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Boomer Grandpa: Like ‘The Duke,’ let’s make sure we are remembered for good

November 9, 2018

“Words are what men live by, words they say and mean”

— John Wayne, The Comancheros (1961)

During the summers back in the ’60s, our family used to jump in the car and drive a half-hour south to take in a movie or two at the Pine City outdoor theater.

My dad would roll the window down a bit to bring the speaker inside the car. If I was real lucky I might get two trips to the snack bar.

Growing up, my favorite actor was John Wayne. If it was a Wayne double feature, it was a great few hours for me. I would pay attention in order to catch a great quote from Wayne, like “A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by.”

Growing up in our era quite a few of us had heroes. My favorite baseball player was Mickey Mantle. Pete Maravich was my favorite basketball player. This admiration was different in the ’50s and ’60s.

For the most part we didn’t know our heroes’ struggles, their unsuccessful marriages or other deeply personal issues. Of course when we were young we didn’t care what their political leanings were.

I’m guessing a great many baby boomers were John Wayne fans. I just finished a book titled “Duke,” which was the nickname that he actually obtained as a young boy. The book was written five years after his death by Donald Shepherd, Robert Slatzer and David Grayson. John Wayne died in 1979.

Big picture

I’m not sure why I admired Wayne so much. Maybe it was because I was scrawny and skinny during my early years in school. Like Mickey Mantle, there was something about his personality. It was big. It got your attention.

Wayne’s films personified toughness and courage. He was the good guy, on the right side of what needed to be done. He protected others. He even had his own unique style of walking. All these qualities — including the walk — seemed like good traits to put in my life toolbox.

The book reminded me that we do not always know the people that we put on pedestals. Back then I believed that movie stars or famous athletes had remarkable lives filled with grandeur, success and money.

John Wayne’s given name was Marion Morrison. He had three marriages that failed. He liked his alcohol and, according to the book, he wasn’t the nicest guy to others at times.

You may remember that later in his life Wayne strongly defended America, President Richard Nixon and the military. At that time our country was struggling with Vietnam, civil rights, Watergate, long hair, and protests.

Wayne deeply loved America despite its flaws and struggles, just like many of us do. I rarely watch his films anymore, although I wouldn’t mind sitting down and watching “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” again.

Times have changed

I now cringe viewing some of the old cowboy-and-Indian westerns filmed in the ’40s and ’50s. All of us look at life through a different lens now. Hollywood wasn’t too sharp back in the day regarding respect for women or properly depicting Native or African Americans.

The Duke arrived in Hollywood in 1928. I don’t dislike or disrespect Wayne for his work. He was an actor and it was a different time in history. We can’t change that and we have learned from it.

A couple of years ago I also read a book called “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” by Jane Leavy. Many young boys playing baseball imitated Mickey Mantle on the field. I did. Most of us wanted to wear Mantle’s number 7.

Every morning I would read the box scores in the newspaper to see how Mantle and the Yankees did. There was no ESPN. New York City was on his shoulders and Mantle, an Oklahoma kid, had trouble being America’s hero. I felt sadness as he struggled at the end of his career.

The book ripped my heart out in a sense. It chronicled his battle with alcohol addiction, in particular later in his life. This man I looked up to with deep admiration made poor decisions that damaged his life and family. Eventually, alcoholism would be a contributor to his death in 1995.

Our strength to make good decisions must be carried in our heart, supported by devotion to our loved ones, our faith and a deep desire to take care of our family. Addiction in various forms still wrecks lives and families.

I don’t know if kids today have idols or heroes. I would guess some do. Maybe they have a better understanding of who that should be. As grandparents we need to teach our grandchildren to value themselves and make sure they will eventually come to recognize real heroes in their schools and community.

We must model what a good life is. As my life unfolded, I came to understand there is no reason to seek or want what someone else may have. Like the Duke, someday we will all ride off into the sunset. Let’s be remembered as someone who did the right things in word and deed.

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