Watching so many old westerns on YouTube, Amazon, and my daughter’s NetFlix, I have begun to think and dream in Western Technicolor, or black and white, as the case may be. I watch the old westerns and nod off in sleep, soothed by bad writing, tired plots, worse acting, and the same back-lot scenery from movie to movie which induces a shallow, restless sleep. The sleep can last a single minute, or through two movies. It does not matter, since the next movie is a lot like the last two or three.
I’m not sure if it was a dream or a movie, or where the reality of the famous Hollywood back lot featured in so many westerns turned into the surrealism of a real town with me in it, but the scene changed so that there was a cattle stampede right through the middle of town, right down the dusty main street where so many have shot it out, the good guys getting continuously wounded in their left shoulder, the bad guys taking 255 grain lead slugs right between their eyes. I could see Lee van Cleef and Eli Wallach behind the cattle, in the employ of an evil rich cattle baron who looked a lot like Lee J. Cobb or John McIntyre, driving the cattle through town as they fired their revolvers wildly in the air, with supersonic cracks from Medusa headed whips. There were two dozen or more of the bad ilk behind them, all looking like Strother Martin, Jack Elam, and Bruce Dern.
Hoss and Little Joe were trying to turn the panicked cows back into the bad guys, with young Rowdy Yates and Gil Favor lending them a hand. Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart were coming out of the saloon after having confronted Cobb, McIntyre, & Co., and all their hired-gun double-drop rig wearing pistoleros, only to find three identical Richard Boones barring their way, with a couple of Broderick Crawford’s thrown in for good measure. Noticing intently, but unnoticed himself, Glenn Ford was leaning at the bar, sipping whiskey as he planned to use the upcoming shootout to deal with some internal demons he had independently inherited. Glenn worked for no one, but was 100% on the side of truth, fairness, and justice, which meant he was on the beautiful, chaste Donna Reed’s side. From the top of the saloon stairs, a sulky but ever evil young Barbara Stanwyck plotted against all the Donna Reeds that ever lived, and even planned to double-cross all the Cobb, McIntyre & Companies, having made a separate deal with the railroad, whose owner looked a lot like Richard Dysart or Lionel Barrymore; it was hard to tell. In the telegraph office, an older but still beautiful Barbara Stanwyck, no longer the young evil temptress, filled with a stately grace and goodness that matched her beauty, dashed off a telegram to the territorial governor who looked a lot like John Carradine, begging him to send in the Cavalry before it was too late. John, I mean the governor, after being told by President Rutherford B. Hayes that no Cavalry was available, decided to send in Walker, Texas Ranger. The bad guys didn’t know what was in store for them.
Donna Reed, of course, was the young heiress to the large sheep ranch dirt farm, whom the cattlemen hated, but everyone was in love with including Gary Cooper, the dastardly Lee J. Cobb, the evil Richard Boone, and the feckless Little Joe. Her father was murdered by Boone and van Cleef as he was protecting the nuns at the local mission. Reed was now drawing the last bucket of water from the dried up well so she could tend to the wounds of the Mexican peasants who had been pistol-whipped in the church as virgins were violated by Boone, Dern, et al, the well sealed off when Lee J. Cobb diverted the creek which feeds her ranch, Cobb after the gold, silver, grazing rights and railroad right of way, and the water itself, dumping the as yet undiscovered and useless Uranium ore onto Reed’s land, causing the sheep to spontaneously shear themselves from radiation exposure.
Gary Cooper was likely to win Reed’s hand in the long run, if Randolph Scott did not beat him, each one playing it coy and cool, but sometimes losing to a woman’s drive to help the hopeless, the Glenn Ford types, as they deal with their personal demons, just as the demon-driven Glenn Fords were destined to have beautiful, good-hearted, faithful women ensnared in tragic romances.
Behind me, and gaining, was a whirlwind of dust and debris, the sound of a thousand freight trains reminding me of a spring-time tornado rather than a race of cattle. I reckon that to those fleeing, and to everything else in the path of the stampede, there isn’t much difference if you are overtaken; it is a cattle stampede of a tornado, or a tornadic cattle stampede… The one killed most likely mourns the result rather than the method, but I can’t verify that as the pony express rider seldom makes it through from the other side, getting shot through with Sioux arrows at least as often as every single stage-coach ever shown in the movies gets robbed.
The most hazardous job in the movies…other than the indian that gets repeatedly shot from his horse only to have his foot caught in the stirrup the indians never used…is the stagecoach shotgun-rider. Really…he is the guy sitting next to the driver. He is the one holding a short double-barrel shotgun, still called a coach gun today. He is the one riding shotgun, which is where we get the name for the guy seated up front next to the driver. He is the one a thousand Jack Palances immediately shoots a thousand times. In the coach, there’s Donna Reed, again. Everyone is after Donna. She can’t catch a break. She can’t even keep her late momma’s wedding ring, nor even exchange it for one of her own.
Running as fast as I can, which has never been really fast to begin with, and atop the the molasses lake dreams always furnish us to run in, I was in danger of the tornadic cattle-stampede overtaking me. I ran harder, but the molasses gripped at my feet. Then, flying past me like a bat straight out of hell, I was passed by a famous politician who had recently and unexpectedly lost an election.
“Get out of my way!” she shouted, dang near running over me. “Don’t you see it coming?”
“The cattle stampede, you mean?” I asked.
“Cattle? That’s not cattle chasing me. That’s irrelevance.” she cried, and accelerated, leaving me stuck and struggling in the molasses, having sunk a little deeper than I was just a moment or so ago. It did not seem to bother the politician as she sped on past in terror. I had no idea what irrelevance looked like, so I dared a backward glance. All I could see was an angry mob of horned, cloven-hoofed bovine beasts bearing down on me with murderous intentions. If irrelevance was in there, it looked an awful lot like that stampede/tornado. It was adorned with cloven hooves and horns, but then so is the devil, they say. I ran harder and slowed down even further. The harder I ran, the slower I seemed to go. I was destined to be over-run. John Calvin started to say something from behind the camera, as though he were the director of this film, but I could not hear him through the din, seeing plainly, though, the smirk on his face. He gave me a big wave. I was too busy to wave back.
I was passed by athletes, movie stars, more politicians, and several news media personnel. All of them claimed to be fleeing irrelevance, too. They seemed to be getting ahead of it, or at least keeping pace. I, on the other hand, mired in the molasses that seemed not to bother them, had slowed to a near crawl. Resigned to the fate that was to overtake me, exhausted, I just dropped to my knees, saying a quick prayer before the approaching tornado. “Lord, let it be quick,” because irrelevance never comes quickly, it sneaks up on a person….wait, I wasn’t fleeing irrelevance, I was fleeing a tornadic cattle stampede, being overrun by a thousand longhorns, a thousand wicked Beelzebubs being pushed by evil men in pursuit of tyrannical goals.
The storm approached. I waited on bended knee before it, watching it swell as the ground thundered and shook. Then I felt a lasso wrap around my torso with a slap. It drew tight as a horse pulled me from the path of the stampede to a small grove of large trees I had not seen. Inside the grove, a fenced in paddock, there were two men and two horses…Woodrow and Gus, themselves former Texas rangers, now retired. Woodrow whispered in his horse’s ear, and it backed up a bit so he could undo the lasso. The cattle stampeded all around us, but I was now safe inside the grove, watching the storm pass, watching the movie stars, the politicians, the athletes, and the news casters get overrun in the melee. I heard their screams, I heard their agony. I wondered why I was rescued, but they were not.
I asked Gus and Woodrow. Having saved me, I suspected they might give me the answer.
“Well, you were running from a certain death,” said Gus. “Sometimes you can help a man. Sometimes you can’t. But it is easier to help a man that is fleeing death than it is to rescue a man who is fleeing irrelevance. It also helps that Woodrow is better with a lasso than me, and willing to get his hands dirty. Me? I might have dropped this, and that would have been the real tragedy” He offered me a snort from the pint of whiskey he held up in his gloved hand. I gladly accepted.
Woodrow said nothing. He just sat on the split rail fence. Gus and I joined him.
I saw Judy Garland and Fred Astaire right before they were swallowed up in the stampede of cows, or irrelevance, whatever it was. It turns out that they had stumbled onto Set B instead of Set A at the Warner Brothers lot. They had no idea how to act in a western. The danced and sang until they were trampled beneath the wrong genre, the mistaken genre. The victims of being miscast.
As I watched them fall beneath four thousand hooves, I heard Gus say to Woodrow, “That’s why you’ve never seen me sing and dance in a romantic comedy. I was not cut out for that kind of work.”
“I don’t reckon you was cut out for any kind of work whatsoever,”” grunted Woodrow back to Gus. Gus just took another sip from the whiskey bottle. He offered it to me. I hesitated because it looked like I might be getting the last one. Gus smiled.
“There’s another one in my saddle bags,” he said.
We sat out the stampede. We saw thousands go by, thousand of actors, athletes, politicians, musicians, all sorts of ordinary people, all of them scattered and tossed, some covered in trail dust, others covered in cow-shit, all of them now irrelevant, having succumbed to their worst fears. Not a one of them was dead, nor did they seem thankful for being alive. They were all mourning that irrelevance had overtaken them. It must, eventually overtake everyone, particularly those of us who are not of the spectacular bend, just all of us who think we are above average, which, it seems is most of us as it is with the children of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. Above average. For a fact, most of us are average or below. The ones fearing irrelevance never catch on to that.
Woodrow, more of the stoic type of philosopher than Gus, put a foot in the stirrup and swung up in the saddle. “Irrelevance will get you if death does not get you early enough,” he said. “One way or another, it’s going to be one or the other. I’d have to say I’ve learned to enjoy my irrelevance. I find it liberating.”
Gus just smiled. “You cain’t pay no attention to Woodrow. He is too high strung. He’s not as irrelevant as he thinks. He decided to rescue you, so he still has influence. Now he’s off to see if there’s anyone else out there he can help. Woodrow is a rock of dependability. Me, on the other hand: I am completely irrelevant.”
I thought about this for a minute as the dust settled
“Would you not have rescued me?”
“I reckon not,” said Gus. “We all get irrelevant. It’s just a matter of when. It’s better if one finds out quickly and then starts getting on with the rest of his post-irrelevant life, rather than clinging to the remnants of a life that only exists in memories. You’ve got the memories. Enjoy them. Welcome to your first acknowledged day of irrelevance. You’ve really been irrelevant for a long time, you just didn’t know it. Today’s the day you found out, that’s all.”
“Why did this look like a cattle stampede?” I asked.
“It always looks like a cattle stampede once people see it start to overtake them. It looks like the very wild bulls of Bashan to those who fear its approach,” said Gus. “Besides, you were dreaming in the Western genre.
“Well, it sort of looked like a tornado,” I said.
“Wrong genre,” he said, head shaking, me thinking of Dorothy, Oz, and the Witch of the West, Gus knowing what I was thinking..
The western world is so easily definable. It is so easy to spot the bad guys, to separate out the goats from the sheep. But is is not always so easy to face up to the bad guys. Sometimes, the Richard Boones, fearless, dangerous, unpredictable, get right in our way. Sometimes, the Richard Boones meet up with the Glenn Fords, anxious to chase away their own demons by destroying the demons of others.
And then, there is John Wayne, who, though dead, is about as irrelevant as Elvis, as Jimmy Hendrix, as Bil Monroe. John never asked for advice, or was paralyzed to fear. John just got on with the doing of what he figured needed to be done. I don’t reckon that is ever irrelevant. It may be controversial, but it is never irrelevant.
We all can’t be John, Elvis, Jimi, or Bill. We all can’t be above average. I suppose it’s good to know when to settle for a gentle horse, a beautiful sunset, and a fair woman who tolerates you and loves you in spite of yourself riding by your side. So many good cowboys have ridden off into it this scene after their struggles were over, after their battles were fought, and never in any instance did their riding off into the sunset imply that their life was over. It held the promise of the beginnings of a new life. An irrelevant life. An anonymous life. The one filled with flowers, stillness, quietness, and comfort in the company of one’s own presence.
“Irrelevance ain’t so bad,” said Gus, offering me one more sip of the whiskey. “I’m going fishing this afternoon. Wanna help me dig some worms?”
I could think of no more irrelevant way to use my new-found irrelevance than that. Except the worms. They likely viewed this as their own cattle stampede come to overtake them.
I’m not sure, but I am sure that the worms aren’t saying.
And, I’ve got my own Donna Reed. Glory!!
©2017 Mississippi Chris Sharp