We need more cowboys

July 14, 1998|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

NOT to name-drop or anything, but I knew Roy Rogers.

What kid didn't? I knew his horse, Trigger, was the swiftest thing on four legs, knew he was sweet on Dale Evans, knew he'd never start a fight, but never lose one, either.

Most of all, I knew Roy would draw fast and shoot straight, his bullets knocking the gun cleanly out of the bad guy's fist. After which, all would be well and Roy and Dale would sing their farewell theme, "Happy Trails to You."

I hadn't seen or even thought of him in years until last week, when he died of congestive heart failure at age 86. But yeah, I knew Roy.

Pint-size roundup

I came along too late for his movies but was just in time for his television show that ran into the middle '60s. Used to curl up in front of the television and watch in glorious black and white as Roy corralled desperadoes between Ovaltine commercials. After which I'd take my cap gun out to round up any bad guys who might be lurking around the housing project we lived in.

Seems a long time ago, and I'm not talking about years.

What kid still plays with cap guns? Especially since real ones are so readily available. Dennis the Menace is the only boy I can think of who still worships a cowboy hero. Of course, Dennis is also 47 years old and not yet in school.

The rest of us have moved on. We've come to understand the cowboy as a calloused man who froze in the cold, sweltered in the heat, soaked in the rain and worked to exhaustion whatever the weather.

Roy's duded-up cowboy, with his guitar, white 10-gallon hat and engraved six-shooters, would get laughed out of a Clint Eastwood movie. My kids sure wouldn't get him. Even my affection is rooted in nostalgia.

But the memories are guiding ones. How uncomplicated the world seemed then. How innocent, in retrospect, we seem. Right was right and wrong was wrong then. No such thing as moral ambiguity. No such thing as an anti-hero. The West was a blank page, a fresh promise, endless skies, room to move. And Roy moved so surely, his moral compass unfailing, pointing always toward true north and a simple, if simplistic, sense of justice.

If we can't take any of it seriously anymore, what does that say about us?

It's not as if Roy ever reflected reality, after all. In the years of his greatest fame, atomic fire fell upon Hiroshima, a mendacious senator sparked a witch hunt that destroyed many lives and a Negro boy from Chicago was brutally lynched for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.

Meaning that the world was never simple and we were never innocent.

What we had, though, was a confidence we now have lost, a belief in fundamental fairness and our own ultimate decency. We believed, as Martin Luther King Jr. once put it, that the arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Moral fuzziness

In the '90s, that belief has gone the way of poodle skirts, back-yard bomb shelters and, well . . . singing cowboys. Most of us are just trying to get by, stepping gingerly past the compromises demanded of us by a difficult world where moral fuzziness is common and anti-heroes popular.

But see, I knew Roy Rogers. And in our short association, he taught me that virtue matters and good conquers evil. If today those certainties have been relegated to nostalgia, that doesn't mean they're lost. They have become emotional DNA, undermining studied cynicism and feeding foolish faith.

However bad a situation may seem, things will work out OK in the end if you just persevere and work for right. Some stubborn part of me still believes that.

For this I blame the singing cowboy in the white hat.

Thanks, Roy. And happy trails to you.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 7/14/98

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