Do you remember those old standard games kids used to play? Remember when cowboys and Indians wasn’t looked at as wrong because it wasn’t politically correct? Remember when cops and robbers was typical and not looked at as encouraging violence against cops? Kids could be outlaws and bandits, or the greatest of heroes.
Back then parents understood these complex role plays were just a part of kids finding their place in the world. It was part of them putting life into perspective. Being a robber or other bad guy didn’t mean you would grow up to rob banks. It just helped kids identify the difference between doing good things and doing bad things. In the end of these games the good guys almost always won the day. More importantly, the bad guys were always people, whether it was a superhero facing down a super villain with a ray gun, bent on taking over the world, or a cop taking on a robber. The only exception was Robin Hood, of course. The faces of good and bad were put on people. The conflicts were between people. It was an obvious mirror of the real world, where people have choices to do a series of good or bad things. The good guys always winning was proof that kids really believed in the triumph of good over evil, and that it’s always better to be the good guy, even though it’s sometimes fun to pretend not to be.
When Toy Story came out I remember thinking that the movie was like a transition from the 1950’s to a more modern story. When I was growing up the cowboy and sheriff thing was waning and aliens were the new big villains. Humans were taken out of one entire side of the conflict. Instead kids battled giant bugs, aliens, and sometimes zombies. Life had moved on and the simplicity of cowboys, outlaws, and law men had disappeared. No one cared for simple, clean story lines. Instead it was laser guns, death rays, and other high tech toys that were used against inhuman foes.
Of course, I was the one with my Playmobil figures circling their wagons to fend off Indian attacks and having robbers and outlaws attack the stage coach. The outlaws in their secret hideaway were always more interesting than aliens on some ship. It was kind of sad when I had my own kids and found that kids simply don’t play like that anymore. Buzz Lightyear has really replaced Woody.
It’s sad to think about the reality of that statement. Not only have we lost the days where creative play meant lessons in good and bad behaviors. Gone are the days of the shining star heroes. Real people who won the west or fought the law are slowly getting forgotten. A whole chapter of our past is slowly fading into nothingness. The joyful play of the wild west is following suit with the reality. Tumbleweeds are rolling through ghost towns, the empty husk of a whole genre of play now forgotten.
Remember the days when a boy’s room wasn’t monsters, dinosaurs, or sports? You would go through the bedding section and, never fail, there was at least one cowboy quilt? The dress-up section of the toy section had more cowboy hats than space suits. Horses, ropes, cattle, men sitting under the stars eating beans straight from a can, Home on the Range, and all of that, it’s all long gone and forgotten. The simple life on the range is no longer ideal. Now cowboys are looked down on. They’re uneducated, simple-minded, and not with the times. This is a world where techno-gadgets are all the rage, and simple living out in nature isn’t something to aspire to.
When I was a kid, some of my favorite days were watching old Westerns on television with my dad. As much as I don’t think they’d have the same impact now, I loved Dances with Wolves and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Field of Dreams was on that list too, but that’s a different story for a different day. For my kids, the closest they’ve gotten to a Western is Rango. Holes and Toy Story have elements, but it’s not the same. They don’t even know what a spaghetti western is. Most kids don’t. The whole genre has nearly died and been forgotten. It’s like a piece of my childhood is dying away.
A few months ago, when we were visiting at Oz’s grandmother’s house, I saw a spark of hope. There was a little glimmer of the return of cowboys and the wild west. Each of the kids and adults got to pick a handmade pillow case. Oz’s was space. I got one with calaveras. Corde’s was very grown up with flowers. Beekee got a Halloween themed one. The kids picked dragons for Luca. However, even with cars, dragons, race cars, and everything else, Sander pulled one out and treated it with such attentions like it was a prize made of gold. It was covered in cowboys riding horses. The love of cowboys was soon to be born in yet another generation. He wanted to be a cowboy.
Oh, the fun the kids could have! This opened up a whole new world of play. There can be train heists, bank robberies, and old-fashioned jail breaks. Sometimes they’re off with the wagon train, heading west. Other times they’re cow pokes, herding little doggies to their new grazing land. Sometimes they’re law men, defending the goodly people against those wily bandits. I can’t help but smile as I hear Beekee declare the sheriff is coming and they have to hurry to the hideout or go to jail. Sander, the little gunslinger that he is, particularly likes train robberies and crazy shootouts. Of course, it’s not all serious. He steals the gold so he can give it to the cows next door. Apparently they need to eat it to make better milk, even though they aren’t dairy cows. Still, it’s so much fun to watch them play.
But these games aren’t all fun anymore. Gun control efforts are making it hard for kids to engage in these kinds of play. School kids can be expelled because they pretend to shoot with their fingers, or even so much as draw a picture of a gun. Don’t believe me? Watch War on Kids, which talks about crazy stories, like a kid that was suspended for pointing a breaded chicken tender at another kid like it was a gun. It’s feared these games will encourage kids to shoot up schools, rob banks, or kill cops. It might even encourage them to join a gang. They seem to forget the stories of their own past, and that the bad guys never win.
Even Corde is getting into it. There were some fantastic women in the wild west. Most people think of the saloon girls and can-can dancers, but they forget about the greats. Where would Doc Holiday be without Big Nosed Kate? What about Calamity Jane and her impact on history? Let’s not forget about Annie Oakley, known to be the fastest gun in the West for quite some time, and a more talented gunslinger than most men of her day. These women prove that there were always strong, powerful, and capable women.
Gunslingers and outlaws, cowboys and lawmen, heroes and villains, they’re a part of American history. It’s a time when freedom was a way of life. You could truly be anything, good, bad, or downright ugly. Life was what you made it to be. The possibilities were as vast and many as the stars scattered in the sky above, and good entertainment came from men camped around a fire, eating beans straight from the can, with the song of coyotes and the cracking fire to create the mood. Women and men both had hard lives, and you really had a chance to see the stuff people were made of. There’s nothing wrong with looking back to that time. We all really should.
I can honestly say, I love our return of the wild west games. I hope to sit down and share some of the cheesy old movies with my kids. I look forward to reading about the heroes and outlaws. Most of all, I hope my kids see just how rough, rugged, and strong those who chose lives in the wild west really were. After all, if they could survive out there, truly anything is possible.