Wagons Ho! In Search of Seth, Flint and America

wagontrainbondhortonby Glenn Fairman   3/8/14
When that last trump has sounded, and all that has been hidden has been revealed, I should not be surprised to find that the America’s great media and entertainment outlets were conjoined by subterranean pipelines leading directly from Pandemonium: that great capital city of Hell spoken of by the poet, Milton. So vile are the contents that flow through these conduits on a 24-hour basis that they could well be analogized as sewage outfalls. In truth, the corrupting influence proceeding from Beelzebub to Little Johnny on the sofa is not lost on those who program their own patented brand of soul sickness for society’s consumption. For after all, it is rightly termed “programming:” the moral-political mal-education of “Last Men” as drones for a society that tolerates and promotes anything, except that narrowest of affronts — moral virtue.[pullquote]America’s great media and entertainment outlets were conjoined by subterranean pipelines leading directly from Pandemonium . . . So vile are the contents that flow through these conduits on a 24-hour basis that they could well be analogized as sewage outfalls.[/pullquote]

That old dinosaur once called network television has long been on its slippery slope to perdition, even before the cable TV universe made off with its viewing public like Romans sacking Carthage. And in order to compete with that multiplicity of media options and the cash flow that follows every corrupted art, the Brontosaurus had to go “blue:” even if only to keep pace with a culture who supposedly wanted to see images that mirrored what their real lives looked like – or by which they could live vicariously through. Some say that art imitates life and others hold that life mimics the aesthetic. More likely, the process is synonymous with a “tango of decline:” with both art and life leading and being led in a synchronous dance through the blacker regions of the mortal imagination. And while some, much like Lot, have averted their eyes and refused to turn back and gaze upon television’s wretched self-imposed judgment, the many became enamored and incrementally transformed by those squalid images reflected from media’s Imago Morior – the mirror’s facsimile of decay unto spiritual death.

Nothing reveals how far down the rabbit-hole we have tumbled then to compare and contrast television’s golden age with today’s lurid fascination with sexual saturation and the loss of innocence through Hollywood’s skewed spectrum. If a people, writ large, are ever to revive their ethical palates from post modernity’s cesspool, then perhaps it might be profitable to re-consider America’s Western-genre morality play par excellence: from 1957 — “Wagon Train.”
For you who were too poor to have owned a black and white 20” Philco or who do not routinely watch any of the “retro” TV channels that are becoming increasingly popular with cable packages (ME-TV), Wagon Train starred the wonderful Ward Bond as Major Seth Adams, the hot tempered but fearless wagon master; and Robert Horton as the dashingly handsome and handy-in-a pinch trail scout, Flint McCullough. Although the series began its run in the Age of Rockets, it stood as a giant among the cavalcade of Westerns that riveted America’s viewing public. Each week featured stars from Hollywood’s pantheon of celebrities who took turns joining Major Adam’s coterie of Conestogas or who figured somewhere prominent within their periphery. And although the show had a rather formulaic beginning in its 8 year run, the quality of writing soon became top notch as the cast of regulars quickly congealed. Bond’s trusted anchors featured Frank McGrath’s loveable clown “Charlie Wooster” and Terry Wilson’s feisty Bill Hawks. Together, they all took on the herculean task of getting several hundred wagons from “St. Joe” Missouri to their rainbow’s end in California.

Several generations before today’s horde of scantily clad, surgically-altered anorexics and six-packed dunderheads, classic television — which was short on money and long on talent — was driven by damned good scripts. Wagon Train Televisionwas blessed with some of the industry’s best writers, which is evidenced in “The Ella Lindstrom Story” (Feb. 1959) featuring Bette Davis. Having lost her husband to sickness, the strong yet loving mother of 7 dutiful children joins the train, only to find that the child she believes she is carrying is in fact a terminal cancer. Despite every entreaty for her to turn back, Lindstrom presses on with a plan motivated by her faith. Emotionally moving without being maudlin, the tale finds Ella scrambling to find the best homes for her children from amongst the pioneer families who are helping share her burden. All the while, the children are allowed the dignity to make decisions that will seal their own futures, and a surprise happy ending for her youngest “special needs” son is guaranteed to turn on the water works. At the episode’s closing, Bette Davis is lovingly laid to rest beside the trail by the families that are moving West with her marvelous children that remain as living legacies to her memory.

The plight of the “Indian” (I will offer no PC anachronisms here) has long been a sore spot in American culture, but the series more often than not took the high ground in its portrayal of our aboriginals. Wagon Train managed to avoid both the prima facie judgment of Indians as savage beasts, as well as the contemporary deceit that depicts them as moral innocents of the New World: guiltless pawns and martyrs who were grievously put upon in a clash of civilizations. Moreover, the writers were not so gullible that they glossed over the beastliness and slave owning propensities of the indigenous tribes, nor were they callous to the tragedy that ensued when a Neolithic race butted up against a relentless immovable wave. Individual characters on both sides of the conflict could be depicted as noble or barbarous, depending upon the collision of fractured personalities motivated by the constraints of scarcity, necessity, or vengeance. Indeed, the Indian was as often viewed under a magnanimous lens as he was shown bearing a heart of darkness – which is the most we can hope for when honestly appraising the frailties of the human condition. In the episode titled “A Man Called Horse,” (March 1958) veteran actor Ralph Meeker wanders into camp as a “White Indian,” and while sitting around the campfire with Seth and Clint, tells them his harrowing story.

Having been rejected from marrying into the Boston “blue blood” society because he was an orphan with no family name (he was named after the street where the orphanage was located), our young man flees west in bitterness to find out “who he is,” so to speak. En route, he is captured by a band of Crow raiders and made a slave, much like a horse. And as such, he finds himself as an alien now rejected by two worlds. Through his time amongst the Crow, he learns to make himself useful in order to be trusted so that one day he might escape; but along the way, death and tragedy temper the man, allowing him to find love and acceptance amongst this strange new people. The ironic moral encapsulated in “A Man Called Horse” is that prejudice exists in every walk of life, and that a man’s alienation is a mountain that he must either overcome — or it will cause him to wither in despair. Ever perceptive of human character, Flint McCullough offers a poignant remark as “Horse” leaves with the beloved and aged adoptive Indian mother who was once his slave master: “I guess he finally found what he was looking for, to make a name for himself.”

Whether history occurred in exactly the manner that our entertainment narratives have chronicled perhaps means less than the lessons they avail us, or the templates that they would have us strive to emulate. If American history is reduced to a Darwinian scramble that is “red in tooth and claw,” then survival by any means will be paramount, and courage, mercy, empathy, gratitude, endurance, and faith will be eclipsed by guile, covetousness, cupidity, blind ambition, and every negative manifestation of pride. For the most part, the quality of writing exemplified in this series led its audience to a clear cut morality: without the muddled grey frontiers that now serve only to disorient us. As for the themes — they are eternal. The archetype of a pioneer who has forsaken all he has known for the sake of a promise is as old as the story of Abraham, and the story of grim men who went on to make a fresh start from a bad beginning is as ancient as the tale of Cain.

No moral people can long survive who view themselves as marauding plagues upon a continent; so the stories men tell about themselves must be salutary. They may not be exhaustively true, but they must be educative towards moral virtue, for art is a powerful sculptor of the human horizon, as Plato so shrewdly observed. This monochrome simplicity may seem naïve, or as the post-modern wags say “jejune,” but it is a naiveté of the noble heart that inspires men to be more than they are “ethically” – and we must be continually reminded that our ethical reach must exceed our grasp. If art and science hold that we are animals, then we shall dutifully remain such. If those who whisper wisdom tell us we are fallen, yet loved by a Creator whose expectations and plans for us are as wide open as the Call of the West, then we may aspire to be worthy of that glorious legacy and press on in a manner of gratitude and industry. We should never lie about what constitutes the truth, but we should strive to tell the whole truth: that struggling men frequently wear both horns and halos, and that evil and good are not just relative commodities to be leisurely disparaged in some academic exercise. And this brings me home to my starting point.

Of all the alphabet networks whose signals curse the public airwaves, I find ABC/Disney to be the most grotesque: mostly because of how far the empire that Walt built has tumbled from its founding WagonWheelprecepts. Tracking Disney’s debauchery is a barometer for the spiritual wretchedness of America; but to be honest here, the devil’s hands have been exceedingly busy all around the media dial. The loathsome “Modern Family” or the nauseating “Two Broke Girls” are but the most prominent scum layer epitomizing the flotsam that now passes for prime time entertainment in an industry gone berserk. In addition, if one pays even minimal attention to the scripts of today’s CSI crime genre, one oftentimes tunes into a “how-to” primer for mayhem and serial killing. And thanks to the writers of this fare, every psychopath knows he can cut the fingers and heads off his victims to thwart identification, or how to use fire or bleach on a rape victim’s anatomy to destroy a crime scene’s DNA evidence.

Only in a corrupted democracy do men claim that the lowest common denominator is a right, a prerequisite, and a virtue. But it was not always this way. Rough men like Adams and McCullough are not celebrated today or held up as yardsticks for our young boys to model. In their place, we are more apt to find the milquetoast metrosexual whose only distinction from his significant other is which anatomical part he waxes. I trust that this blurring of the gender lines will one day lose its grip on the Western consciousness, but I am afraid that this epiphany may only come about when what is artificial and scurrilous in America has been cauterized from our cultural vocabularies. Ward Bond’s wagon has long since trailed into the sunset, but his spirit lives as long as men huddle ‘round a campfire playing “two handed” with mavericks as memorable as the bristly Charlie Wooster– swapping glories and suffering through the worst pot of coffee this side of Ol’ St. Joe.
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Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca. He can be reached at arete5000@dslextreme.com. • (6532 views)

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20 Responses to Wagons Ho! In Search of Seth, Flint and America

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I don’t recall ever seeing the show, though I can’t say for sure; that was 50 years ago (we had no access to TV in Greece from 1961to 1964) and I certainly don’t recall every show I saw back then. But if memory serves, Gene Roddenberry’s concept for Star Trek was as “Wagon Train to the stars”.

    It’s interesting you should mention “Indians”. I think the first time I ever recall hearing “Native Americans” was during the 1972 campaign by Dr. Benjamin Spock (who made an appearance at Purdue, which a friend attended out of curiosity; we had thought of going there and munching on lettuce, which was being boycotted by the Goodthinkful Well-doers at the time). Our reaction was that we were also native Americans, having been born there (and descended from long lines of natives; I had ancestors in Kentucky over 230 years ago).

    As for the corruption of Disney, I understand your point. The reason I refer to (most) journalists (or “newsliars”) as the lowest civic occupation in America isn’t just that they’re dishonest (so are many other professions), but the difference between what they are and what they bill themselves as.

  2. Glenn Fairman says:

    Yes! In the classroom, I frequently correct the kids who refer to themselves as Mexicans and African Americans. I ask them where they were born and they tell me, more often than not, California or Texas. When I tell them that, despite their color or who they think they are, they are all native Americans and give them the definition of the word “native,” they give me a puzzled look and then a light goes on. I tell them that they shouldn’t define themselves by a place they broke ties with 50 or 100 or 500 years ago. You are Americans! It serves little purpose dividing you by ethnicity unless you realize that crooked men are trying to manipulate you for the sake of power.

    That type of thinking, if it got back to our Stalinist ministries of education, could get a guy lunchtime detention…….

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “Wagon Train” was, one of the best Western TV series ever broadcast. I also loved “Rawhide” and “Have Gun Will Travel”.

    I can remember Ward Bond’s death and his replacement by John McIntire. McIntire was still good, but Bond was better.

    Throughout history, one of the major purposes of art was to teach life lessons in general and morals in particular. There was a wisdom in this which has departed our civilization, like air escaping a leaking balloon.

    • steve lancaster says:

      When it was first on television Have Gun, Will Travel was somewhat of a mystery to me. But then I was just a kid and more interested in the action than the themes of the show, although for a brief period I did wear a lot of black.

      With the passing of time I have come to appreciate not only HGWT but also Wagon Train, Rawhide, and all the other quality television of the 50’s and early 60’s.

      Thanks to Glenn for reminding us that morality can be entertaining.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Interesting point. I have no idea how old I was when I learned what a paladin was, but it was certainly much later.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I just want to say I’m horribly offended by “Wagons Ho!” I’m reporting you to the Hate Speech Police. There is a precedent for this.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Yes, this was first reported a couple of years ago, just a few months after I did a short parody predicting exactly that (the problem, of course, being that “ho” is Jive for “whore”).

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        All that I had left, Timothy, was to make a comedic points. I don’t know if I ever watched an episode of “Wagon Train” or “Rawhide,” for that matter. I have nothing against them.

        I did watch lots of “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza.” That was back in the days, as I think Steve noted, when television could teach morals instead of (which is the central thrust of Glenn’s article) being a sewage pipeline bolted direct to your living room, as it has become today.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Post-Greece, I regularly watched Bonanza and at least sometime saw Rawhide and Gunsmoke. A few episodes of other shows turned up on oldies specials (in fact, my familiarity with Have Gun, Will Travel comes mainly from that). I think I did see a single episode of Bonanza when we visited Crete (the only part of Greece that had TV at the time). We were getting ready for dinner at a fairly fancy place (it was where I first encountered steak sauces) and saw a portion of a show in which someone who I think was Hoss was shot by criminals and left with his memory temporarily knocked out — to be rescued by a German couple who referred to him as “Heinrich” and presumably saw him as a replacement for a lost son.

  5. Glenn Fairman says:

    In spite of what someone said in the AT comments section today, Robert Horton’s character Flint McCullough was not effeminate and he was a fine actor. And yes, the Indians were frequently swarthy Italians (Frank DeKova , better known for his job as Chief Wild Eagle in F-Troop, was a frequent fixture). But in those days on a shoe string budget, one did what one could. I too preferred Ward Bond and Horton to McIntyre and Robert Fuller, but when Bond dropped dead at the age of 57 when the show was at its popularity peak, the Wagon Train had to roll on.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      The new spectator sport in society is finding homosexuals in one’s Corn Flakes. That said, now I’m motivated to try to find a few episodes so that I can judge for myself.

      Here’s a song from that series. I don’t know whether it’s the theme song or just a song. But at the very end of this typical YouTube montage video, you see Robert Horton in a pose where he looks a bit like William Shatner.

      I’ve just been watching Those Who Stay Behind (starring Bruce Dern as the bad guy) and I can’t see a hint of swish in Robert Horton. Have AT’s readers been infiltrated by Leftists? I wonder.

      • Glenn Fairman says:

        the theme song you linked was added in Season 2 but was sung by Johnny O’Neill. The particular link that you included is actually sung by Robert Horton, who in later years did musical theatre and sings quite well. As far as finding homosexuals in corn flakes, that might be a stretch. One might have more luck sifting through Fruit Loops.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          One might have more luck sifting through Fruit Loops.

          Hey, listen here. I’m supposed to be the comedian ’round here. But that’s a funny one.

  6. Timothy Lane says:

    It might not have anything to do with westerns, but I recall Robert Bloch discussing (I think in Twilight Zone magazine) his books and the movies based on them (most famously Psycho) as compared to the movies Burt Reynolds starred in. Bloch thought the latter were much worse (I often referred to them as “moral inversions”) because they basically made that sort of smartass troublemaker someone to emulate (someone “cool”, we might say, though I don’t think Bloch used the word). By contrast, he figured no one would want to be Norman Bates, who basically is a miserable person. Of course, people often have strange tastes; it’s hard to see how anyone could wish to be Colonel Zaroff in Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game”, but Zodiac did. But then, Zaroff isn’t exactly a miserable person, even if he does come to a bad end in the story.

  7. Glenn Fairman says:

    If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then give me 9 grams behind the ear…..

    http://www.missourisentinel.com/2014/03/09/wagons-ho-in-search-of-seth-flint-and-america/

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      That was one strange piece. I had no idee thar war so meny Missorans ‘roun cher in Plano.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      What an odd thing. I wonder if the guy has a translation program that can automatically translate everything into hayseed. I had surmised that perhaps translating Glenn into common language might be a benefit. But I see that I was wrong. 😀

  8. LibertyMark says:

    For sure the title does not refer to Seth Rogan nor Larry Flint nor the band Neil Young was in. Oh how far we have fallen…

    Wagons, Ho!

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