Do you think any of us as little kids would have watched Gun Smoke if Marshall Dillon, when confronted by evil, started a petition drive? No. Our heroes were people like Matt Dillon and the Cartrights, the Rifleman, and for my older brothers, the Lone Ranger. The shows themselves all had a elemental core of justice, fair play, truth, sportsmanship. Firearms were common and shown in a positive light, as instruments of protecting the weak, weapons to defeat evil. Such shows are rare today with regards to showing a true measure of the human spirit. That as why, as a kid John Wayne was my hero. Though the majority of his movies came out before I was born, many of them left an ineffable mark on my young spirit. No one particular film stands out for me, though all were excellent (OK, Jet Pilot was lame but it had some great aerial shots, especially footage of the F-84). I don't think it was the quality of his acting that made one take notice; it was the measure of the man he was, and portrayed. I was glad when he finally got an Oscar for True Grit, though I was too young to see or remember that.
I don't believe the award came so much for his acting in this particular film, but for his lifetime body of work. Yet I could never forget the climatic moment in the film where the grizzled old marshal confronts the four villains and calls out: "I mean to kill you or see you hanged at Judge Parker's convenience. Which will it be?" "Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man," their leader sneers. Then Duke cries, "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" and, reins in his courage, rushing at them while firing both guns. Those four outlaws did not provide a threat at the next sunset.
Foolish perhaps. The last time I charged multiple targets they were printed on paper. One a man, one an Al Qaeda terrorist with an automatic weapon and the other two a gopher and a squirrel (we were running a bit low on targets that day). Foolish yes. But I pray that I never become so jaded by life that I can not summon that same risk spirit to protect my country or the life I hold dear.
He wasn't the perfect man, and he was often criticized. Ironically, Wayne, who angered John Ford by avoiding service in WWII for fear it would interrupt the momentum of his career, would be remembered in a few folks people’s minds as having won that global conflict single-handedly, thanks to films like The Sands of Iwo Jima. Many people find only true patriotism in his movies and see him as flesh and blood symbol of America, the land of the free and home of the brave, while others ridiculed him as a symbol of their America, the worlds superpower, the land of Peace Thru Superior Firepower. Whichever you believe, you have to admit he had an honesty in living and a grace in the face of this criticism, that showed us all what we should be, a person of honor, an defender of what they believe is right and true, and the force of America as a nation united.
Sadly now, the West is not the West of our youth, the true cowboys of spirit being crowded inland and south, hunkering down on the open plains where you can hear the sound of thundering buffalo among the afternoon thunderclouds. The West I remember is now socialized and urban, its citizens pining for things it can not afford while looking to others to fix their problems. Where I live, if something breaks you fix it, if the fence is down you mend it. Gardens are tended and food canned, and when threatened by others we circle the wagons and care for ourselves. My friends in Reno and LA and the Valley laugh at my longing for this life, as they drive 2 hours in traffic to go back an forth to houses almost empty of furniture because they bought a 5 bedroom house for one person. They posture for social position while maneuvering for easy money. There's a few true Cowboys in spirit out West, but they are fewer and fewer. That's just not a life I want any more.
I came to the southern Midwest as a young bride, and I learned fast. Spring snowstorms thawing into mucky puddles into which new life was coming. Calving season. In the cold I learned about impending birth, in the heat of a barn I learned about death. I've pulled more than one calf from a womb when I was all alone, arm rubbed with Betadyne and lube, the contractions almost breaking my arm. I learned to cut a recalcitrant Longhorn calf from a herd of very pointy parents to tend to an injury with a shot of cortisone. Nights ran into days and days to nights with only the wet of birth water and burnt coffee to keep us going after a day spent already outdoors. It's a life that's prepared me for the one I live now.
Nothing is so very entwined with life as birth and watching the new ones come into the world with last century technology and only ourselves to assist, was a lesson that many old timers would understand. That little calf whom I assisted that last night, as my husband was hours late and the phone lay silent, took every bit of strength I had to free her. But Mama had been in labor four hours, the calf was stuck, and I had to do something or lose both of them. Yet, with work and grit he was born, soon suckling my finger as Mama tried simply to breathe, resting uncaring against the wood slicked with fluid and red. I hold him up to check and weigh him, and she hears, stumbles over to lick him. Mothers love. Wonder. They'll both be OK. Their barn this night will be filled with light.
I had my share of chores before, now I had chores for two. I had to rally myself up early to tend to the place, at the rooster's crow at first light, rising early as poets do. Lighting a fire from antique ashes, assembling my spirit from wounds and balm, from water pump to barn stall. Time beginning with measured intent, and from seeds and the dry bones of the land, I grew, I tended. Whatever the hand of circumstance had brought, it was my duty, to be there on time. To reconcile hot and cold, dark and bright, richly expanding a much bruised heart, to nourish the land or the trusting beast in the stall.
The days of living a comfy life of subdivisions and parties out West were gone. Time went back a hundred years, the days slowing to a crawl of duty and need; long nights crying for something I didn't know until too late that I needed. A time when everything seemed looming, demanding, large and unchanging. I heard a cow moan low for her calf in the distance. Or was that me?
"There's right and there's wrong," the Duke said in The Alamo. "You gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you're living. You do the other and you may be walking around but in reality you're dead.".
When I arrived here I was pretty well flat bloke, and would now, not be considered rich, but what I have is mine, earned with my sweat and maintained through my own actions. The sky is clear and blue, the land rich and strong, those that tend it are pioneers, of that earth, of the principals on which this land was founded. I would not trade that for a McMansion in the city, for any amount of promise and wealth. For I have my home on the land that I love, a house in which old Westerns would play, and rustlers and shooters and renegades would gather around, but only for lasagna and an old John Wayne movie after our successful gunfight with some bowling pins and steel plates.
Look to future, John Wayne said "tomorrow - the time that gives a man just one more chance - is one of the many things that I feel are wonderful in life.". We do get other chances. With the birthing of heifers sometimes there were losses. But I never cursed the poor things as they lay dying, nor threw their bodies into the truck with more force than was needed. The past is past. You can cry and rant and rave, but that won't change what's ceased to breathe. We can only fight for what we have. What we still have.
Tonight, I pull the little barn door closed one last time, heading in to see if there's anything decent on TV. Something other than the news on the Hill of greed and finger pointing and the hollow words of those that wish to change the very core of what made the West at one time great.
Like Mr. Wayne, I'm intensely proud of being an American. The being and cadence of a life of freedom, to work, to arm myself, to defend and expand that which I've worked for. Influenced by a bygone era of good guys and bad guys, it is part of who I am, defining both fury and faith. It influences my passions, and resonates always in the sound of a gunshot across the land that I own, gathering food for my cupboard, gathering strength.
There are so many things that are great about life, about this country. But many of them are already in the past, and we will have to work hard to retain and protect our tomorrows. As The Duke said, tomorrow is the most important thing. It comes in to us at midnight very clean, it's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. The hands may end up stained with blood and sweat but they are the hands of hard work. The hands of hope. I hope those hands are strong enough for the tasks that lie ahead.