shows.

Dang it, Grim. I don't need anything else to read.

douglas said...

Grim, clearly, for all the differences our childhood must have had, we had a lot in common. For me and my Dad, if have to add war movies of the forties, fifties and early sixties along with the westerns. We were just talking about doing a fun movie night with our Scott troop, and I suggested "the Cowboys". Hopefully we can get that to fly.

douglas said...

Darn autocorrect. I'd have to add... Scout troop... You get the idea.

Tom said...

I watched "The Cowboys" with one of my classes recently. The pacing is far slower than kids today expect. You might warn them they'll need to relax and just enjoy the scenery sometimes.

Honestly, they probably need a drink or two, but somehow I imagine that wouldn't go over too well. ;-)

It's a great movie, though.