Saturday, February 19, 2011

Cowboys and Cowgirls

La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, otherwise known as the Tucson Rodeo, starts this weekend. It's one of those things that makes Tucson unique and so very different from the Northeast were I lived and worked for fifty years.

 For four days next weekend, Tucson celebrates the Old West in a big way. Schools close, businesses and organizations sponsor floats in the Rodeo Parade, and people are encouraged to break out their cowboy hats and western shirts and wear them to work. For five days spread over two weekends, you can watch bareback riding, steer wrestling, tie-roping, barrel racing, and the ever-popular bull riding, done by professional cowboys and cowgirls.

I've always liked cowboys and cowgirls. When I grew up, westerns were probably the most popular genre of television show. I watched Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Hopalong Casidy, The Cisco Kid, Annie Oakley, and Gene Autry on Saturday mornings.  Adult dramas included Gunsmoke, Wyatt Earp, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Maverick and Bonanza. And I'm pretty sure Wild Wild West was the first steampunk television show. There were dozens more. America couldn't get enough cowboys.

What was the appeal of the cowboy and the American West? A lot of it had to do with men and women conquering the frontier. Life was hard, but the cowboy was tough and resilient. Women living this life weren't wimps either. Annie Oakley could outshoot any man who crossed her. Dale Evans was an equal partner with Roy Rogers.

  I think westerns were one of the influences in the fifties and early sixties that enabled us to go to the moon. It was all a matter of attitude. Surely a nation that had conquered the West could conquer the moon.


In the same way, the values of the cowboys reflected the values of our society. The cowboys in the white hats defeated the bad guys in the black hats. Good guys always triumphed in the end because their hearts were pure. Bonanza was as much a story about family as it was about ranching or black hats and white hats.

And religion wasn't forbidden in the lives of the cowboys; rather, it was encouraged. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans introduced Christian themes into their movies and television shows. In the tradition of the singing cowboy, in one episode of their television show they sang "The Bible Tells Me So". It became a popular hit.

In Gene Autry's version of "Here Comes Santa Claus", children are told to "hang your stockings and say your prayers." Today's versions usually change the last part to "go to bed", avoiding anything that might be considered a religious reference. Verse three says "We're all God's children" and the last verse says "So let's give thanks to the Lord above." I would bet that most children today have never heard those last two verses.

And what's our top-rated television show? American Idol. I never watched this show before this past week. I wouldn't have watched it this week, but, supposedly, there was a contestant from Tucson performing. (I never saw her.)

What is life like in 2011? Unemployment is still over nine percent. I know several twenty-somethings who think life should be sleeping till noon, playing video games all night, and looking for the latest feel-good drug. A job? Why should they even look? School? It's too much work.

The foreclosure rate is staggering. Good people are losing their homes. And I'm not so sure we can blame the banks for all of those. The concept of paying for what you borrow by hard work rather than an overheated economy increasing your wealth doesn't seem to exist.

We've practically shut down NASA. We're afraid to risk sending a manned mission to Mars. We're afraid of shattering fragile self-esteem, so kids play in non-competitive sports leagues. Everyone gets a trophy. In schools we mainstream both kids with below and above-average abilities, serving the needs of neither. With diminishing tax dollars due to the prolonged recession, governments are cutting funding for education and the arts, as well as essential services. The outlook for the twenty-first century is bleak indeed.

It doesn't need to be. I think everything is still possible. We just need to believe it. That kind of belief isn't going to come from American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. What America needs is more cowboys.

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