The little girl in me can still see him. The cowboy’s name was Joe and he was tall and lean. Hat perched on his head as if he’d just pushed it back with one finger in friendly greeting, it was underscored with a smile that made you smile back… whether you wanted to or not. His eyes were wise, kind and mischievous all at once. A gentle giant, he protected small children and women while defending his friends and moral code with his fists. After all, he wore a white hat. Granted, all this fist fighting from a guy with a disarming smile that made my little girl heart skip a beat was a conundrum. But he was the good guy and sometimes good guys had to make their point…um…loudly. He had a booming voice that could get your attention or make you feel safe, depending on what color hat you wore. So what if my first impression of him was in black and white. It didn‘t matter. He proved himself trustworthy week after week. I’ll admit to being a little shocked when our newly acquired color TV illustrated that he was in fact wearing a pink shirt. But he was man enough to pull it off.
When “Laredo” debuted on TV I was seven. It only lasted for three seasons but it made quite an impression. In a lot of those episodes my hero seemed to either forget to button his shirt, had it torn, or took it off to take care of business. Well there was that one time he was shirtless and tied up, hands above his head, but when you’re being tortured by the bad guys you can’t ruin a good shirt. By the second season the pink shirt had given way to a buckskin number with the lowest v-neck I’ve ever seen on a man. It was the western equivalent of a muscle shirt and Joe complimented it nicely. Even a little girl can remember a torso like that. What stayed with me as I grew older was the impression, not of a half naked cowboy, but of a man quick to smile and ready to help. I concluded that real strength was a balance…an ability to use your hands for defense yet still be capable of gentleness. The key was knowing which situation called for what. Joe tipped his hat to ladies, leaned down to talk to children and laughed heartily when happy. Some little girls dream of a knight in shining armor. I would’ve been perfectly happy for Joe, still dusty from riding the trail, to come sweep me into those arms for a bear hug.
With "Laredo" finished, his career took another path and sadly, we grew apart. He discovered motorcycles, biker chicks and that deep, booming voice became a menacing growl. It made me sad, although I’d never have admitted it out loud. I felt like I’d lost an important part of my childhood. Then in the 70’s, he did another western. A teenager then, I tuned in out of curiosity. He came on screen, tilted his hat back and that booming voice declared how they were going to save someone. My heart skipped a beat.
He’s in his seventies now. The other day I caught part of an old TV western while flipping channels. I paused momentarily, hoping to find him amongst the sage brush and dust. No such luck. The program was hokey, the dialog was awful and one guy could barely stay on his horse. Joe would’ve been able to handle that, I found myself thinking adamantly. A ghostly vision of my childhood hero drifted past my mind’s eye and I smiled. Curiosity kicked in again and I went in search of his biography. There’s something very satisfying in discovering even kids know something special when they see it. Turns out my hero was a star athlete, an amateur boxer [with a 31-1 record], a Trainer, a Lifeguard and a bodybuilder with brains who received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Bodybuilding and Fitness. I mentioned brains, right? He graduated Cum Laude with a Masters in Russian, a subject he’d later return to teach. He speaks fluent Russian, German, French and Serbo-Croatian. An Army veteran with a Purple Heart, he was the stunt double for Tarzan’s Lex Barker…after personally turning down the role. The one thing in that bio that jumped out was a mention that he was a direct descendant of Western figures Kit Carson and Daniel Boone. That explains a lot.
I was fortunate. I had a happy childhood. No major trauma. Few spankings. Everything I needed to grow up, dare I say it, normal. I’ve thanked my parents for their help. Now it’s time to thank my Cowboy Hero for being my childhood proof that right always wins out over wrong. Especially when dispensed with a smile and a tip of the hat.
Silly? Probably. But when someone mentions his name, my heart still skips a beat.