An old movie handbill from the Lincoln Theater in Stanford, found between the pages of a long-unopened book, takes me back to my cowboy days.
I can still smell the aroma of hot-buttered popcorn, gushing from the theater lobby in a rush of cool air, as I plopped down my quarter at the box office beneath the sparkling marquee. In those days, the best I remember, 25 cents would pay for admission to the show, with maybe enough left over for a box of popcorn, a Sugar Daddy, or Sugar Babies.
Color TV was something I had seen only in store windows. And even after we got our first black and white 12-inch RCA, it only picked up one station when conditions were just right. So a trip to the Technicolor picture show was something really special.
Saturday afternoons at the Lincoln always featured a Western, and I would play cowboys relentlessly for weeks after watching Randolph Scott, Lash LaRue, the Lone Ranger on his horse Silver, or some other hard-riding hero warm up the silver screen with hot lead. You may remember a few of these movies: Gunsight Ridge, The Bushwhackers, or Guns Don’t Argue.
On Christmas morning at our house, you could hardly see the lights on the tree—much less take a deep breath—in the haze of blue smoke from cap pistols.
Don’t let anyone tell you that movies and television do not influence children’s behavior.
My father recalled that watching Western movies as a boy in his father’s theater at London prompted him to venture westward as a young man with thoughts of becoming a cowboy. Instead, he spent two years prospecting for gold in the mountains of Arizona and herding sheep in New Mexico.
My cowboy days began the moment I learned to say, “Stick ’em up!”
Once, when I was playing cowboys with my younger cousins, Howard and his little sister Donna, they starred in their own version of The Bushwhackers. He struck me in the head from behind with the butt of a cap pistol, just as he had seen it done in the movies. Most everything was a blur to me after that, but I imagine the bushwhackers were after my stick horse.
Our mothers just said, “You all stop playing so rough.”
Oh, well, I had a whole herd of stick horses where that one came from—Dad’s tobacco barn. In fact, there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of tobacco sticks that made perfect stick horses. The good ones were smooth, about one-inch square and four feet long. Generally, I rode a buckskin or palomino, or a pinto if I splashed through enough mud puddles.
I gave up playing cowboys when girls came along, but on my first high school date with Jackie, the girl who is now my wife, we went to the Kentucky Theater to see Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Maybe it wasn’t romantic, but it was the cowboy way.