He owned two movies on four VHS tapes. A yard-sale purchase of Dances with Wolves and two blank tapes on which he’d recorded a network showing of Lonesome Dove. The tabs were broken on both so no one would tape over them. He watched each epic about once a month, and my God, how I dreaded the days when he held that boring monopoly over our single television.
On Friday nights, my favorite night of the week, we went to the video store. I’d spend my two dollar allowance on whatever horror movie cover creeped me out the most. He typically went straight to the Western shelf. I’d throw a straight hissy fit to make sure that he saved that film until after I was asleep.
The best measurement of his commitment to his preferred film genre was in his unhesitance to send me into any weather to turn the antennae. Where we lived, cable wasn’t an option, satellites cost way too much. So our TV program options were limited to two channels– Channel 5 and an unreliable Channel 12–picked up on a thirteen foot tall aluminum antennae that was the highest structure on our property. Atop the long pole, there sat a spindly set of sci-fi spider legs. Every day or two, our reception struggled; Channel 12 became messy with static and black bars. If this happened during a Sunday, the house went Code Red. Either me, my mom, or my sister would be assigned the duty of going into the front yard and turning the thin round pole counter-clockwise until reception was restored to an adequate level. We would keep both the screen door and front door open and instructions would be shouted from the living room to the front yard. Typically, that shouted conversation went something like this.
Dad: “To the left!”
Me (Turning left): “What?!”
Dad: “The left!!”
Me (Still turning left): “I’m going left!“
Me: “I said I was goi-“
Dad: “Slow down!”
Me: “I’m not even turn-“
Dad: “Wait, hold on!”
Me: “Is it good?!”
Dad: “No, turn to the left!”
Me: “Why does it even matter, it’s just a bunch of grumpy guys on horses!”
Me: “I said why does-“
Me: “That work?!”
Dad: “Nope, keep turnin’!”
Me: “Dad! There’s lightning out he-“
Dad: “To the LEFT!”
You can’t tell it any more, with the lush, even row of flowers that he aligns along the edge of his property. It’s not apparent in his practice of raising a large vegetable garden every year—bushels of corn, buckets of potatoes, beans, tomatoes, dozens upon dozens of cucumbers—only to hand nearly the entire crop harvest out charitably, for free or for pennies, to his hometown’s older citizens and then the rest of the neighborhood first come/first serve. It isn’t evident in his welcoming personality or his readiness for conversation with any passing stranger. And it certainly isn’t apparent if you see him with his grandchildren, for whom he has a naked emotional vulnerability, an immediate and measurable softness.
These days it’s hard to see the evidence, outside of his passing resemblance to Hoss Cartwright of Bonanza and the chainsaw scars on his leg, but not so long ago, my dad lived a life that wasn’t too far removed from that on display in classic Hollywood Westerns. A tad bit lawless rebel outlaw, a dash of arbiter of homemade justice. Spend the right amount time with him and he’ll confess enough details to piece together an un-filmed script. One of his first jobs was breaking wild horses when he was a teenager. That’s true. The sort of background story you’d expect from one of The Magnificent Seven. As an adult, he spent the better years of his life giving his body to a lumber industry that gave him little in return (and is, in fact, still taking from him). Weekends lead him to backwoods whiskey and beer joints where he welcomed the opportunity to throw down with fisticuffs. I imagine the vaudeville organ music of the early black and white westerns playing over those bar clearing brawls. From the scrappy encounters to outrunning the police (whom he still unaffectionately refers to as “the law”) there is a tone of lawlessness to his occasional retrospective admissions, stories wherein morality sometimes trumps legality.
Other details of his rare confessions inform me that my dad stopped drinking recreationally a few months before I was born. From then on, he became a character of focused control and discipline, much like Will Munny in Unforgiven. Unsteady hands, darting eyes. But he was who he was, a man who knew what the Westerns knew: that self-governance was more important than social rules. A man who could rank for you the reasons for which it was okay to fight: family, family name, your reputation, your land, love, and your own principled sense of right and wrong. No matter what, when challenged, those are the things you fight for. He still attempts to instill some of that in me.
Dad tried to get me to share his appreciation for Westerns while I was young. No dice. I really couldn’t tell the difference between any of these dusty, grizzled old men. Until I was ten, I called all the actors John Wayne and I called all of the movies John Wayne movies (I was almost right in that generalization. The Duke made an unimaginable 142 movies). The horseback rides through spare, dirty landscapes might as well have been dripping faucets, rain on a tin roof. Nothing made me sleep as comfortably.
I think it took so long for me to appreciate Westerns because Westerns, more than nearly any other type of movie, deal with thematic issues that are best understood by adults. But in adulthood, I came around. I now love Westerns as much as I love any other sort of movie, thanks in no small part to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. I think my preference for Clint Eastwood manifested as a subconscious rebellion against my father, an attempt to distinguish my own identity. In our household John Wayne was royalty, a near religious figure, his significance falling in rank behind only Jesus and Ronald Reagan. Eastwood, if you ask my dad, was second rate. A cheapened follow-up to his iconic predecessor.
It took me a bit longer even to understand my dad’s exceptional interest in Westerns. That came through empathetic proxy. My own interest in a recently developed regional and cultural subset of American dramas—what I like to call “hick lit”—has provided the necessary understanding. When I try to describe movies like Joe, Out of the Furnace, Shotgun Stories, or Winter’s Bone to someone else, I always fall into that non-critical position of explaining that I know people like that, places like that. “That’s what it’s like where I come from,” I want to say. Or, I think, that’s how it used to be at least.
He still lives in the same home where I was raised. A quaint house in the middle of nowhere, nestled on a wooded hillside overlooking a dip into a narrow trout stream and then the up-rise of another wooded hillside. Recently, the lumber rights of the land on the back of the opposing hillside were sold to some corporation who quickly chased the profitable option. In the evenings, my dad sits on his front porch, the same spot he’s occupied on a near-daily basis for thirty years now. He likes to watch the sun dip behind the rounded, uneven skyline, like a piece of red candy being tucked into a green envelope. On some days, he can hear the distant growling of the hungry machinery tearing away on the unseen backside of that hill.
He watches now with a comparable expression, a familiar look in his eyes. He’s not searching with his imagination beyond the westward horizon. He’s not hoping that somewhere out there exists a similar landscape where a life like his is being safely preserved, undamaged, staying. There’s no nostalgia or mourning for what’s being lost. Just a momentary snapshot of appreciation for a place that is but won’t be for much longer.
It’s been said that one of the things that separates humans from other animals is our ability to share with our offspring what happens. Unlike other species, we get to communicate directly to our children in regards to how life works. It’s one of the most amazing survival advantages offered in nature. It’s also been said that film is the clearest, most articulate method of that communication that history has ever seen. Film allows us to tell and show our children how life is. But, more than that, film sometimes also lets us share how life was. Film has documented all of the fading or lost American subcultures and everything that they stood for—the dated principles and practices, the honor and nobility shaded by black-and-white over-simplification, the good and the bad of crumbled structures of moral certainty and class stratification. Westerns offer a look at one of those faded instances, a simpler but more challenging moment and I consider it an honor to have learned about this time and place first and second hand.
Originally published June 14, 2014
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures