By Earl Staggs
Originally published in Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine
The day after we moved into our new house, I came across an envelope filled with memories tucked into one of the cartons we’d placed in storage several years before. Inside the envelope, I found pictures of my wife Carol and me with a man I idolized as a boy and had the extraordinary pleasure and thrill of spending time with as a man.
Only three days later, the national news media broadcast to the world that Roy Rogers, the man in the pictures with us, had passed away.
Roy was born as Leonard Slye in Cincinnati, but his family moved upriver to Portsmouth, Ohio, when he was seven. A generation later, I was that same age when my own family moved to Portsmouth. Like every other kid growing up in a small town back then, I spent my Saturdays at the movie theatre watching my cowboy heroes.
I had many heroes then. Lash LaRue, Hopalong Cassidy, Rocky Lane and Red Ryder to name a few, but Roy Rogers was King of the Cowboys. The screams were louder when his movies started.
Maybe he was our favorite because he rode that big golden stallion or because he always wore a white hat and made it the symbol for the good guys. It didn’t matter that the hat never came off no matter how fast he rode or that his six-gun never ran out of bullets. Somehow we knew the others were actors but Roy was real. Somehow we knew that if the bad guys rode into our town, he would come. He was a small town boy who grew up to be a cowboy. King of the Cowboys. That was our dream in those days. To be just like Roy when we grew up.
We eventually had to grow up, of course, and our dreams changed. Spending Saturdays with our heroes became a memory stored away and all but forgotten with other childhood fantasies.
Forgotten until many years later when I received a phone call from our next door neighbor.
“Earl,” Helen began, “we need volunteers for the Bicentennial Parade this weekend. Would you be available?” Helen headed up the Chamber of Commerce of Carroll County, Maryland, where we lived at the time.
“Sorry,” I said, ” but I’ve got to clean the pool, mow the lawn, weed the garden and a million other things. I’d like to help, but–”
She interrupted my string of excuses. “Roy Rogers will be there,” she said.
“You’re kidding,” I think I said.
“Nope. He’s Grand Marshal of the parade and everyone who helps out will be invited to a reception to meet him in person.”
I may have fainted – I don’t remember – but apparently, I said something like, “Where do you want me, what time, and what do I have to do?” I got the job.
My job was to ride a moped up and down the parade route to keep people out of the street and out of the way of the vehicles. A Moped Cowboy, as it were. I don’t know how many people were run over that day because I rode right beside the convertible carrying the King of the Cowboys. I never took my eyes off him.
He wore the white hat, of course, and the cowboy suit. No six-guns, but the squinting smile and the twinkling eyes were the same as he rode along and waved to the crowd. He may have been 73 years old, but I saw the eternally young Roy of my childhood Saturday movie marathons. The red convertible was the great golden stallion, the store fronts along the parade route were the hills of the Old West. He was still King of the Cowboys and I was his sidekick.
That evening, I barely remember getting dressed and going to the reception. I remember as though it were yesterday the events that followed.
He told funny stories – behind the scenes, often embarrassing stories about Dale Evans, Gabby Hayes, Pat Brady, and just as many on himself. With a mischievous gleam in his eye, he told us he kept an office above his museum in California with a window overlooking the parking lot. Whenever he saw a busload of tourists arrive, he’d go down and “rustle a few kisses from the ladies.”
He was clearly enjoying himself. He came across as a small town boy, visiting old friends in a small town like the one he and I grew up in. He sang songs everyone remembered in that crystal-clear voice that seemed ageless. He gave white Stetsons to a select few local officials. I wasn’t one of the lucky ones.
When he asked if anyone had any questions, my hand shot up in the crowd. I asked if he still yodeled. Most people didn’t remember that he was the best of the country western yodelers. He laughed and gave us a demonstration, but only after telling a story about an old hound dog he once had. The dog liked to yodel along with him. He thought they made a good team, he said, but Dale wasn’t impressed. She threatened to shoot them both if they didn’t take it outside.
He closed by singing “Happy Trails,” the song he and Dale wrote and which became their theme song.
Later, when I managed to maneuver into a spot right beside him, I introduced myself and told him we’d grown up in the same small town. His eyes lit up and we talked for a while. We talked about barefoot-boy days, about swimming in the creek anytime we wanted to, about following our fathers’ plows through the field, breaking up clods with our feet, and about slurping red ripe tomatoes fresh off the vine.
We had pictures taken of Carol and me with the King of the Cowboys himself. Roy even let me try on his white Stetson.
It’s funny how finding old pictures can take you back. I hope this story doesn’t sound maudlin or like an old fool waxing sentimental about childhood memories and heroes. I’m much too mature and sensible for that. I just came across some old pictures and was remembering, that’s all.
But just imagine. Me. Wearing Roy’s white hat.