How the West Was Watched

Almost by accident, I’ve become a fan of classic Western TV shows on METV. The titles alone take me back a half-century or more to a boyhood with a family that huddled around the RCA console to watch Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Wild Wild West.

The more I have watched after finding the programming on Saturdays, the more I felt I had circled back to something vital in my life. Where do our values come from, our role models, our sense of how the world works? The interest took a darker turn after the latest gun-driven massacres in our country, in Las Vegas and a Baptist church in rural Texas, which led me to consider violence as a culturally learned form of expression and problem solving. How do westerns depict violence, who wields that tool, and why? Is the gunplay gratuitous or the last resort against an onrushing threat? How else are conflicts resolved? Before the genre shrank and became the subject of radical rethinking, the western was a big part of the cultural puzzle that shaped these perceptions. I belonged to the last generation that lined up outside places like the Border Theater in Mission, Texas, to see the latest John Wayne movies, like El Dorado, The War Wagon and True Grit. Through METV, I hoped to learn something about 2017 in the entertainment of the 1950s and 1960s.

METV gives a snapshot of each show and a short description of each episode. The programs deal with social and ethnic issues that could be the background for today’s more revisionist westerns. Two chosen at random from The Big Valley in October 1965:

  • Heath investigates violence during a strike at a Barkley mine. He finds that the miners hate the Barkleys for promises not kept. The family sets out to make things right before the Molly Maguires strike again.
  • A hispanic family is in a land dispute with the Barkleys. Maria, the young daughter of the family, falls in love with Heath. Her father disapproves of Heath’s illegitimate birth, and uses the land crisis as leverage to force Heath and Maria apart.

From Have Gun, Will Travel, 1957 and 1958:

  • At a stagecoach stop, Paladin sees a peaceful Cherokee rancher being beaten by white men who think his cattle are spreading a sickness. Paladin offers his help.
  • Paladin is hired to stop a vineyard from being ruined by seepage from an adjacent oil well.
  • Paladin defends a schoolmistress who’s being theatened for teaching about war crimes that took place during the Civil War

The influence on me includes literature. In my early teens I read several books in the Sackett series by Louis L’Amour. As an adult, I read the whole Lonesome Dove trilogy by Larry McMurtry (much of it set in the South Texas where I grew up), the blood-soaked novel The Son, also set in Texas and spanning the 1830s into the 1980s, and the outstanding non-fiction book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne.

Next up on the Western reading list: The Virginian by Owen Wister, a 1902 novel I saw at a local library book sale and tossed into my $5/bag of books. I recall the series inspired by the book being on in the 1960s, until I was in my early teens, but it didn’t make nearly the impression on me of, say, The Wild, Wild West. I’ve heard the book was memorable, so I’ll dip into some 1902 entertainment.

Whatever the media, the possibilities to touch on hot-button issues are endless. I’ll find the episodes that jump out at me and take a look. My goal is to view them from two directions at once: as I saw them as a kid, and what messages I can tease out 50 years later as an adult.

Alt-History: All Singing, All Dancing, All Trotsky!

A friend on Facebook recently posed the question, “What if World War I never happened?” Many comments dealt with the geopolitical pressures, noting that some kind of war was inevitable given Germany’s militarization and the creakiness of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Others were more optimistic, that with no World War I, there would have been no World War II.

I took a different approach.

Lacking any original insights into the dynamics of European history, I mused on the impact of peace on the United States. I speculated that Fidel Castro would have developed into an ace fastball pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, a crowd-dazzling righty, of course, rather than a communist dictator.

My main contribution combined numerous interests into one great big riff I might title “All Singing, All Dancing, All Trotsky!” That’s my kind of alt-social history. Here’s what I wrote:

Without WWI and communism, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein decides to stay in New York and chucks his revolutionary identity of Leon Trotsky. He forges a brilliant career as the leading Broadway theatrical impresario of the 20th century. That’s not surprising at all, since traits of cold-blooded ruthlessness, organizational aplomb and strategic vision are key to the success of both Soviet military commissars and Broadway producers.

He marries the adorable Fania Borach and fast-tracks her career as Fanny Brice. His impact is so great that the New York theatrical awards are named after him, the Bronys. He lives well into his 90s, retiring in style after producing his groundbreaking blockbuster, a musical about aspiring dancers in the Russian-Jewish shtetl of his childhood, “A Boris Line,” with showstopping hits like “T&A & Kreplach.”

Meanwhile, his grandson Baruch Shmoikel Bronshtein opts for a life in politics, changing his name to the less-ethnic Bernie Sanders Bronshtein and becoming a Republican senator from Alabama, where his heavy Brooklyn accent and Randian economic policies charm the locals. Lev and Fanny live long enough to see their great-granddaughter, Baby Snooks Maddow-Bronshtein, become the star commentator on the New York Times’s wildly successful cable project known as DNN–the Duranty News Network.

So begins my sideline writing alt-history. This could go places and, best of all, I can make it all up.

Balm of Baseball Memory

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A portrait of the writer as a 13-year old Astros fan.

Now that Super Bowl LI has moved from conclusion to legend, let’s turn our attention to baseball. Our story begins after a recent lunchtime workout at the New York Sports Club in Rockefeller Center.

In the locker room, I walked by a guy who must have felt strained. He was rubbing himself down with balm. While I didn’t see him, I caught the aroma of the balm wafting around us. That scent, that instant, was all I needed to trigger a cascade of 45-year old memories.

The smell of balm carries me back to the athletics center of Mission High School in Mission, Texas, where I had been the baseball manager for my freshman and sophomore years in the early 1970s. I became manager by default; my delusions of actually playing for the Eagles baseball team ended quickly, given my inability to hit, field or throw. Still, coach Jake Longoria shrewdly pegged me as the perfect manager, one who combines the talents of a mule, farmhand and nurse to lug the equipment, rake and water the infield, store the players’ watches and wallets during the game and play faith healer to the pitchers’ achy-breaky arms.

So I became the manager and that’s where the balm comes in.

As baseball history shows, pitchers have a rough job, in the physical sense. They do a fast, repetitive motion that puts their young arms to enormous stress. Those arms get sore during a game and need TLC. At some point after a game I’d rub down pitchers’ arms with balm. I especially remember working on Rudy Gallegos, our pitcher with the overpowering fastball.

Over my two years as manager, the aroma of balm imprinted itself in my memory. Cozy, warm, immediate, relaxing, even a marker of male bonding—balm packed all those positive connotations. Over the last four-plus decades, that unmistakable scent takes me back to steamy Texas nights, road trips to McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville, the crack of the bat, pranks on the bus, wins and losses, the swoosh of sprinklers watering the field after a game, the sharp knock of bats rattling around in a maroon canvas bat bag (which I used as a laundry bag in college).

The smell of balm is my gateway drug to other baseball memories. The Houston Astros moved into the Astrodome—accurately touted then as “the eighth wonder of the world”—when I was in elementary school. A family friend took my younger brother Cooper and me on a trip to Houston to see the Dome. Fifty years later, I can still remember the thrill of walking into that cavernous space age oddity. Round, cool and ringed with those candy-colored seats, the Dome could easily hold the entire population of Mission five times over. In those days, when the three- or four-story Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg was the local skyscraper, the Astrodome simply had no rival for a “wow” factor. I became a staunch fan of the struggling Astros.

Summer nights passed with a transistor radio pressed to my ear, listening to the staticky radio signal from almost 400 miles away. On drives back from family vacation in San Antonio, my family would listen to AM broadcasts of games in our 1968 Chevy Impala with the white vinyl roof. While New York kids cheered on the Mets’ 1969 pennant drive, I was happy that the Astros finished the season at .500 (including a July 30 sweep of a doubleheader against the Mets at Shea Stadium). My mother thrilled me on my 12th birthday with the first edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia. I devoured its lists of players, teams and their records, and wondered how Connie Mack could spend 50 years managing just one team, the Philadelphia Athletics.

Since then I’ve seen major league games, with stops at Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field (well, across the street in the rooftop viewing areas), and long-gone Cleveland Stadium, plus the Astros at Minute Maid Park. I can still read a box score. Despite the sleep demands of my post-middle age body, I prop myself up to watch every World Series game to the final out and beyond, no matter how late it goes. Of course that included the rain-delayed seventh game of the screaming, stomping, heart-stopping 2016 Series.

And if I run out of energy and doze off during the midnight commercials during the Series, I know I’ll eventually wake up and smell the balm.

Killing the Russian, 1934 and 2016

Observers with a historical bent sought a proper framework for the Monday assassination of Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, in Ankara. I thought of the killing of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, which led to World War I:  The parallels were clear: Balkan-ish location, unknowable repercussions, regional conflicts inflamed.

The more I think about what happened, as murky as it is still, the more I cycle back to another December murder of a popular Russian (then Soviet) official who was also a victim of a mysterious collapse of security arrangements.

I’m referring to the December 1, 1934 murder of Leningrad Communist Party boss Sergei Kirov, which took place in Kirov’s office at the Smolny Institute. The usual tight Soviet security had vanished. Petty criminal Leonid Nikolayev had tried to kill Kirov before and didn’t even get his wrist slapped, According to Wikipedia (as succinct a discussion as I could find):

With Stalin’s approval, the NKVD had previously withdrawn all but four police bodyguards assigned to Kirov. These four guards accompanied Kirov each day to his offices at the Smolny Institute, and then left. On 1 December 1934, the usual guard post at the entrance to Kirov’s offices was left unmanned, even though the building served as the chief offices of the Leningrad party apparatus and as the seat of the local government. According to some reports, only a single friend, Commissar Borisov, and unarmed bodyguard of Kirov’s remained. Other sources[who?] state that there may have been as many as nine NKVD guards in the building. Whatever the case, given the circumstances of Kirov’s death, as former Soviet official and author Alexander Barmine noted, “the negligence of the NKVD in protecting such a high party official was without precedent in the Soviet Union.”

On the afternoon of 1 December, Nikolayev arrived at the Smolny Institute offices. Unopposed, he made his way to the third floor, where he waited in a hallway until Kirov and Borisov stepped into the corridor. Borisov appears to have stayed well behind Kirov, some 20 to 40 paces (some sources allege Borisov parted company with Kirov in order to prepare his luncheon). As Kirov turned a corner, passing Nikolayev, the latter drew his revolver and shot Kirov in the back of the neck.

The killing of the popular Kirov led to a wave of arrests and executions in the USSR as Joseph Stalin used it as a pretext for going after enemies. Did Stalin arrange for the murder of Kirov? That’s never been completely settled, despite massive research into the question.

Flash forward to 2016. How could the ambassador in a volatile country like Turkey be killed at an art opening? Where were the guards? A story from the Daily Beast touches on famil1ar themes of martyrdom, conspiracy and a widening circle of suspects:

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova issued a statement: “Terrorism will not pass! We will fight it resolutely. Memory of this outstanding Russian diplomat, a man who did so much to counter terrorism in his diplomatic line of work, Andrei Gennadyevich Karlov, will remain in our hearts forever.”

“We have questions for Turkey, that failed to provide security for a such a high-profile diplomat. I have no doubts that radical islamists moved the murder’s hand and it does not matter if they were from [ISIS] or from Jabhat al-Nusra Front,” Russian senator Franz Klinzewitsch said today, referring to the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria. “The purpose is clear: they wanted to pay a revenge to our country for Syria and at the same time to try and cause a forehead to forehead confrontation between Russia and Turkey.”

Meanwhile, pro-government journalists in Turkey are beginning to suggest that the assassin was affiliated with the Islamist movement of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is widely blamed in the country for orchestrating last July’s abortive coup. (He lives in the Poconos of Pennsylvania and Turkey is seeking his extradition from the United States.)

I have no idea where the Karlov killing will lead — a regrettable lone wolf, a conspiracy, justification for severe repercussions, heads rolling in the security services? A Putin ally, Senator Klinzewitsch mentioned above, is now talking about a NATO squad behind the hit, so another convenient target is emerging, beside the Islamist ones.

But whatever happens, we may get the sense we’ve been down this road before.