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.
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.
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:
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.