Wednesday, August 5, 2009

You can't go home again ... but you can flash back

Traveling back home to Kansas -- Coffeyville, specifically, where I attended high school and junior college, worked for seven years after college, and where most of my family still lives -- has spurred some thinking on my part.

Where did my fascination with horses and racing begin? Why is it that the only dream I have besides wonderful, long, healthy lives for my kids consists of a farm or ranch house, lots of acreage, and horses about as far as my eye can see?

Then I saw a clip from an old TV show on the Internet and it dawned on me: TV westerns.

Granted, there isn't horse racing in those old westerns -- like "Bonanza," "The Virginian," "The Big Valley," my grandmother's favorite, "Gunsmoke," etc. -- but there were plenty of horses. And rugged men whom a little boy in front of a TV set would want to grow up and emulate.

Specifically, more than any of the characters, I wanted to grow up and be like Manolito Montoya from my personal favorite of the western series, "The High Chaparral." Played by Henry Darrow -- birth name Enrique Tomas Delgado -- Manolito was the brother of Victoria (Linda Cristal), wife in a marriage of convenience to "Big John" Cannon (Leif Erickson), patriarch of the family and owner of the High Chaparral Ranch in Arizona Territory.

"The High Chaparral" debuted on Sept. 10, 1967, just a day after I turned 1. So my recollections of the show are from late-afternoon reruns in the early and mid 1970s.

Since I was just about the whitest kid in one of the most-caucasian parts of America at the time -- wheat farming and ranching country of northwest Kansas, Phillipsburg, to be exact -- I'm not exactly sure what made me aspire to be like the son of 19th century Mexican squire. I guess Manolito Montoya was just the coolest, most dashing, baddest cat on TV at the time. At least in my young opinion.

Ultimately, I grew up not to be Manolito Montoya, but rather Hoss Cartwright. Same line of work, at least, but not so dashing. Which is why when I begin to tell people of my love for horses and racing -- and what as a child I aspired to be when I grew up -- they start laughing before I can finish the story. They're always expecting to hear me say "jockey," when the sentence is actually to be finished with the word "cowboy." Nobody would ever confuse Hoss Cartwright, or me, with a jockey.

Anyway, at about the same time as my love for TV westerns was at its height, Triple Crowns were falling like tenpins in the racing world. The news was abuzz about Secretariat in 1973 -- the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years -- then Seattle Slew followed up with another in '77 and Affirmed a third in '78. Spectacular Bid woulda, coulda, shoulda made it three in 1979. So horse racing was at perhaps its highest point of visibility since the 1940s or early 1950s at the same time as my interest in horses was piqued by a slew of TV westerns in syndication.

At least, it's as good a theory as any for why a kid born hours from anywhere in northwest Kansas, from a family that otherwise owned no horses nor had anyone with an interest in them, would become a racing fan of his own volition by his early teens.

I also had a friend at the time whose father was one of the biggest hereford ranchers in the region. I always enjoyed visiting their house, helping (or more likely, trying not to be a hindrance) with chores like feeding hay off the back of a flatbed truck in the winter, and afterward sipping hot chocolate and gazing out over the plains at acre upon acre of livestock, thinking, "I'd like to have this someday."

High school counselors have different ideas. Any kid who scores well on the ACT or SAT has no business raising livestock for a living. Go find something else ... something that requires lots more schooling (which I never enjoyed) ... something that takes you away from this little town and its country way of life.

Regrets, I've had a few.

Finally, watching the reruns spurred me to relisten to the theme songs for these shows, which were appropriately dramatic. They still send a chill up this big little boy's spine -- particularly the themes from "The High Chaparral" and "The Big Valley."

So I've set up a poll at left of my favorite shows and themes. Listen to the themes at YouTube, if you will, and cast a vote. And "The Lone Ranger" doesn't count; that's "just" the "William Tell Overture." Otherwise, feel free to offer your shows and themes in the comments. It'll be a good vacation diversion for me.

Theme Songs:
1. Bonanza
2. The Big Valley
3. The High Chaparral
4. The Virginian
5. Gunsmoke
6. The Wild Wild West
7. The Rifleman
8. Rawhide


  1. My Dad would wake the whole house up at 6AM each and every day by bellowing out whatever song was stuck in his head. Number eight on your list, Rawhide, was a particular fave of his.

    Granted, he often re-worked the lyrics with time-checks and reminders to wake up. As a kid I found it annoying, now I've discovered it to be an inherited trait.

    Great post!

  2. The Big Valley was my favorite....


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