Del Hayes Press

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys…

And they still are, it seems. And why was an old Willie Nelson song floating around in my mind, early this AM? The immediate answer, I suppose, is from the fact that last night I watched the movie, Open Range, for at least the third time. But I’ll come back to that.

 My morning typically starts with me having filled my old Tervis Tumbler—with its Texas star having slid down the side of it in what I pray is not prophetic symbolism—moments before the pot stops perking, crawling back into bed and letting my mind free-wheel as I work on that first cup. And this morning was no different. Getting my mind unscrambled, in those early waking moments, is much like attempting to untangle that hundred-foot garden hose that was left in a heap after its last use. One thought would be being pulled from out of the tangles of others, only to be stymied by another one looped around it.

It all started as I was sorting through alternative books to order, if in fact my shipment of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying has, in truth, died in some forlorn heap in a dusty corner of a US Postal Service warehouse, somewhere. If it does not arrive today, Amazon gives me the choice of a refund, or replacement. I thought of his The Sound and the Fury. That certainly sounds apropos for today’s political environment. But then, Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent moved into first place, as that is very much the mood I’m in, at the moment.

Somehow, that all got pushed aside as my mind began to replay that movie, from last night. I began to reflect on how much my life, my personality, was influenced by the old westerns, so many of which filled my nights at the Iola Theater. Many of them were just old “B” movies, quickly produced by simply changing the character names and source of the bad-guy’s evil—usually either cattle rustling or bank robbery—on a worn-out script.

Sheriff Kane, in High Noon

Roy, Gene and The Duke always got the bad guys, of course, and sometimes, the girl, but that was the way it was supposed to be. Those of us sitting in the dark, eating our popcorn, wishing we could be like those guys, would never have accepted less.

But over time, the cream, the classics, began to rise to the top. Gary Cooper as Marshall Kane, in High Noon, portrayed character traits that have withstood all attempts to belittle them. Stagecoach, Red River and The Searchers, with John Wayne. Big Country, with Gregory Peck and Charleton Heston (and Jean Simmons, who always made my knees go wobbly), Cheyenne Social Club with Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. And others, of course.

And Open Range. That movie has twanged resonant chords in me that seem to be stirred far more, and in different ways, than was done by the classics that I have long loved. Fresh from viewing it, once again last night, that movie was tumbling around in my mind. The basic plot is somewhat formulaic, and predictable, as are the basic plots of all the classics. Part of its appeal to me, I have to accept, is that somewhere inside me there is, always has been, if not a cowboy then someone who only feels at home, at peace, under the “big sky,” out on an open range. The old song, “Don’t Fence Me In,” always chokes me up a bit. And Open Range, with its grand vistas of all that, tugs deeply on me, in some ill-defined way. So, I would watch the movie just for those scenes, but it is more than that.

Big sky, big country; where I long to be

More than anything, in these times when we can legally choose to be any sex, any gender, we wish, when lying has become an art form at all levels of our society, when every problem is expected to solved by the government, and what it means to “be a man” was never more in doubt, that movie poses challenges to us that I’m not sure we are now prepared to answer. How, my mind ponders, did we as a nation get from the “Greatest Generation” to the “Pajama Boy.”

There is a scene, where Charlie (Kevin Costner) and Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) are in a local saloon, with a number of the local men. They all know that the next morning will be the big shoot out, where the two of them will have to confront the evil cattle baron, the corrupt sheriff and their hired gun hands. They wonder, somewhat aloud, why the men of the city allowed it to reach such a point. The local’s defense is that they’re “just store keepers, not gun fighters.”

“You’re men, aren’t you?”

Charlie asks them the question, but it is more an accusation, and everyone in the saloon knows it. It was a question that went unanswered in the movie, and seems all too often, today, to continue to go unanswered. That element of the plot, the underlying storyline of Open Range, “what does it really mean to be a man?”  has caused me to wear my brain down to its nub, at times, and has for a good part of my life.

There are related themes throughout the story—the respect shown by Charlie for Boss, his older partner, the respect the two younger ones show for both Boss and Charlie, the love the two of them show for Mose, their “gentle giant,” when he is badly beaten by the bad guys. Paying your own way, standing up for what’s right, not expecting charity, all those fundamental character traits are strongly a part of the story.

But there is another element to that movie that also very much appeals to me, and has to do with Charlie realizing, as he is about to go face his death in the big gun battle, that he has fallen in love with Sue (Annette Benning), the sister of the young town doctor. Boss, his partner, recognizes what has happened and tells Charlie to go back and tell her that.

“Don’t let the last thing she knows of you is to see your backside walking away from her. I’ve seen how you look at her, and how she looks at you. Now, go tell her that.”

I liked how that developing relationship between the two of them was handled, in the movie. It felt very real. She was an attractive single woman, no longer a young woman, living in a tiny western town. Her prospects for finding a good husband were slim to nil. And he was a former gunfighter with a sordid past. She knew her time, and chances, were running out, and he knew he wasn’t really good enough for her. She deserved better. But she saw more in him than what he believed was there.

When he survives, he mounts up to ride off, feeling he doesn’t deserve her. But he comes back. The scene where he comes to her, in her flower garden, is perhaps predictable, but always feels very real to me.

“I’ve had my share of disappointments, Charlie,” she tells him.

“Well, I won’t be one of them,” he replies.

For my fifty five years of being married to a girl I felt, in more ways than one, I didn’t deserve, my one persistent fear was that I would in some way let her down, would disappoint her. That moment, in that movie, seemed worthy of an Oscar to me. I am about to start working on a second edition of my book on marriage, Happily Ever After, A Tribute to Marriage by a Fifty Year Veteran. I think that scene, and theme, needs to become a part of that.

So, after mulling all that, my Tervis Tumbler was empty, the garden hose of thoughts in my mind only partially untangled, it was time to roust myself out and tackle life. But, decided to write a blog post, instead.

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1 thought on “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys…”

  1. Another great post I fully relate to. It’s interesting to bookend Open Range with Silverado, which was Costner’s first Western (and almost his first role). In that film, it’s his costar Kevin Kline and Rosanna Arquette who have an understanding of each other. I love the exchange between them about the ephemeral nature of youth and beauty and the perennial hardness of a life lived off the land, certainly back then. True cowboys, then and now, understood the difference between the two, and what it meant for a relationship. The conversations from both films touch on different aspects of that same reality.

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