On Depression and Westerns

Special guest Article by Leigh Evans KreuzThey say you never forget your first love.

I’m thirty-eight now and I’ve forgotten a big chunk of my life up until this point. Sometimes, if I’m especially #blessed, the right stimuli and the right amount of THC knock a few things loose. Being born before the turn of the century, I was a kid who, like my parents before me, was raised largely by television. Our story begins during the little slice of my life in which I was often sat behind the arm of a floral patterned sofa, staring in rapt attention at the rabbit-eared television; relic from the time when sets were advertised as being (holy smokes, Batman!) IN COLOR. I happened to be born into a culty Assembly of God church run by a guy who wore Jim Jones sunglasses without a single wit of irony and utilized information control in the guise of “keeping the children safe”.

That meant we weren’t allowed to just watch whatever we wanted because the stuff on TV would send demons through the screen or something. (For further reading and cringing so hard your back cracks read “Turmoil in the Toybox” by Phil Phillips). The selection of “Jesus approved” material was pretty slim for the child of “God and country” 1980s Reaganites.

So what was “safe” enough for my young, malleable brain? Well, as luck would have it, the ubiquitous western and frontier re-runs from the 50s were being broadcast to New York’s murder capital back then. That was what got the holy seal of approval. I presume it was because the 50s was the time of god-fearing American exceptionalism in media. Remember Disney’s “Davy Crockett” series with Fess Parker? American as apple pie. It was the greatest, most fascinating thing I’d ever seen in my short life. To this day I can probably still sing the entire theme song backwards and forwards with minimal effort. Did I watch Disney’s other contributions to the genre? Hell yeah. Somehow, during the airing of a certain Disney series with Guy Williams, these mysterious Zs written in chalk began appearing on doors. (We never found out who the culprit was. They may still be at large.)

As I got older I’d watch quite a few John Wayne movies, usually because my dad was watching them, even though the subtleties of the plots were still way too advanced for my mushy brain to comprehend. I still remember recreating the “the hell I won’t” dialogue from “McLintock!” and making him wheeze with laughter. Dad even let me watch some of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” with him when I was about seven and gradually introduced me to this phenomenon called spaghetti westerns. Unlike the John Ford films that could get sort of gritty but mostly shied away from the really intense stuff, Sergio Leone didn’t sugar coat anything.

The first time I saw “Once Upon a Time in the West” I was “blown away” (haha) and admittedly a bit frightened by the lengthy opening scene. It didn’t matter to me how old the shows were or what the underlying message was. I just saw stuff that was action packed and bad ass and boy howdy, did I eat it up. It sounds dense, but I really didn’t recognize how much of an impact it had on me.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch… It was a year ago when the inexhaustible depression was kicking me in the face. I was wrangling with the grief of losing three friends in rapid succession, and that last one in October… that one hit like a freight train. It’s something I still wrangle with, the grand total graves I’ve metaphorically dug from May 2022 to the last day of 2023 totalling seven. It was on one of those horrifically gray days in January where I was just exhausted and feeling like I wanted to find an escape rope that maybe came in the form of a noose. Faced with a dilemma, I chose the better option of taking a toke, going online, and plugging in searches for some of the shows I used to watch but hadn’t seen in more than a decade.

That time the right stimulus and the right amount of doobage worked their magic in a way I wasn’t really expecting. I feel like it kind of flipped on one of the light switches that illuminate the dark passages in my brain. It just so happened that’s where I was storing a lot of happy things. It had an unexpected domino effect. Every time I re-watched the things I knew and loved I unlocked a little more of the things that came with it. I remembered watching “Chisum” one weekend when I was twelve, listening to the “Leftoverture” album by Kansas for some reason, and telling my friend Adam all about this really cool old movie I’d seen. I remembered my mom giving me a big box copy of “The Big Rip-Off” (AKA “The Dirty Outlaws” and “El Desperado”) that she found at work in case I wanted to see it and thinking “Wow, Andrea Giordana is both the least attractive man and the most attractive man I’ve seen up to this point.” (I lost the big box with its great cover art long ago but I’ve still got the tape squirreled away like a family heirloom.)

I remembered watching “Daniel Boone” and for some reason my brain has always associated it with springtime. I accidentally found out while I was writing this that it aired on ABC in March of 1988. Piecing things together from when you were two years old is a trip and a half, let me tell you. Having found something that sparked a little bit of joy in me, I did what you do when you’re an undiagnosed ADHD weirdo and threw myself completely into it. I discovered that I’d just barely scratched the surface. There’s absolutely loads of TV shows no one has heard about, “Pony Express” being my new favorite obscurity (see “Westerns on the Web” on YouTube – they have a phenomenal “Forsaken Westerns” series that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed).

I’m pretty sure it was around February last year when I did the math and realized that this is probably the earliest non-human thing I recall really becoming a fan of. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I experienced the terrible and lovely embarrassment that I feel whenever I get inexplicably attracted to something or someone, so technically my first love, right? I’m cautiously optimistic in saying I haven’t fallen back into the pits too much since I rediscovered my love of ye olde cowboy kitsch, despite an often tenuous grip. Hell, it brought the writing spark back, which is a huge thing in itself when you’ve pretty much resigned yourself to never again putting pen to paper in any meaningful way.

Sure, I may be pretty garbage at it but I’m inspired garbage, dammit. It’s been a weird, wild, wonderful journey over the last year. I guess I did end up finding an escape rope in the form of a lasso, if you’ll forgive the cheeesiness.

Everyone has a first love, a second, love, a fifth love, maybe a brand new love coming down the track. Put your boots on, saddle up your horse and go find it.