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GENERATIONS: Looking back on simpler times and plotlines

I don’t know exactly how many cable channels we get, but there are many times when I flip through the options and NOTHING appeals to me.

Generations columns web art

I don’t know exactly how many cable channels we get, but there are many times when I flip through the options and NOTHING appeals to me.

A few evenings ago, I paused on a channel that features old Westerns to watch part of an episode of Gunsmoke. It had been my dad’s favorite show, and watching Matt Dillon set things right in Dodge City was as close as I could get to dad and to a time when good regularly prevailed over bad and life was simpler.

Let me take you into the middle of the episode:

Matt Dillon bursts through the swinging doors of the Long Branch Saloon and yells, “Hold it right there. Drop the gun,” just in time to save Festus and Quint from a gun-toting, black-hatted villain from out of town. Dillon bends down to retrieve the villain’s gun and the man in the black hat takes a desperate swing at him, but Matt catches sight of the oncoming punch out of the corner of his eye and lands a preemptive jab that lays the villain out.

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Gunsmoke screenshot.JPG
The first episode of Gunsmoke aired on Sept. 10, 1955. YouTube screenshot

Then Matt gets him up on his feet and tells him he’d best pack up and get on the next stage out of Dodge, and the villain makes a half-hearted attempt to proclaim his “innocence” by means of “you’ve got no proof!” which isn’t a prerequisite in Dodge City, where the sheriff and Festus and Miss Kitty and Doc all know right is right and wrong is just wrong. Dillon responds with Western righteousness and indignation: “If I had proof, you’d be locked up in jail right now. So get on the stage, leave and don’t come back.”

Justice seemed so simple then.

I sought out another popular show from my childhood with a recent return to Lassie through the wonder of YouTube. In one episode, after listening to his grandfather’s stories about mining for gold, 8-year-old Timmy and his 9-year-old friend Boomer load up the wire baskets on the front of their bicycles with the necessary gear to find gold -- small shovels and large bags to carry the gold nuggets home.

Timmy’s mom comes out with sandwiches for each boy before they head off for their day in the hills on the far side of the lake. “Be home before dark,” she says. The boys pedal off with Lassie running alongside.

Of course, good drama involves more than just two boys digging in the dirt and finding nothing, so the adventure includes their discovery of a crashed plane and a seriously injured pilot.

When Timmy and Boomer tend to the man and send Lassie home for help (Lassie always knows exactly what to do), the pilot doubts the dog’s ability to communicate the issue and shoots off a flare to summon help. Unfortunately, the flare misfires and ignites the dry grass on the other side of the hill, forcing Timmy and Boomer to turn their gold-digging shovels into fire-beating shovels, but they can’t stay ahead of the spreading flames.

Meanwhile, Lassie makes it back to the Martin house and barks out her urgent message. “She’s trying to tell us something,” mom says, and she and Timmy’s dad and grandpa hop into the Dodge pickup and head for the far side of the lake, not knowing exactly what the emergency involves -- or do they?

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They happen to have shovels and even a fire extinguisher onboard, so after they find the fire (and the two boys frantically trying to stamp it out), Timmy’s mother calls him out of the fire with a calm voice of mild concern, and the two men make short work of putting out the flames.

Lassie screenshot.JPG
The Lassie series debuted in 1954. YouTube screenshot

When Timmy explains how the fire started, his mom believes his story about the plane crash and the injured pilot just up the road and the flare gone amiss because, well, why wouldn’t she? Everyone goes to the injured pilot’s rescue and all ends well as he apologizes for doubting the communication capabilities of Lassie.

Lassie was a regular at our house when I was a kid, and when I watched it, the idea of two young boys biking off alone for a full day in the wilderness without adult supervision was not at all unusual. My siblings and I did it all the time.

The Lassie series debuted in 1954, the year after I was born, so by the time I was an avid follower, Timmy Martin and his ideal adoptive parents were the main characters. In fact, it took a Wikipedia search to remind me that Lassie had had a completely different family for the first several seasons.

Today, of course, Lassie would never be trusted to look out for two young boys, and a mother who allowed them to go off on their own for an entire day would probably be accused of neglect.

Lassie, according to Wikipedia, won two Emmys and ran for 17 seasons: “…the fifth longest-running U.S. primetime television series after The Simpsons, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Gunsmoke, and Law & Order,” three of which I’d passed by in my channel surfing to get to the other black and white “oldie” that took me back to a simpler time.

Related Topics: GENERATIONS
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