One of my fondest early memories is of my father and me sitting in the car, in the driveway, in the rain, listening to Gunsmoke on the radio. I think of that often, especially when I see children sitting in the backseats of cars, watching the latest Disney movie on their DVD players.
Radio drama required audience participation. You had to believe. You had to imagine. You had to form pictures in your mind so you could follow the action. And of course you had to have the “Western knowledge and vocabulary” needed for those pictures. I carried the complete Western encyclopedia in my head- gained from happy hours spent watching Saturday television dramas and reading Western novels! I knew about guns and gunslingers, saloons and dance hall girls, gambling and drinking, cattle drives and droughts. I could picture the clothing and see the dust and smell the gun smoke as I listened to the radio.
I don’t remember why we were in the car. Probably some temporary electrical problem (we couldn’t afford it that week) or our television was broken and we couldn’t afford a new tube. (You went to the store and bought these little replacement tubes that actually fixed the television…really.) The reason doesn’t matter. What strikes me as noteworthy is that we cared enough about the program to sit in the car in the rain!
Gunsmoke was on the radio for nine years beginning in 1952. For some of those years it was simultaneously on television. (The broadcast I recall must have been towards the end of that period since I was born in 1950!) Most people remember that James Arness was Matt Dillon on television, but William Conrad was the original Marshal and played him on the radio in over 400 performances. He was also in the movie “The Ride Back”. Parley Baer was the radio version’s Chester, Howard McNear was Doc, and Georgia Ellis was Kitty. Baer and McNear appeared later on the Andy Griffith show. I knew their voices as well as my own.
I still love Westerns. I watch the old classics (has there ever been a better movie than High Noon?) and new ones like Apaloosa (okay). I’ve seen Lonesome Dove at least four times. There is something so intriguing about the idea of a man making his way across the country on the back of a horse, dealing with life by his wits and his guns, and defending the honor of any woman he happened to encounter. (Of course after defending said woman he promptly left her because everyone knows a cowboy can’t be tied down.) Cowboys lived by a code of ethics. They minded their own business unless someone broke the code. (Then, of course, they shot anyone who just wouldn’t cooperate. Nobody’s perfect.) They worked hard and respected anyone else who did (except farmers of course). They never stayed long in any one place because the wide open spaces always called to them. Life was an adventure and they aimed to live it.
Yep…my heroes have always been cowboys. They don’t talk too much. They just do the right thing and move on.