Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Not-So-Sudden Death of the Lone Ranger

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 14, 9999

When I was in an earlier stage of my growing up, it seems to me that I watched an awful lot of television, probably too much.
While most of those video-induced memories have faded from my mind, a few have remained, as indelible as India ink. I can still remember "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie" as clearly as day. I can remember the animated adventures of a rubber boy named Gumby (and his faithful friend, a rubber pony named Pokey). They were the forebears of the "Dancing Raisin", I suppose. {Not much came of the "Gumby renaissance of a few years ago, I'm afraid. Kids are too busy with Pokemon to worry about Gumby.}
If I really stretch my mind a little further back, I can remember the last few episodes of "Howdy Doody", with Buffalo Bob and Clarabell the Clown. (I remember-- or think I remember-- the very last "Howdy Doody" show, when Clarabell broke her lifelong silence, and said "Good-bye, kids.")
And of course, in a more dramatic (or melodramatic) vein, wedged in there on Saturday mornings, just after "Howdy Doody" and just before "Fury" ("the story of a horse-- and the boy who loved him"), I can still remember-- perhaps the most perennial and timeless of all-- "The Adventures of the Lone Ranger".
The Lone Ranger: first on radio, later on television-- what an enigmatic and mysterious figure he was. Noble to a fault; always doing good; rescuing a damsel in distress; capturing the bankrobbers; tying up the cattle rustlers.
Never doing any of this for personal gain, either. Never. Always acting pro bono publico. Always doing it solely for the public good.
Who was that masked man? Well, here's the story of the Long Ranger:
The Lone Ranger, whose name originally was Ranger Reid (later, he's given the name "John"-- John Reid), was a member of a band of Texas Rangers led by his older brother, Daniel, who had been ambushed by the Cavendish band. After mowing down the Rangers, the Cavendish brothers left them all for dead, including John, who was, it seems still (barely) alive.
An Indian (Native American) named Tonto came upon Reid's nearly lifeless body. Interestingly, Tonto and Reid had met years before, as boys, when Reid had actually saved Tonto's life. Following that first meeting, the two had pledged themselves to one another as blood brothers, however much time and distance and circumstance might separate them. Now, Tonto reaffirms that vow and returns the favor by saving Reid's life and nursing him back to health. When Reid recovers, he vows to pursue the Cavendish gang and all outlaws in the West-- not out of vengeance, not to kill them, but to bring them to justice.
First, Reid fashions a face mask from his dead brother's vest, transforming his identity from John Reid to the Lone Ranger. The mask manages not only to hide his true identity, it also generates for Reid a new persona, a mystique, so much more powerful and awe-inspiring than his original one. The mask became the mark and sign of the Lone Ranger.
The Lone Ranger was an vivid and unmistakable exemplar of unselfish virtue as American popular culture had ever produced. He was an amazingly resilient and persistent role model for generations of young boys-- and young girls, too, probably. The Lone Ranger certainly presented a mythical, epic figure as far as he went... Which, alas, was not, perhaps, far enough...
For somewhere along the line, in the years between "The Lone Ranger" and "The Power Rangers", between "Howdy Doody" and "Pokemon" (with "Pee Wee's Playhouse" in between), the "Lone Ranger" seems to have passed away... I don't mean that he died, physically. But he faded away as a national figure and a cultural icon. His influence vanished; his importance died. Somewhere along the line, in the passing of generations from "Romper Room" to "Sesame Street" to "Barney" the purple dinosaur {shudder}, something changed, is changing...
In the late 60's, a joke made the rounds of America's cities. Surrounded by hostile Indians, the Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, "Looks like we're done for, Kimosabe." To which Tonto responds: "What do you mean 'we', paleface?" . So much for "blood brothers", I guess. Sic transit gloria, Lone Ranger...
I think it's interesting to note that the Lone Ranger rose to prominence in American culture during the 1930s and 1940s-- the years of the Depression and the New Deal, and the development of the Megastate in America society. (Indeed, for a time during the Second World War, the Lone Ranger gave up chasing cattle rustlers and bank robbers and concentrated on persuing German spies around the Wild West!)
Just as Americans started looking toward a paternalistic federal bureaucracy to "solve" all of society's problems, so Americans took a hankering toward a paternalistic Lone Ranger to swoop in from outside and make everything all right.
Times change, and so do our ideas about how problems ultimately get solved (and so do the popular symbols we emulate). In the face of the "Big Brother" specters of fascism and Communism, the Megastate became a less popular notion. People started looking within for solutions to their problems-- and toward the private sphere, and not the public, as the major engine driving society.
Individualism is certainly something we still value in our culture. But the Lone Ranger's brand of individualism-- public individualism' altruistic individualism; individualism in aid of the cause of others; individualism in service to the common good-- is no longer "chic"-- no longer as cherished, no longer celebrated as it once was.
Instead, individualism has become an end in itself, a completely narrow and private concern: individualism to make oneself rich; individualism so one can become part of the elite; individualism to garner more power and money, so one can live like Bill Gates. In our own day, in many circles, individualism has become equated with self-promotion, self-cultivation, and self-glorification...
And, we might ask, whither the Lone Ranger while all this societal transformation was going on? Did he give in to the sirens of Yuppiedom, stop rescuing damsels in distress, and become a bond trader on Wall Street? Probably not. But where did he go?
He just sort of faded away... Cultural icons don't die; they just fade away...
Maybe all that unresolved stress finally did him in... Maybe, in more modern terms, he suffered from "job burnout" (a term that didn't exist in the 40's and 50's or even in the 60's). Or maybe he just wearied in well-doing, figured that the number of outlaws was always going to exceed his efforts to do them in, and he just retired, disappeared into the hills, never to be heard from again.
Now, it's easy to blame society for the Lone Ranger's demise. But maybe some of the blame for his decline can be laid upon old Ranger Reid himself-- and upon the ethic (however noble) that he represented.
However noble his goals, the Lone Ranger always saw himself as working alone. Oh, of course there was Tonto, and their horse, Scout. (who probably never got his share of the credit either). But it's fair to say, I think, that administration wasn't the Lone Ranger's strong suit. He didn't delegate very much power or authority. His mystique, his allure was based completely on his own persona, his own sense of self-sufficiency. He never engaged the people around him. He never put them to work, too. Maybe those "damsels" in distress didn't want to just be rescued; maybe they wanted to be empowered to do it themselves! Maybe his influence would have endured longer if he had taught them how to take the initiative and deal with their own problems. (Or, to put it another way: the Lone Ranger was so busy handing out fish and chips to everyone, that nobody else beside him ever learned to fish, ever learned to take care of themselves and solve their own problems. That may be the most mangled metaphor you'll hear this morning!) By constantly trumpeting the clarion call of self reliance-- self-reliance-- self-reliance-- and then turning around and doing everything for everyone-- the Lone Ranger was setting the stage for his own degeneration.
Now, in a deep existential sense, of course, we are all destined to be alone. No other person, however close, however intimate, can ever truly share our innermost beings. This is just who we are as human beings, and a sense of this can be a healthy thing. We need "space" to stand aside from others; "space" to be ourselves.
But as Anne Morrow Lindbergh has reminded us, a painting which is all space is an empty canvass A landscape which is all space is, most often, a barren desert. "Space" within our lives, in order to become worthwhile and meaningful, has to be bordered and limited by the demands and confines of relationships. Aloneness is only something which
can have meaning in a life that is enriched and enlightened by other persons. Aloneness which is not juxtaposed with relationship quickly degenerates into loneliness and despair:
Let's face it:
there's no salvation in being alone.
We have to be with other people
and other people can, often as not,
elevate us and uplift us
as we join our common joy and pain,
common work, common struggle.
It may seem easier
to hang around all by oneself,
retreating into one's own little corner of the world,
but ultimately
that is not where we're meant to be,
hard as it is to let go and engage,
warm as it can be
held tight in our own arms.
"It is not good for [us] to be alone," the book of Genesis tells us.
And something tells me that bringing the animals into the Ark two-by-two after the Flood wasn't just done for procreation.
We are most human-- we are most alive-- when we realize that we need other people and that other people need us. Boil down all these eons of human history and experience in this world, and that's what you get. It's a most unremarkable insight, perhaps. Unremarkable, like all of us. Common as dirt; common as those we love; common as this good earth which we share in common.
We are most human-- we are most alive-- when we understand that only if we share this life-- its responsibilities, its burdens, its care-- and its joys and blessings!-- can it be worth living, is there a reason to go on. When we finally know, deep inside, that we can touch others and be touched by them in return-- that in this dance of life we are both giver and receiver, both lover and beloved-- then, we can finally know that life will be, not necessarily easier, but certainly more profound and more genuine and more choked with meaning. It is in those simple, profound blessings of interconnection that we see the days of our lives writ large and we know why we're here: in nursing a sick child back to health; in sharing common memories with those we care about; in discovering an amazing friendship where we never knew one could exist; in letting go and saying good-bye to one we love so dearly.
Perhaps, when all is said and done, that was the dimension that was missing in the life of the Lone Ranger. Just a little of that human touch... He was noble, he was virtuous... but where was the warmth? Where the humor? Where the humanity?
The Lone Ranger was very good at serving others. But he never seemed especially touched by the people around him. Once the crisis was over and the job was done, he just rode away, and his life never became a living presence in the lives of others. He never even stuck around long enough for them to be able to say thank you.
His mask inspired him, and identified him. But maybe it also cut him off from others and isolated him from them. Maybe if he'd taken off the mask every once in a while-- or had, at least, told people the story of the mask, and how much he still missed is brother Daniel... Maybe if he'd told them a little about who he really was, if he'd sat down and visited with them over coffee... maybe then, he'd have been refreshed himself, and would still be riding that range.
The Lone Ranger had Tonto, of course. And they were good friends, surely, who meant a lot to each other. But they were, after all, guys. Can you picture Tonto and the Lone Ranger, deep in conversation, having a searching heart-to-heart with one another? I think not. They probably talked about sports, and politics, and the latest prices on the silver market...
We need more than like-minded, dedicated co-workers to keep us going. We need more than casual, one-day-a-week acquaintances. We need real and true and loving friends. We need families that drive us crazy sometimes, and test us, and challenge our patience, and inspire us, and uplift us, and make us weep for joy.
We can only go so far all alone, all by ourselves.
John Denver used to sing:
Riding on the tapestry of all there is to see,
So many ways and oh so many things
Rejoicing in the differences, there's no one just like me,
Yet as different as we are, we're still the same.
Life is seldom easy.
But this we know:
Winter is a cold thing, but faith and hope are warm,
and charity's a bold thing, that can outlast the storm.
For love has its defenses, where winter cannot blow,
and he is safe who senses
the spring beneath the snow...
Infinitely more than we realize, other people need us, care about us, and long to be with us. And we need others, too.
So, as Tiny Tim observed (and maybe Tonto should have, too):
God bless us, everyone! Hi ho, Silver, away!

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