The United States has no king as head of state; but on rare occasions our culture provides a hero so great that the royal title fits: Elvis, King of Rock and Roll; Kitty Wells, Queen of Country Music; Babe Ruth, Sultan of Swat. In 1943 Republic Studios declared Roy Rogers King of the Cowboys. It was an audacious marketing ploy, but it worked. The tuneful sagebrush superstar from Duck Run, Ohio, fit the silver-saddle throne like no man before or since. As a movie buckaroo, he was the best there ever was: he shot the straightest and rode the fastest (on Trigger, "The Smartest Horse in the Movies") and yodeled the sweetest and strummed hypnotic sagebrush tunes about tumbling tumbleweeds on his guitar. He was invincible: when it came to fisticuffs, he could outbox any one man or any four, always fighting cleanly even if they did not. He was fabulously well-dressed in fringe and fancy leather, and he was a man who never seemed to need a shave. His partner in many of the movies he made was just about the prettiest cowgirl there ever was—Dale Evans, "Queen of the West." When Roy crinkled his eyes in a smile, girls fell in love and boys smiled right along with him. Children especially adored him because even though he was a grown-up, Roy Rogers seemed never to lose his boyish enthusiasm for life's adventures.

At the peak of his career, from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s, he made as many as six pictures a year, which were seen annually by more than 80 million Americans—over half the population of the country. 

In 1950 there were more than two thousand Roy Rogers fan clubs around the globe; the one in London had fifty thousand members—the biggest such club then for,anyone, anywhere on earth. 

In 1951 Roy Rogers moved to television and starred for six years on "The Roy Rogers Show" along with his wife, Dale Evans. They also created several long-running radio series that featured their singing duets and dramatic sketches, and they regularly rode in all the biggest parades and performed at all the grandest rodeos throughout the nation.

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were simply the most popular cowboy and cowgirl the world has ever known. Their West was a magical American landscape full of promise and hope in which goodness was always rewarded and bad guys always got what they deserved. They reigned at a time when the cowboy ideal seemed to signify everything decent about a nation in which all things were possible if you were a good guy with a solid handshake and a sense of honor. They were, in the words of H. Allen Smith, "purity rampant" at a time when we Americans wanted heroes pure and yearned to believe that dreams come true. They fought fair and didn't swear or even grumble when the going got tough. The adventures they had were thrilling and fun and wholesome, filled with rollicking songs, mile-a-minute horse chases, and a dash of fresh romance (but not too much mushy stuff). Whatever trouble came along, you knew that Roy and Dale could handle it—with skill and certainty, good humor, and grace. The mythology known as pop culture doesn't make heroes like them anymore, which is why Roy and Dale have become American icons bigger than their fame as performers and celebrities.

For many of us who grew up with them, they have always felt so much more personal than other Hollywood royalty. In their fanciful movie and TV dramas, but also in the very real and sometimes tragic struggles of their private lives, they took their position as stars to heart and always tried to set a good example. 

They cared about the influence they had on all the little pardners in their thrall, and they weren't embarrassed to tell us so. Dale often liked to tell her own children as well as the rest of us, "Your life is the only Bible some people will ever read"; and for us youngsters who adored them, Roy and Dale truly were an inspiration of near-biblical significance. 

If our own parents weren't around to help or maybe sometimes didn't provide such good examples, the King of the Cowboys and the Queen of the West were there to show us how to live: how to make a slingshot from the prongs of a vining maple tree, how to shoot straight and ride smooth, how to be brave at times when we were scared, how to be decent human beings in the face of bush-wackers and bad guys.

Some of us fell in love with them. A neighbor of ours who runs a Western wear and tack store recalls gathering around the TV with her three sisters to watch "The Roy Rogers Show" every Sunday evening at 6:30. "We sat as close to the television set as our parents allowed," she says. "And whenever Roy came on, we took turns jumping up to kiss the screen." She asks us, "Is he really as nice as he seems? Are they truly in love?" When we tell her that Roy and Dale in person today are as kind and bright and charming and plumb good as she remembers from forty years ago, she beams with delight, looking like a little girl with stars in her eyes.

Another woman we know says that she liked Roy and Dale because of the relationship they had. "Dale sometimes told Roy off," our friend recalls with a wistful smile, "and he liked it! They liked each other so much; you could see that. Dale was my role model when I was growing up because she showed you could be a cowgirl with a fast horse and be pretty, too. I think the biggest thrill of my childhood was when my father took the whole family to the rodeo at Madison Square Garden. We didn't know it until we got there, but Roy Rogers was the headliner. He was there with Dale and his sidekick Pat Brady. They sang songs and put on a show, but what I remember most is the end of the performance when Roy went all the way around the edge of the tanbark, riding Trigger in a sidepass and reaching down to shake hands with the audience. We were in the tenth row, and it seemed like there were a thousand other boys and girls in front of me. As he pranced along and came closer, I bent forward and held my hand out as far and high as I could. Everyone was yelling—all my brothers and sisters and the other kids—but I swear he looked my way when he heard me call his name. He spurred Trigger to move closer so the horse's breast pressed against the stands. Roy stood in his stirrups, leaning forward and extending his right hand—I watched the fringe swinging from his gauntlet—and as he passed, I reached impossibly far above the crowd and into the air. His hand grabbed mine, he looked me in the eyes, and he said, 'Howdy, Pardner.' At that moment, I felt there was no one else in the arena but us, and all he cared about was me.


Trigger quivered underneath me like a rocket ready to lift off. As we waited for our cue in the arena at Madison Square Garden, my legs hugged the palomino's sides and my spurs skimmed the hair on his flanks. We heard the sounds of an eager audience: screams and whistles, children crying out with excitement, vendors hawking souvenirs and pictures of me. It was October 1943, and the World Championship Rodeo had come to New York City.

I was King of the Cowboys, Hollywood's number-one Western star. Life magazine had put me and Trigger on its cover, rearing up over the skyline of Los Angeles. Republic Studios bought billboards all across the country to advertise me. More than four hundred different products had paid for my endorsement. Fan mail was delivered to me by the ton and truckload. Tonight I was the headliner at the richest rodeo on earth.

(The riches Rodeo on earth is now the Calgary Stampede, Alberta, Canada; Roy and Dale came twice to entertain - the early and latter 1960s - Keith Hunt)

The timpani sounded and the drum rolls began. I heard my name rumble through the crowd in whispers, shouts, and laughter. I eased a little slack into Trigger's reins and pulled my white Stetson low so the blast of speed when we entered wouldn't blow it off my head. Bright colored spotlights circled the darkened arena, and my rhinestone cowboy shirt started shooting glints of spangled starlight. My outfit was custom-made head to toe, and at seven thousand dollars, it was the finest buckaroo gear money could buy. Trigger's saddle, bit, and bridle were encrusted with inlaid gold and silver.

The drums lowered and the announcer's voice boomed forth, echoing through the loudspeaker system. ''Ladies and gentlemen, Madison Square Garden and the World Championship Rodeo of 1943 are proud to present to you the King of the Cowboys, Mr. Roy Rogers!" At that, I tapped my spurs into Trigger's sides and he leapt off his mark into the arena at a full gallop, his flaxen mane and tail streaming out behind him like a picture from an Arabian fairy tale.

Mothers and fathers held their children aloft. Hands waved to me from every direction. We thundered in a fast circle, then I slid to a dead halt in the center of the arena. With a slight tug on the reins, Trigger rose up on his hind legs, pawing skyward with his front hooves as I raised my hat in the air to salute the crowd. The cheers swelled so loud they seemed to penetrate my bones. The stallion's hot breath sounded like a piston, and he was all I heard above the roar of the crowd. It was a special moment for me. To have reached this point, to have gotten to this place—it was amazing that something like this could actually happen. I looked around the big arena. At that moment, time slowed to a stop. My thoughts spun back into the past, to the life I had lived. I thought of where I came from, and wondered how in heaven's name I got to where I was.

I never set out to be King of the Cowboys, and certainly never thought I would wind up a movie star of any kind. 

When I was a kid growing up in the last house in the "holler" in Duck Run, Ohio (population fourteen), I got to see about one picture a year. My dream, if you could call it that, was to be a dentist. I know, it seems kind of funny now to think of  Roy Rogers dressed in a white dental coat instead of a white Stetson hat, but you have to remember I wasn't Roy Rogers then. I was Leonard Slye, a backwoods country boy who knew firsthand that a toothache meant you had to go to the dentist, who grabbed a pair of pliers, pushed his knee into your chest, and yanked your jaw teeth straight from your head. I guess before I learned about cowboys, I believed a hero was someone who could take out your sore tooth without it hurting too bad.

Before my folks moved all of us out to Duck Run, I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio—412 Second Street to be exact. You won't be able to find my old home if you go lookin' for it, because where I first popped out and took a look around is now second base on the baseball diamond of Riverfront Stadium. The wrecking crew that toppled my birthplace probably didn't give it a second thought. It sure wasn't much to look at—just a four-story red-brick tenement with fire escapes in the front and some stores on the ground level. My folks lived there not because it was pretty, but because it was near the United States Shoe Company. That's where my pop worked.

My pop, Andy Slye, had been born in Portsmouth, Ohio. He was a small man who probably didn't weigh much over 125. The older I get, the more I look like him; I've even got the same squinty eyes he did. 

Dad was part Choctaw Indian, and like me he was an easygoing fella and a self-taught musician. He was also a dreamer, always looking for something better for himself and his family down the line. He had held a lot of jobs before the one at the shoe factory, working for a while as a carnival roustabout, an acrobat, and a showboat musician who played guitar and mandolin for vacationing folks. Pop was outgoing, and gentle in his heart. He wouldn't kill a fly, and as a city boy growing up in Portsmouth he never learned to hunt or do farm chores.

My mother, Mattie, was as shy as Pop was outgoing. She was born in Kentucky, and when she was two years old she came down with polio, or as the country people called it back then, "the white swelling." It left her crippled for life, and she never could walk without bending down and holding her weak leg tight around the knee for support. She never had any crutches or braces back then, and the polio made it so she couldn't even walk well enough to get to church or do the kind of farm work we needed done. What a thrill it was for me once I became a movie star to bring her to the hospital at UCLA where the doctors fixed her up in a wheelchair. She went out shopping with my three sisters and had a ball wheeling herself through the aisles of stores. She was like a little girl, wanting to go everywhere and look at everything, doing the things she hadn't had the freedom to do before.

My birth on November 5, 1911, brought the Slye family to five. My two older sisters are Mary and Cleda; my younger sister's name is Kathleen. I am told that after having had two baby girls, my father came home from work at the end of that day and just couldn't believe he finally had a son. "Prove it," he said, and made my mother pull down the blankets I was swaddled in to show the evidence.

Even though my father was raised in the city himself, it wasn't what he wanted for his family, so he came up with an improbable scheme to move us to greener pastures. Teaming up with his brother Will, Pop began to build a houseboat that would sail us down the Ohio River from Cincinnati back to his hometown of Portsmouth. I guess it never concerned Pop too much that his brother Will was completely blind; they just set about the work, rounding up heaps of scrap lumber and salvaged materials, fashioning the boat the best they could. Sails for its mast were made from mother's bedsheets stitched together by hand, and the houseboat soon became the talk of the neighborhood. It was dubbed "Andy's Ark" by well-wishers and neighsayers alike, and after Pop hammered the last nail in, the squat whitewashed barge pushed off the muddy banks of the Ohio River in July of 1912. I suppose it sure wouldn't have won any awards for beauty, but amazingly, it got us where we had to go.

It's a good thing that Pop and Mother were strong country people, because the first day out a fierce storm kicked up on the river. It ripped the sails right off the homemade boat and broke all of mother's china dishes in the kitchen. We even collided with another boat nearby. My folks patched things up pretty good and continued their slow journey along the river undismayed. Along the way, Pop worked at odd jobs, anchoring long enough to help out fishermen in exchange for a tow further down the river. We docked at a landing in Portsmouth and spent four years afloat there.

If I had to put a finger on my first real childhood memory I guess it would be something that happened while we were living on the houseboat. Pop had moored us to the riverbank at one of the many stops we made on our way down to Portsmouth. I was just a little kid at the time, no more than a year and a half old, and I was bored. Right at my fingertips was this nice big river where another boy might have had some lawn growing. Since I didn't have any stones to throw, I found the next best thing: my mother's silverware. One by one, I threw knives, forks, and spoons into the muddy Ohio just to hear the splash they made and see the silvery shapes disappear into the wetness. I remember my mother walking slowly around the boat, looking everywhere for her silverware. Later, when the water went down, she spotted a whole set of knives, forks, and spoons sticking straight up out of the sand.

Sometimes I wonder if Pop had had a premonition of things to come when he decided to build his ark. Anyone who knows about Ohio River history can tell you about the great Portsmouth flood that happened shortly after we arrived there. It lasted thirteen days and was so famous a disaster that people still talk of it today. My folks told me stories of watching their neighbors' houses rise right up off their foundations and float away. The flood came along just after Pop had moved the houseboat inland to a site he had found and started making it into a permanent home. He had put up a white picket fence and we even had a few chickens scratching in the grass outside. When the waters came, up we went, chickens and all, sailing right down Water Street. As we floated by our neighbors' houses, Pop used a pole to maneuver close so he could help pick folks off their rooftops. It's curious how a child's mind works, but the thing I remember most of all was not the people who were in trouble, but how horrible it was to see one of our chickens flopping around in the raging water. I started to cry until Pop saved him, too. Like I said, he had a tender heart.

When the flood waters receded the houseboat was again moored on dry land in Portsmouth, and Pop took another job at a nearby shoe factory. Thinking back, I reckon his return to Portsmouth must have been something of a disappointment for him. After battling nature's tempests to get there, he and his family were still living in a city. It wasn't as big as Cincinnati, but the city had nearly 60,000 residents in those days—hardly the rural paradise he had envisioned for us.

In a way, I take some credit for Pop once again pulling up roots and getting grass under his children's feet instead of concrete. The final straw happened when my family was called to the local police station to bail me out of trouble. I was all of five years old when my pal Bob Stevenson and I hitched a ride on an ice wagon. Well, it was hot that day and we helped ourselves to hunks of ice to suck on. The no-nonsense driver of the wagon deposited us at the local hoose-gow, where the policemen, faced with two bawling kids, located our parents to come pick us up. Getting a call from the police about his son must have felt to Pop like a bad omen of what kind of life I would have if we stayed in the city. So pretty soon after my trip to jail, we packed most of what we owned into a second-hand Maxwell car and headed deep into the countryside to Duck Run, a good twelve miles out of town. We were finally home, and here we stayed until I was a teenager.

Duck Run wasn't really a town—just a few farms and cabins. We lived so far away from everything that you had to pipe in sunlight. We lived in the last house in the holler. There was no plumbing or electricity, and no radio to listen to until I got older and built a crystal set. I didn't wear shoes all summer when we lived there, unless it was Sunday. Never having been a farmer himself, Pop knew he couldn't make enough of a living working the land to support all of us, so he moved back to Portsmouth where he lived alone for two weeks at a time, coming home to visit every other Saturday and Sunday. Today, to travel twelve miles sounds like nothing, but back then it was a day's trip along a rough country road.

For me, the most startling thing about moving to Duck Run was that at age six I suddenly became the man of the family. With Pop gone for two weeks at a time I was plunked down in the middle of nowhere with a whole heap of farm chores to do. The outcome didn't look promising, with a crippled mother and three sisters as my only helpers, but I have always believed that the surest way to learn something fast is when your life depends on it. And that's what I did: I learned fast, figuring out things as I needed to. I figured out farming, figured out hunting, figured out riding mules and horses and raising pigs and chickens and planting vegetables. I guess I figured it out pretty much like I figured out playing the mandolin and guitar. No one ever taught me how to read music, but I picked out what I needed to know.

It was hard work to keep our little farm going. I hauled wood using our mule, Tom, with my sisters and mother helping as best they could. We'd walk into the woods, cut down trees, split 'em up, and try to gather enough cords to last through the winter. One of the first things I learned when we moved out to Duck Run was how to plow behind a mule. I was a little fella then, so I had to reach way up to get hold of the plow handles, and I had to take great big steps to keep up walking behind ol' Tom as he made the furrows.

Later on, in addition to Tom, we had two other mules— Barney and Jack. For a long time Barney was the closest thing I had to a horse, and it was on him I first learned to ride. I used to ride him everywhere. I'm not ashamed to say that Barney was my best friend back in the holler. We went everywhere together. 

But thinking about him also reminds me of one of the worst moments of my childhood. As I said, Pop just wasn't a country boy, so he didn't really know his way around animals. He didn't know that when you approach one, you always say a few words so you let the critter know you're coming and you don't spook him. Well, one weekend Pop had come home from Portsmouth and he wandered into the barn around feedin' time. All of a sudden I heard this awful hollerin' and I rushed into the barn and saw him rollin' on the ground holding his knee. He was squirtin' blood and the clear liquid that holds your knee joint in place. Barney had been busy eating his dinner when Pop walked up behind him and surprised him. That ol' mule just hauled off and kicked him square in the knee. I knelt down and wrapped Pop's leg up real tight with rags and we were able to get him to the hospital where they sewed up his leg and managed to save it.

Pop's injury was bad enough, but what followed has made me ashamed of myself for years. When I got back from the hospital I stormed into the barn, picked up a pitchfork, and stuck it right into Barney's butt. Looking back on it all, I knew ol' Barney hadn't acted mean; he was just being a mule. But at the time I was so mad at him for hurting my father that I just lost my senses. I don't know if mules accept apologies but I often think I owe one to Barney.

In the country, you're real close to animals. I learned to track raccoons and to know every bird in the woods by its call. I had a pet skunk, a groundhog, and a rooster that I trained to sit on my shoulder and crow. If there was ever a sick or injured animal out there, I couldn't help but bring it home and see what I could do for it. One time I found a puppy with a broken leg—must've been abandoned—that I took home and tried to fix up. I made her a splint, fixed her a bed from an old quilt, and fed her warm milk. After some time, I unwrapped the leg and the puppy stepped free. The bone had mended, but the pup still walked with a limp. After that happened, I decided that rather than become a dentist, I ought to be a doctor so I could fix a puppy's broken leg right.

Living on the farm I learned how to hunt. Not the fancy kind of sport hunting rich folks do with beautiful rifles and such. 

This was hunting to eat. A lot of people don't understand that for country folks like us, dinner was what you see in the iron sights of your .22. 

Before I got a rifle, though, I whittled myself a slingshot with my old Barlow knife and went out each day to try to catch a rabbit or a squirrel. If I got one, we ate real well that night; if not, supper was beans and cornbread. I believe my early training with that slingshot is why I always had a good aim. I fashioned a bow, too, and got pretty sharp with bow-and-arrow hunting, then finally Pop gave me a single-shot rifle. Once I got that rifle, we ate pretty well around the Slye house.

When I wasn't working on the farm I was at school—a little schoolhouse where children from the first through the eighth grades were taught. I don't recall there being more than four or five kids in class, and no matter how far away they lived, everybody walked to school. Most of the boys wore overalls, white shirts rolled up to the elbows, and tweed newsboy caps on their heads.

School was the first place I recall having to fight for my rights, and my adversary was, of all people, my teacher. I was a skinny little eleven-year-old when I had a teacher who was a pistol if ever there was one. He wouldn't touch the girls in class, but partner, he'd give it to us boys. He beat us up every day. You didn't have to do anything to get beat up either— just show up for school. I grew pretty tired of going home every day covered with welts and bruises, so one day it all came to a head. During recess a girl in the class threw my cap up in the air and it landed on the school roof. To get back at her, I grabbed her hat and threw it up there, too. She went running in and got the teacher, who came out and started yelling at me to get her hat down. I believe in fair play, so I said, "I'm not going to get her hat until she gets mine." I stood my ground as he glared at me. Finally I scrambled up on the roof, grabbed the girl's hat, and went running with it to a little creek behind the school. I waded in and held the hat out for him in the middle of the stream, calling, "Come and git it!" He turned red with rage and stormed back into the schoolhouse. A few seconds later, out he came with a wooden switch eight feet long, waving it at me in a fury. He waded into the water and got in one good lick. I reached down, picked up a rock, and let him have it—but good.

I regret having come to blows with him, but after that day, he stopped picking on me. Without a father living at home and no brothers, I had to learn at a young age to settle my own fights. The funny thing is that when I was no longer skinny little Len Slye, but Roy Rogers the movie star, wouldn't you know that one day when I was performing in front of a big crowd back in Ohio, I looked out and there was that same teacher who had made my life so miserable standing there waiting for an autograph. He looked at me kind of shyly, and said, "Well, Len, I heard you were in town."

"I'm glad you're here," I told him. "I'm sorry about what happened back then." We shook hands and I signed a picture for him. I'm glad I saw him again. It took all those years of hate out of my mind.

Life in Duck Run wasn't all work and school. I had lots of fun, too, but it was a different kind of fun than kids have nowadays. In that time before video games and trips to Disney World, families made their own fun. For the Slye family, about the most fun we could have together was singing. My whole family was musical. Pop played the mandolin and mother played guitar, and my sisters and I all joined in. On weekends when Pop was home, we made harmony long into the night. Sometimes on a Friday night, we all went to the square dance—even Mom, though she had such a hard time walking. I was shy, but when the music played, I didn't feel so bashful. Pretty soon I learned how to call the dances. I loved to call, "Swing your partner, do-si-do, and allemande left!"

I think one of the best things that I ever did when I was young was join the 4-H Club. 

That happened thanks to a teacher I had named Guy Baumgartner. He was just the opposite of the teacher I had the fracas with—one of the kindest, most caring people I ever met up with. Just looking at him made me feel good, as he always had a smile on his face, and he had a way of making even schoolwork seem like fun. Two weeks after he got there, he had all us kids eating out of his hand. He had heard about the trouble we were having with that other schoolteacher, so he was extra nice. He started a baseball team and a basketball team and used to take us kids out on nature walks, pointing out different creatures that we saw. I loved that! He also started a 4-H Club, which he encouraged me to join.

Mr. Baumgartner, or Guy as he preferred his students to call him, suggested that we buy baby pigs and raise them for our pig club. I got myself a newborn black baby pig, named her Evangeline, and raised her up as well as I could. To get her ready for the Scioto County Fair in Lucasville, Ohio, I had to hold her in my lap, which was fun. I brushed her until she shone like ebony and I manicured her toenails. I guess I did a pretty good job because Evangeline took the grand prize. That included a trip to the state capital—Columbus, Ohio—which was farther away from home than I had ever imagined going.

When Mr. Baumgartner came to pick me up to leave for the trip, I nearly didn't get out of the house for all the worrying my family did. Each of my sisters gave me ten kisses apiece and my mom was hugging me so tight I could hardly breathe. I remember Mr. Baumgartner out on the porch, calling, "Hurry up, Len, or we'll never get to Columbus!" Finally, I was hugged and kissed enough by all the ladies in the family to satisfy them, and away we went. That was some adventure, let me tell you. I got to see the Ohio State University and the Ohio State Penitentiary all in one day. At the old Neil House Hotel, I encountered the first elevator I ever saw. I spent nearly the whole first day we were there riding up and down in it, amazed.

I liked farming and it kept me plenty busy, but I had other interests, too. I played the clarinet a little; I liked sports, especially baseball, and for a while there, I thought I might have a future as a pitcher. 

Because he thought it would help me get over my shyness, Guy Baumgartner encouraged me to try out for the school play. To my horror and dismay I was cast as Santa Claus, which meant I had to stand up in front of a crowd of people patting my padded belly and saying, "Ho, ho, ho!" As if that weren't bad enough, I then had to sing a little song about Santa heaping the stockings high and carrying toys in a sack on his back. You would have thought I had to deliver a Shakespearean speech, I was so terrified with stage fright. My knees knocked, my teeth chattered, and my mind went blank with panic trying to remember what I was supposed to say. I guess I did manage to croak out the words and the tune and made it through the play, but if anyone told me back then that I would make my fame and fortune as an actor I would have laughed out loud. Nothing could have seemed less likely.

Christmas at home with the family was a wonderful time. We didn't have much money for presents, so I whittled little things out of wood for my sisters and my folks. I made whistles and little boxes for their knickknacks, and we all got together to make ornaments for the tree out of paper and cardboard and strings laced through popcorn and cranberries. We found our tree in the woods out back of our house, and I went out and killed a chicken (Dad never could do that), which Mom cooked up with vegetables she had put up during the fall.

Pop was thrifty, a trait I inherited from him along with squinty eyes. But he could also be mighty kind. The best gift he ever got me was a horse when I was eleven years old. Her name was Babe and she was a little ex-sulky racer. Boy, was I in seventh heaven; I thought I had me a race horse! First time I got on, Babe threw me onto the seat of my pants. But I dusted myself off and tried again, and soon enough we were a team. I even taught her a few tricks, like saying yes and no and bowing, and I was convinced she was the smartest animal on earth. After a while, I learned to ride Babe from Duck Run into Portsmouth, where I visited my father. When he had an extra dime, sometimes he gave it to me so I could see a movie. That's where I saw my first Western, one starring Hoot Gibson in his tall Stetson hat. It was fun to watch Hoot's adventures, but I never imagined myself a movie cowboy. The wild West seemed just pure fantasy, and my own future was too far off to think about. My main concerns in those days were sleeping as late as I wanted and eating as much as I could eat and riding my horse as fast as she could go.

Even with Babe to boost my ego, my skills with girls were dismal. I fell in love with pretty ones from afar but was too afraid to speak to them. When I did manage to muster the courage to go out on a date, my conversation skills were pretty much limited to saying yes or no while I looked down at my feet. I've always been that way, and I guess I still am.

Even after all those years in Hollywood, having my face plastered on a million posters and lunchboxes, I still get bashful around people. I'm fine with kids and with horses and animals, and of course with my family, but when I have to be with strangers, I still feel a little like that bashful kid trying to be Santa Claus in the school play.

Despite the good memories I have when I think about my childhood, it wouldn't be true to say that life on the farm in Duck Run was as perfect as a Norman Rockwell picture. Sure, it's easy to look back on those times and think of the good fun and family togetherness we enjoyed and to forget that we tilled the fields and worked that land until our bodies ached, and that no matter how hard we struggled, we always seemed to come up short financially. Pop grew weary of commuting to see us, and the weeks without him at home were lonely and long. My dream of becoming a dentist or a doctor seemed more impossible each year. By the time I graduated from the eighth grade in Duck Run there was no place else there for me to go, so I had to travel four miles each day to a high school in the town of Mc-Dermott, where I studied as a freshman and sophomore. When I was seventeen I made a decision that my mother dreaded, but ultimately went along with. I quit school. 

The whole family moved back to Cincinnati, and I got a job alongside my father there at the U.S. Shoe Company, working in the insole department. I was earning about twenty-five dollars a week, which sure helped pay the bills. To appease my mother I agreed to go to night school. But working all day and going to school at night were more than I could handle. I remember the shame I felt during a class session when I was so exhausted I rested my head in my arms for what I thought was a moment, only to wake up to find the classroom empty and the class long over.

Life had come full circle, and not for the good: I was back again in Cincinnati, making parts for somebody else's shoes.

Pop and I both were older, not much wiser, and certainly not any richer. My sister Cleda had married and she and her husband were living back on the farm in Duck Run. My older sister Mary had also gotten married and she had moved to California. Her letters to us made California seem like another world, and each day as Dad and I hunched over the machinery in that grimy factory, her picture of a sunny Promised Land out West filled our heads. Dad's health was starting to suffer. Never one to complain, he developed bad headaches when it came time to go to work in the morning; and there were some mornings when he just couldn't get out of bed.

I had never been west of Ohio. The closest I had ever come to knowing about the West at all was from a little crystal radio set I had fooled around with on the farm in Duck Run, where sometimes I could pick up some cowboy singing about "home on the range." And I had seen maybe half a dozen cowboy movies back in Portsmouth. But all of that could have been life on Mars as much as it affected me. Still, I began to think: if the family could go out West, maybe Pop and I could find jobs driving trucks in California. We would have it made!

Early one morning in 1930, I watched Mom pressing a damp cloth to Pop's aching head as we were getting ready to go to work. He was gray-faced and sad. As I looked at him, I thought of the small bundle of bills I had managed to stash away from work. I was eighteen and eager for a change. "Dad, I have ninety dollars saved," I said. "I bet you've got at least a hundred. Why don't we head out to see Mary in California? Look around, see what's there?"

Watching Pop's face was like seeing the hands of a clock tick backwards. His headache faded away, his eyes grew bright again. We began to pack that very day, loading up the family's old rattletrap 1923 Dodge for the long trek out West. The Joads in The Grapes of Wrath or the Beverly Hillbillies had nothing on us Slyes as we hit the highway. You never saw such a rotten-looking vehicle, piled to the top with rickety junk. About the only precious things we had to our names were our dreams, which were bright enough to keep us heading west toward the setting sun.




Keith Hunt