Monday, July 9, 2012

How the Pony Express Helped Spur Me Toward Maturity

We grow up by degrees, don't we? A small revelation piles atop a small revelation, and before long, we put the pieces together that Santa's handwriting on our Christmas packages looks an awful lot like Mom's. Or that the monsters on Lost in Space do not, indeed, live in our closets. Or that the Geography teacher that makes our heart go thump-thump leaves the classroom at 3PM and falls into the loving arms of her fiancee, zooming off in his red convertible.

It's  series of small awakenings.

And in looking back on them, they can bring bitterness and disappointment, as we mourn the the veil of innocence and wonder that sometimes gets violently torn away.

Or it can bring a feeling of warmth and goodwill, as we realize the good fortune in growing up in an environment where such fantasy was possible in the first place.

I tend to lean toward the latter.


Mom was a Cub Scout Den Mother.

I've Googled this term, and it is now "Den Leader," in deference, I suppose, to the trend to de-genderize roles like this. But back in the day, they were Den Mothers.

A Den Mother was the adult leader of a Cub Scout pack. Cub Scouts were the entry point on the way to being a Boy Scout.

Den Mothers, armed with nothing more than perhaps a semi-finished basement and an official Cub Scout Den Mother Handbook, bravely volunteered who agreed to have 10-12 eight year olds meeting in her home once a week. Back then, these meetings usually comprised the Pledge of Allegiance, some sort of civics lesson, planning sessions for events like the annual Pinewood Derby or camporee, discussions on the advancement toward Boy Scout, a craft, a sugary snack, and lots of mayhem.

My older brothers were Cub Scouts when Mom agreed to host the neighborhood pack.

And in the name of efficiency, I was included in the weekly proceedings, even though I was officially too young to be in the Cub Scouts at all.

I provided a good testing ground for Mom and her activities. For example, she reasoned that if I could handle a craft or the memorization of a list of Scout virtues or whatever, that the older boys could as well. So I'd often work with her a day or two before the actual meeting, ensuring that her plans would unfold as planned.

So well before my peers, I learned things like how to fold a U.S. flag according to regulation.

And how to roll the official Scout bandanna.

And how to make a bald eagle out of gold-sprayed macaroni.

What the pack did, I did. Where the pack went, I went. I'm not sure how my brothers reacted to their younger sibling tag-along, but Mom said it was okay, so that make it okay.

Ever in search of new activities for us to do, Mom somehow got us tickets to attend the live morning broadcast of a kid-vid T.V. show.

Sally Starr and Her Popeye Theater was a daily dose of cartoons, jokes, games, guests, Three Stooges shorts, and other pee-wee entertainment hosted by Our Gal Sal, a western-themed lass with a giant grin, broad hat, handy holster, and spangly chaps.

Every local market back then had a show exactly like Sally Starr and Her Popeye Theater, hosted by a hometown "celebrity" who could also be counted on to make personal appearances, sign a slew of autographs, star in the yearly Thanksgiving Day parade, lead a bunch of charity fundraisers throughout the year, and bask in the glow of prepubescent televised adoration.

Sally was just such an icon. And I watched every day.

So attending this event was a big deal. A very big deal. And not just because it got us a dispensation from school attendance.

One of the highlights of Sally's show, for me, was the delivery of the daily mail. At some point in each of her broadcasts, Sal would get a faraway look in her eye and cock her open hand to her ear.

"Hey, boys and girls!" she'd chime. "What's that I hear?"

And in the distance, a sound would emerge. Faint at first but growing in intensity: hoof beats. And I would nestle closer to the set, bathed in the black and white backwash of light.

"Why tarnation! It's our trusty pal the Pony Express delivery man!" Sally would beam. And the sounds of the William Tell Overture would kick in. My eyes would widen. My heartbeat would quicken.

Thundering louder and louder, the unseen horse, surely flying at top speed, was racing toward Sal and her waiting brood. I could picture the rider, reins flapping behind him, buckskin jacket flared at his sides as he rocketed forward, one hand on his hat to keep it in place, one hand pounding the rump of his trusty steed, urging the muscular beast faster and faster to finish his assigned rounds.

The hoof beats ceased their rhythmic pounding and became a series of staccato percussions as the off-camera rider reined in his mount. The horse protested the halt with a loud whinny, eager to be off to the next destination.

"THUD!" A large mailbag flew on-camera and landed at Sally's feet.

"Why thank-ye!" waved Sally.

And with one more trumpeted whinny, the hoof beats started up again in their presto-tempo. They faded into the distance, taking the strains of Rossini with them, assuredly leaving nothing more than a dusty streak toward the golden horizon.

This was exciting stuff. Sal would then reach into the bag and read aloud a letter or two -- perhaps showing a piece of artwork that had been submitted -- and the cut to a commercial or cartoon.

The prospect of seeing this unfold LIVE was the highlight of the trip for me.

The morning of our show, I don't remember much at all about how we got there or what it was like entering the studio. I do know that someone told us that we would only be able to watch the cartoons and Stooges shorts by looking off to the monitors on the sides of the stage. And that we had to be quiet during the show, except when Sal asked us to hoot-and-holler. We could wave during the one shot of the audience when we were welcomed. But we had to stay in our seats.

I remember nothing about the show itself. I do recall being rather blase about the rotations of Popeye cartoons that morning.

But then...

Sal cocked her head and gave that faraway look. And my palms began to sweat.

"Hey, boys and girls!" she chimed. "What's that I hear?"

I knew! With every fiber of my being, I KNEW!!

In the distance, a sound emerged. Faint at first but growing in intensity: hoof beats. And then William Tell! I was electrified.

Louder. More intense. Closer.

I scanned the set. I watched the wings. I would be first to see the Pony Express rider. I would catch sight of that winged horse the very nanosecond he approached.

I would!

There was motion off to the side of Sal.

A horse?


A grizzled stagehand. Saggy jeans. Wrinkly flannel shirt. Cigarette stuck in his lips. Walking slump-shouldered to just aside the camera. Sally's mega-watt smile never dimmed. The sound effect whinny kicked in right on cue.

And this pot-bellied grip slung the mailbag at Sally's feet and sauntered off.



The horse...

The Pony Express guy...

Sally excitedly opened the mailbag and shared the delights of her mail with the audience.

And I grew up a whole bunch that morning.


As I say, I look back on this episode and smile. Sure it was disappointing for the moment. But  the magic and imagination represented by my belief in that Pony Express rider are things that I would't trade for all the horses in the old west itself.

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