King of the Wild Frontier

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The Davy Crockett craze began just before Christmas in 1954. Soon thereafter, it swept the country as Disney’s popular television series starring Fess Parker as Crockett and Buddy Ebsen as sidekick George Russell converted everyday kids into kings of the wild frontier.

With the news that actor Fess Parker died at 85, it is hard not to think back some fifty five years past his more current activities in real estate and wine making, and remember his TV roles as Crockett and as Daniel Boone and his movie roles in such films as “The Great Locomotive Chase” and “Old Yeller.”

While today’s kids eat the latest cell phones and MP3 players and designer running shoes like candy, Crockett fans could not only sing the “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” with the annoying frequency a later generation would sing “It’s a Small World Isn’t It,” we had our own (rather low-tech) memorabilia. We not only knew that Crockett was born on a table top in Tennessee, we carried our Davy lunch boxes to schools and parks and ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on our 1950s table tops dreaming of heading west and doing great deeds.

The lucky kids not only carried a Davy Crockett rifle, they boasted of the whole shooting match: bag, bandanna, bank, bathrobe, bead spread, belt, billfold, books, boots, bowls, buttons, caps, cap pistol, cards, China, clothes rack, cookie jar, coonskin cap, cuff links, cup, drums, flashlight, guitar, handcuffs, jacket, knife, lamp, moccasin kit, mug, nightlight, pajamas, pitcher, powder horn, puzzle, records (vinyl), ring, spurs, thermos, tie and wristwatch.

The faux coonskin caps were a must and we wore them bravely because there was danger in the back yard and the park, and in the dark rooms of the house after we went bed with our Davy Crockett flashlights and nightlights. We were not, however, allowed to wear the caps to school or to church, a risk that didn’t make any sense at the time.
My brothers and I looking for bad guys

Parker was tall, rugged, and seemingly pulled into Disney’s TV shows and films straight from 19th century days when the world needed a man, as the song reminded us, who “when Now, Injun fightin’ is somethin’ he knows, so he shoulders his rifle an’ off he goes.”

When I saw Parker as Daniel Boon in the 1964-1970 TV series, Jim Coats in “Old Yeller” with Dorothy McGuire and Tommy Kirk, and as James Andrews in “The Great Locomotive Chase” with Jeffrey Hunter and Slim Pickens, it was always the same guy; no, not a one-dimensional actor, but a dramatic, justice-seeking hero with or without his coonskin cap who “made hisself a legend for evermore.”


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So long Jim Newton of the Broken Wheel Ranch

When most people heard of the death of actor Peter Graves yesterday, they probably thought of him as Agent Phelps on “Mission Impossible” or as Captain Oveur in “Airplane.” My memories go back father than that to a time (1955-1960) when he played the role of Jim Newton in the TV series “Fury.”

A city boy, I didn’t grow up on a spread anything the Broken Wheel Ranch–it was a ranch-style house, but in a sprawling, north Florida neighborhood. So of course I didn’t know Jim’s adopted son Joey or Pete, the foreman of the place, but I knew people like them. Truth be told, had I lived on the fictional ranch or been anywhere near the set where the show was filmed, my best friend probably would have been the American Saddlebred stallion named Beaut who starred as Fury–and on other shows as well along with the movie “Giant.”

Fury was as wild as his name; Joey could ride him, but no one else except on special occasions. Jim Newton was a nice guy and, like Peter Graves in most of his starring roles, he played a strong, upstanding kind of guy, a Gary Cooper kind of guy that had strong values and didn’t tolerate a lot of shades of grey when it came to sorting out right from wrong.

On “Fury,” greenhorns were always getting into trouble and Fury–like Lassie–was there to rescue them. Things always worked out fine on “Fury” and that included the rather sappy closing shot with the cast laughing at something at the gate to the ranch.

In those days, my heroes were the plain-spoken guys who owned ranches and solved problems or rode into town when trouble was brewing and stood up against the clowns and riffraff in spite of the odds. I liked that, and I liked the fact they always had a faithful horse.

Sure, I remember Agent Phelps, but Jim Newton rings a louder bell.

Fans of the old series will enjoy two websites with memorabilia and information: Broken Wheel Ranch and A Fury Scrapbook.

Disappointed in Jerry and Bobby

I don’t know how I would react to fame, the ever-prying lenses of cameras, the crush of people’s expectations, the constant roar of the crowd. Fame kills, I think, and it does so without remorse.

When I was young and in need of heroes, I saw chess champion Bobby Fischer as a viable candidate. I played chess badly, and so it was that I admired a guy about my age who played better chess at 13 than most chess players will ever play in their prime.

As a writer in training, I grew up with the canon of literature as it was preached during the 1950s; I rebelled against it, and so it was that I admired a guy of my mother’s generation who brought the Caulfield and Glass families to life outside the scope of what my teachers taught.

No one likes to see their heroes rusting away with age and crumbling into apparently flawed and strange creatures. Perhaps neither man expected the fame he achieved or understood its dangers. Bobby Fischer became eccentric and mean spirited and J. D. Salinger hid away from the public eye with what, at times, was an admirable persistence and what, at other times, seemed more like a self-righteous disdain for the rest of the world.

Rightly or wrongly, I am disappointed in both men because each of them threw his talent away. If Bobby’s mission was chess and if Jerry’s mission was short stories and novels, then let the vicissitudes of fame be damned and find a way to stay on course.

Bobby’s chess, including his innovations for the game, will continue to influence prospective masters who might benefit from his contributions to openings and end games. Jerry’s “The Catcher in the Rye” may well fade with time as its focus becomes more and more dated, but his writing brought us more than that in his sparse, but strong collected works. And perhaps there’s more, novels and stories sequestered for years in a safe that may one day find a friendly light of day.

Bottom line, though, I disappointed in Jerry and Bobby because they both quit, perhaps for cause, but that’s ultimately the weakest of rationale.