On the shows my brother and I would watch back then, the guests and stars wore Stetsons, black or white to designate their corruption or righteousness (a mutable rule, I see: Hopalong Cassidy, on the side of law, had the audacity to garb himself in black, and The Cisco Kid wore a gray sombrero).
No such thing as cable. Coming in over aerial, remote from the L.A. broadcast source, the picture had to be decoded, as far as our eyes were able, through a frieze of popple, silver, black, and white. Westerns were all we saw, except that I recall on one occasion, through the flickering veil of lapsed years and broadcast interference, the coronation of the new British monarch, Elizabeth.
The scene would be the same—same sets, same boulders, bushes, live oak, trails, looped and looped again to extend the chases, your white-hat dogging your black-hat, riding to beat the band, pistol in one hand, reins in the other, or sometimes held in teeth if two guns were thought essential. Not sure about my brother (and it would have been proscribed), but I wished for a pistol or two myself, burnished revolver mothers, smooth pearl grips to show above the mouths of holsters, tooled, to fire at and kill things with.
Eventually one or the other, black or white, would be captured and tied. Once the rope was undraped from the horn of the western saddle, you’d have your bad guy or your hero bound around a tree or chair, wrists secured and probably his ankles, stuffed inside his mouth a bandanna to keep him from calling out for help from the no one there, and over it all the rising sound of an ominous musical air.
The resolution to the tied-up one’s conundrum, time-bound to a desperate situation requiring nick-of-time remediation, depended on the black-hat either (a) staying tied to be delivered to his lot in Yuma, Dodge, or Tombstone, to wait for the circuit judge, the marshal, or his hanging; or (b) finding a way to escape, so he could capture his apprehender and tie him up and wave away his horse so he would have to improvise new transportation arrangements. (Sometimes he only had to put his lips together and blow, his horse being trained to the whistle.) But then, on to another chase, another gallop through sage and thistle, another fast-motion full-tilt breakneck run until the black-hat was recaptured or, better for us boys, shot.
Or else, black-hat ambushes white-hat and ties him up, and white-hat will have through cleverness to work loose his bonds on some sort of knife’s edge nobody knows about that he keeps concealed in a compartment in his boot, or rub them on a rock or board to abrade and sever them so he can loop back around and release his captured friend, or, better, the brunette called Dale or Penny to which he is married, affianced, or secretly attracted. He’ll surprise the heavy, stubbled at his campfire smugly scarfing pork and beans, and of course then bind him up and so return to (a), transport and turn him over to authorities more senior, who will jail or try or hang him, or he might get away (his gang will help with this), and on we go to the chase again.
We see these episodes with hemp as variations on a theme of capture and escape within a larger hero’s-journey archetype, or trope, or myth, and that there were faults in the black-and-whiteness in terms of wrong-and-rightness, the class and ethnic questions glossed over in 1952. We wonder now the reasons Tonto didn’t get a hat to wear, and strange we never thought of the inquiries we could have posed regarding the masking of Mr. Ranger. Back at the age of six or so, I only knew there was blood in the revolvers, tension in the ropes. I esteemed the strapping men, loved Diablo, Scout, and Topper.
And though I owned no horse to canter nor equipage beyond a plywood rubber-band clothes-pin pistol, and my neckerchief and boots and cowboy hat were red, I did have access in the garage to a reel of twine. I decided to perform what in later years I’d learn to term a proof of principle. I fetched some line, and when the house went quiet after lunch, I lashed myself to the headboard of the bottom bunk. What I twisted around and through the pinewood rails and spindles did not resemble the coiling cowboys fashioned on the screen. Yet aesthetic sense went unoffended: the work was operative; therefore it sufficed.
The principle to be proved, the trick I’d seen Cisco, Sky, Roy, and the black hats do: get loose. As messy as my knotting was, denouement held incomplete. The more I struggled, the more ensnared I got. I cried for help until our housemaid, Norma, finally heeded distant yelping. And which among the corrections at her disposal did she select? Free me from the bonds of my devising, offer sympathy, rub wrists, assuage and soothe the wounded thing with tender balm of voice, sanction the resumption of his role of choice as the idol of his saga? Hardly. She snorted through the nose, departed, and appeared again after long enough to locate and assemble all the members of the family—little sisters, mother, brother—to witness the absurdity, an imagination in action, of her young imprudent charge.
We’re at the Rose Parade. Hoppy, Gene, and Roy appear, doffing hats with Dale on horses sterling-badged and leather-laden, palomino mane combed out, black tail, flanks glowing from the curry, spinning, rearing, walking back.
I am not moved enough. Their presence can add little to the dramas watched less for spectacle than for the doubt of how the crafters of those serial, artful lies would undo a crime-and-backlash jumble and set the bad world good again. Their knots were secure enough that I couldn’t preconceive the sequence or the methods of undoing, or how the wobbling darkness in that weekly world would be brought back to stability and light. It had to be accomplished in order, or the knot would knot up worse, or the tension come too soon loose. If the maid had undone my bedroom tangle, she’d’ve had me off the tracks the day before the train came by, and where’d be the fun in that?
And though I saw the coronation on live TV, there was, for a rural American boy, not enough of interest to make him make the effort to peer through the interfering fizz—nothing of what led a princess to her pomp-and-circumstantial moment. Nowadays I take an interest in the history of a kingdom where, behind each crowning, are myriads of knotting, and plenty violent too, and full of appetite. Uncle Ed digs Mrs. Simpson, so jumbles the succession to hand the crown down to his brother, who, soon dead, makes niece Liz queen. Or see a prior Bette kink the life and reign of second husband Ed, and in that time the back-and-forthness of that Yorkist and his Lancaster cousin Henry VI. What knotting; what revelation emerges from the usurpation of the divinely anointed artist, Richard II! The coil another Hank throws round his island’s claims on France—certain storms and stresses, culminating in events which, if I’d known at six, I might have taken a boyhood interest in.
My patrician mother, Elizabeth likewise, needed us to see, and so pretended not to know that we, though past our bed, lurked and watched behind the speckled scene.
The rope makes a knot. Loosing it’s an exploration, a maze to lead us out, to coming into whole. We generate enigma. We solve through attempt, retrying, tying and untying till we’re done. The acts are simultaneous. Make a backlash in your bed (your head). Commit the mind to implications: how in the end, after all the moment-by-moment, it’s to be in time undone.