The Wayning of America

Harry Welty

A recent New York Times story explained how the Arizona Legislature came up with millions to begin teaching what some critics call “dead white man’s history” in the halls of the godless public universities. 

I think that everybody should study history from the cradle to the grave but sadly our knowledge of it often extends no further than novels, television or movies. My Grandfather’s bookshelves were lined with histories although the only author I recall had a funny sounding name - Toynbee. Grandfather was quick to set me straight when he heard that my fifth-grade teacher told my class that General Ulysses S. Grant didn’t care about the lives of the men he threw in to battle. My Grandfather, who did not get his history from the movies, was not amused. 

My mother and her older sister once hectored their father into taking them to a movie. They argued that Errol Flynn’s “They Died with their Boots on,” an homage to George Armstrong Custer, would teach them about history. When it was over he told his daughters, “Custer should have been court martialed.”

Not long ago I streamed a John Wayne movie called “The Cowboys” for my 8 and 10 year-old grandsons. They were both glued to the TV. It’s about boys not all that much older than them taking the place of Wayne’s cowhands on a cattle drive. Rancher Wayne needs help to take his cows to market after his regular hands catch gold fever and leave him for the gold fields. Wayne also has to man a chuckwagon and can’t be too fussy so he signs on a black cook, Jebediah Nightlinger, played by Roscoe Lee Browne. 

Wayne’s boys have never seen such a man before and when one of them asks him if he’s “black all over” Jebediah tells them. “Ohhh, children… My father was a brawny Moor, six feet six inches tall. He bound his head in a red velvet cloth…he wore a curved sword, forged from the finest Toledo steel. He captured a lady, bright and dark. He took her in his arms and wrapped her in a warm quilt and carried her off. They came to a castle and he battered down the doors with the trunk of an oak tree and Killed everybody in it, just so they could rest the night. Later, while she slept he walked the parapets…and became a king.

When one of the boys asks in awe, “Is that true?” Jebediah tells him. “If it isn’t it oughta be…”

Yes it oughta but that’s not how history or Hollywood works. 

Indian children were sent away from their parents to forget their native languages. Freed slaves saw their children arrested for vagrancy only to be buried in unmarked graves by the industries that worked convicts to death. America left Vietnamese allies to be captured by North Vietnam. Those downers are not big box office. 

We 1960’s kids got our history watching John Wayne fighting “Japs,” and Indians and outlaws. The movies he was in made guns as American as apple pie although most of our Dad’s probably didn’t bring home the M16’s issued to them by Uncle Sam. However, their children have done their father’s proud. A recent Motley Fool story about gun ownership explains that today’s typical “super collector” has 17 guns per household. Sadly, for American Arms manufacturers Donald Trump got elected last year Their gamble on a Hillary Clinton Presidency has left them declaring bankruptcy because there was no panic gun buying. The Second Amendment is safe. The Deep State has been held at bay. The manufacturers will be getting a post mortem tribute of sorts. It’s a movie about the widow of the Winchester rifle Fortune. She was haunted by the tens of thousands of Civil War soldiers killed by her husband’s rifles.  When a medium tells her that the ghosts can be frightened off by constant hammering Ms. Winchester moves to San Jose, California and orders up twenty-four-hour construction on her house until the day she dies. It’s a true story and the house is a tourist attraction today with hundreds of rooms. I’ve seen it myself.

And John Wayne seems to be enjoying a posthumous tribute too. It turns out that “Wayne” is a common middle name for alleged and convicted murderers. Up until 2008 the Reader’s News of the Weird column kept a running tally of them.

I can’t help but wonder if these damaged men had Dad’s that watched a lot of Cowboy “History.” What the Fathers probably didn’t know was that Hollywood changed John Wayne’s name. He started life as Marion Morrison.