Sunday, April 19, 2009

Radio Memories: At The Gallop, Ho!

I think we reach an important step in our learning when we turn a corner and realize, “there’s more to this subject than I first realized, there’s more here than first meets the eye”.

So much about learning involves un-learning, seeing new sides to the ideas we hold about old forms, struggling to accommodate the unexpected as well as the supposed, as our understanding grows from a premature, two-dimensional shallowness towards a fuller, three-dimensional point of view.

Probably the hardest lesson to learn of them all, is the unlearning that comes with humility, as the wisdom of age and experience make us realize that the true big picture is something to reach for, yet never achieve... much as our march towards the promised end of a rainbow just reveals a farther and eternally distant horizon, remaining within sight, while still beyond reach.

Listening to the radio in this day and age it’s hard to imagine the era that came before our own, where radio offered much more than music, talk and more music. Once upon a time radio offered an art form all its own: radio drama, a theater for the mind.

Every Sunday we take a break from blogging about more current stories to remember a broadcast from radio’s past, hoping that through these Radio Memories we may see something new about our own time.

This week’s offering revolves around a character "unlearning" much of his pre-conceived ideas about life on the western frontier, an experience I can relate to from visiting the real-life location featured on the show.

The old radio drama is entitled “War Correspondent”, and was first broadcast on Sunday May 13, 1956. It's from the somber series, Fort Laramie, an excellent radio western overshadowed in its day by the more popular, and long-running Gunsmoke, with whom it shared the same director and behind-the-mike production staff. A commonly-held opinion among modern-day listeners places Fort Laramie just below Gunsmoke as the greatest of old-time radio westerns, due to the tremendous attention paid to detail through their sound effects, the arresting performances by lead actor Raymond Burr (only months away from the title role that would bring him immortal fame as television’s supreme lawyer Perry Mason) and the dedication to historical accuracy that characterized much of radio’s final flirtation with the Old West… a far cry from the earlier singing-cowboy/Lone Ranger heroics that radio drama started off with.

After a childhood spent eagerly visiting eastern forts like Fort York, Fort Henry, and Fort Lennox, as well as growing up with a steady diet of old Hollywood cavalry movies, I sure didn’t expect to find the real Fort Laramie to be what it actually was, when a US history-loving child’s dream came true during my visit there a few years ago. My biggest surprise was the discovery that Fort Laramie had no fortifications; no wooden walls to huddle behind and find shelter from Sioux arrows or Arapaho bullets. While the initial fur trading post originally built there seems to have followed the romantic ideal of what a “western fort” would look like, the government military post that it soon became was just a bunch of buildings; a staging area to leave from, not a site to defend.

Chatting with the guide the day of our visit, he explained that at the time, since nobody knew what to expect, they were therefore unsure of what to build, that would prove effective in governing the immense area that the regiments based at the fort would be in charge of securing.

Another surprise awaited me when my renewed interest in the fort led me to learn that the last time the troops from Fort Laramie were marshaled into service, was not to combat any Indian uprising on the frontier, but rather to suppress a vengeful group of union thugs hell-bent on death and destruction during the infamous Rock Springs Massacre of 1885. Members of the Noble And Holy Order of the Knights Of Labor, the 19th Century organization known today as the muscle behind the birth of our annual Labor Day holiday, among other achievements, were decidedly less noble when it came to their reaction to the competition from Chinese immigrant labor.

The army was forced to keep a presence in the area for years following the massacre in order to keep the peace, eventually leaving a decade later for the Spanish-American War.

The scale of the violence, and the depth of the hatred that brought it to bear, was national news at the time, even earning a mention in President Grover Cleveland's end-of-the-year State of the Union address to Congress:

... In the application of the acts lately passed to execute the treaty of 1880, restrictive of the immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States, individual cases of hardship have occurred beyond the power of the Executive to remedy, and calling for judicial determination.

The condition of the Chinese question in the Western States and Territories is, despite this restrictive legislation, far from being satisfactory. The recent outbreak in Wyoming Territory, where numbers of unoffending Chinamen, indisputably within the protection of the treaties and the law, were murdered by a mob, and the still more recent threatened outbreak of the same character in Washington Territory, are fresh in the minds of all, and there is apprehension lest the bitterness of feeling against the Mongolian race on the Pacific Slope may find vent in similar lawless demonstrations. All the power of this Government should be exerted to maintain the amplest good faith toward China in the treatment of these men, and the inflexible sternness of the law in bringing the wrongdoers to justice should be insisted upon.

Every effort has been made by this Government to prevent these violent outbreaks and to aid the representatives of China in their investigation of these outrages; and it is but just to say that they are traceable to the lawlessness of men not citizens of the United States engaged in competition with Chinese laborers.

Race prejudice is the chief factor in originating these disturbances, and it exists in a large part of our domain, jeopardizing our domestic peace and the good relationship we strive to maintain with China.

But all this takes us further afield from the dry, windswept prairie surrounding the forlorn outpost of Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and the humbling exploits of Lee Quince, Captain of Cavalry, as he mentors a journalist in his struggle to unlearn myths about America's western frontier, helping him, and us, march one step closer to the truth.

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Previous Radio Memories posts:

CBS Radio Workshop: Son Of Man
Great Gildersleeve: Easter Rabbits

Dimension X: Time And Time Again
An American In England: Women Of Britain
Cavalcade Of America: Bob Hope Reports
The March Of Time: Feb 10 1938 broadcast
Hear It Now: Coming Home From The Korean War
Escape: Vanishing Lady
Rogers Of The Gazette: Rewinding The Town Clock

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