Saloon doors aren’t the only things that swing both ways
I was poking fun at a friend of mine, a lawyer, who likes to wear cowboy boots. I told him that a straight guy like him might be sending out the wrong message wearing cowboy boots these days, so soon after the release of "Brokeback Mountain," the movie about a couple of gay caballeros.
In the old days, a "gay caballero" was just a happy cowboy. "Caballo" is Spanish for horse, and "caballero" is someone who rides or tends to horses. But "gay caballero" today pretty much refers to the kind of cowboy who wouldn't have been attracted to Miss Kitty, owner of the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City.
Actually, pity the fool who was attracted to Miss Kitty. Even though she was the only prostitute in Dodge City (you could tell she was a prostitute because she had the mandatory sexy little black mole on her cheek), she was Sheriff Matt Dillon's girl. If you messed with Miss Kitty, you had to deal with Matt Dillon. And he'd been shot 147 times during the long-running TV show "Gunsmoke" and never seriously injured.
"Gunsmoke" didn't feature any gay cowboys, although you gotta figure there must have been a few of them around. I always thought the deputy sheriff, Festus, rode a little light in the saddle, but it was hard to tell. Sheriff Dillon only seemed to hire weird dudes for deputies, dudes who walked funny and spat tobacky and seemed excessively dusty.
When we were kids, we figured "Gunsmoke" was what the Wild West was really like. It wasn't until later that we noticed some curious anomalies in Matt Dillon's world. Like, why was there only one prostitute in a town the size of Dodge City? Why did Doc Adams have a second-floor office? Surely it would have been more humane for the injured parties for the doctor to have his office on ground level.
Cowboy: "Doc, help me! I've been shot!"
Doc Adams: "Well, get your butt up the stairs and let me take a look at you."
Cowboy: "Did I mention I've been shot?"
Doc Adams: "Yeah, that was a dang fool thing to let happen to you. Now climb the damn stairs."
And why were the railings of all the second-floor balconies in Dodge City made of balsa wood? People were forever crashing through them during fistfights and shootouts. Didn't Dodge City have a building code? It never occurred to someone to build a balcony railing out of something you couldn't fall through?
Cowboy: "Doc, I've fallen through the balsa wood railing and broke my leg!"
Doc Adams: "Climb them stairs, boy, I'm not comin' down there to git ya."
After "Gunsmoke," every saloon in any western TV show or movie had to have swinging doors. Why? Was it a subtle reference to the fact that, like the doors, some cowboys swung both ways? Swinging doors are stupid for a bar on a dusty main street. You go into the saloon to get out of the weather, not bring it in with you. If I lived in Dodge City at the time, I would have had the plate-glass window and balcony rail concession. That was where the real money was to be made. Someone was thrown through the plate-glass window at the Long Branch every other episode, usually after that someone put the moves on Miss Kitty.
But TV and movie westerns have become more realistic. Texas author Larry McMurtry brought the real West to life in his books. "Lonesome Dove" was a classic book that later became one of the best western movies (although a TV movie) of all time.
The western has become even more raw and real in HBO's "Deadwood," where, unlike Matt Dillon, few people survive a hangnail, let alone a gunshot wound. (In "Deadwood" all the characters speak in a sort of Victorian dialect littered with some of the most offensive expletives ever to issue from television tube. I'm not sure people of that day actually spoke that way, but it's sure fun to watch.)
But it was McMurtry who also wrote "Brokeback Mountain" and brought gay caballeros out of the pup tent, so to speak. Since I'm a big fan of McMurtry, I was looking forward to "Brokeback." But I was disappointed. It turned out the two heroes weren't cowboys at all, but sheepherders. And the story didn't take place in the 1800s, but in the 1960s. It wasn't so much a cowboy movie as a 1960s EST seminar.
The two heroes did wear cowboy boots, did ride horses and did talk in deep, manly drawls. But they didn't crash through plate-glass windows, fall through balcony railings or get shot. And face it, they were herding SHEEP. I'm not even sure where the movie's title came from. Brokeback Mountain was more like theme park off Highway 80 than the rugged range.
Whether it's swinging doors or swinging cowboys, I guess the real West must be somewhere between Brokeback Mountain, Deadwood and Matt Dillon's Dodge City. If you aren't sure, wear tennis shoes.
, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org