Monthly Archives: September 2010

Remembering Gene Autry

Where were you when (fill in the blank) happened?

Depending on your age, you might be asked if you remember where you were when you first heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, Elvis Presley’s death, or the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers known as “9/11.”  Except for the first, which preceded my birth by 3 years and 15 days, I can remember all the other events, and many more that are memorable, at least for me.

One event I recall from time to time, and especially around this time each year, occurred on October 2, 1998. 

I was on my way home from work, cruising along I-20 between Jackson and Clinton, Mississippi.  As was normal for me, the car radio was tuned to the NPR’s “All Things Considered.”  During a news break, I learned that Gene Autry had died. 

I’m not sure how to describe my initial reaction.  Just three months earlier, Roy Rogers passed away.  It seemed like my world was coming unraveled.  It was as if something, or someone, had broken through what I thought were impregnable barriers and threatened my cherished childhood memories.

I do not remember being very happy as a little boy.  Apart from my younger brother, I did not have any playmates.  There weren’t any of today’s common distractions such as video games, television, soccer clubs, daycare, etc., that conveniently insulate children from the harsh reality that surrounds them.  I coped by creating for myself a make-believe world of my own imagination, one in which I was a hero and compatriot of heroic men drawn from the silver screen.

Like many boys during the early 1950’s, I was into cowboys.  I loved the world of sagebrush, stage coaches, cattle drives, bank robbers, rustlers, wild Indians, and of course cowboys like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassiday, Lash LaRue, and many others.  For me, the greatest of them all was Gene Autry.  In my world of make believe, Gene Autry and I rode together.  It was he and I against the bad guys, who if not for us, would get away with stealing the ranch from some beautiful and vulnerable young lady.

Gene and Champion

I can be seen wearing a pair of Gene Autry suspenders in my official school portrait from the first grade.  I even owned a pair of Gene Autry cowboy boots.  They didn’t fit very well, as I recall.  They were just too wide for my feet that were like the rest of me, rather skinny.   I owned a cap pistol, although not an official Gene Autry cap pistol.  I never owned a cap pistol and holster set.  Like a bicycle, BB gun, or new pair of ice skates, they were luxuries beyond my parents’ means to provide.

It was the Gene Autry in the movies, the singing cowboy of the silver screen, who was my hero.  He was the man I wanted to be like, complete with a horse like Champion.  Gene Autry always played himself in the movies.  He was not just an actor playing a fictional hero, as with John Wayne and others.  The Gene Autry that I saw on the movie screen was the same as the one who sang on the old 78 RPM records I listened to, and whose picture was on the penny-arcade picture cards I bought at an amusement park near where we lived.  He was simply Gene Autry, my hero.

Gene Autry was acutely aware of the fact that he served as a role model for us young buckaroos.  In 1948, when I was just four years old, he published his “Cowboy Code of Conduct.”  The Cowboy Code enshrined the best of America’s values—loyalty to God, family, fellow citizens, and the nation; truth, honesty, and respect; and tolerance, both ethnic and religious.  Other cowboy heroes issued their versions of the Cowboy Code, each in its own way promoting the values upon which America was founded.  Gene Autry and his pals (Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger) were the kind of heroes and role models so badly needed by our children today. 

Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code

A cowboy never takes unfair advantage—even of an enemy.

A cowboy never betrays a trust.  He never goes back on his word.

A cowboy always tells the truth.

A cowboy is kind and gentle to small children, old folks, and animals.

A cowboy is free from racial and religious intolerances.

A cowboy is always helpful when someone is in trouble.

A cowboy is always a good worker.

A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents, and his nation’s laws.

A cowboy is clean about his person in thought, word, and deed.

A cowboy is a Patriot.

My family lived on the shore of Saginaw Bay in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.  Mine was one of only two families with children who lived there year-round during the 1940’s and 1950’s.  The other homes along the beach were occupied only during the summer months.   I remember a large boulder beside our house that served as my horse.  Our yard was large and full of trees.  It was perfect for a little kid with a vivid imagination.

Later as an adult, I noticed when Gene Autry was mentioned in the news.  Often it was in connection with his success as a business man or as owner of the Major League Baseball team, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  Many recall his successes as an entrepreneur, but in my memory he remains simply “America’s favorite cowboy.”

The first thing I thought of upon hearing of Gene Autry’s death was how from time to time over the years I thought of writing to him.  I wanted to write a long letter telling him how he was my hero, when I was a kid.  I wanted to tell him that he would always be my hero.  But, I never did.  I wished then that I had, and I still do.

When I think of Gene Autry’s passing and what he meant to me and so many others of my generation, I am reminded of these lines from the song, “Hoppy’s Gone,” by Johnny Slate, Larry Henley, and Red Lane: 

Rock-a-bye yesterday

Winds blow and cradles will fall

And down comes the curtain

And all of a lifetime of mem’ries live on

Hoppy’s gone, boys, Hoppy’s gone.

And so, I will take time out from the normal day’s routine on October 2, to listen to some Gene Autry recordings, remember the days he and I rode together in the Wild West of my imagination, and maybe, just maybe, watch one or two Gene Autry movies.

The images of Gene Autry are copyrighted by the Autry Qualified Trust and used here by permission.

A good place to start learning more about Gene Autry is the Official Gene Autry web site:  http://www.autry.com/home.php

Check out youtube.com to listen to Gene Autry songs or view movie clips.

 

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“Brother, do you have the Spirit?”

My wife and I had the good fortune to spend a few days in London during the summer of 1984. Due to the intercession of a friend, we were able to stay just across from the famous “Speaker’s Corner” of Hyde Park.

The residence we stayed in reminded me of the old BBC series “Upstairs, Downstairs.” Beginning in the basement, where the servants once cooked, ironed and performed the other duties that made life comfortable for those living upstairs, the residence consisted of one room stacked on top of another, each connected to the one above, or below, by a dumb waiter and a stairway.

It was a center of social life during the interwar years. The gentleman who owned it during the 1980’s was a descendent of the original owners. He had become a Christian and decided to use the residence as a place where visiting missionaries could stay while passing through London. For a small donation, we were able to stay in an area that would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive.

My wife and I were not missionaries, but we were spending a couple of months at L’Abri, a Christian study center in Greatham, a small village in the historic county of Sussex. It was there that we made the connection that led to our being able to enjoy the historical ambience of staying across from Hyde Park.

One afternoon while “having tea” in the kitchen, I met a gentleman I will refer to as “George.” Since George and I were sitting alone at the table, and there being no one else to talk with, we struck up an informal “How are you?” conversation.

Before I had a chance to say more than my name, George began to explain that he had just returned from a mission trip to Africa. He was not exactly a missionary. Actually, he was a preacher of the charismatic variety from the western United States.

In order for you to fully appreciate what I am about to relate of our conversation, it is important that you, dear reader, understand what I mean by “a preacher of the charismatic variety.” So, just in case you are not well acquainted with the concept, a charismatic Christian is one who believes in and practices what are called “the gifts of the Spirit.”

There are seven spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 12:1-14). Christians disagree as to whether or not they exist today. For many in the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, they not only exist today but are practiced. Many of such persuasion believe that practicing one or more of the gifts, particularly the gift of “speaking in tongues,” is evidence of one’s salvation.

George informed me that he not only had the gifts, but that the Holy Spirit used him in a mighty way in Africa.

“As I was preaching in he power of the Holy Spirit,” he said, “I looked to one side, and I saw people with their hands in the air praising Jesus. I looked behind me, and I saw people slain in the Spirit.”

By “slain in the Spirit,” I assumed he meant people were falling on the ground, their bodies jerking.

“Wow!” I said, “That’s amazing!”

The more he related of his experience, the more excited and animated he became. All I could do was sit there with a blank stare on my face, wondering what he would say next.

George testified to having seen people healed of all sorts of illnesses and even raised from the dead. Whenever he paused for a moment to catch his breath, I would say: “Wow! That’s amazing.”

After relating his experiences in Africa, George began to tell how he got the gift of the Holy Spirit.

“I was driving down a country highway in my pickup truck,” he said, “when the Holy Spirit just grabbed hold of me. Why, I got so excited, I almost wrecked my truck. I just couldn’t stop praising the Lord.”

“Wow!” I said.

Then George leaned over the table and looked me straight in the eye. As some would say, he invaded my space. His face was only about twelve inches from mine. I felt as if he were looking right through me.

“Bro. Waibel,” he said in a low voice, pausing for dramatic effect, “Do you have the baptism of the Holy Spirit?”

I didn’t know what to say. I just sat there starring back at him as if hypnotized. Then I heard myself say the only thing I could think of.

“Wow! That’s amazing!”

Something about Food

I was recently asked to contribute a short essay on some aspect of food. The instructions were simple enough. It should describe some personal experience that would interest the casual reader and, if possible, include a recipe. Simple enough, won’t you think?

My first thought was to write about my first encounter with Southern cuisine. As one who was born in Michigan, and who spent his early childhood on the shore of Saginaw Bay, I was completely unprepared for the shock of collared greens with fatback, fried grits, okra, catfish, crawfish (or “crawdads”), cornbread cooked in a skillet, and sweet potato pie.

Now, I have learned to appreciate, even enjoy, some of those “delicacies.” Cooked grits that have been allowed to chill into a loaf, then sliced and fried on a greased griddle until crispy on the outside, served at breakfast with melted butter and syrup, are truly delicious. Sweet potato pie is only an inferior version of the pumpkin pie we Yankees insist tastes better.

Everyone knows, or should know, that cornbread is best when baked Yankee style, that is fluffy and sweet, not gritty. And what are those things called “cracklins” Southerners put in their cornbread? As for okra, well, I don’t even want to go there. Most shocking for this kid from up North was the idea of eating catfish and crawfish.

Like most boys, I had my adventures fishing. From time to time I caught either a catfish or what we called a “bull fish,” a small, slimy, scaleless, dark brown version of the much larger catfish. Of course, I knew to throw it back. “People do not eat those things!” insisted my mother. “They’re filthy!” And so I never ate one, and I never will.

Eating catfish was enough to make me shake my head, but crawfish? A dear friend of mine in Mississippi told me that to really enjoy crawdads, you have to suck the heads. That’s right, suck the heads. I do not believe that he was just saying that to make fun of a gullible Yankee. I have been given that advice more than once by Mississippi friends.

I have long since given up eating any kind of fish or other seafood. But, even after many years in the South, I still long for some of my mother’s Yankee cooking. Her cooking was a blend of Polish, German, and just plain working-class food. There were plenty of potatoes, squash (i.e., Hubbard squash, not the small yellow squash popular in the South), asparagus, and rhubarb. As for meats, we ate a lot of beef, pork, and chicken. Roast duck, or pheasant when hunting season was on, were extra special treats.

What we like in the way of food is a cultural thing. At least that was the case before the interstate highways and the franchisement of America turned all of us into “generic” Americans with no taste for real food. We pay a price for progress. Except for us senior citizens, regional delicacies are now limited to gourmet cooks.

Well, that was my first thought. But then I decided that no one would be interested in my experience with Southern cooking. Besides, Michelin is not likely to ask me to rate restaurants in Mississippi, or anywhere else for that matter.

What about a recipe?

While recently going through a historical museum in Omaha, Nebraska, I came upon this recipe for fire water: 1 gallon raw alcohol, 3 gallons water, and 1 pound chewing tobacco.

Bon appétit!