I can still see him, eyes squinting, smiling, sixguns in hand, as Dale Evans sang the song. He waited until Dale sang the words, “Shoot, cowboy!” and tossed a glass ball upward. Roy Rogers shot and broke each in turn, never losing his peaceful smile. Man, how I loved it! I was about six or eight years old, and Dad had taken me to see Roy and Dale, live, in person, at the old Sports Arena in Toledo, Ohio. Even Trigger, Roy’s amazing horse, was there. Roy was my idol and there he was, right in front of me on the stage. Wow!
I remember that scene like it was yesterday, but it’s been half a century since I saw it.
A few months later, Dad took me to see the Gene Autry show. Dad and I were walking around in the hall behind the arena seats just before the show, when along came Gene himself. Dad had a camera and asked Mr. Autry if he would pose with me. Gene lifted me into his arms and Dad snapped a picture, but Dad was so excited he didn’t focus properly, and we lost that rare moment on film. However, the memory has never faded from my mind. I recall Gene called me a traitor, because I had on a pair of Roy Rogers-brand chaps at the time. Later, I asked my dad what a traitor was, and thus got a vocabulary lesson from Gene Autry.
Saturdays, when he had time, Dad took me to all the cowboy movies. We saw a bunch of movies, but those with Gene or Roy were the best. I recall there was entirely too much singing and smooching, and not nearly enough shooting, but there was enough action and gunplay to keep a kid reasonably happy. These guys were both great singers (Gene’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a classic, and any of Roy’s work with the Sons of the Pioneers is simply great).
But, more important, they stood for right against wrong. They both defined the concept of the good guy wearing the white hat, and their righteous hats cast enormous shadows. Both of these great men had a remarkable influence on me, for I was totally enamored of being a cowboy for much of my youth. They are probably responsible for my having been a handgunner all my life.
Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were made of the stuff that helped forge a generation of responsible adults. They gave everyone, adults and children, an image of responsibility, of morality, and of courage for us to look up to. Those of us who adored them tried to be like our heroes. They were icons, legends in their own time, and so far above many of today’s “heroes” or role models as to defy comparison. They were entertainers, yet they had time for kids, and the kids took to them heartily. We sure could use a few more such men today, to act as examples for our children and even for ourselves. The sad examples set by some of our “leaders” today would surely make those two cowboys cry.
Roy and Gene are now both gone, but their legacy lives in the hearts and minds of the people they touched. To them I say, in Roy’s own words, goodbye, good luck, and may the good Lord take a likin’ to you.