Friday, July 22, 2011

Reading Between the Lines

When Roy Rogers died at age 86 on July 6, 1998, he took my childhood fantasies with him.

Roy lived what he believed, which is probably why his fans established such an immediate and total bond with our hero. So many of us felt we really knew him and that he would come if we were in trouble. His face was strong and handsome, with eyes that squinted and twinkled when he smiled in that warm and reassuring way that sent shivers from my Keds to the ends of my braids.

In those days, when grownups asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” librarianship was not my first choice. Long before I began alphabetizing my Nancy Drew collection by title and lending them to my friends with the aid of a spiral bound borrowers’ register, I had something else in mind.

"I want to marry Roy Rogers."

"He's already married to Dale Evans," my exasperated father insisted. "In real life. When he isn't acting."

Unable to shake my impossible dream (this was the 1950's and such explanations could only go so far), my parents finally gave up and decided to take advantage of the situation.

"Eat your liver," my mother would say, "or you won't grow up and marry Roy Rogers. Roy loves liver!"

I knew Dale was the lady who hung around Roy in the movies and on Saturday morning television. Her pictures remained ghostly white and ignored in my coloring books.

If Dale Evans was married to Roy Rogers now, I reasoned, I could still be his wife later. After all, dangerous things were always happening in The West and Dale seemed to need an intolerable amount of rescuing. Maybe – just once – Roy wouldn’t reach the quicksand, brush fire, kidnap hideout or scene of snakebite in the nick of time.

Then it would be my turn.

There’s a reason Buttermilk keeps coming home without her, Roy. She’s happier with the guys in black. Marry me, Roy, wait for me!

I set out to master the necessary Queen of the West job skills: (cap-gun) shooting, (clothesline) rope twirling, sneaking up on things and peeking out from behind large rocks, keeping a western hat on while running in clunky boots, recognizing bad guys, and herding (plastic miniature) horses.

The horse thing was my biggest problem. Repeated requests that my father park our 1951 Chevy in the alley and install a palomino in the garage met with predictable failure. Trips to riding stables were few and far between. They only served to underline the fact that neither the simulated action of the mechanical pony at the Mayville Five and Dime nor any amount of spirited bouncing on my spring horse came anywhere close to preparing me to someday handle Trigger.

Dale Evans Rogers died on February 7, 2001 at age 88, riding into the sunset to meet Roy who had been waiting for her along the happy heavenly trails.

All my plotting aside, this remarkable woman was ahead of her time as a positive role model for a generation of would be cowgirls. We learned about friendship, self-reliance, faith, loyalty and true partnership from watching Dale; that a woman could be as gutsy, smart and strong in or out of the saddle as any man wearing a white hat.

In the couple’s autobiography, Happy Trails; Our Life Story, Dale Evans Rogers wrote, “Little girls dream fantastic things. When I was young, I used to…dream that Tom Mix would marry me. Old Tom was the greatest movie cowboy of his day—so handsome and tall in his glittering silver saddle….I was quite certain he would wait for me to grow up, and that he would never change. I was going to make him mine. We would have six children together, then gallop our horses through the sagebrush and the world would be as sweet as could be.”

Dale’s dream about raising a house full of kids and riding the trails with a handsome cowboy hero really did come true. The boisterous adopted and blended Rogers family was multicultural forty years before the concept became a buzzword. The couple’s inspirational story contains values built on American bedrock.

In a sense, they adopted us all.

Recommended books:

Cowboy Princess: Life with My Parents Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (Cheryle Rogers-Barnett, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2003)

Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys (Georgia Morris and Mark Pollard, Collins Publishers, 1994)

Happy Trails: A Pictorial Celebration of the Life and Times of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (Howard Kazanjian and Chris Enss, TwoDot, 2005)

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