A while back I did a singalong with a group of about 50 people. We sang American songs, folk songs mostly, one of which was “Home on the Range.” I asked how many of those assembled wanted to be cowboys when they were younger. Only about three people raised their hands. I was a little surprised at this. When I was about six years old, I wanted to be a cowboy more than anything else.
I happened to come along in the early days of television, and many of the cowboy movie stars had made the transition to the small screen. There was Wild Bill Hickok (I forget who played him) and his sidekick Jingles, portrayed by Andy Devine (“Hey, Wild Bill, wait for me!”). Then there was the Cisco Kid with his pal Pancho, who embodied every Hispanic stereotype known to humankind. Hopalong Cassidy was unusual in that he had silver hair. Played by Bill Boyd, his horse had the coolest saddle and equipment around. I even had a Hopalong Cassidy cereal bowl with Hoppy and horse on the bottom. My reward for eating all my cereal was to see Hoppy at the bottom of the bowl. I believe Gene Autry made appearances on television, although those might have been movies. Sky King was a modern-day cowboy who used a twin-engined Cessna instead of a horse. He had a niece named Penny to round out the show. Of course, the King of the Cowboys was Roy Rogers and his inimitable cast: Dale Evans (I think she rode her horse Buttermilk sidesaddle), Trigger the palomino, Bullet the dog, and a humorous character named Pat Brady with his jeep Nellybelle that was forever breaking down. I’m not sure to this day exactly what Pat Brady did around the ranch except mess up, but they were a family. And Roy and Dale sang at least at the end of every episode: “Happy Trails to You!” It was a great time to want to be a cowboy.
Locally, Pick Temple had a show sponsored by Giant Food and Heidi bread. I still remember the Heidi bread song, sung to the tune of “On Top of Old Smokey”:
My favorite bread’s Heidi,
I hope it’s yours, too.
It tastes so delicious
And it’s so good for you.
So let’s all eat Heidi
And before very long
All Giant Rangers
Will grow big and strong.
I never missed an episode of Roy Rogers or Pick Temple. My wife actually got to meet Pick. She also saw the Beatles in person. The most famous person I have seen in person was Janis Joplin and that’s enough said about that.
Of course, when we watched cowboy shows we wore our cowboy outfits. I have a picture of my brother and me in our cowboy hats, shirts, vests, jeans, and boots, sporting our gun belts and armed with twin cap pistols. We were fairly impressive if you ignored the fact that we were about three feet tall. My wife still has her cowgirl outfit, which is red with a hat, vest and skirt. I have never asked her if she has ever ridden sidesaddle but it looks from the outfit as if she were about three feet tall at the time as well.
I think I wanted to be a cowboy for about four years. I even lobbied my parents for a pony, unsuccessfully since we lived in a house with a tiny back yard. The issue of where to put the pony never bothered me: I just wanted one.
My cowboy days came to an end about 1957 with the Davy Crockett fad. (I was susceptible to cultural pressure.) I wanted a coonskin cap, which I never got, and a flintlock rifle which I did. It was plastic, about two feet long and shot caps. The caps were not as spectacular as the hammer striking the flint and throwing sparks far and wide. I think I might have set some fires with it. The Davy Crocket rage ended for me when I saw the Disney movie and realized he died at the Alamo. There didn’t seem to be much of a future in being Davy Crockett so I went on to other things.
I know that the movie and televisions versions of cowboy life were highly romanticized. It was tough, dirty, thankless work and the heyday of the cowboy in the West didn’t last that long. Still, the media cowboys embodied certain virtues that are worth having today: independence, a sense of justice and fair play, and a willingness to stand up for the underdog. They might not have been real, but what they stood for certainly was.
And so, for all you buckaroos out there, “Happy trails to you, until we meet again…”