“Happy Trails to you
Until we meet again…”--Dale Evans, Theme song of the ‘Roy Rogers Show’ circa 1955
We are a generation confused. Confused about origins, confused about purpose, confused about the very time in which we live. Media, and television is an extraordinary example, have always been pack animals. Produce a hit show and the medium is soon churning out ‘spin-offs’ and copy-cat replicas as everyone madly rushes to cash in on the new bonanza. It has always been that way and, perhaps, it always will.
The problem with the Boomers is that it was their singular misfortune to have passed through their formative years when the emerging media of television was besot with what mother rather derisively referred to as ‘horse shit and gun powder’. It is difficult to imagine today, but nearly 80% of prime-time broadcasting consisted of an endless stream of westerns. To discount their effect on the ensuing behavior of the tender young minds who sat transfixed before the “tube”-- the emerging ‘light of the world--’ is to be in grievous denial. These were short ‘morality plays’ which sought to teach that good always prevails over evil, and our parents went to bed knowing that their young charges were being taught valuable life lessons.
It is always impossible to know beforehand what will be the effects of an emerging technology on the subject society. When the automobile was introduced it was seen as an unmitigated technological and social blessing. Compared to horses, cars reduced accidents and injuries 90%. Then there was that business concerning all that horse shit accumulating in the streets, being washed into the gutters, producing all those flies, being tracked into the house. Ah, so much better the car—even if it was a little noisy. But with the advance of time and the growing numbers of vehicles on the road, smog and congestion made their unanticipated appearance. Soon the millions of combustion engines were expelling so much lead into the air that traces of it were showing up in the polar ice caps. The car gave us freedom to travel and to explore. Whole industries arose to meet the growing numbers who set out in search of America. But it was not an unmitigated blessing. With increased freedom came increased strain on the social mores. I have first hand experience having grown up in Drive-in theatres and having managed several of them. The automobile was a material culprit in the explosion of the illegitimate birth rate in the United States. Society can be ‘blind-sided’ by the introduction of new technologies and television was no exception.
These were morality plays whose lessons learned were not always what mom and dad had hoped were being taught. First, good does not always prevail over evil. Often, in what appears wholly capricious and arbitrary, life presents us with quite the opposite. This had the singular effect of creating a generation whose sensibilities were easily disturbed, and whose sense of ‘virginity’ was, when confronted with novel and taxing social crises, serially violated. The boomers are a generation who, because we were taught that the good always prevails, are constantly in shock when it does not. And when confronted with war, impeachments, assassinations, stock market crashes, ad nauseum, we are constantly said to be losing our virginity. This had led us to be easily traumatized and to clearly over-react in times of national stress: as in our reaction to the events of 9/11. We have come, over time, to have protested our virginity altogether too often and can no longer be taken seriously.
Second, there is this business of conflict resolution. In these contests drawn in stark relief between good and evil, right and wrong, resolution nearly always involved violence; violence in the form of fist-fights and/or gun play. In fact the opening scene of every “Gunsmoke” episode involved a shoot-out on Main Street with the good Marshall Dillon shown enforcing the law with hot lead. The “Rifleman” had opening credits showing a menacing, albeit heroic, Chuck Connors shooting his sawed-off rifle in broad daylight as he walked down the middle of town. Yes, the “Lone Ranger” pledged to shoot only to wound but this would only further confuse tender minds about the use and accuracy of such weapons; confusions that now play themselves out in the national quest for “clean” bombs and “smart” weapons, where war has become an increasing video reality and, to our undiscerning eyes, bloodless.
Third, there was very little realism about the damage such violence produces. Blood was very rarely seen and the lesson was lost that even in a good fist fight jaws are often broken, teeth come up missing. One very rarely witnessed, in these portrayals, the pain of the families of those who had fallen—regardless of how good or evil they may have been. No these were mere card-board cut out figures, no real context—hence no real meaning.
But, for our present purposes, the most important confusions may have involved time. Here was a generation of young Americans about to enter the space age who were relentlessly being pulled back into the nineteenth century. In this context I never quite got the “Roy Rogers” show. The plot would always appear to be in the wild old west, the villains were always being pursued on horseback, and weapons were always vintage nineteenth century. The law was always riding in posse. Then at the end of the episode there would appear Pat Brady and his Jeep “Nelly Bell”. Suddenly we would be transported, as if by magic, back into our own time. It was a time warp, as if Clayton Moore were sucked through a wormhole appearing as the “Lone Ranger” in your local parade; seen riding Silver down main street toward a grand opening of the latest shopping mall. There were attempts at modern drama, but such was the level of confusion that in “Highway Patrol” Broderick Crawford was shown apprehending villains with his patrol car much the same way Gene or Roy would maneuver a horse during a chase. Crawford would swerve in front of the fleeing suspect and cut him off. In real life, nothing like that could occur, it would mean the certain destruction of both vehicles and serious injury to the officer. Nothing had any context, any linear sense, or any sense at all.
Our collective misunderstandings, not adjusted by rigorous study of contemporary history or current events, only reinforced the problem. Our experience in school involved great periods of time studying Columbus, Pizzaro, Cortes, Ponce de Leon, leading to the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century. Then we would be rushed, in the closing weeks of the school year, in a cursory review of the twentieth century. We never, collectively, got our minds into our own time. Such was our preparation for the challenges that lay ahead, as we approached the “New Frontier”.
It has been pointed out by many commentators that it was no accident that the Boomers elected the first television president. Our parents remember Reagan as a movie star; we remember him as host of “General Electric Theatre”, but more importantly, “Death Valley Days”. Here was the host, playing the familiar cowboy, speaking to an emerging generation who were by now hopelessly lost in time and space. He would later be embraced by the Boomers as a father figure. Who cared if his was not a real ranch—nothing in our collective understanding of time and space has been real. It was surreal—so unreal as to be real—reality enclosed in a simple wooden box. And so, when the clarion call came to return with him unto the nineteenth century, to go back to that place where good always triumphs, and to fight the good fight with the ‘Evil Empire’, we knew precisely where he wanted us to go. And so, like rawhide, we were willingly herded down the Santa Fe Trail toward a ranch called “Neverland”.