Western

Gunsmoke & Texas

By W. F. Strong

Ever heard of the Gunsmoke Rule?

It was created several years ago by TV ratings guru Bill Gorman. He noticed that sports cable channel shows like ESPN’s “First Take” were being beaten by Gunsmoke reruns. In fact, Newsday found in a sample a few years ago that all but seven of the 276 sports programs on cable television one day were being beaten by Gunsmoke reruns, even though the show went off the air more than 40 years ago. So the message to sports show programmers was, “If you’re not beating Gunsmoke, you’ve got little to crow about.”

And that’s just Gunsmoke reruns.

When Gunsmoke was actually on the air in prime-time during its 20 year run, it was often the number one show on television. It was enormously popular in Texas. As a kid I remember it being the last show I could watch Saturday night before being rushed off to bed. I always felt deeply connected to the culture of the show and I recently learned why.

Not long ago I was I visiting with an old friend and colleague, Dr. Jack Stanley who wrote his dissertation on “Gunsmoke.” We were discussing the show and he said to me, “Did you know that Matt Dillon was a Texan?”

“No,” I said, “I didn’t.”

Dillon is the central character of Gunsmoke — the U.S. Marshal of Dodge City, Kansas. In the series, he often goes to Texas to bring back a bad guy. I didn’t know, though, that Matt Dillon was from Texas.

It’s true. Jack told me that in the last made-for-TV Gunsmoke movie, which aired in 1994, “One Man’s Justice,” it was revealed that Matt was born in San Antonio.

His father was, in fact, a Texas Ranger and was killed in the line of duty. But Matt didn’t move immediately in the direction of becoming a law man. The movie reveals he spent some years in the Texas Panhandle where he sowed his wild oats and crossed paths with outlaws who tried to corrupt him. He resisted and moved on to Kansas where he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a U.S. Marshal, the iron-handed law man of Dodge City.

Another thing you might not know is that, originally, the show was on the radio. It opened with this line from the narrator:

“Around Dodge City and in the territory on West, there’s only one way to handle the killers and spoilers … with a U.S. Marshal and the smell of gunsmoke.”

William Conrad played Matt Dillon on radio, but when the show moved to TV, another Texas favorite, John Wayne, was supposed to play Matt Dillon. He decided against it, though, and convinced James Arness, a man who was often his double in movies, to take the role.

On TV, the show opened in its early seasons with no narration. It showed a quick-draw gunfight between Matt and an outlaw, which Matt won, of course.

There is a close-up of Matt’s post-fight grimace that seems to say, “Business as usual. Bad guys making bad choices.”

Gunsmoke still has enormous viewership, almost half a century since it quit putting out new episodes. It’s on TV-Land these days and based on my own survey of Texans, including my brother Redneck Dave and his crowd of six retirees, it’s on several hours a day in their households. I myself subscribe to the Western Channel just so I can watch Gunsmoke. And now that I know that Matt was a Texan, which I always suspected, I will enjoy all the more.

Quanah Parker: A Mother’s Day Story

Quanah Parker was the most feared of the Comanche chiefs on the Texas frontier. He was half white and half Comanche. He was taller and stronger and faster and more clever than any other chief of his time.

The fact that he never lost a battle to soldiers who relentlessly pursued him …

The fact that he was a ghost on the high plains and disappeared into thin air, even as he was chased in the bright Panhandle sun …

The fact that he was devastatingly handsome and could have graced the cover of one of those steamy Western romance novels …

The fact that he was the last Comanche chief to decide on his own, without being defeated militarily, to move to the reservation…

… is not the point of this commentary.

This is a love story, but not a love story for Valentine’s Day. This is a love story more appropriate for Mother’s Day.

Quanah’s mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was abducted by Comanche raiders on the Texas frontier when she was 9. She was raised as a Comanche and married Chief Nocona. She had three children, the oldest of whom was Quanah. Cynthia Ann was eventually “discovered” by white men who traded with the Comanches. Her family, having searched for her for years, quickly organized a ransom offer. The Comanches would not sell her. No matter how much they WERE offered, tribal elders would not sell her. This was because Cynthia Ann did not want to go. Though born white, she was now culturally Comanche, the wife of a chief, with three children she loved.

Many years later, her camp along a tributary of the Pease River was attacked by Texas Rangers. Her husband was killed but her boys escaped. Cynthia Ann was finally freed from captivity, but she saw it as being abducted again. She was now 34. While being escorted to Tarrant County after the battle, she was photographed in Fort Worth with her daughter, Prairie Flower, at her chest and her hair cut short – a Comanche sign of mourning.

She never readjusted to white culture and tried many times to escape and return to her tribe. She begged to go back to her people. As S.C. Gwynne reported in his masterpiece, “Empire of the Summer Moon,” Cynthia Ann knew Spanish better than English. She told a translator: “Mi corazón llorando todo el tiempo por mi dos hijos.” “My heart cries all the time for my two boys” – Quanah and Pecos. But they wouldn’t give her her wish. Her relatives believed she would readjust in time. In truth, she was being held captive a second time.

She never gave up her Comanche ways. She often sat outside with a small fire and worshiped the Great Spirit according to the customs she knew. Sadly, Prairie Flower died of the flu a few years after they were returned to white society. And Cynthia herself died SEVEN years after that, relatively young, essentially of a broken heart.

Gwynne eulogized her this way: “She was a white woman by birth, yes, but also a relic of the Comancheria, the fading empire of high grass and fat summer moons and buffalo herds that blackened the horizon. She had seen all of that death and glory. She had been a chief’s wife. She had lived free on the high infinite plains as her adopted race had in the very last place in the North American Continent where anyone would ever live or run free. She had died in the deep pine woods where there was no horizon…”

Quanah lost his mother when he was just 12 and longed for her all his life. When he surrendered to life on the reservation he searched for her and was sad to learn that she had died and was buried far away in Texas. All he had of her was a photograph someone gave him, which he kept over his bed always.

He jumped through elaborate legal hoops for many years to get her body moved and buried on Comanche soil. When he was successful, he felt his mother was finally home. When Quanah died, he was buried next to her. He believed that though separated for so long in life, they would certainly be together forever with the Great Spirit in the Sky.

Texas Standard: February 15, 2017

President Trump calls it nonsense but the New York Times says Trump’s aides and close associates were in constant contact with Russian intelligence, before the election. Also day 27 of the Trump administration. We’ll break down the latest developments with a Texan who served on the National Security Council. Plus, a group of former US Ambassadors to Mexico ask the president to change his tone with our neighbor to the south. The foster care system is dysfunctional but what’s it’s like inside the system? We’ll hear from a young person who lived through it. And the forgotten african-american cowboys of Texas, saddle up, it’s Texas standard time:

Jack Sorenson’s Paintings Capture the Simple Joy of Christmas

This is the story of a boy who loved Christmas so much that he grew up to make it more magical for the rest of us. That is, if you have ever had the good fortune to see his paintings – and if you haven’t, I’m here to make sure your luck changes. The artist’s name is Jack Sorenson. He grew up on the edge of Palo Duro canyon, a place so rare in its quality of light that Jack’s unique talents must have been uniquely nurtured.

Jack started drawing and sketching before he remembers doing it. His mother told him that when he was three, he would put the dog on the couch to draw him and then get terribly frustrated when his canine model would not hold a pose. By the time he reached first grade, he was so proficient at drawing anything he saw that his teacher called his mother to tell her she thought he was a prodigy. His mom had never heard the word and at first thought he must have been misbehaving. Once she understood, though, she said, “Oh, yes, he can draw anything.”

I talked to Jack for about 30 minutes a couple of weeks ago. He and I are a lot alike. We are both life-long Texans. We both live on the Texas border – he in Amarillo and me in Brownsville. We are both slow talkers because of our Texas drawls. Took us 30 minutes to have a 15-minute conversation. But when it comes to art we are on different planets. When he was being called a prodigy, my first-grade teacher was looking at a free-hand eagle I had drawn and said that it was not a bad likeness of a chihuahua. So that finished my art career right then. That eagle would never fly.

Jack, now age 62, says, “I’ve always been able to draw, sketch and paint anything I put my mind to. I didn’t just discover it one day. I’ve always had it. God blessed me with a gift and I try to honor that gift as best I can, in every painting.”

He started out sketching cowboys around his father’s western town, Six Gun City, on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon. But he soon found that cowboys didn’t much care for portraits of themselves, or even of their girlfriends. However, he learned that if he could capture the personality or beauty and power of their horses, they would always buy that portrait. So he drew pictures of horses and sold perhaps hundreds of them at $40 a piece.

This also taught him how to draw a horse with great accuracy and authenticity, which became one of his most praised attributes. Many say no one can paint a horse like Sorenson. No one alive, anyway. Jack’s father said first there was Frederic Remington, then there was Charles Russell, then Jack Sorenson.

Have you ever noticed that if a photograph is exceptional people say it looks like a painting and if a painting is exceptional they say it looks like a photograph? Some of Jack’s paintings look very much like photographs. I asked him if he ever painted from a photograph and he says, “No. A photograph will lie to you.”

He says that if you try to paint a horse from a photograph, your dimensions will be wrong. The head will be too big for the body, for instance. “A camera [as a means of painting], can’t get the truth of a horse, but a painting [live or from experienced memory] can,” he says.

“Each painting is a story in still form,” Jack says. Each canvas tells a story, a simple story. It is true. I enjoy reading the stories in his paintings. One shows a cowboy bathing in a river and he looks alarmed as he sees his horse, recently spooked, running off with the cowboy’s clothes flapping beneath the saddle. Tough to be stranded naked on the frontier like that. At least he had his hat and his boots.

One of Jack’s Christmas paintings tells of a cowboy arriving home late, Christmas Eve perhaps. His daughter, about 6 years old, is running through the snow to greet her daddy. Behind her is a modest frame home warmed by a good fire. Behind her daddy’s back is a brown-haired doll that looks a good deal like his daughter. She’s gonna be so happy in just a minute.

Texas Standard: October 1, 2015

We’re Waco police lying in wait for bikers back in May? More than 4 months after a deadly shootout, an eyewitness narrative emerges. And a time to lift the oil export ban? The case pro and con. Also, Hollywood’s vision of the wild west… the spirits were brave, the guns were six shooters, and men were real men…maybe that was the problem. The new film the keeping room…western or anti-western? All of that and much more on the Texas Standard: