From The Naked Spur [Anthony Mann; 1953]
From If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger.
Growing up in Abilene, Kansas, back in the early 1950′s, the most popular kiddie fare at the Plaza Theater was the Western, where morality was clear, the heroes rugged, and the villains dastardly.
One of the reasons we young boys loved the genre was their frequent frequent references to our small farm town, which had been the wildest of Western cow towns, the terminus of the great Chisholm Trail and the destination of vast herds of longhorns, driven north by Texas waddies to the holding pens from where they were loaded onto the cattle cars of the Kansas Pacific Railroad and shipped to the great packing plants of Chicago.
The hell-raising cowboys, dry, thirsty, and horny from their long weeks on the trail, gravitated to the saloons and whorehouses [often one and the same] along Texas Street, across the tracks from the downtown business district where my dad was a partner in Shank and Brenneman Paint and Wallpaper.
While James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock was the the town’s most famous lawman, and the basis for one of the day’s most popular Saturday morning kiddie shows, my family’s favorite was “Bear River” Tom Smith, a tough ex-New York boxer who met his end at the hands of a gang of bandits who chopped off his head with an ax.
The town gave Smith a unique tombstone, a rough-hewn red sandstone boulder that covered his entire grave at few spaces to the east of where my own great-grandfathers were buried, one of whom had been in the posse that brought’s Smith’s murderers to justice, a story I first heard from my Dad as we paid a visit to the graves of his father and grandparents.
Abilene’s most famous sons were Dwight David Eisenhower, who dad’s mother had taught to read and write, and C. Olin Ball, the inventor of the modern canning jar system, an invention much used by my mother to preserve the fruits of the quarter-acre garden lovingly tended by my father, a strapping, handsome figure who stood almost six-four.
Today’s best-known Abilene product is Fox’s Steve Doocy, whose latter-day conservatism is a far cry from Eisenhower’s more humane version.
Abilene’s not much bigger today that it was when I was born, though it’s more of a backwater, a legacy of Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, itself a legacy of his fascination with the German autobahns he’d first seen as commander of allied forces in Europe during World War II.
Highway 40, which used to go down Buckeye Street directly in front of our house, was replaced by Interstate 70, which cut through the middle of the cemetery where Tom Smith is buried.
I’ve not seen Abilene since 1959, but I doubt there have been many changes.
But the Abilene of my childhood is gone, swept away by media transformations and cultural changes that have deeply affected all American lives and denied us all a certain innocence and intimacy once a commonplace in small town America.
Still, I’d like to see it one more time.