Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"It's Baxter!"

Had to do some real digging to find any "Baxter" Meow Mix commercials, which used to be my favorite. No sign of them on YouTube, it's a pity, someone has to get going on this!


Oh, how I remember this:  I'd be crouched on the floor in the den in our old house in Chatham, probably working on some project, plasticine or construction paper and glue. The TV would be on in the background, and I'd barely be paying attention to it: Fury was over, along with Sky King and Sea Hunt and all those other things that came on every Saturday morning.

Then I'd hear a familiar glissando on a harp, and a lavishly sentimental theme played by a schmaltzy orchestra. The title would flash on the screen, and I would be in ecstasy.


Flicka didn't seem to come on according to any sort of schedule. She was probably shoehorned in whenever there was a half-hour not accounted for by Bozo the Clown, Jingles the Jester, or Captain Jolly (the bizarre lineup of local kids' shows we watched from nearby Detroit). So that made her all the more special. I felt a kind of bliss when Flicka came on, and even though it was in black and white I could see the magnificent mare's sorrel coat burnished in the sun.

The show was all about Flicka, of course (in real life, a prize Arabian named Wahana), but it went deeper than that. This was a psychological Western, much soppier and more sentimental than Have Gun, Will Travel, but still full of significance. It was far more than just the story of a horse and the boy who loved her: it was a coming-of-age tale, sometimes painful, sometimes a little maudlin, but always fascinating to a horse-crazy girl like me.

Johnny Washbrook played Ken McLaughlin, a freckle-faced kid with an irritatingly high voice and a tendency to burst into tears at the slightest provocation. Since something awful was always happening to Flicka (she'd go blind, be stolen, run away, develop colic from a bad apple, or be wrongly accused of assault and battery), he cried a lot. His mother (Anita Louise, I think: a sort of cut-rate Dorothy McGuire) was constantly patting his shoulder and reasuring him, while his Dad, a sort of Dan Blocker stand-in who had played in too many generic Westerns, wanted to make a man out of him by subjecting him to all sorts of brutal trials.

Johnny may have been a soppy character, but he could ride, and he seemed as natural on that horse as a centaur. Flicka was one of those hypersensitive creatures who seems to know what you want before you do. Arabians can be mighty flaky, but also deeply devoted, an ancient trait from those nomadic desert days when a horse didn't dare lose track of its master (or vice-versa).

I knew this show wasn't recent: it had that muddy quality of something made in the mid-'50s. I sort of let it wash over me: I longed for horse shows, for horse books, for horse anything. And while I did finally own a horse for several years, a game and eccentric little trail horse named Rocky, the truth about horses never quite matched the dream.

For horses represented absolute freedom. Freedom from a family system that could be loving, then turn on a dime and be devastatingly abusive. Horses were a refuge for me, and I loved the sound of them, the whinnying and chuffing, the smell of their sweaty hides, the creaking of leather on a Western saddle.

There are strange gaps in my memory about all this, for I don't remember ever receiving any instruction in riding. To be honest, I had to pick it up myself. I was never told how to saddle or bridle a horse, how to curry it or look after its feet, but I don't remember not knowing. For a couple of years I went trail riding at a ranch called the Lazy J, and whenever I had the chance I rode a special horse who seemed to somehow teach me the basics. I never fell off, though Rocky had a tendency to dawdle on the way out and gallop on the way home.

This was a completely unguided trail. You were set loose after paying maybe $5.00. You could, in all honesty, spend hours on it, exploring its twists and turns, except that after a half hour or so the horses got fed up with all that and took off for the barn.

I suppose Rocky was no Flicka, but we knew each other well and were good companions. In truth, he was a replacement for the first horse my Dad bought me, a three-year-old mare who had no training at all. If I tried to mount her, she took off. She pulled like a train, and seemed to hate to have anything on her back. Dad knew nothing about horses and bought the mare for looks and status (his chief business rival had just bought HIS daughter a horse, a real looker named Apache). I was tearful and frustrated, my parents blamed me for not knowing enough about riding, it was touch and go as to whether I'd get a horse at all, and then. . .

"Mom, Dad, can I have Rocky?"

I suppose the story should end with me winning all sorts of prizes and ribbons and stuff like that. I didn't. Rocky loved walking through mud, he pranced ridiculously around the pasture when I tried to put his halter on, he stuck his head in the grain bucket (and wouldn't take it out), making that coffee-grinder sound horses make when they eat.  A few years later he was slowing down - he must have been ten years old, at least, and had been ridden so much before I owned him, it was surprising he had any good humor left in him at all. The place where we boarded him with a lot of rangy Standardbreds closed shop, and everywhere else was far too expensive. My own interest was beginning to thin out as I entered high school and worried about a popularity that eluded me (and still does, I might add).

So we had to sell Rocky. Weirdly, I don't remember a tearful farewell, or any kind of farewell at all. Was that the end of my horse phase? Not really, for I still feel that kinship, and though I ride only occasionally, I always have a feeling of homecoming. A couple of years ago, feeling nostalgic, I tried to find some trace of My Friend Flicka on the net, and came up pretty much empty. There was some information about the lovely novel by Mary O'Hara, and a bit about the movies that were based on it. Nothing about the show. Even now, YouTube only has a horribly grainy, distorted picture of the opening theme, obviously taken by crudely filming a TV screen.

But magic things happen on the net. Suddenly there are entire sites devoted to this show, detailed lists of episodes (39 of them in one year: that was back when a "season" was more than 13 weeks), and all sorts of backstory, including what Johnny Washbrook is doing now (who cares??). Considering the show originally ran 55 years ago, it's amazing anyone's still alive. I found a site that offers streaming video of whole episodes, and that sudsy theme with the sliding strings gives me the same old feeling.

But I have to tell you, the show's a little slow. OK, a lot slow. When you watch so-called "classic" TV, you really do have to slow your brain down to a different pace of storytelling. There appears to be ten minutes or so of plot stretched over the 24 minutes or whatever it was. There's always at least one shot of Flicka galloping furiously, maybe to warn Ken that the mine has caved in (oops, that's Lassie), or to get away from the ubiquitous Bad Guys. There are also a lot of shots of said bad guys galloping furiously toward the bank, or away from the sherriff.

In other words, it's a normal Western except for that gorgeous Arabian, and the little boy with the irritating voice who never stops crying. But I'd watch it endlessly. It was a diamond unexpectedly dropped into my lap. It was my Saturday bliss. It was Flicka.