By Jim LeMay From February 12, 2018
It’s a true story out of my distant past. Or as true as I can remember it after lo, these many years. It will also betray my age.
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I spent my early childhood in the mid-twentieth century on a farm in northern Missouri. It lay about 90 miles west of Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s birthplace. Most Saturdays my parents went to town to sell cream and eggs, buy staples and whatever else needed doing. A sign just outside of the town, Marceline, identified it as “The Boyhood Home of Walt Disney.” That was only a slight exaggeration. Its most famous resident had spent only four of his boyhood years there, though he later said they had been among the most formative. Maybe I’ll write more about what I know of him in a future newsletter.
To keep my sister and I out of the way while they took care of business our parents sent us to the movie theater’s matinee, usually with the local kids. Matinees must have been invented just to occupy kids; they lasted all afternoon. I don’t think many adults could’ve stood their tedium for so long. The most boring segment to me, as to most of the kids, was the newsreel produced by Movietone News. Fortunately, they got that out of the way first.
Next came the cartoon. American animation had started in 1928 with Walt Disney’s introduction of Mickey Mouse playing the part of Steamboat Willie. Though I didn’t realize it then, but learned later, my childhood coincided with the height of animation’s golden age in the ’50s. Disney had added other characters by then: Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, Donald Duck with his three nephews and Uncle Scrooge McDuck, and others. Occasionally the matinee featured older cartoons out of the ’30s, including the Silly Symphonies. In these, non-recurring characters, accompanied by (mostly) classical music, performed foolishly. As yet unfamiliar with classical music I identified it with the cartoons’ foolishness. Sadly, those feelings remained even after I finally heard those pieces played in their proper environment. Among those that still strike me as corny include “the Swan” and “the Aquarium” from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals and some pieces from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites I and II.
Other studios developed their own peculiar sets of characters. Warner Brothers produced Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and my favorites, the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. Hanna-Barbera gave us Tom and Jerry and probably other creations I have forgotten. Characters I remember, but not the studios that created them include Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoingBoing (Because of the similarities of the animation I assume those two came from the same studio.), Woody Woodpecker, Mighty Mouse and his knock-off Speedy Gonzales.
I liked the serials, which came next, the best. Too young to recognize their trite, predictable plots and shallow characterization, missing an episode left me heartbroken. It didn’t bother me that Flash Gordon’s spaceships wobbled. I found the Lone Ranger and Silly (a translation of Tonto from the Spanish) and Lash Larue cool. So were the Green Hornet, Superman and especially Batman. When I stayed in Marceline for a few days with my grandmother the local kids and I reenacted some of the serials. In a vacant lot between her house and that of the Terrells we built replicas of the Batmobile and Flash Gordon’s spaceship out of empty crates and other trash to pursue villains or to blast off into space.
The matinees always featured two full length films with at least one Western. Typical of little boys of my era I liked Westerns but found cowboys like Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry sissies. I had learned to shoot a rifle pretty early so I knew trying to shoot a gun out of someone’s hand, especially under stressful circumstances, was silly if not impossible. And dangerous. You would almost certainly miss the guy’s gun and gun hand too, which would infuriate him even more. Then he would plug you as he had intended to do all along. So just shoot him and have it done with! Among my favorite cowboys were Randolph Scott, Johnny Mack Brown and Rod Cameron. They just shot the bad guy dead before he could kill them. I grudgingly admit I liked the Cisco Kid and his sidekick Pancho even though they were also sort of sissy-like.
Gene Autry got on my nerves especially. Who would bother going into a bar to order non-alcoholic sarsaparilla? Though nobody in my family drank, except Dad who had an occasional beer, even I knew the only reason to go to a bar was to drink booze. Gene Autry had his “sas’parilla” in about every other movie and the bar’s other patrons tried to beat him up every time. (He always won, of course.) He once appeared in person at a rodeo in Fort Madison, Iowa. Mom’s cousin Russell who lived there told me he once saw him stagger out of a bar so drunk it took two guys to hold him up. I wouldn’t have minded him getting drunk in real life if he had had a shot or two of whiskey in his movies.
I also liked the Tarzan movies. Lex Barker was Tarzan in those days and always will be to me. Though Mom was no Tarzan fan, Johnny Weissmuller had played him in movies when she was young so he was her Tarzan. Imagine my delight to find Edgar Rice Burroughs had invented Tarzan and his books were available in the Marceline library! I read all the Tarzan books and discovered other ERB heroes like John Carter, a fighting man of Mars, and other strange lands like Pellucidar.
One Western serial (I forget which cowboy it featured) inspired me to attempt an adventure way beyond my maturity and expertise. In the cliffhanger ending of one episode, the hero forced his horse to leap off a cliff to evade pursuing bad guys.
My dad loved and raised horses, for riding and work. Though in those days I thought he was overprotective of me in many ways, he taught me to ride them early. He named the horse we all considered “mine” because she was born the same year I was Goldie, a beautiful, docile palomino mare. When Dad was available to saddle her he let me ride pretty much wherever I liked in a prescribed area, even on errands to neighboring farms as long as he knew where I was. Without the saddle though I could only ride Goldie in the horse pasture. Though I was too small to saddle Goldie I could put the bridle on her and mount her by using a fence as a ladder. Dad must have reasoned that I couldn’t hurt myself in such a restricted area. I was about to prove him wrong …
One day soon after seeing the last mentioned serial, while riding Goldie in the horse pasture, I saw a way Goldie and I could replicate that heroic leap!
The pasture sloped downward. A pond for the horses lay part way down the hill. The spillway on the pond’s narrow dam would provide the chasm over which Goldie could leap.
Though she wasn’t as big as Dad’s work-horse Percherons, Goldie was a giantess to six- or seven-year-old me. From my perspective her back resembled a table that curved downward slightly at the edges. She never moved faster than at a canter and then only with encouragement. That’s probably another reason Dad felt I was safe riding her. I seldom fell off and when I did she stopped immediately, in mid-step if necessary to avoid injuring me.
I rode her toward the dam, urging her to greater speed as we neared it. Fortunately, horses are a lot smarter than little boys. She slowed from a canter to a walk on the dam and came to a complete halt at the spillway. My frustration was immense. Why had she disobeyed me? She always went where I directed. I backed her off the dam – it was too narrow for her to turn around – and we tried again… with the same result.
I don’t remember how many times we repeated that foolhardy attempt with the same result. Then, for some reason, she changed her mind.
She executed the jump easily; the spillway was only a few feet wide. I didn’t consider, however, the precariousness of my seat for an equestrian leap. I rose at the same time as she, but a little higher. And when she came down on the far side of the spillway I landed – oh, so solidly – onto that slippery-smooth horsehair bench. I don’t know if I still held the reins. If I tried to grab her mane I failed. I slipped off her back as smoothly as if it had been oiled.
I landed on the downhill side of the dam and rolled and bounced all the way down its slope. Though I didn’t break anything, I had too many scrapes and bruises to hide the adventure from my folks. I don’t remember what punishment they gave me but perhaps not much since I looked so banged up. Maybe they banned my riding for a while though I probably wouldn’t have been able to ride much for a few days anyhow.
I don’t know why Goldie decided to finally make the jump. Perhaps she thought: Okay, I’ll give this stubborn little brat a lesson he’ll never forget. If that’s the case, old girl, it worked. I haven’t forgotten.