La Vida Ponderosa Copyright 2011 by Peter A. Teeuwissen. All rights reserved.
When I was eleven years old this kid about my age who lived down the street from me hung himself. To be more precise, his brothers hung him. How this came about is interesting in a lurid way, and I’ll relate it here.
You remember Bonanza, of course. It shows up on the TV Land channel all the time. Occasionally I watch it when I’m down at my health club, toiling away on the elliptical trainer, with the little screen in front of me. Since I never remember to bring earphones, I’m always watching without sound, but that’s okay. Bonanza is the continuing saga of the Cartwright family, a gaggle of land barons who own a ranch in Nevada the size of a New England state. The ranch is called the Ponderosa, which in Spanish means big and heavy. The Cartwright family is presided over by the father, silver-haired Ben, who runs things like a dependable biblical patriarch. As you might expect from such a titan, he has three sons by three different wives. Each woman has died in the distant past, before the show’s beginning, from some form or other of femininity. Only the Cartwright men are left to care for one another, along with a Chinese servant named Hop Sing, who fills the void left by the vanished women, as nurturer and henpecker. Also, he’s the token nonwhite.
Even with no sound and my heart pounding from exertion, in my mind I can hear the voices perfectly. Ben is continually admonishing the boys (grown men, really) to be upright citizens, to be generous but not wasteful, to stick up for the little guy—in short to do the right thing. Noblesse oblige. As enlightened land owners, employers, legal arbiters, and sustainers of the local economy, the Cartwrights are the old west version of the ideal of the English landed gentry, and the scions are as much of a source of pride and a pain in the ass to the old governor as any inhabitants of a novel by Thackeray or Trollope. Adam, the eldest son, is sleek and smart, but he’s a restless womanizer, bridling under the yoke of filial duty. Little Joe, the baby, is a snickering twerp, there mostly for comic relief. And the middle son is big dumb Hoss, who, when he isn’t bench pressing loaded wagons and shoeing horses, tends to look down at his boots and say, “Dadburn it, Pa.” It’s pretty much the same from one episode to another. In spite—or because—of their immense wealth and occupation of the moral high ground, in each episode they manage to run afoul of their fellow cowboys, the law, or some force of nature.
I loved Bonanza when I was a kid, when it aired each week, first on Saturday nights, and then for more than a decade on Sunday nights at 8:00 p.m. The colors, like the moral precepts woven into the simplistic story lines, were bright and unsullied (although I never saw it in color back then). There was always a lesson to be learned by one or more of the Cartwrights, and the program sermonized as much as anything we might have heard from the pulpit earlier in the day. What I liked most about the show wasn’t the joshing among the brothers, or Hop Sing scolding in silly pidgin English, or the improbable scrapes they would get into week after week, but the fact that Ben Cartwright invariably did the right thing. The fair thing. The just thing. The moral thing. Like an Old Testament mensch, he went about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with his God.
When Bonanza arose, in the late fifties and early sixties, Hollywood took for granted some simple and noble ideals of social and racial justice, considering what atrocities were being committed proudly in society at large, especially in the South. Nevertheless this era of television and popular culture has always been derided as mindless and simplistic—turned narrowly inward and preoccupied with affluence and comfort. In truth the television of this period was more responsible in terms of its message than most of what has followed it to the present day. When bigotry was addressed, it was condemned. Intolerance was scolded and corrected. Foolishness was met with reason. Most importantly, good was rewarded and bad was punished. It would be just about the last time television tried to shape, rather than to ape, the mores of the day.
Critics often mistake the banal or frivolous characters in those early TV decades—white suburban families, millionaire hillbillies, genies who serve astronauts, endless cowboys—for a lack of connectedness to reality, and hence, for an absence of social relevance. In the seventies, when white racists and black urban families and grittier cop shows came along, many assumed that the subject matter was more serious and realistic, and the nation was finally tackling the Big Issues. When it came to roles for minorities, though, quantity took precedence over quality. They now found themselves playing new and different kinds of stereotypes. Hollywood did start giving more work to black actors in the seventies, but they usually played thugs, pimps, dope dealers, and clowns (pretty much as they do in most of today’s shows). Programs like Good Times were thought to be cutting edge depictions of real black life. Instead they were minstrel shows without the need for blackface, confirming every negative assumption about African Americans, from the feckless unemployed dad, to the Aunt Jemima-looking mom, bulging eyes turned heavenward in supplication, to the worthless jive-talking elder son. Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons, two more mostly black shows of that era, followed suit by showcasing characters who were dreamers, schemers, and fools, little different from the dramatis personae of Amos and Andy twenty years before. Meanwhile, the feel-good white shows of the same decade, like The Brady Bunch, The Waltons, and Happy Days, centered around sincere, hard-working folks, either professionals and leaders of men or at least honest and full of common sense. Such was the nature of the racial justice dished out by television during the seventies.
Of all the atrocities perpetrated on the American viewing public in the seventies, All In The Family deserves a special place in television hell. In its conception, this was to be a more relevant version of The Honeymooners, where the paterfamilias Archie Bunker, besides being a blowhard like Ralph Kramden, was also an archconservative racist. The idea apparently was to shine the bright light of reason on his benighted worldview. But it backfired, because it was based on a false and dangerous premise—that a bigot deserved to be viewed sympathetically, despite his ugly political and social ideas. By making Archie the central character, the show’s creators really had to make him the hero, as well. Instead of a conservative whipping boy, Hollywood had created a monster, because for every knowing liberal viewer there were at least two right-wingers who were proud of how much they, or their dad, resembled Archie. Norman Lear, the mad scientist behind All In The Family and other abominations, had given assholes across America a role model.
Norman Lear was not simply riffing on The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy. He was manufacturing a nastier and more enduring reality, based on a Big Lie. In the older sitcoms the protagonists were often clownish and exasperating, but they didn’t represent socially repugnant values. Ralph Kramden and Lucy, after all, were not bigots. Think of it like this: if Eddie Haskell had been the central character in Leave It To Beaver, instead of representing, as he did, an obviously bad but marginal character type, viewers would have started recognizing themselves in him, and since he was the star of the show, would have come to believe that being a wiseass cowardly shirker was not such a bad thing to be. Wiseasses and cowards all over the nation would have had someone to identify with every week.
But more than all that, Lear spawned a hideous archetype that continues to haunt us, living still in movies like Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. That archetype is The Bigot as Hero, the man who drags himself through life in a haze of hatred and intolerance, but is somehow capable of rising in the end to an improbable level of rectitude because (we’re asked to believe) he’s basically a good guy and has been all along. This idea, which has been trotted out regularly by the entertainment industry since the days of Archie Bunker, is morally on a par with saying that at least Mussolini made the trains run on time.
But let me get back to Bonanza. From its inception, the episodes followed a predictable pattern. The Cartwrights, the royal family of Nevada, would repeatedly get into some kind of scrape involving gunplay, jail, vigilante justice, or a combination of thereof. The sons, especially, were always being falsely accused of something and thrown into a cell, or being bushwhacked and pistol-whipped, while in pursuit of honor, generosity, or harmless fun. No good deed of theirs went unpunished. They were forced to draw their weapons pretty much every week, and occasionally to slay their enemies. Sometimes it was to defend their land, other times to defend the rights of the disadvantaged and downtrodden and different. They regularly cheated death, whether it came at the point of a gun or the venomous fangs of a sidewinder or the end of a rope. This was the price the Cartwrights had to pay for being rich as hell, lucky as hell, and irritatingly good. And if men hogtied, hornswoggled, and hoodwinked them, the women who wandered into their lives invariably left them bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. And so from week to week and year to year they endured.
Something happened one day in real life that would have confounded even the longsuffering Cartwrights. It would have made Ben shake his heavy white head in despair, confirmed Adam’s cynicism, caused Hoss to kick the dirt and mutter “gol-durn it,” and wiped the shiteating grin right off of Little Joe’s face. At some point early in its run, an episode aired one weekend that featured a pretty standard variation on the show’s theme. In it, Hoss was framed for murder and sentenced to hang, or was taken out by an angry lynch mob, or something like that. Because of his bullish dimensions his neck didn’t break and he dangled for a bit, until he was cut down. Of course he survived, a tribute to his brawn and innate goodness and the fact that he was a Cartwright.
Monroe Street, where I grew up and lived every day of my life until I went off to college, was divided into two parts. They were separated by Sashabaw Road. The part I lived on was a dead end containing five small houses and a church. It started at Sashabaw and ended a few hundred feet downhill in my friend Jimmy’s yard. The other part was almost a different street entirely, and was known to everyone on my part of the street as The Other Side Of Monroe. It ran in a dogleg between Sashabaw Road and Dixie Highway and contained maybe fifteen houses.
Donald lived on The Other Side Of Monroe, in the house closest to the corner, just across from The Real Monroe Street. Donald was what the adults called a “big” kid, which was then, as now, a euphemism for fat. He was kind of a fuckup—not good in school, a little clownish. He was near my age but not in my class. He may have flunked a grade or two. I didn’t hang around with him much, but we knew each other on account of being close neighbors, and I’d go to his house occasionally. Our elementary school, to which we and everyone else walked, was pretty small. So it wasn’t long on one particular Monday morning before everyone knew that Donald was dead.
Now, a kid dying in fifth or sixth grade always has been a big deal. Really big. Other kids are generally stunned into silence, having little or no context into which to put such an event. Unlike adults, they can’t come up with the platitudes and bullshit that often accompany death. It’s not so much that children are more honest than adults; it’s more that they haven’t been around long enough to assimilate all the funny ideas that adults acquire about life, death, and the universe, in order to get from one end of this vale of tears to the other—things like heaven and angels and the life everlasting. We suppose those ideas to be part of a younger mindset, which we shuck off as we get older in favor of cynicism. But just the opposite is true. It’s the grownups, not the kids, who have created the improbable realms beyond this life. Certainly one function of religion is to explain to the young how we arrived at the terrestrial cluster fuck in which we find ourselves, but its higher purpose must be to assist us as we grow older and more beaten down by the predictable unpleasantness of it all. The more anguish people endure throughout life, and the closer they move toward death itself, the more likely they are to seriously entertain notions like the hereafter and universal justice. Ultimately religions are elaborate and attenuated exercises in self-deception, designed to divert us from the ruder truths, spinning out scenarios of cosmic warmth and connectedness that are impossible to prove, while doing little to equip us to deal with the two basic things about life that are absolute and knowable, namely, that it’s a bitch and then you die.
During my childhood I was on the sidelines of several premature deaths of the kind we’re looking at here, and I never heard another person my age, unprompted by an adult, talking about how the departed child was now up in heaven watching over us all, or whatever. Adults may encourage youngsters to think this way, but left to their own devices, they don’t. Kids treat death with more respect than that, or at least the ones I knew did. That Monday morning, whispering to one another in the hallways and bathrooms of my school, we somberly acknowledged one thing and one thing only—that Donald’s ass was dead. Finis. Sayonara. Adios.
It wasn’t the other kids who first informed me of how Donald had died. It was my mother, of all people. Possibly it was that morning before school. My dad was the local minister, and he often got such news early, as the grieving parents groped for the comfort and familiar warmth of institutional truths. Ours was a mostly Protestant community in which the majority of local folks were not seriously concerned about religion, except at crucial times like this. My father was the preacher of default for the neighborhood, and the go-to guy at the local funeral home, which was conveniently located less than a block from Donald’s house and from ours. And my dad was in charge of this funeral.
So my mother was giving me the news. And it was this: after having watched this episode of Bonanza in which Hoss cheats the hangman, Donald and his two brothers repaired to the basement, where they proceeded, in imitation of a lynch mob, to throw a rope over a pipe that ran along the ceiling joists. I forget now whether the brothers were older or younger than Donald, or whether, like Adam and Little Joe, they were on either side in the birth order. But Donald was in this instance the designated Hoss, and they were definitely smaller than he was. They tied a rope around his neck while he stood on a chair, or maybe something less stable than a chair. They secured the rope to the pipe. You know where this is going, of course. Instead of breaking, the rope held, and instead of holding, the chair broke, and instead of lifting his ponderous bulk and cutting him down, the brothers tried and failed and panicked, as their brother—flesh of their flesh, their mother’s son, their father’s son—strangled to death.
What startled me at least as much as the news itself was the fact that my mother was not only aware of the existence of Bonanza, but was referring to Hoss by name! My mother, who, as far as I knew, had never sat down to watch a single thing on television other than Perry Como and Red Skelton, was talking to me about Hoss Cartwright—a great big gun-toting cowboy—as if she knew all about him! Had she been secretly watching all this time from the kitchen, or behind the ironing board or the sewing machine? My mind recoiled from the very idea. Still, it was she, and not my dad or big brother or anyone else, who was bringing me the sad tidings of this monumentally stupid event, this grim example of life imitating art.
Now I know why it could only have been my mother who brought me these tidings. This was the ultimate cautionary tale, wasn’t it? This was the apotheosis of all the urgent maternal warnings she had ever given me as I ran out the door to play—not to throw things and not to run with sharp objects and not to climb too high in trees and not to swim too soon after eating and not to go out without your coat and boots and for heaven’s sake to BE CAREFUL. This event, which left a mother and father in a state of unutterable grief and two brothers in God only knows what turmoil of guilt and self-loathing, was the ultimate vindication of all the excessive worrying that any mother could ever be accused of. My mother respectfully refrained from coming right out and saying it, but the reality of what had happened screamed louder than she could have: SEE? THIS IS WHAT I KEEP TELLING YOU!! THIS IS WHAT CAN HAPPEN!! If you fool around with rope. If you think all that stuff on TV is real. If you play cowboys and Indians. If you mess around in the basement. If, if, if.
They buried Donald in his Boy Scout uniform. Burial in uniform is of course a time-honored practice, but it occurred to me that a buckskin vest and a ten-gallon hat and some pointed boots might have been more appropriate under the circumstances. My dad, as I said, conducted the funeral service, but I no longer remember anything about it. I’m sure he did a good job. He always did, giving it just the right mixture of the personal, the solemn, and the religious, validating the life of the departed while assuring all present of the resurrection through Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. I’m pretty sure my dad enjoyed doing funerals more than any of his other sacerdotal duties, more even than weddings. With funerals you didn’t have to deal with a rehearsal and a bunch of bit players, and there were no pain-in-the-ass late brides and nervous grooms. The guest of honor was always waiting, calm and composed. Anyway, he did almost a thousand funerals over his fifty-year career.
Not long after Donald died a small event occurred that, because of its proximity to his house, has always remained inextricably bound in my memory to him and his death. I was walking across the small, weed-filled vacant lot between his house and the street corner, on The Other Side of Monroe. When I say small, I mean it. Our lots were at most a quarter of an acre. Within a few months of Donald’s hanging no one was living in that house of death. The family moved away. I have no idea where they went. Off the radar screen. But as I was walking past the house, taking a shortcut to the Kroger store, I looked down and there was a 45-rpm record in the weeds. Somebody had thrown it from a car, or dropped it from a bag, or maybe the wind had even carried it from another place. Maybe Donald’s grieving family had dropped it during their move, but I doubt it. On the record label was the familiar RCA logo of the dog looking into the Victrola. “His master’s voice.” This was supposed to illustrate the fidelity of the recorded sound. I picked the record up, and discovered that it was none other than “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley.
Who, I wondered, would throw away such a record? Everyone back then knew that “Hound Dog” was not only Elvis’s signature song, but that it would retain its status as one of the formative tunes of the entire rock and roll era. “Hound Dog” was to our music what Beethoven’s 5th Symphony was to the classical-romantic movement, what Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” was to surrealist painting, what Eliot’s Wasteland was to early 20th century poetry. And here it was, in the weeds, for anyone to pick up and take home.
Already “Hound Dog” was several years old, and the record looked like it had been around for that long. At home I had this little record player that played two speeds, 78 and 45 rpm, on the short spindle of which you had to put a little plastic thing that would fill the hole on the 45. Up to that point I had collected only a few 45s. The trouble wasn’t that I didn’t like rock and roll. I did, absolutely. I still remember where I was standing, down in our basement next to the little brown plastic radio with the big white knob, when I first heard Little Richard ripping out, “Keep a knocking but you can’t come in!” I was about 8, and the screaming frenzied falsetto wails of that song electrified me even more than turning the knob with wet feet did. After that I listened to the rock and roll station regularly. I think it was WXYZ in Detroit. Besides Little Richard I especially liked Fats Domino, Elvis, and Frankie Ford, in whose song “Sea Cruise” I was particularly drawn to this bit of lyric: I got to get to rockin’, get my hat off the rack, I got to boogie woogie like a knife in the back. So be my guest, you got nothin’ to lose, Won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise. OO-ee, oo-ee baby, oo-ee, oo-ee baby . . . This arresting juxtaposition of rock with desperation and violence made me feel that I was listening to something both irresistible and potentially dangerous. The image of someone dancing with a knife in his back has been stuck in my head ever since. On the softer side, I liked Ricky Nelson. This was because one of my friends loved him above all other teen idols, and collected every last one of his albums, to which we would listen endlessly. It was easy to like Ricky Nelson when you’d seen him growing up on Ozzie and Harriet. He was like a member of your family who had made the big time. “The irrepressible Ricky,” they’d called him when he was a little kid. You knew he was an actor playing himself on TV as a member of his own family, who had become a rock and roll star, but you also knew he really was a rock and roll star. It was an early and complex example of the media intersecting with reality.
As I said, I had only two or three records, to speak of. The problem was that I couldn’t afford the 99 cents it took to buy them. I was probably only getting 25 or 30 cents a week in allowance, and I just couldn’t save it long enough. Each Saturday I’d have to go to the dime store and buy candy until that money was all gone; hence, I had no record collection as yet. But now, all of a sudden, I had an honest to God serious rock and roll record, and not just any piece of crap someone might toss out a window because it was no good. And it was free!
Elvis Presley, by the time I found his discarded 45, was back out in civilian life after a couple of years in the army, and busy making more of his long string of ridiculous movies. Though few knew it at that moment, his career as a hard-core rock and roller was substantially behind him. From 1960 onward, Elvis would record many songs, but none with the raw power and raucous exuberance of “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “All Shook Up,” and the rest of his oeuvre from his first three years of fame. He began self-consciously developing into a crooner, and soon his preference would be for the softer and more soulful ballads of what might be called his middle period, characterized by “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “Crying in the Chapel.” By the beginning of the sixties Elvis had had five full years atop the charts, which is more than most pop stars get before they either disband or start to fade away. For the next decade he would trade on the reputation he had earned in the fifties, even as the British groups who had grown up idolizing him and other American icons began their ascent and changed all the rules on him. Although he had seventeen number one single hits during his career, he had only one after 1962—the relatively mellow “Suspicious Minds,” released in ’69. Everything about Elvis that had excited his early audiences would become more obsolete as the decade wore on, from his pompadour hair and gyrating hips to the fact that he was doing prescription drugs instead of smoking marijuana and tripping on LSD. Merely by virtue of the passage of time he was declining into a caricature of his already outlandish self. At home he was hiding his chosen child-bride, a girl barely past puberty, in classic hillbilly fashion. He installed her at Graceland, forcing her to rat her hair high and cake her eyes with mascara. At night he would dress her in baby doll negligees and cavort with her on his bed, keeping her in a state of technical virginity until late in the decade when, like an Arab sheik, he finally took her as his bride.
Back in my little hometown, far from Graceland, something even odder took place. About a year or so after Donald died, and on the very same street, about five houses down on The Other Side of Monroe, another kid died at the end of a rope. This one was named Randy. He was probably two grades behind me, and I didn’t know him as well as I’d known Donald. He was out in his tiny back yard, fooling around with a rope, which he’d slung over the branch of a tree. Everyone agreed that he was imitating some cowboy show, but no one determined whether it was Bonanza or Wagon Train or Have Gun, Will Travel, or any of dozens of other westerns that permeated the airwaves in those days.
At any rate, Randy didn’t resemble Hoss Cartwright. He was skinny and awkward and cross-eyed, and he was regarded as being on the slow side. Apparently he made a noose into which he put his neck, and was standing on a bicycle or tricycle, in lieu of sitting astride a horse. Whatever he was on slipped out from under him, and that was that. Like Donald, he had wanted to be a TV cowboy, if only for a little while. Again, the funeral was down at the end of the street at the local funeral home. I did not attend this one.
By now, The Other Side of Monroe had taken on a rather creepy aura to us kids who lived on The Real Monroe and in the adjacent neighborhoods. It was a street without pity, chosen by the fates to be an early exit point from the world for certain unwary children. As tough minded as I believe we were, we began nevertheless to be wary of this little thoroughfare. We continued to walk it on our way to the dime store to get our weekly candy and baseball cards, but we ceased looking to the right or the left. It was a road to be gotten through, and nothing more. We had no friends there. There didn’t seem to be much percentage in that.
Almost as curious as I think back on it as were these two deaths on the same street—accidental hangings only a year apart, inspired by the cowboy shows that occupied our evenings—was the absence of a hue and cry about the evil influence of television on the youth of my generation. Here the lives of two children had been snuffed out in direct, foolish imitation of prime time network TV shows, and life went on practically without interruption. There were no ad hoc groups of concerned parents, no moralizing from the pulpit or the legislative hearing room, no demands for programming reform. It’s a pretty sure thing that today such an unfortunate coincidence would be seized upon, masticated, digested, and shit out by any number of television meat puppets, until some sort of national mini-catharsis was achieved. In those days the scope of news was confined to things like world and national events, and the division between news and entertainment was still fairly sharp. Afternoon sob sisters like Oprah and Jerry Springer had not yet begun to turn the viewing of real human degradation into the spectator sport it has become. Private anguish was still private, unless you were already famous. And some people had the good sense to feel a little humility in the presence of the terrible process of natural selection that had snatched two careless youngsters from the gene pool and dropped them into the grave.
As the sixties wore on, Bonanza remained popular, but was fraying around the edges. In 1965, after six seasons, Pernell Roberts, the guy who played eldest brother Adam Cartwright, quit the show. He cited the fact that the show’s plots were trite and formulaic. He said he felt silly playing a grown man who lived at home and called his father “Pa.” Also, he was tired of wearing his toupee, he said. As a Bonanza fan, I liked Adam, and missed him when he left. He was more suave than Hoss or Joe, always wearing black, smiling knowingly at the women, and looking a little askance at his brothers. But I realized, as other viewers must have, that he was probably a little too cool for a show like Bonanza--a bit too aloof for his own good. For all his aplomb, Adam didn’t have the appeal of Hoss, the goofy glad-hearted giant, or Little Joe, the snickering smartass.
Bonanza survived without Adam for another seven or eight seasons. To maintain the magic number of three sons, the show added a kid who came into the lives of the Cartwrights and was taken under their wing. As with its sitcom counterpart My Three Sons (which had practically a parallel run, from 1960 to 1972), there was a need to maintain the trinity of offspring, despite the changing tide of the cast. My Three Sons, starring Fred MacMurray as an aerospace-engineer-widower named Steve Douglas, started with three sons, the first of whom, played by Tim Considine, dropped out in the mid-sixties, like Adam did from Bonanza. He got too old to live with dad and the guys in their split-level suburban version of the Ponderosa. So the show’s writers promptly reeled in another son, the orphan Ernie, who was adopted as the youngest, bumping the other two sons up in the birth order. The family also had a surrogate female (Hop Sing’s counterpart) in the person of Steve’s father-in-law Bub, and later Bub’s brother, Uncle Charley. In the program’s last paroxysm of self-preservation, when the second number one son got too old, Steve built a wing onto his sprawling house for that son and his new wife, who then gave birth to triplets, and to a new meaning for the title of the show.
Like Elvis, by the early seventies Bonanza was descending into self-parody. The Cartwrights didn’t strain quite as much to maintain their existence as the Douglases of My Three Sons did, but they lasted longer than they should have. The story lines were becoming lamer. The ratings were starting to slip. Cowboy shows were a thing of the past. Throughout the fifties and sixties there had been dozens of westerns on prime time television, and often several to choose from each night of the week, but as the new decade began the field was down to only two worth mentioning--Bonanza and its close relative Gunsmoke. Unlike the situation comedy, which has been the backbone of TV programming from the dawn of the medium through the present day, the very genre of the western was dying. It was going the way of the buffalo and the hangman’s noose.
Then something happened that helped make up everyone’s mind about Bonanza’s future. In May of 1972, Dan Blocker, the guy who played Hoss, died quite unexpectedly from a bloodclot in his lung following routine gall bladder surgery. Just one of those surgical risks, they said. The gall bladder metabolizes fat, and fat people tend to develop gallstones, necessitating surgery. At any rate, the 300-pound heart and soul of the Ponderosa was dead. I remember where I was when I read the news. I was getting onto a train in Barcelona, Spain, all grown up and making the grand tour of the continent. I might have read it in the International Herald Tribune, but it probably made all the local newspapers, too. “HOSS ESTA MEURTO.” By then Bonanza was famous in reruns across the world, and Hoss was probably as well known in Europe as Richard Nixon was, and a lot more popular. The show ran part of another season, but it just wasn’t the same. Dan Blocker was 43 years old when he checked out.
The seventies weren’t much good to Elvis Presley, either. Although he had gotten a boost in 1968 with a “comeback” TV special, and acquired a permanent niche in Las Vegas alongside other freaks of nature like Liberace and Wayne Newton, he couldn’t overcome the fact that deep down he was just a hillbilly, with predictably southern sensibilities. You can take the boy out of the country, and all that. His taste for pills and his appetite for greasy cooking grew apace. He lived on a diet of amphetamines, barbiturates, narcotics, and fried food. He consumed lots and lots of all of it. His wife left him, taking their little girl with her. He began bursting out of the sequined white jumpsuits in which he performed. Along with his belly, his hair and sideburns grew fast. When he was stoned on drugs (which was virtually all the time) Elvis loved to eat mashed potatoes and sauerkraut mixed together with crisp bacon, along with plenty of fried chicken and gravy. He loved deep fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. He gorged on banana puddings with vanilla wafers. He had a favorite sandwich, which consisted of a whole loaf of bread, sliced lengthwise and hollowed out, then filled with peanut butter, jelly, and bacon. One of these sandwiches packed enough calories to sustain a village of Cambodians for a week. Elvis would wolf it all down at once before falling into a stupor, often needing someone to clear the food from his mouth so he didn’t choke.
When they found him dead of a heart attack on August 16, 1977, on his knees in his bathroom with his pajamas around his ankles, he weighed 350 pounds. At 42 he had died young, to be sure, but not excessively so by the standards of his own family and the region that had spawned him. During the seventies Elvis had expanded into the kind of man most of his female fans now found themselves married to, or divorced from—a ponderous stoned-out good old boy, done in by the weaknesses of his mountainous flesh. The screaming girls who mobbed the stage in the fifties, holding out their panties and room keys, had been the sirens who beckoned him to his life of excess. Now they had aged, too, and their hair and bodies had swollen along with his. They had turned into harpies, reaching up to snatch him and drag him down to hell for his final command performance. A hunk of burning love.
Unlike Donald and Randy and Hoss and Elvis, some of us survived the sixties and seventies. Because we endured, we get to watch reruns and listen to oldies and tell stories about the ones who didn’t make it. The ones who performed for the whole world and the ones who never made it off Monroe Street. Those who were bigger already than they should have been, and those who tried to be bigger than they were. All of them living la vida ponderosa.