The Cowboys

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Available on Blu-ray and DVD

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Seriously, such major spoilers

This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen

 

The Night John Wayne Died

 

In the summer of 1972, my family—my father, my mother, my oldest sister Terese, my brother Tracy, my brother Trent, my sister Tonya, my sister Tara, my sister Tina and myself (the youngest)—got into our station wagon and headed about 45 minutes away from our rural Michigan home to go to a drive-in movie at the Sky Theater in Adrian. This was a rarity because my father worked second shift and was never home in the evenings. Most summers he worked two jobs, construction for a man named Duncan, in addition to the factory work at Tecumseh Products, so he wasn’t home during the day, either. If he did have a day off, there was a never-ending litany of car and home repairs and the chores that accumulated at any given time from having sheep, goats, cattle, ponies, rabbits, chickens, ducks, cats, dogs, and the occasional goose, runt pig, and orphaned raccoon. During my dad’s few leisure moments, he drank beer, smoked Viceroys, read the newspaper, secretly watched The Young and The Restless, watched the news and weather from Toledo, Ohio (we lived close to the border), and enjoyed the occasional sporting event or movie on TV.

Movie attendance was also scarce because all of my siblings were rarely in the same place at the same time. My brothers worked at neighboring farms when they could be spared from their home chores. Terese, 16 at this particular moment, worked full-time at the Pizza Place in Morenci during the summers and worked part-time there during the school year. Tonya babysat for younger cousins and neighbors’ children when she wasn’t watching her three younger siblings. And all the sibs old enough played on our 4-H softball team.

Movies cost money and we never had enough money. Even with everyone’s constant work, our house and land were always one or two payments behind with the bank. The words “mortgage,” “repossession,” “layoffs” and “strike” were the most foul words anyone in the family could utter. “Income tax return,” “callback” and “seniority,” were the most beautiful.

My parents didn’t like each other too much either, though I don’t think I was aware of their animosity in my preschool years. Children just accept certain things when they are very young and I accepted my dad’s constant work and my mom’s black moods and intermittent hysteria the way people accept the weather. It just was and you made the best of it.

The only thing that could bring a family like ours out to a drive-in as a complete and intact unit, with me wedged in the back of the station wagon, nestled like the final piece to a puzzle, was the promise of a new John Wayne movie. We all adored John Wayne and scanned the TV Guide each week for any movies of his that might air in the coming week. McClintock!, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, El Dorado, True Grit, Chisum and most recently, Big Jake, which was and still is, one of my favorite John Wayne movies. Watching these movies with adult eyes I see the misogyny, the stereotyping of Native Americans and people of color, and the ludicrousness of any man, any person, being as tough as John Wayne seemed. Watching these movies as an adult, I know John Wayne supported the Viet Nam War and was pro-McCarthy and House Un-American Activities Committee. Wayne maintained a warm friendship and campaigned for Ronald Reagan. And Wayne made no apologies for previous generations of Americans stealing land and slaughtering our native people. To his credit, John Wayne was the type of conservative little seen these days. When asked about John Kennedy’s election, John Wayne said, “I didn’t vote for him but he’s my president, and I hope he does a good job.”

But when I was a child, John Wayne just seemed to be a hero—always knowing exactly who the bad guys were. Always doing the right and just thing with no fear and no regrets. He had no doubt about his identity, the decisions he had made, or the elements that had formed him. John Wayne characters were ready with a snappy comeback, a helping hand, a secret and discreet love in their hearts, and a definition of the world that could be summed up in around two hours.

 

 

Privilege was linked to age in the Morse household. So on this humid summer evening, with the low hum of mosquitoes and lightning bugs so thick they looked like smeared gold paint in the sky, Dad drove Mom’s station wagon and Mom sat in the passenger seat next to him. Terese, Tracy and Trent sat in the bench seat in the row behind them. Tonya, Tara and Tina sat on the smaller bench seat behind that. I got what was left over—the space in the hatchback. My dad had told me I could come and sit between him and Mom, straddling the area of the gear shift, when the movie began, so I could see the screen.

I do not remember, but I would guess, that my parents chose to attend on a night when kids were free. Tonya, Tara, Tina and I would have all qualified in the 12 and under category so that meant that my parents would have “only” have to pay for five people. Perhaps we attended the movie during shut-down at my dad’s factory, during which time he collected unemployment and worked full-time for Duncan during the day. Duncan was kind enough to either pay my father in cash, or make his checks out to Jerry Morse (my dad’s legal name was Gerald Keith Morse). This enabled my father to not inform the unemployment office of his employed status, and not link a formal paycheck to his social security number, happily screwing the IRS out of a few dollars.

To understand fully the events that unfolded you need an acquaintance with not only the story of The Cowboys, but the arc of most John Wayne movies. I think you can guess the arc of most John Wayne movies, but just in case you can’t, it goes something like this. In the first few minutes of the movie we meet our hero, played by John Wayne. A cowboy or a soldier, the John Wayne character is a tough man who has had a tough life. He is usually softened by a wife, a love interest, a child, a person or sometimes a pet, who needs his care and understanding. John Wayne characters are fair and decent. They stand up to bullies.

The John Wayne-character antagonist, however, is low and dishonest. Worst of all sins, the anti-hero is cowardly, capable of shooting a man in the back or of drawing on an unarmed man. This antagonist cheats at cards and hits women and children. At some point in all the movies I’d seen, there would be a fight that took place at a bar or ranch in which John Wayne would give big, punishing roundhouses to his antagonist. These fights were interspersed with witticisms, uttered by our hero, and they resulted in not a whole lot of blood on the screen. Perhaps a dribble at the edge of John Wayne-character’s mouth before he took a shot of whiskey at the end of the fight.

The Cowboys at first, seemed no different.

I now keep a journal and can refer to things and, with the help of the written word recall if not the precise events, at least a shadow of what I thought and felt about them. But at this time, at four, I couldn’t read and write. I knew my ABCs. I knew how to write my name thanks to all those smart older brothers and sisters, but I kept no journal and 42 long years have passed since 1972. But in my subsequent viewings of The Cowboys, I can see how we all would have been lulled into thinking that this same John Wayne-storyline was about to play itself over again.

John Wayne plays Wil Andersen, a 60-year-old Montana rancher who has lost all of his ranch hands to a gold rush. If Wil doesn’t get his cattle to Belle Fourche (bell FOOSH) and to market, he will be unable to pay his bills, which is unacceptable to a man of his pride and determination. After making a round of area of ranchers and small farms, Wil can find no one to help drive his cattle the 400 miles to Belle Fourche and winter is coming. Wil’s friend Anse, played by Slim Pickens, suggests Wil use local school boys, as Wil himself was 13 years old when he went on his first cattle drive. Wil is desperate but decides to have none of it. Anse lets the boys know that Wil is looking for hands and since many of the boys’ fathers have died (presumably in the Civil War) their households are short on cash, they show up on Wil’s ranch, The Double O, to ask for work. Wil decides to have them ride a green mare, thinking this will scare them off. Wil says whoever can stay on the green mare till the count of ten, will be remembered at hiring time. Much to Wil’s surprise, not only do all the boys try to ride the mare, most of them make it the ten seconds. Wil’s motley crew include a bastard, a Jew, a stuttering boy and a fat kid, all of whom Wil accepts with equanimity. As Wil is training the boys up and getting ready to take the herd west to Belle Fourche, the villain Long Hair (who introduces himself to Wil as Asa Watts but is referred to in the credits and in the rest of the movie as Long Hair) shows up with two friends and asks Wil ingratiatingly for work. Played spot-on by Bruce Dern, who would go one to win an Academy Award for Coming Home, Long Hair lies to Wil while Wil is performing the 19th century version of a background check on him. “I don’t hold jail against you but I hate a liar,” Wil says to him.

Wil’s cook for the drive makes an appearance soon after Long Hair and his equally dishonest cohorts’ banishment. Instead of a white man Wil has worked with in the past, the cook is a black man named Jebediah Nightlinger, played by the incomparable Roscoe Lee Browne, who would be one of the great character actors of the 1970s. Browne, a Shakespearean-trained actor, played roles in many TV shows my family enjoyed—Maude, Barney Miller, Soap, All in the Family, Good Times and, into the 1980s, The Cosby Show. Browne played supporting roles in movies as well and did voice work for children’s animation, even well into his 80s.

Wil and Jebediah take the boys off on the cattle drive. Little do they know, but Long Hair and a gang of rustlers follow the herd. The boys have several misadventures—they steal Jebediah’s sourmash, Slim (a very young Robert Carradine) is afraid of the water and can’t swim, and poor Charlie, one of the smallest Cowboys, is trampled by the cattle and John Wayne has to bury his remains on the prairie.

Perhaps Charlie’s death should have indicated what was coming, and now when I view the movie, I do see the foreshadowing in it—Wil’s stoic goodbye to his wife of 40 years. Wil standing by his sons’ graves before he leaves for Belle Fourche. Wil’s recollections and reflections on a dying way of life.

But as a preschooler, I didn’t know much about foreshadowing in books or movies. All I knew was that in Big Jake, even though Dog and Sam died, John Wayne (Jacob “I Thought You Was Dead” McCandles), his three sons, and his grandson lived. Because that’s what John Wayne did. And that’s how John Wayne movies are supposed to go.

How I long to have narrative authority to share with you! How I long to tell you that we got popcorn that night. How my mother opened up her purse or my father opened up his wallet and gave us money and we had movie theater popcorn. How I long to say with assurance what I said and felt when I sat between my parents on the gear shift. I wish I could tell you of the conversation I overheard between my brothers and sisters as my dad placed the tinny receiver in our car, adjusted the volume, and rolled up the window as far as he could to guard against mosquitoes but still let his cigarette smoke out.

Since I was four, I can only tell you that I think we were allowed to get snacks. I think Terese walked us up to get popcorn and we went to the bathroom before the movie started. The last movie I saw at the Sky (then renamed the Lenawee Drive-in) was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with my sister Tara in 1982. I don’t think the layout changed much in the decade between these two movie-viewings, the little building in the middle of a drive-in parking lot was a rundown haven of refreshments and restrooms.

But in 1982, crops no longer surrounded The Sky/Lenawee Drive-in. Adrian’s city limits had come out to meet it.

 

So imagine then, this American family, who don’t get out much, let alone all together. Imagine seven children ranging in ages from 16 to four, given birth to in that Catholic way of, on average, two years apart. Imagine a 41-year-old man and a 42-year-old woman, bruised and beaten down by back-breaking work that merely resulted in less poverty. Imagine the monotony of their lives. This family, at this particular time, has no political agenda. They are neither for nor against the Viet Nam War. Communism seems far away in another world, while this family lives paycheck to paycheck and struggles to keep the lights on, the party-line phone on, food on the table, food in the barn, and the bank at bay. This family considers themselves blue-collar union Democrats and it “was a damn shame” when Martin Luther King was murdered but it had no moment-to-moment reality in rural Michigan in the era of stagflation—rising unemployment, rising inflation, and escalating gas prices. The only thing that wasn’t rising was a father’s paychecks to meet these expenses.

This is the family, under these circumstances, who are about to see John Wayne die.

Our villain Long Hair waits until the chuck wagon loses a wheel. Jebediah tells Wil that he will fix the wheel on the wagon and hopefully meet up with them by supper time. A bit later in the day, Wil notices a group of men along side the herd and sends one of the Cowboys back to get Jebediah and the guns, which have been locked away in the chuck wagon for the boys’ safety. Long Hair intercepts this boy and he never completes his mission.

Wil tells the remaining boys that the rustlers will try to take the herd at night and not to be heroes. The herd, worth at least $15 a head, if not more, is not worth their young lives. Shortly after this speech, Long Hair comes into the camp, after the sun has set.

I tell you, I still expected everything to be okay. I had been watching “adult” TV since the day I was born. Just over one year from this movie viewing, my mother will be called into my principal’s office in the Morenci elementary school because I discussed a soap opera character’s abortion during kindergarten show and tell. Five years from this viewing I would watch the cut for TV version of The Exorcist with my older siblings and be unable to fall asleep for days for fear of being possessed by the devil. In response to my trembling insomnia, my mother barely looked up from the magazine she was reading to tell me sanguinely that maybe I shouldn’t have watched that movie. So even though young, I was a seasoned TV and movie viewer and I knew this narrative and knew that my hero would banish the cowardly, card-cheating, kid-hitting, former-Confederate soldier Long Hair.

Long Hair starts picking on one of the Cowboys and Wil asks how he would do with someone a little bigger. Long Hair tells Wil that he is an old man. Wil says, “I’ve got thirty years on you. I had my back broke once, and my hip twice. And on my worst day, I could still beat the hell out of you.”

“I don’t believe you,” Long Hair says.

“You will,” Wil says, hitting Long Hair in the face with two quick jabs.

Another rustler hits Wil over the head from behind and Long Hair drops his gun to fight Wil.. What then ensues is the worst beating I had ever seen in my pre-K cinematic history. This wasn’t fake blood like in Big Jake, a bright pink that in no way looked like the same blood when I cut myself doing chores, or the blood I saw in the toilet when my mom or my sisters were having their “time of the month.” In Big Jake the pink stuff was isolated to the exact area of the wound and seemed to be more of a marker. This is where he was shot—X marks the spot. This Cowboys’ blood looked real and both John Wayne and Long Hair’s faces were awash in it. John Wayne, severely battered, his ear pouring the real-looking blood (and I had never seen John Wayne battered. I didn’t know he could be battered!) finally slams Long Hair’s face into a tree a few times and then turns his back on him, to walk toward the boys. Wayne tells Long Hair he is a wretch and tells the boys to mount up.

Long Hair grabs a gun from a fellow rustlers’ holster and yells at John Wayne. John Wayne tells him to go to hell. Long Hair shoots, exploding John Wayne’s elbow from behind. John Wayne doesn’t stop walking away, and Long Hair takes him down with a bullet to his leg. The Cowboys surge forward to help their surrogate father, the big man with whom they have been on the trail with well over a month. Long Hair motions them back and a suffering John Wayne also tells them to stay back.

You may notice that in this description to you I have changed from using Wil, John Wayne’s character, to using John Wayne, the actor’s name. (Which of course was also a character name, John Wayne being a stage name. John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison. Shortly after Wayne’s birth, his parents changed his named to Marion Mitchell Morrison so they could name their next son Robert.) Numerous studies show children cannot always separate from what is on TV and now most pediatricians recommend limited and educational TV-viewing only for the preschool and early elementary set. Whether it was my parents’ laissez faire attitude (and really with seven kids, could they have had any other attitude?), my developmental age or whether it was John Wayne’s repeated playing of this same iconic figure, at this point in the movie Wil and John Wayne were the same entity to me.

John Wayne manages to get up with his shot leg and his shattered elbow and again starts to walk away from Long Hair and toward his Cowboys. Long Hair shoots Wayne again in the shoulder. As John Wayne spins around in agony, Long Hair gut shoots him twice. As the children gather around John Wayne, Long Hair tells his rustling gang to take everything but the fire.

I do remember the horrified silence in the car as my older siblings, who had already lost their magical thinking and no longer believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy, tried to process this chain of events. Please do not think I am dumb, but I still believed that John Wayne would rise from his bed of agony and smite the anti-hero. I still believed that everything would be okay.

Now it is morning time and Jebediah has at last gotten the chuck wagon wheel fixed and races into the camp. The boys have cleaned up John Wayne’s face so it is not a bloody mess anymore. He has been suffering, gut shot, all night. He tells Jebediah that he must see the boys home safely. Jebediah nods. The next thing you see in the movie is a makeshift grave and the boys and Jebediah around it. I began to cry.

Do I remember my thoughts? No. But this memory sticks with me because my inconsolable sobs indicated this as the first pessimistic moment of my life. If John Wayne could die, if a dastardly, cowardly man such as Long Hair could fell the great trunk of the man that was John Wayne, anything, anything, bad in the world might happen.

“Hush, now, my little chunk-a-chewy,” my mom said. Chunk-a-chewy was both an endearment and an insult, referring to the fact that I was quite chubby and pudgy. Both my parents looked sad, too and I was not the only sib in tears.

We continued to watch. With my crying and the general upset in the car, we missed at least five minutes of events and dialogue. Still sniffling, I wondered if John Wayne would be like Jesus on Easter. Rise out of his grave, dusty and dirty, climb on a big, mean horse, and place the reins in his teeth as he did in True Grit, and gallop across a field, straight toward Long Hair with six-guns blazing.

What happens instead is the Cowboys tie Jebediah up and break open the weapons cache. “We’re sorry to do it Mr. Nightlinger, but we knowed you would stop us.” They plan to avenge Wil’s death and to get the cattle back.

Jebediah tells them they will need a good plan. “Untie me and we will make one,” he says. They shadow the herd, as Long Hair and his gang did the previous day. One by one, they pick off the rustlers at the back of the herd, and replace them with Cowboys. The boys finally make their presence known to Long Hair and lead him to a trap in a clearing. It doesn’t look like a trap, of course. It’s just Jebediah making a meal.

Long Hair grabs Jebediah and prepares to lynch him. “Since you mean to lynch me, I would like to make peace with my maker,” Jebediah says. Long Hair tells him he has one minute.

Jebediah begins, “I regret trifling with married women. I’m thoroughly ashamed at cheating at cards. I deplore my occasional departures from the truth. Forgive me for taking Your name in vain, my Saturday drunkenness, my Sunday sloth. Above all, forgive me for the men I’ve killed in anger…” and he glances over at Long Hair. “… and those I am about to.”

Long Hair starts at that and looks at Jebediah out of his swollen eyes. He motions to his gang member to go ahead and hang Jebediah and a single shot rings out, gut shooting the rustler and preventing Jebediah from hanging. Next, the herd of horses that have been on the drive run at the rustlers and the Cowboys swoop into the area and one of them throws Jebediah a shot gun. The Cowboys take the best cover they can behind trees and around the wagon and begin to pick off the rustlers one by one. Even the tiniest Cowboy who is probably about nine years old, fires a huge handgun and kills a rustler or two.

When it is obvious the Cowboys have the upper hand, Long Hair shoots one of his own gang members to get a horse and then climbs on to run away from the ass-whupping the villains are receiving at the hands of a bunch of teenagers and preteens. Another one of the rustlers tries to mount up behind Long Hair, the two villains fight. A tussle ensues, then a gun shot rings out, and the horse falls over, breaking Long Hair’s leg under its heavy body. The only thing that keeps the horse from getting up is the enormous pressure Long Hair is exerting on the rein to keep its head down. He is hung up in the stirrup and if the horse gets up, it will cause extreme agony in his newly broken leg. Long Hair is the last of the rustlers alive or present. The Cowboys and Jebediah circle him.

Long Hair gasps in pain. “I think my leg is broke. For God’s sake, don’t let him get up. Cut me loose. I’m hung up. I think my leg is broke. You, boy,” he eyes the Cowboy he had tormented last night which had caused John Wayne to challenge him, “Cut me loose. I’ll make it worth your while.” The Cowboy looks at Jebediah who nods and one of the other Cowboys hands him a knife. Rather than cutting the saddle from the horse, the boy cuts the rein that Long Hair grips so tightly. The horse gets up. Long Hair screams, his broken leg still caught in the stirrup. The horse, well-trained, stands patiently, waiting for orders. Until one of the Cowboys lets loose a gun shot right by its head. The horse whinnies in fear and begins galloping madly, dragging Long Hair and his broken leg along with it. The horse plunges around rocks, through water, up an embankment and doesn’t seem to be any mood to stop. Long Hair screams and screams. The camera pans to each boy in turn. Their faces are hard. There are no tears. They have avenged Mr. Andersen. They are men.

The boys get the cattle to Bell Fourche and buy Mr. Andersen a headstone that says, “Beloved husband and father.” They place it in the area they buried him and continue on home.

 

 

My dad placed the tinny speaker back on its perch. He lit a cigarette and after shooing me back to my place under the hatchback, he navigated the car into the long line waiting to exit the Sky drive-in.

Even though seven children and two adults sat in the crowded station wagon, it was silent after that.

 

There would only be six more John Wayne movies after The Cowboys. Of those six, I’ve only seen three—Rooster Cogburn with the lovely Katharine Hepburn, Cahill U.S. Marshall, and The Shootist, a bittersweet movie with an all-star cast. In 1964, doctors diagnosed John Wayne with cancer and he had his entire left lung and three ribs removed. Wayne’s character in The Shootist, J.B. Brooks, was dying of colon cancer and the filming of The Shootist began just three short years before Wayne’s death of stomach cancer. Wayne brought fear and exhaustion and bravado to his final role, complemented by the ageless, dignified beauty of Lauren Bacall and the-equally-aware-of-his-mortality and by then, nearly deaf, James Stewart.

When I saw The Shootist on TV, a year or two before John Wayne died in real life, I cried again. Once more John Wayne’s character was shot in the back. Once more he taught lessons to a young man (Ron Howard) whose true father was dead. Once more the hand of progress swept over an aging lawman who had always done things his way and who lived by the creed, “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”

So why does a 46-year-old woman write thousands of words about a moment in her childhood, one of her earliest memories? Why does she as an adult, treasure the movies of a man who it seems, on the surface, to be her political antithesis? Perhaps the child and young woman in me, who has indeed been wronged, insulted, and laid a hand on, as so many women have been, wants to believe my life could have been different. Maybe a girl watching John Wayne who already knows how unfair the world is, might love to see someone bring a black-and-white justice to it.

 

We are a split-personality society. Christianity is revered—placed on a pedestal but when it comes to the hard work of being a Christian, getting down to what Jesus told us to do—we know that can never happen in society—one of the many reasons why Jesus Himself told his followers to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and our wise forefathers separated church and state. While Jesus forgives the murderer and the child rapist, the State locks him up after he is proven guilty. While Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, over 3000 United States citizens, mostly minority men, celebrate the New Year on death row. Texas celebrated its 500th execution last year and Utah even went old school and executed prisoner Ronnie Gardner by firing squad in 2010.

40 percent of Americans say they go to church every Sunday (that number is probably more like 28 percent. A physical count of people in the pews at temples and churches does not give credence to the statistic that over 100 million Americans attend services each week) but listen to the words of our popular songs, watch our football games and wrestling matches, play our video games and more importantly, look at where our troops are deployed. We are a people of violence and we want to cloak that violence in justice rather than senselessness. We want there to be a reason. We want there to be order. We want the agony to bring ecstasy. We want our wrong in just the right way.

 

 

Years later, in another life far away from a wood-paneled station wagon surrounded by a firefly-saturated sky, at a hospital in Lansing, Michigan, my dad and I discussed hospice options. His back was broken from a fall, he was weakened by a MRSA staph infection he’d caught at a Hillsdale, Michigan hospital. He had a permanent catheter because of the bladder cancer. He hadn’t been strong enough and well enough to withstand a cystectomy. I knew he couldn’t go home and oh, how he wanted to die at home. But who would care for him? He needed to be lifted, rolled, and bedpanned. After our discussion, I turned on the TV to distract us both. An old western was on—maybe one with Gregory Peck? My dad tried to follow the story line and so did I but our attentions were fragmented and quite frankly the movie wasn’t that good.

No one bigger than life presence graced the tiny screen in my dad’s hospital room.

My dad, so quiet, my dad, who had worked so hard so that we might live better lives, was dying. Perhaps even worse than the dying was the suffering beforehand. Like Jesus’ crucifixion. Like John Wayne’s gut shot suffering in The Cowboys.

Dad turned to me, his green-hazel eyes still clear despite the wretched pain of his illness. He motioned his hand toward the TV screen. “Well, this is certainly no John Wayne movie, is it?”

I smiled and shook my head. “No, Dad, it’s not.”

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