Saturday, June 4, 2011

James Arness

On Friday, June 3, we who are members of the Baby Boom generation, lost a TV icon that many of us grew up with.  James Arness, the law in Dodge City, Kansas, known as Marshall Matt Dillon, died at age 88.  It is sad to see a passing of this sort not because I knew the man, but because of what he represented.

Gunsmoke, the series in which Marshall Dillon provided law and order, was on the air for 20 years.  It ran from 1955 through 1975.  This was just one western among many when it first aired.  Countless other westerns came and went during the course of its run, but none seemed to have the staying power or impact.

I was just a little boy when the series first debuted.  My grandfather was a huge fan and would never think of missing an episode.  Marshall Dillon, Doc, Miss Kitty, Chester, and then later, Festus, were all regular guests in our home for one hour a week.  The fondness I had and still have for the show lay in the fact that it brings back some of the fondest memories I have.  I'll never forget my grandfather settling into his favorite chair once a week to tune in to see just what Matt had to confront that week.  He'd light up his favorite cigar, cross his legs, prop his head up with his right hand and for the next hour, be transported back to the old days.  I can still smell the aroma of the cigar!

These were special moments that my grandpa and I shared.  He wasn't a big television watcher to begin with but he wouldn't ever think of missing Gunsmoke unless he absolutely had to.  I would often watch from the comfort of his lap.

Grandpa seemed to be taken with westerns and this was the best as far as he was concerned.  As a matter of fact, he used to get a tablet of paper as I sat in his lap and draw me pictures of horses and corrals.  He was anything but an artist, yet, he had a knack for drawing these animals.  They weren't sophisticated works of art and certainly would have no value as the art world determines value.  But to me, they were the most precious pictures that I ever had.  My only regret is that I do not have any of these drawings now.  However, I can still picture them in my mind.

Now James Arness never knew my grandfather and he never knew the impact that he had on a grandfather and grandson who enjoyed his work in a very special way.  Grandpa and I watched this special western and gifted cast up until the time of grandpa's death in 1964.  I am sure that there are millions of others who can remember similar memories because of this remarkable show.  Today, because of our technology, I am still able to enjoy those same episodes that grandpa and I enjoyed together so long ago.

James Arness and his work in Gunsmoke will go on for many years to come.  The show is a classic.  But the show's greatest impact may not be the quality of the work it represents, but of the kind of memories it brings back.  We all have a purpose in life and James Arness and the rest of the cast were meant to entertain using their talents.  And through those talents, he has helped to preserve some of the warmest and fondest memories of my life and it is for this reason that James Arness will be sorely missed.