JESUS and THE RIFLEMAN!
Two who had a powerful impact
on me. Jesus and The Rifleman, I mean. And so many more.
Seems recently I’ve aged more than in all my previous years,
and when we do that – get older - we start thinking and like
old people are prone to do…we start reflecting. Find
my self thinking a lot these days, and reflecting…about
yesterday. I’ve always resisted writing about that.
To me, when people write about that subject, there’s
always an air of complaining that runs throughout the
piece. I made a promise to myself long ago to never do
that. I wanted my work to offer hope – to point out the
good in the world. Some preachers tell us how awful and
disgustingly bad we are. Hey, I already know that! But
others, like Max Lucado, tell us why God loves us anyway,
and why there’s still hope. I wanted to write like that.
People who write about “yesterday” and how great it was
always made my butt hurt. Here’s why…because if you write
about how wonderful everything once was, and how lousy it
all is now – then you don’t have to do anything today!
You can just spend all your time whining about how bad young
people are, how business people are not honest anymore, and
how everything has just “gone to hell-in-a-hand basket.”
Some would-be cowboys are the worst in the world at
this. A prime example is the semi-star who gets up in
front of people and bemoans the fact that “bobbed-wire has
ruined the west.” We hear a thirty-minute diatribe about
“how concrete is destroying the land, how the open range is
gone, and the bison roam no more.” I could stand all that I
suppose, but what really irks me is after crying in their
beer about how “technology has ruined the prairie” – when
the show’s over, they pull out in their air-conditioned
truck and fifth-wheel – both nicer than the house I grew up
in – and drive off into the sunset, all the while talking on
their cell phone and watching satellite TV. Most of them
don’t even own a horse.
I always resisted writing in that style because my
strong feeling was this is the time the Lord gave us
to live. Maybe it was all fun and games in 1886, (‘course
it wasn’t) but that is not the time the Divine chose to
place us in the universe. To constantly complain
about the current day seemed…well, ungrateful to me. Seems
petulant to me to go around saying, “Why aren’t things
like they once were? Oh, why can’t it be like it was?”
Yet, I’m slipping. I’m falling into the very trap I
promised to avoid. There was something wonderful
When I was little, my grandmother watched wrestling –
and I mean she really watched it! On Saturday
afternoons - at five o’clock – everything stopped. Supper
was already prepared waiting in the kitchen, and if it
wasn’t quite ready, the preparations might well be
interrupted. Everything was put on hold because at five p.
m. Saturday, Rasslin’ came on! And just above her
bed, in that little lime-green bedroom, Jesus watched over
us all. (The same large actual photograph of our Lord and
Savior your grandmother had in her bedroom – every woman in
the South had the same one.) Just across on the other wall,
hung one other picture - the ever-present rendition of the
Lord’s Supper. Looking back now, it seems such a soft and
wonderful time. Indeed, it now seems all the images
and incidents of those days worked together for good.
The Rifleman – set in the small New Mexico town of
North Fork - aired from 1958 ‘til 1963. During that time,
Lucas McCain, or “Lucas Boy” – as Sheriff Micah Torrance
called him, killed 2.3 people in every episode, but still
had time at the end – right after the last commercial break
- to give Mark a moral lesson about why it had to be done.
Paladin was a hired gun, but never shot anybody.
Instead, he resolved whatever the difficulty might be with
words instead of gunplay.
Even though Matt happened up on the supposed killer and
caught him red-handed, the Marshal still saw to it that the
“kid” received a fair trial.
Both Roy and Gene had a “Cowboy Code.” One item on the
list I’ll always remember… “Cowboys are kind to old
people and help them across the street.”
The president actually warned us about “the
Television shows had a moral message.
In some ways, the time seems a
little silly and too innocent, but still, I miss it all so.
The Rifleman, Chuck Connors, was rough as they come – and
deadly with that rifle. (He could shoot it twelve times in
five seconds!) But even with all those bullets blazing,
during the course of that show, he provided a perfect role
model for the father we should all strive to be. Sometimes,
often in fact, he told his son, Mark, that he loved him. He
wasn’t the least bit ashamed to say right out loud on
television that he thanked the Lord for his son, Mark, and
for his farm. He actually hugged Mark from time to time,
and after surviving the rattlesnake bite – or a gunfight
with a human rattlesnake – the Rifleman wasn’t even ashamed
to kiss his son on the forehead. One hundred and
sixty-eight episodes spanning sixty months – all of which
fell right in the middle of my wonder years. Only now do I
see how much that production and cast of people shaped and
influenced my life.
Chuck Connors died in 1992. Son, Mark – played by
Johnny Crawford - said, “He was the same in real life as he
was on the screen. He was my hero.” These days, Johnny
tours conducting his own big-time, old-fashioned, swing and
dance orchestra band in Southern California. And I don’t
believe that about Chuck’s passing. He can’t be dead. He’s
on the Western Channel every day at six p. m. – and Mark is
right there with him. And Mark hasn’t aged a day. He’s
still 12 years old.
The Rifleman taught us a better
way to live, and so did Ozzie Nelson, and so did Robert
Young – ‘cause in those days, the message was “Father Knows
Best.” The way fathers are depicted in movies and
television these days, the message seems to be that fathers
are just fools. How sad that is, and how wrong.
Gary Cooper taught us how to live as well. In High
Noon, he stays to protect the lily-livered townspeople
who won’t stand up with him, even though certain death
awaits them – and their wives and children - at the hands of
the gun-slingin’ evil-doers. He stays against impossible
odds, even though Grace Kelly asks him to flee to safety
with her. I’m not a bad person – I mean I wouldn’t want the
yellow-bellied townsfolk to be killed, but if Grace Kelly
asked me to go somewhere with her, I’m going. But not
Coop. Coop stayed…simply because it was the right thing to
do. And old Tex Ritter was in the background the whole
movie singing, “Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’.”
Naturally, Grace does not. She stays as well. And the
message was clear. “Stand up for the downtrodden. Defend
the helpless and the weak.”
Roy, Gene, and The Lone Ranger did the same –
constantly reminding us to become better and be more. My
friend, Neal Hughs, said as a child he was simply afraid to
do anything too evil because, “I knew if I did anything
really bad, my mother would call Roy Rogers!”
So I have surrendered.
Time to admit it. I miss the old days. When I was young,
working cattle was magical. The branding fire smelled of
wood smoke, the barbeque pit smelled of sirloin and pecan
wood. Horse sweat was in the air, and ice crystals formed
in the no-pop-top beer resting in No. 3 washtubs. Now days,
it’s chemical branding, four wheelers instead of horses,
cold pizza, and luke-warm pop. Not quite the same.
But this is our time. This is the time the Lord has
given us to live, and if we wish the world to be better,
then we have to be. I complained for years. Just sat on
the couch whining about how good it all once was. Then
everything changed. Something asked me a question.
Something whispered to me, “What are you doing to make it
better?” It was that picture. The one that hangs in
our farmhouse now. The one I retrieved from my
grandmother’s home – that actual photograph of Jesus. At
least, some things never change. After all these years…
He’s still with me.
-- Michael Johnson
Michael's latest release,
Reflections Of A Cowboy, is currently available in audio
book form. The two volume set consists of articles, essays
and excerpts from radio performances about good people and
good horses in the life of an Oklahoma cowboy. Approximately
8 hours in length. Reflections Of A Cowboy in printed form
is scheduled for release in the summer of 2005. Order from