End of an era for the ‘Pusswedilla’ cowboy! | Daily News

End of an era for the ‘Pusswedilla’ cowboy!

We all need heroes. We need champions whose deeds and accomplishments thrill, inspire and teach. For much of the 20th century, the cowboy was the archetypal American hero for many a young lad. He was emulated by youngsters of disparate nations as far apart as Europe and the far-flung British colonies.

So it was not only Americans but several generations of impressionable young Ceylonese who sought to emulate their comic book and film icons. We Baby Boomers who grew up in the 1950s-60s were the first generation here raised on legends of the old American West. Our daily intellectual and entertainment diet included Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and Davy Crockett.

Westerns are the major defining genus of the American film industry, a nostalgic eulogy to the early days of the expansive, untamed American frontier - the borderline between civilization and the wilderness. They are one of the oldest, most enduring and flexible genres and one of the most characteristically American types in their mythical origins

Few figures in history have had as powerful an impact on masculinity as the cowboy. For over a century, the cowboy has — for better or for worse — been a standard of rugged individualism and stoic bravery for all males. While the mythology of the American cowboy began all the way back in the 1880s with dime novels and Wild West shows, it wasn’t until the advent of twentieth century cinema that the cowboy cemented his place as an icon of manliness.

Successive generations of filmmakers have used the Wild West as a backdrop on which to explore the social issues of their respective eras. Many early Westerns were heavy on action, but light on plot. Their primary goal was to simply entertain and as kids we were totally enamored by the action exploding on the big screen.

And so we imitated the unblinking thousand yard stare of the fearless frontiersman. We wore our six-shooters in their holsters, and broad-brimmed hats on our heads as we swaggered outdoors with the panache of intrepid gunslingers. After all, everyone knew we were the coolest, calmest, most-heroic hombres around town. No one dared tell us otherwise.

Thanks to comic books and western movies the cowboy had by then attained mythic stature in the American saga. Mixed leather-clad mountain men, fearless then represented the Old West. In the mid to late 50s, I was in love with the Wild and Woolly West. My dream of being a cowboy included a deep desire to have a full cowboy outfit that included the hat, shirt, jeans, boots, and a pair of revolvers in vinyl holsters hanging from a wide, hand-tooled gun belt with a shiny, silver buckle. Dreams have no limitations. I had cowboy boots, a cowboy hat, and Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy, was my hero. But I longed for a pair of Roy Rogers’ style pistols even if they were just cap guns. It was a magical time when the lines between good and evil were so clearly defined, and the good guys always won.

These top of the line RR cap pistols were toys that looked and sounded pretty real. The explosive caps were made of red or yellow paper layered over little mounds of gunpowder less than a quarter-inch wide. The caps came in a roll that fitted over a spindle inside the six-shooter and fed out at the top of the pistol when fired. Firing a cap pistol with the loud ‘crack’ and a puff of smoke was an exciting moment, one that sounded similar to those of cowboys firing their pistols on the silver screen.

In those days every other feature at the movies was a horse opera, with a superb cast of heroes and villains. We cowboy enthusiasts knew Roy Rogers and Dale Evans better than our own neighbours, and every kid play-actor knew how to die, western style clutching hand to chest, gasping and uttering a profound cliché.

Their knees would buckle before they hit the ground sideways. Then they would play dead for a few seconds come back to life miraculously and fire again.

When comics turned into novels and novels into movies, John Wayne became a favourite western hero. He taught me to strut with my double rig cap guns and taught me a few smart aleck lines. And as we swaggered for the showdown the ambience was usually imaginatively punctuated with a Western music score swirling through our heads. We might not have been great thespians but the notion that we were the heroes of all mythology, miraculously brought to life, served to magnify our acting abilities.

As young teens it was natural that we were part of a multitude obsessed with recreating the actions of our screen cowboy heroes. It was a phase which would soon be overshadowed by a more modernised secret agent hero - Ian Fleming’s James Bond. But there wasn’t the slightest plausible excuse for young adult males, many in their early and mid 20s, to ape their celluloid heroes in the most ludicrous ways imaginable.

Film buffs were also fascinated by the cowboy’s style of lighting his smoke stick by striking a match again his boot. What many of them didn’t realise was that Sri Lanka had advanced to safety matches long before the strike-anywhere match-sticks had been in invented.

Safety matches are matches that will only ignite when struck against had a specially prepared striking surface like those found on the sides of matchboxes containing phosphorous.

For this reason, they are also known as “strike on box matches.” They are the most common type of matches available today.

But several young adults appeared to have considered it far more stylish to light up by striking a safety match against the sole of a shoe to which they had pasted a phosphorous strip. They would occupy front-row cinema seats and strike ridiculous poses while imagining they were cutting a swank figure to impress the girls in the dres-circle seats.

But one damp Sunday morning a couple of these cowboys failed to strike a light however much they tried to the he amusement of the audience. The girls giggled uncontrollably while the front-stall gallery boys greeted every un-ignited matchstick with yells of ‘Pusswedilla cowboy!’

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