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Musings: The Cowboy Creed
~by Mark Blackwell
Unpleasant weather drives me to check out what is on TV. On one of those recent damp, cold evenings, I took to the remote, and scanned what was available.
Cops—that was what was on TV! Cops and detectives. Every channel and streaming service had a glut of cop shows. I wondered whether the screenwriters were in a big rut or if there is a big law enforcement propaganda lobby that took over television?
It’s not that I don’t find cop shows entertaining; I do, but there is something missing in those stories. I probably should own up to being an O-F—that stands for Old Fellow. I grew up at a time when it was hard to find anything but cowboy shows on all three channels.
In many respects TV cowboys weren’t much different from TV cops—they are both sworn to right wrongs, they both carry guns, they are both somewhat obsessive. And even though I couldn’t put my finger right on it, I felt that there is a fundamental difference between the two.
I fired up my mental “way back machine” and went back in time to a random Saturday morning in the 1950s. Depending on the particular TV station you were tuned to, you could see Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Wild Bill Hickok, or a half dozen other “straight shooters.”
In the evenings “adult” westerns ruled the airwaves. They were programs like “Gunsmoke”, “Wanted: Dead or Alive,”
“Bonanza,” and the only one I really liked, “Have Gun Will Travel.” While all the cowboy shows featured generous quantities of gunplay, I think the major differences in the two types of westerns were the ones made for a younger audience had some humor in the story, and the heroes were better marksmen.
The evening western heroes tended to be fairly grim and they had to rely on tricked-out weaponry, such as the Rifleman’s loop-levered 1892 Winchester carbine or the cut-down double barrel shotgun carried by Steve McQueen’s character, Josh Randall. Whereas, the Saturday morning boys were much better shots with standard Colts, Winchesters, and even lassos.
Hopalong Cassidy could shoot the gun out of a villain’s hand at thirty yards. Roy Rogers could do the same while riding Trigger at a full gallup. But I think the biggest difference in TV cowboys is that the the Saturday morning heroes had a code or a creed that a kid could live by. Both the kid’s programs and the more mature westerns were morality plays, but I don’t
remember Matt Dillon ever espousing any particular philosophy.
Gene Autry had a ten-point “Cowboy Code of Honor” and Hopalong Cassidy had his “Creed for American Boys and Girls.” “Roy Rogers Riders Club Rules” was another ten-pointer. Then, there was Wild Bill Hickok’s “Deputy Marshal’s Code of Conduct” that only had nine rules to live by.
My favorite is the “Lone Ranger’s Creed:”
• I believe that to have a friend, a man must be a friend.
• I believe that all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world.
• I believe that God put the firewood there but that every man must gather and light it himself.
• I believe in being prepared physically, mentally, and morally to fight whenever necessary for that which is right.
• I believe that a man should make the most of what equipment he has.
• I believe the “this government, of the people, by the people, and for the people” shall live always.
• I believe that men should live by the rule of what is best for the greatest number.
• I believe that sooner or later, somewhere, somehow, we must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken.
• I believe that all things change but truth and truth alone lives on forever.
•I believe in my creator, my country, and my fellow man.
That list is a lot for a ten-year-old kid to chew on. But we did, and it made us feel like we were friends or more like sidekicks to our heroes.
I don’t know how many people hereabouts know or remember that there was a movie theater right in downtown Nashville. I didn’t know until I came across a picture of it taken by Frank Hohenberger in a book titled Images of America Brown County by Rick Hofstetter and Jane Ammeson. It was called Melodeon Hall, after a theater mentioned in a Kin Hubbard cartoon, and was operated by Cecil and Leila David.
That photo made me imagine a gaggle of young’uns, decked out in chaps and cowboy hats on a Saturday afternoon, gathered around the ticket booth, practicing their quick draws and the cowboy creed.