When I was 7, 8, 9 years old, a six-foot-high black-and-white poster of John Wayne, pistol in hand and pointed toward some poor soul off-site, loomed in my bedroom – right next to, for the sake of contrast it would seem – easy riders Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper cruising across America on their choppers.
I knew John Wayne as a boy mostly from his later films, especially True Grit and The Cowboys. I remembered The Cowboys especially because in it Wayne dies a Hollywood-style valiant death by absorbing some dozen or more bullets. At seven years old, I cried, I’m sure. I knew he was among my grandfather’s heroes, which made Wayne by default one of mine.
I admired and feared my grandfather only in the way that, say, a boy might fear a stalwart, deep-voiced man of the military with a sweet heart behind the gruff – a combo I’ve read to be true of the Duke himself.
If I had to guess who gave me that poster, I’d say it was my grandfather. One summer I remember spending almost every day with my grandfather at the Tandy Kwik Print shop he managed and operated almost by himself except for the secretary he hired for a while – my mother. He’d print me dozens upon dozens of glued together drawing pads so I could create my own cartoon stories of cowboys and villains and a James Bond-like spy I called “The Disguiser” – my own ‘serial drama.’ “You could work for Disney some day as an animator,” he often told me. He explained to me what an animator was and how fun it would be to work for Disney.
As far as I can recall, he was the only person in my boyhood ever to connect my creative leanings with anything remotely of a profession. And for a number of years, becoming a Disney animator stuck in my pre-adolescent imagination as a possibility.
He also was the only adult in my life who frequently if not playfully reminded me of death. I’d ride with him in his VW station wagon, and out of the blue he’d say something like, “You know, I won’t be around forever. And when I die, I want you to have this,” and he’d show me his tiger eye ring. My response would always be, “Oh, Grand-dad, you’re not going to die.” And he didn’t, thankfully, for another 25 years.
My grandfather was, in the truest sense, a good and decent man. The epitome of a selfless provider full of humility and inner strength and no-nonsense resolve and a quiet desperation as he cared for my increasingly ill and troubled grandmother.
And although I recall one day riding in his car him cussing at a “goddamned hippie” in a beat-up Chevy who zoomed around us and flipped him off, he never said a word about my nine-year-old long blond hair, my leather fringe vest, my yellow Schwinn chopper bicycle, or the long-haired loners Billy and Wyatt keeping company with the Duke on my bedroom wall.
Those posters, I suppose, represented two views of America. Or did they? In the recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Nathaniel Rich notes, quite convincingly, that Easy Rider was designed after classic Westerns. The two characters – Billy and Wyatt – writer Dennis Hopper deliberately named after Billy the Kidd and Wyatt Earp. Hopper himself says, “I thought of this as a classic kind of western: two loners, two gunfighters, two outlaws.” And Rich notes, “Hopper almost exclusively chose landscapes that were unchanged from the westerns of John Ford, John Huston, and Howard Hawks – three directors that Hopper cites as influences.” And the freedom-seeking heroes would suffer a fate not unlike Wayne’s character in The Cowboys. Riddled with bullets.
After my grandfather died, my mother found a piece of folded-up paper in his wallet. It was a poem. In the margins, in my grandfather’s handwriting, a note read, “What John Wayne read at Howard Hawks’ funeral.”
I DID NOT DIE
Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints in the snow.
I am the gentle autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the mornings hush;
I am the swift uplifting rush of,
quiet birds circled in flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there. I did not die.
I spoke to my mother today. She, along with the rest of my immediate family, lives on the other side of the country. She spent the day at my sister’s and brother-in-law’s. My brother-in-law recently returned from a stint in Afghanistan and, before that, Iraq. She asked him today to read the poem for the family.
So she could remember. So we all can remember. “You know, I won’t be around forever.”
What were your day’s three highlights? Share them below – and let us know where you’re writing from.
See you in the woods,
The 3 Highlights Guy