Off and Away With the Masked Man

THE lights in the big arena dimmed to black. Several thousand children eating Cracker Jack and cotton candy suddenly stopped munching. The stillness was enough to hear a hundred Captain Marvel decoder watches ticking.

Normally, children and so-called adults in this kind of epic encounter with a transcendent American hero experience pounding hearts and dry mouths. Not me. I went ``cool.'' I felt responsible, obligated. The Lone Ranger had been dedicated and fearless in the face of danger, and indefatigable in fighting crime, and I had to be just like him if he were ever to ask me to ride with him in the battle to keep the West free of thugs. He always left a silver bullet and rode away to the next episode.

So I sat in the darkness, in control, steel-like in my resolve, my Cracker Jack box crushed between my knees, my dry hands gripping the arms of the seat. Then the thundering music started, a signal that I was about to see and be with the greatest hero of all time. The familiar voice, high and profoundly dramatic, echoed through the arena announcing his arrival: ``From out of the West comes the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!''

To put this in context, picture a small boy and his two brothers living in Plainfield, Ill., near Chicago, far removed from the illusion of the cowboys, rustlers, and Indians of the West. Our only link to them was the wonder of radio.

Every Sunday afternoon, when the drama of the Lone Ranger and Tonto came to us in our house on Bartlett Street, we participated in the masked man's adventures as if the radio did not exist. When he said to Silver, in that deep, pure voice of love and goodness, ``Steady, big fella,'' I was there too. ``Steady, big fella,'' I said, just as concerned about the great steed's welfare as my hero was.

And when Tonto examined hoof prints on the trail, or the embers of a campfire, and he knew who the bad guys were - and their boot sizes - and how long ago they'd been there, I trusted him, too, because he was in my living room, talking to me, pointing to the mountain where we would ride together to recover the stolen money.

Now, some 45 years later, I acknowledge the privilege of a boyhood dazzled by the clear morality of the Lone Ranger, however commercial and contrived was the illusion. And as for the other popular cowboys of the day - Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Red Ryder, Sunset Carson, Smiley Burnette, and Gabby Hayes - the Ross Perot of sidekicks - they were the gentlest of Western heroes.

They sang and played the guitar, loved their horses, and fought crime with moral strength and intelligence instead of knocking off heads and blowing up bodies. Today, morality in stories is too often lost in blood flow, in savagery.

If there are any values or morality to be found in today's TV adventures, movies, or video games, they are swallowed up in the overwhelming technological noise and the grotesque, stupid premise that force and weapons are the only answers.

In that arena in Chicago, so many years ago, the white circles of several spotlights fell on the great horse Silver as he and the Lone Ranger, in white clothes, hat, and a black mask, raced into the center of the arena with sawdust flying.

WHILE the ``William Tell Overture'' played on the loudspeakers and several thousand children cheered, Silver reared up on his hind legs, and the Lone Ranger twirled his hat above his head. The silver bullets in his belt caught the spotlights, glistening like diamonds. So did the spurs on his boots. Silver pawed the air with his hooves.

I thought I would pop. My Cracker Jack slipped to the floor, flattened under my feet. I lost my cool. My mouth hung open. ``The Lone Ranger. There he is, The Lone Ranger. And Silver, there in front of me is the Great Horse Silver.''

When the music faded, the masked man rode around the arena, a microphone in his hand, the spotlights still reflecting the white of his costume and Silver in luminous glow. ``Boys and girls,'' he said in that husky, mellow voice I can still hear today, ``I'm sure glad you came tonight. Silver is too.'' And with a tug on the reins, Silver whinnied his greeting. Awed laughter rippled through the arena.

``I'm sorry Tonto couldn't be here tonight,'' the masked man said. Then he shared a message in Indian, and translated it, telling us that Tonto said he would be in the next episode, and be sure to listen.

Silver did tricks - counting, kneeling, walking backward, and removing the Lone Ranger's hat. The masked man talked to the audience and Silver, bantering easily as Silver did each trick. I remember vaguely that other cowboys, roping and riding, preceded the appearance of the Lone Ranger. But for the 40 minutes or so that he rode easily around the arena, I was at that point of awe, imagination fulfilled, where respect and resolve merge in a boy when he meets his hero.

I WANTED to be him, to do what he did, and to do the kind of things that he might do if he lived in Plainfield, Ill. Long before ``role model'' became part of our vernacular, a boy could have done worse than having the Lone Ranger as a role model for grace and determination week after week. And Tonto, so loyal and steady as a friend, even though their relationship hid the historical reality of Indians as a beaten people.

On the way home, I was glad that finally I knew how the Lone Ranger earned his money. But I wanted to know what his ranch looked like, and how he stayed so white. And where did he get his silver bullets?

It was the simplest of times for me: I had a loving family around me, and I lived in a small town with green trees and houses with big porches. To have the Lone Ranger and Silver ride down my street, and stop at my house, did not seem to be illogical. After all, he did ride into Chicago.

In my heart, I knew he would probably never ride along my street, but in the exchange of values that took place between the two of us, there was a lot less distance than, say, the man next door who never smiled and kept his shades drawn all the time.

A few days later, I wrote a letter to the masked man, asking him questions about Silver and inviting him to ride into Plainfield. I was not disappointed that he never answered.

Gratefully, what lingers is the memory of seeing him and being drawn to his goodness. What he left me was better than a silver bullet, although I wouldn't have minded a bit if he had ridden along Bartlett Street in the sun, so white and magnificent, and tossed me a silver bullet for being loyal. ``Steady, big fella,'' he would have said to Silver, tipped his hat to me, and then galloped away.

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