He always looms larger-than-life in my mind's eye. Perhaps it was the way in which he stood, feet apart, hands like baseball mitts loose at his sides. Solid, stolid, unchangeable. Perhaps it was in the deep lines of his face, weathered like a mountain. However it had happened, I've always equated my grandfather with The Duke.
My father introduced me to John Wayne films very young. Apart from the occasional cartoon, most of the movies I can remember seeing were Westerns- The Searchers, Rio Grande, Hondo. I'd never had trouble discerning between reality and fiction, but this was different. Sure, they looked a little different. My grandpa wasn't quite as tall, maybe. But I knew that in some way I didn't quite understand that they were fundamentally the same person.
Maybe they're archetypes, reflections of a cultural ideal of some kind. Mythic figures surrounded by stories about honor and strength and general badassery.
Curly-haired little Spanish kid that I was, I soaked it all up, wide eyes affixed to the television screen watching The Duke face off against the bad guy. My grandfather was how a man should be. He smelled like old leather and was twice as tough. I once watched him take on two huge guys with baseball bats who were beating some poor sap for reasons unknown. He stormed out of the house armed only with his fists and blinding rage at their cowardice. They ran like frightened jackrabbits.
Probably my favorite John Wayne movie is The Cowboys. It was almost shocking to see such a radical departure from his usual movie persona. At this point in his career he's old, world-weary and tired. His character, Will Anderson, must drive 1,500 head of cattle to auction 400 miles away to provide for his widow after his death. Because no men are available to drive the herd, he must hire young boys.
From my great(+) grandfather, Ponce de Leon's quest for the Fountain of Youth to the American dream of unlimited potential and freedom from social constraints, the Western dream was about endless youth. Accordingly, John Wayne's early movies often embodied the possibility of starting over, of sloughing off the corrupt past and reclaiming innocence.
The Cowboys is different. It was the first John Wayne Western in which I can remember seeing him defeated. I saw John Wayne die.
The real-life Wayne (if there truly is a difference) had a cancerous lung removed in 1963, had open-heart surgery in 1978, had his stomach removed in 1979, and finally died of cancer later that same year.
My grandfather is in the diagnostic process right now. It looks like either stomach cancer or cirrhosis of the liver. It scares me. I guess I've always thought of him as being a constant in my life. I've never seen him look fragile before.
In The Cowboys, John Wayne's character, Will Anderson never makes it. Will is shot by a group of rustlers en route to the auction. Laying dying, he says, "Summer's over."
Perhaps he's right.
My grandfather passed away suddenly on December 29th, 2002. I read this at his funeral. He'll be greatly missed.