Monday, March 3, 2008

Back in the Saddle Again!

(Originally posted April 6, 2007)
Even as a 10-year-old growing up in Nebraska, I knew that Gene Autry had his title "King of the Cowboys" stolen from him by that upstart Leonard Slye (Roy Rogers). And how unfair it was, I thought.

After all, Gene had heroicly volunteered for the Army Air Corps in World War II, leaving his royal cowboy throne - only to have Roy steal it from him. Gene was flying "the Hump" in the China-Burma-India theatre, defending his country, while Roy was back home staging a coup!

With the recent release of Holly George-Warren's biography of Gene, Public Cowboy No. 1, all those old memories of my childhood hero were re-awakened. Not only was I among the millions of lads glued to the Gene Autry radio broadcasts from Melody Ranch, I must have had at least three autographed photos of Gene tucked away in my bedroom. I wouldn't miss any of his movies, which I still re-visit on DVD from time to time, sometimes a bit disappointed with the plot -- but never with Gene!

In the late 1940s and early '50s, kids in our neighborhood fell into one of two categories: Roy fans -- or Gene fans. I opted for the somewhat less flamboyant Gene Autry, whose humble beginnings in Texas and Oklahoma gave rise to a hero we (Gene fans) admired and tried to emulate. Roy, on the other hand, was just too flashy! Both had cool horses and pretty female sidekicks -- and that was usually the order in which we measured the good taste and wisdom of our Saturday afternoon idols.

Gene Autry came back from the war, re-established himself at the box office, and went on to amass a fortune in the record industry, real estate, broadcasting, and sports. He achieved a long-time goal of owning a major league baseball team, the California Angels.

In later years, of course, I came to admire Roy Rogers, too. His devotion to his adopted family and enduring benevolence was truly remarkable. But he would never supplant those early memories of my real hero, Gene Autry.

Some 50 years after I had put Gene up on his pedestal, and after raising my own family and traversing the country in search of a "career," the unthinkable happened. As a manager with the Oklahoma Educational Televison Authority (OETA, the state public TV network), my boss, Bob Allen, and I were invited to an open house at neighboring Oklahoma City station KAUT-TV, owned by Gene Autry's Golden West Broadcasting. Late for the gathering, we slipped in through a side door and were navigating the hallways in search of the official reception. As we turned a corner, we came face-to-face with....yup....Gene Autry. Conducting his own solo examination of the newest Golden West property, Gene obliged us, nonetheless, with a warm greeting and a handshake.

We had exchanged pleasantries, but there was no time for me to tell Gene how much he had affected my young life. I, and millions of other cowboy wannabes, grew up wanting to be just like our hero. Well, I never quite made it as cowboy hero, but for those few short moments, I was "back in the saddle again"!

Thanks for the memories, Gene.

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