When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, I loved to watch TV. Sure, I could spend hours watching cartoons and eating cereal on a Saturday morning like any red-blooded American kid. Simply spending the whole day in front of the boob-tube was never the goal, however. As I detailed in a previous post "War Movies and Army Men," I was fascinated with World War II. My other passion was the Cowboy of the Old West. Seeing a network program or a feature film rerun on television was not only for enjoyment, but to fuel my imagination.
The first programs I remember watching religiously were Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid. I associate both Gunsmoke and Bonanza with primetime TV, and if memory serves they were shown on weekends. Reruns of The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid were always Sunday Mornings on WGN. I recall being annoyed when Sunday Mass start time would interfere with The Lone Ranger -- not that I would have volunteered to wake up in time to attend an earlier mass. Sunday just felt incomplete if I didn't get to see the masked man in the white hat say "Hi-Yo Silver, Away!"
After mass, especially if it was raining or snowing, it was time to break out Johnny West, the 12" action figure from Marx. I would take my favorite scenes from each of the westerns I had watched the previous week, weaving them together into an entire afternoon of western adventure. Johnny came with a little plastic Winchester lever-action rifle, a Colt Peacemaker pistol and holster, a hat, a vest, chaps and spurs. What more did you need? OK, he did have a frying pan, a coffee pot and little bags of gold. Johnny could fend for himself out on the range.
Then there were the classic movies that were "edited for time and content" and shown on TV. John Wayne was widely regarded as the ultimate American Cowboy. I must admit I loved Rio Bravo and El Dorado, amongst others. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is more than just a western to me, it is one of my all-time favorite movies. Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid is the performance that transformed my love of cowboys in general to the gunslinger in particular.
I loved putting on my holster and practicing my quick draw with my plastic pistol. Mom would look at me funny when I requested a shot glass and a deck of cards, but would be relieved to see me wearing the holster and holding a can of Pepsi. She knew I was pretending to be in the saloon, drinking whiskey and playing poker. Then I would catch a "yellow-belly" cheating, call him on it and shoot him down after he drew first.
That opened the door for my personal favorite cowboy, the "Man with No Name," portrayed by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's "Spaghetti Westerns." This character spoke little, had a personal (if unconventional) sense of justice and kept his deadly pistol hidden beneath a poncho. He barely broke a sweat, even when completely outnumbered. Flipping the poncho to reveal his weapon, he could calmly gun down four or five bad guys and then ride away. The movies A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly are pure gunslinger fantasy, made even better by the music scored by Ennio Morricone. Eastwood continued to make great westerns outside the spaghetti genre, such as Hang 'Em High, High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales.
By this time I had outgrown my cheap plastic pistols. They were gaudy and too light to get the feel of drawing a real gun. A few things happened all around the same time which allowed me to be the best "Man with No Name" possible. First, we took a trip to Colorado to visit family, and my dad bought me a real cowboy hat. Shortly thereafter, I came across a brightly colored blanket in the basement. It had a zipper right in the center. Opening the zipper, the blanket became a poncho.
Then, the ultimate find: Daisy made a BB gun replica of the Colt Peacemaker pistol. The Daisy Model 179 was the right size and the proper weight -- it felt like a real gun. I got one for my birthday, and was allowed to wear it in my holster as long as I never loaded it.
I would knock back a few shots of Pepsi, roam the house in my cowboy hat and poncho, the deadly Peacemaker hidden underneath, and squint despite the lack of direct sunlight.