One Native Life: Riding With the Cartwrights

I’ve discovered, in my life as a tribal person, that rituals ground you. They don’t need to be elaborate in their solemnity or deeply devotional in their application to affect you that way. No, rituals, no matter how slight or insignificant, have the power to let you feel the ground on which you stand, connect you to the people you share your home and planet with, allow you the freedom to breathe.

Little rituals today keep me rooted. Walking the dog in the early morning by the lake, washing dishes right after supper, getting the morning coffee ready the night before or making the lunch my partner will eat at work that day. All of them plant me squarely in my life just like the more traditional rituals of prayer, smudging or sweat lodges.

Like everyone I learned about those little rituals early. When I was six or seven Sunday nights were a ritual. It was the mid 60s and if times were a little slower then, it made everything all that much more perfect.

I was living in my second foster home and those Sunday evenings were the first thing in my life that gave me a sense of family, of togetherness, of sharing. Everyone gathered in the living room. The lights were turned low and the telephone, if it rang, was never answered. I still recall the excitement as the old Philips TV in the corner sprang to life.

It began with The Thunderbirds. They were animated puppets riding in Super Car, a magical machine that could dive under water and fly through the air at jet speed. We watched it together every week. Then, as the credits rolled, we arranged the TV trays that dinner was served on. We did it quickly because the big show was next.

It was Walt Disney. Every week it seemed like Disney offered up amazing journeys like Spin & Marty, Flubber, Sammy the Way Out Seal and the usual gang of Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy. It was charming television. There was an ease to the storytelling that’s lost these days and everyone regardless of age could sink themselves into it and disappear for an hour.

Then it was the Ed Sullivan Show. The dishes were cleared for washing up later and we sat and watched the entertainers presented each week. There were still vaudeville performers around then, tap dancers, magicians, ventriloquists and singers. They were show people, raised on the old boards and taught to work a crowd, offer up the spirit of their art humbly and generously and it was captivating. I saw the Beatles in 1964, Elvis, Liberace, Ethel Merman, Sherry Lewis and Lamb Chop and the great Edgar Bergen.

But it was after that weekly spectacle that the night truly became magical.

At nine o’clock Bonanza came on. It was the highlight of the week for everyone. We rode the west with Ben and Hoss, Little Joe and Adam. We rode the length and breadth of the Ponderosa each week, could almost smell those pines, feel the sway of horses beneath us and the Cartwrights gave us adventure and romance and the feeling of family. We never missed it.

Rding with the Cartwrights was absolutely engaging. We all had our favorites. Mine was Little Joe and his beautiful paint horse. And we all had our favorite episodes that we talked about and argued over. Mine was a hilarious episode called Hoss and the Leprechauns. But every week we were lifted out of our chairs and our lives and taken away on sweeping journeys we shared together.

Then, later, alone in my bed, I would go back over all that I’d seen. Drifting off to sleep, filled with images of hope and warmth, community and adventure, generosity of spirit and storytelling, I couldn’t wait for the replay of that ritual in seven days time. Those few hours in front of the television, huddled together in the living room were a ritual that framed my early childhood, made me forget that I was a foster kid, a displaced person, filled with hurts I hadn’t found the words for yet.

I left that foster home when I was nine, went to a different family in a different place who didn’t have rituals like that. Television was restricted to a few hours a week and meals were never eaten away from the table. I was nine and introduced to the rituals of discipline, responsibility, punishment, studiousness and a hard Presbyterian ethic. There were no magic times. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if there’d been a time of gathering like those special Sunday nights.

Television has changed now. It’s like the charm has gone. There was an innocence and a humility to TV then that’s missing now. There are no Ed Sullivans, no grand production numbers of dance and orchestra, no vocal chorales or ebullient entertainers who learned their chops and riffs in small vaudeville theaters, no real spellbinders, no Red Skeltons, Maurice Chevaliers, Carmen McRaes or Cyd Charisse – and there’s no one like the Cartwrights.

But what’s missing the most is the living room, a gathering place. We’d be such stronger homes and communities if we could find a way to recreate that – a place where magic is shared whether it’s a TV, a radio, a guitar, a book or a favorite story retold for the thousandth time.

When you come together in a ritual way like that, gather together for the sublime purpose of simply being together and sharing a common magic, the strength of that ritual binds you, shapes you, maybe even saves you one day. I learned that as a foster home kid and these days, as a grown native man of 52, it’s the rituals of coming together that hold the charm and the power for me.

We’re tribal people, the whole magnificent lot of us and we shine best in our togetherness.