Before I took off to school for the first time I got a really neat lunch box. I don’t know where Mom got it, but it had colorful cartoons on the outside and around the Thermos bottle tucked inside.
It was a Roy Rogers lunch box.
I never needed a lunch box for school, so the box sat at the house for a long time as a keepsake from one of America’s heroes.
In his day you didn’t do much better than did Roy Rogers. He first was a movie cowboy when that genre was enjoying its heyday. By the time TV and then a bit later I came along an older Rogers had settled into a prime-time TV western series. As a kid I watched reruns on Saturday mornings.
I especially liked the Pat Brady character, the show’s comic relief, and his Jeep called Nellybelle. For Christmas one time I wanted a Nellybelle pedal car that I saw in a catalog. I didn’t get it.
But movie and TV cowboys were a dime a dozen back in those days. Rogers was just one of many I watched as a kid; he was not even my favorite. So why did I get a Roy Rogers lunch box instead of one featuring another star?
It was because Rogers was more than just a rustler of bad guys on screen. He also was one of the more savvy businessmen among the famous movie cowboys of yesteryear.
Rogers had the foresight to wrangle a 1940 movie-studio contract that turned over to him personal merchandising rights, and his business on the side subsequently poured out a flood of products for kids, from lunch boxes to comic books.
At one time Rogers was called the biggest merchandising franchise in Hollywood after Walt Disney.
Years later, after I left home for big-boy school, I became a regular at a Roy Rogers restaurant, where I feasted on my first salad bar.
A fast-food chain that still exists in the Northeast, Roy Rogers the restaurant rustled up salads years before Ryan’s or Golden Corral ever dreamed up a buffet and before McDonalds and the others of its ilk thought about prepackaged salads.
Not only did Roy Rogers protect the good guys on TV, he protected me from starvation with good, cheap meals while I was off at school. For a second time he became my hero.
Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, also became known for their frequent charity and religious work.
For example, they did much for Down syndrome awareness after their only child was born with it. I remember them testifying one time during a Billy Graham crusade on TV. In her later years Evans hosted a cable TV talk show on one of the religious networks.
A while back I stopped dead in my tracks in one of the antique shops in downtown Elkin when I spied an old children’s book from the 1950s, “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Read The Bible.”
What a contrast to today. You just don’t see something like that from Hollywood anymore. Imagine a kid’s book today: “Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez Read The Bible.” No, I can’t imagine it, either.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans - heroes a third time.
Yet in spite of their long, stellar careers, and in spite of all the good things they did, you’d be hard pressed to find people under 50 today who know much about Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
They even closed the Roy Rogers Museum in Branson, Mo., a couple of years ago after a 42-year run as interest lagged.
Fame and accomplishment tend to have a short shelf life. Rogers died in 1998 and Evans in 2001.
“You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes,” the Bible says.
That’s a good truth to keep in mind on the occasions when we start getting too stuck on ourselves and on what wonderful things we are doing.
Heroes are like meteors that flash briefly across the sky and burn out. You’re tempted to think the movie stars, singers, popular athletes, presidents and other big-time politicians will be on TV, in movies and in the papers forever, but they won’t be.
As young people today don’t know Roy Rogers, some day people won’t know Michael Jordan. Believe it.
We’re also harder on our heroes these days. Once some celebrity or sports star starts gaining notoriety, critics will start hunting for flaws. It makes for good TV, good copy. Athletes cheat or take drugs. Celebrities break the law. Politicians become corrupt.
Notice even the fictional heroes on TV these days. Writers take pains to show a hero’s flaws like tempter, fear or self-doubt. Roy Rogers on screen never struggled with self-doubt.
And now we’re beginning to see the abhorrent practice of corrupting or trivializing our heroes. Take for example the new movie “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.”
Oh, please, someone tell me that’s some dumb hoax, that they’re not actually showing something like that.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road