Looking back at our early childhood, I can’t get over the different phases we went through. They all led to our development. One phase that still stands out in my mind are the times we played cowboys and Indians.
Western movies were popular back in the 1930s. There were many famous actors who took the part of a cowboy. The one I admired the most was Tom Mix. He was my idol and so to many of my friends. He was what we called a “straight shooter.” He was as straight as an arrow, a real tough hombre. All us kids wanted to be just like him. I sent away and received a Tom Mix ring. It was a horseshoe nail bent around to make a ring. I wore that proudly.
In those Western movies, they all had a good moral lesson. Good guys always win and bad guys always lose. We all wanted to be good guys just like our heroes. Not a bad goal for a youngster!
During the summer, the Premier Theatre ran cowboy serials on Saturday mornings. They continued on each Saturday. For those who don’t know, the theater was on the corner of Pleasant Street and Prince Place in downtown Newburyport. At that time it was our only theater. It ran up Prince Place to where the parking lot is today.
Saturday mornings the theater would be filled with kids all about my age. It only cost 10 cents to get in. Don’t think that was easy to do, raising 10 cents. I asked my dad for the money once and he said, “Go out and play, son. It’s much better for you.”
We had the entire week to raise the money. We all scoured the neighborhood to find empty bottles. A large bottle brought in 5 cents, smaller ones 2 cents, I believe. Anyway, by week’s end we had the dime for the matinee. The movie was in the morning and would be over by 11:00.
We would all rush home to change into our costumes. Coming up with a kerchief to wear around our neck wasn’t a problem. Finding a hat was. We would like an old soft hat that men wore then. If we found one to wear, we’d pinch the crown. There was always a vest we could find. We all had a holster to put around our waist. For a six-shooter we had a cap pistol. We would take out our pistol and swing it around our index finger where the trigger was. We were big time, let me tell you.
When we were all dressed, we would end up at the back of March’s Hill. The sledding was done in the winter on the front part of the hill. March’s Hill can be spotted easily in the South End of Newburyport because of the water tower there.
In those days, the area wasn’t overgrown with brush and trees. It was wide open with only grass showing. One side of the hill was the best to play on. It overlooked a valley. Western Division Railroad tracks ran down through that valley. It took freight to downtown Newburyport, so when a train came along it added to our scene. March’s Hill ran all the way back to Parker Street in Newbury. No matter how many kids showed up to play, we had plenty of room. Each group of kids stayed separate from one another.
When we all arrived to our spot to play, we began our role modeling. We would walk up to one another and say, “Howdy, partner.” The reply was always, “Howdy!” We would commence to play and act out parts we saw in the movie. Our imaginations just roamed free. It was like we were out in a prairie with Indians around. When we moved from one area to another, we rode our horses there. With one hand holding an imaginary rein and the other hand slapping our behinds, we galloped along. We let out whoops and hollers and made horse noises as we galloped along. When we stopped, we got off our horses and walked around bowlegged.
We had a ball, letting our imaginations roam, let me tell you. We walked the walk and talked the talk.
When I see grown men today wearing a cowboy hat, I just feel jealous. Some even have the Western shoes. I often think that they are play acting too. Recently seeing a rescuer at the marathon bombing wearing a Western hat, I couldn’t help but say, “There is a straight shooter for you.”
Robert “Boots” Chouinard lives in Salisbury.