Where’s ‘Gunsmoke’ when you need it?

Published 9:34 am Thursday, May 30, 2024

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By Lloyd Albritton


My father heard about that newfangled gadget called the “television” when he mustered out of the Army at the end of World War II.  An avid western movie fan, Daddy was fascinated by the idea of television, but he figured it wasn’t the sort of thing a common man like him would ever have. Daddy was so wrong.  By the early 1950’s, several common people in our community had televisions.  Neighbors routinely gathered at these lucky households on Saturday evenings to watch The Grand Old Opry, The Jackie Gleason Show and local gospel quartets.  By the mid 1950’s we had our very own television.  In fact, the Bud Albritton family had a television before we had an inside bathroom, which was not inconsistent with the priorities of a nation exhausted from many years of sacrifice and privation brought on by the Great Depression, followed by a world war.  Television antennas dotted the rooftops of even the most modest of homes all across America in the 1950’s.When Gunsmoke first aired at 9:00 P.M. on Saturday evening, September 10, 1955, our family was gathered around the snowy little black-and-white Admiral television for the premier episode of what would become the most popular western series in television history.  The show opened with Matt Dillon ambling up Boot Hill among the graves of Dodge City’s infamous bad men, his voice narrating some of the tragic circumstances, which had brought the bad men there.  It was implied that the tall, taciturn lawman had personally gunned most of them down in the name of law and order.

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From the moment Matt Dillon walked into our living room, I felt safer.  Indeed, in the ensuing years Matt Dillon came to represent the ideal man of strength, maturity and reason.  Whenever Matt traveled out of town to chase down an outlaw, Dodge City seemed to quickly fall into a state of lawlessness that was beyond his stiff-legged deputy’s abilities.  But, not to fear!  Matt would always return in the final minutes of the episode, shoot the bad guys or whack them over the head with his long-barreled pistol, and Dodge City was made safe again, all in the space of thirty minutes minus commercials.  At a time when many Americans felt a pervasive anxiety over the threat of nuclear attack from the Russians, we desperately needed a hero like Matt Dillon to assuage our fears.

My paternal grandparents lived near us and they had neither an inside bathroom nor a television.  My grandfather scorned the television as a great waste of time and the inside bathroom as a disgusting idea.  He swore there would never be either in his home.  My grandmother, however, who always claimed her innate streak of independence was the result of her being born on July 4, 1893, ignored her husband’s opinion and developed a deep curiosity about the television.  She would frequently wander across the cow pasture to our house, patter quietly in through the back door and stand in the open doorway leading from the kitchen to the living room where the television was located.  She would never sit down and watch the television with us, but would lean against the open door frame behind us with one hand propped on her hip, and pretend to be less than totally interested.  We children found Mama Julie’s behavior most irritating, for she always insisted upon asking a barrage of distracting questions.  She was something of a ham and asking stupid questions was merely her way of being the center of attention.

“How does that thing work?”

“What are they doing now?”

“Who is that on the black horse?”

“How do they get all those people inside that little box?”

“What do they do with all the dead people in there?”

“Ya’ll ought not to be watching that thing,” Mama Julie would quip from time to time, while straining her neck to see better.  “The preacher said them things ain’t nothin’ but the devil.”

Daddy loved Gunsmoke so much that he continually tried to get his mother to come over and watch an episode with us on Saturday night.  “Mama, you’ll love this new show,” he told her.  “Gunsmoke is like the old west really was.”

Nine o’clock, however, was way past Mama Julie’s bedtime. And even though it was only a short walking distance across the pasture to our house, Papa was against it.  Papa didn’t have any use for televisions at any time of the day, so he certainly didn’t see the sense in staying up so late just to watch some crazy television show.

“Hubbard said he would lock me out of the house if I stayed out that late,” Mama Julie teased with a chuckle, leaning forward to spit her snuff between two fingers pressed against her lips.  “I guess he’s afraid I’ll run off with that Ernest Tubb feller.  And I might too, if he don’t start acting sweeter to me.  I do love to hear that Ernest Tubb feller sing.  Have you ever heard Ernest Tubb sing?  Shoot, Hubbard can’t sing worth a flip. Do they have Ernest Tubb in that television?”

After three or four weeks of cajoling her Mama Julie finally agreed to come over and watch Gunsmoke with us.  Daddy sent me over to her house at about eight thirty to help her through the gates and across the pasture in the dark.  As always, the whole family was gathered around the television awaiting the start of Gunsmoke when Mama Julie arrived.  We had saved her a seat on the couch close to the television, but she refused it.  She insisted upon standing at her usual spot in the doorway behind us.

No sooner had Matt Dillon begun his weekly stroll up Boot Hill than Mama Julie started asking dumb questions.

“Where’s Gunsmoke?” she asked.  “Is that Gunsmoke?”

“Mama,” Daddy explained, “Gunsmoke is the name of the show.  There ain’t no actual person named Gunsmoke.  The man’s name is Matt Dillon.  He’s the Marshall of Dodge City.”

“Oh,” she acknowledged. “Well, where’s Gunsmoke?  I came up here to see Gunsmoke.”

“Mama,” Daddy said, his voice taking on an impatient edge as the show wound through the opening credits, “I told you, there ain’t no Gunsmoke.  Now why don’t you come on over here and sit on the couch where you can see.  The show’s about to start.”

“I came to see Gunsmoke,” Mama Julie protested stubbornly.  She didn’t like to be bossed around.  “If there ain’t going to be no Gunsmoke, I don’t see why you hauled me over here in the middle of the night.  Hubbard might’ve already locked me out of the house.  He thinks I’ve run off with that Ernest Tubb feller.”

“Papa knows where you are,” Daddy said.  “And I’ll have one of the boys walk you home as soon as Gunsmoke is over.  Now will you please just come on over here and sit down so we can all watch the show?”

“I can see from where I am,” she stubbornly insisted, her feelings obviously ruffled by the disrespectful tone of her son’s voice.  “What time does Gunsmoke come on?”

“It’s on right now, Mama,” Daddy said.  “If you’ll be quiet for a minute we can all watch it.”

“Where is he?” she asked, walking a little closer to the television, but still not willing to sit down.  “Where’s Gunsmoke?  Which one is Gunsmoke?  If I had known there wouldn’t be no Gunsmoke, I would have stayed home.  Then maybe Hubbard wouldn’t’ve locked me out of the house.  Can you get that Ernest Tubb feller on this television?”

Gunsmoke was coming on.  Matt and Doc were sitting in front of the jail talking, but we couldn’t hear what they were saying because Mama Julie wouldn’t shut up.  Uh oh!   Shots fired from the Long Branch. Matt jumped up and started on his way.

“Where’s he going?” Mama Julie asked.  “Is that Gunsmoke?  Where’s Gunsmoke going?”

“Trouble at the Long Branch,” said one of my brothers.  “Just watch.  You’ll see.  Matt Dillon will take care of it.”

“Who’s Matt Dillon?” Mama Julie asked.  “I thought this was Gunsmoke.  What happened to Gunsmoke?  Is that Ernest Tubb feller on this show?”

“Mama, this show ain’t about Ernest Tubb,” Daddy said..  “It’s about Matt Dillon and Chester and Doc and Miss Kitty.  Now will you please be quiet so we can watch Gunsmoke?”

“Well, that’s what I come for,” Mama Julie said.  “I come to watch Gunsmoke.  I didn’t come out this late at night to watch all these other people.  What time does Ernest Tubb come on?  Can Gunsmoke sing as good as Ernest Tubb?  I like that Ernest Tubb feller.  That’s who I like.  I told Hubbard I’m going to run off with that Ernest Tubb feller one of these days because I like the way he sings.  Hubbard can’t sing worth a flip.  What time does Gunsmoke come on?”

When Gunsmoke ended, none of us were quite sure what happened down at the Long Branch Saloon.  There was some shooting, but we missed seeing Matt Dillon draw his gun (my favorite part) because of all Mama Julie’s questions.  We would have to wait a whole week to see another episode of Gunsmoke, and we weren’t going invite Mama Julie either.

My brother and I walked Mama Julie home that night.  We were so mad about her talking on and on and messing up the show that we had to bite our lips to keep from spouting some smart aleck comment.  Daddy didn’t allow us to smart off at our Grandma, no matter how irritating she got.

Papa didn’t lock her out of the house.  Instead, he had left the back porch light on and was waiting up on her.  He met her at the back door as she walked up onto the porch.  He seemed really glad to see her come home.

“Who was that with you?”  we heard Papa ask as she walked through the darkened door.

“That was Ernest Tubb,” Mama Julie told him.  “We had a good time.”

“Get in here and go to bed before I take my belt to you!” Papa teased gruffly.  “I thought you were going to see Gunsmoke.  Did you see Gunsmoke?”

“There wasn’t no Gunsmoke,” Mama Julie said as she disappeared into the darkened house with Papa’s brawny arm around her fragile shoulders.  “No Ernest Tubb neither.”