It doesn’t seem that long ago that more than just the TV was black-and-white. To a large extent, augmented by some gray here and there, that’s how the world was in general. So, that’s the way a lot of the original TV shows were formatted—especially the kid adventure shows like Sky King, Roy Rogers and others. They were short morality plays in which the bad guy wore the black hat and the good guy didn’t. What’s more, airplanes were often key players in plots that may have been short on nuance and character development, but were long on enjoyment. Plus, although it probably wasn’t a program goal, they taught a lot of youngsters right from wrong and, in many cases, infected them with the flying bug. I was one of those. Unfortunately, in an innocent sort of way, they also thoroughly confused kids’ image of the American West and the space/time continuum contained therein.
I don’t even know where to start when talking about how cowboy movies and airplanes somehow became intertwined in almost crazy ways. There were some of the most outlandish, impossible situations set up, but to kids, none of that mattered. For instance, it never crossed my mind how illogical it was for Sky King and his niece, Penny, to race out to the airport on horses and scramble into Songbird, their trusty Cessna Bamboo Bomber (later replaced by a square tail 310). It’s an emergency situation, and they’re riding horses to the airport? Sure, why not? After all, he was wearing a cowboy hat. Close enough!
Also, as he circled the bad guys in Songbird, if a kid was capable of having a logical thought of any kind, I’d have asked myself how could he possibly do anything about them from that altitude? He didn’t have machine guns hidden in the wings. Or a bomb rack on the belly. Oh, wait: Silly me, there’s always a way to get down from an airplane to sneak up on your adversary. Strap on a parachute, and let gravity do its thing. Not once did I notice that he wasn’t wearing a reserve chute because I didn’t know what a reserve was. And it didn’t worry me that he left his kid niece to fly a high-performance twin home. I just thought it was cool that he’d do that and was well on his way to beating the villains. It also didn’t dawn on me that, although he did something similar on almost every episode, not once did the bad guys notice him presenting a terrific target while hanging in a parachute. And he never went back to get his chute. No problem. The studio would get him another one next week.
Sky King and so many of the other ’50s cowboy heroes (King was sort of a contemporary cowboy) existed in a strange sort of time warp that defied definition. Sky was generally involved with gangsters (who always carried snub-nosed revolvers or big old 1911 Colt .45 automatics) that usually had a New York or Chicago 1940s vibe to them. Roy Rogers lived in an even stranger time.
Rogers, Evans and their sidekick, Pat Brady, and his modified Jeep, Lulu Belle, tangled with just about every kind of villain who could find their mythical ranch outside of some mythical small town that apparently wasn’t that far from a sizeable/mythical city. They existed in some indeterminate time that included horses, buggies, Jeeps and ominous, black Buick/Cadillac/Packard limousines. And airplanes of all types and vintages.
In one memorable scene, I remember him on horseback snapping off shots from a Colt single-action as he chased the Nazi’s Twin Beech (could have been a Lockheed 12A) down the grass runway before they got off. Only Trigger could catch 900 hp on takeoff, and only Rogers could make his way inside a moving airplane, and only Bullet (if you didn’t know—their dog) would be there at the plane’s door to bite the dirty Nazi’s hand before he could pull the trigger on his evil-looking Luger. It was Kabuki with airplanes and horses.
Of course, our heroes’ personal appearance counted, but looking at Sky King, I have to say that he wasn’t the heroic-looking type we normally see playing the action lead. Kirby Grant could have been anybody’s uncle. Or run a hardware store. Or maybe sold insurance. He was comfortable looking. Very normal, although he did have some nice western-cut jackets that he seldom took off, even when bailing out of Songbird.
Rogers, of course, was handsome. Even by a teenager’s standards. In fact, Leonardo DiCaprio has a little Rogers in his features. Almost pretty. But, Rogers was hardly your average Western dresser. In fact, he invented his own style: Western Overkill. Almost pimpish. With lots and lots of fringe. And blazing colors. He invented bling before bling existed, but he somehow made it look normal. I loved watching him scramble up on the wing of a Travel Air biplane and wrestle with the bad guy, while the pilot hopped over trees and valleys. It never dawned on me that he was dressed like a dandy while fighting down-and-dirty thugs.
Something else that didn’t dawn on me until recently is that there was lots of fighting and shooting, but no one ever got killed. Not even the bad guys. They got their lumps, took rounds to the shoulder or hands, and they wound up hog tied in cells and suitably uncomfortable, but no wound was ever fatal. In fact, I don’t think I remember wounds even bleeding. This even though you sometimes saw Thompson submachine guns opposite Rogers’ pair of fancy six-guns.
Episodes from that era of Americana periodically show up on the Western Channel, and it’s hard not to judge them as being sophomoric. At the same time, it’s hard not to see the message that comes through loud and clear: You do bad things, and you pay for it. You do good things, and everything comes to you. Good guys don’t swear or mistreat women, horses, dogs or cats. In that order. Good triumphs; bad loses. And, airplanes are a periodic necessity for the mental health of us adolescent aero freaks.
It’s an over simplification to say that was a simpler time. Just as it’s an oversimplification to say that these are more complex times—even though they definitely are. However, some relationships touted by those long-ago celluloid missives will never go out of style. Number one would be the constant love of family and country. And, pushing ourselves to be as good as we can be at what we do. Plus, our battle against gravity should never end. It does its best to keep us from visiting the one place where everything is still pure and black-and-white: the sky. No matter how bad things get, we can always look up and know it’s there. Waiting. Just knowing that gives us hope, and we know that somehow we’ll survive life, no matter how complex it may be.