Tuesday, March 23, 2010

As They Say In Texas, “I Told You That Story To Tell You This One”

Fess Parker passed away last week in Southern California. Although he was born and raised in Texas, and graduated from the University of Texas in Austin, he spent most of his adult life living in California. In his later years, he ran a resort and a winery, but it was his early years that the baby boomers remember most, when, as a television and movie actor, he played both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. I remember both of my older brothers wearing the coonskin cap he made famous during those years. But, as they say here in Texas, I told you that story to tell you this one.

There are two movies that are similar, and which baby boomers watched countless times growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s. One movie was The Yearling, based on the book with the same name, written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The other movie was Old Yeller, based on the book with the same name, written by Fred Gipson.

The books, and the movies they spawned, are both about boys coming of age in the rural South in the years following the American Civil War. In the book and movie, The Yearling, a boy is growing up in rural Florida, and, in the book and movie, Old Yeller, a boy is growing up in the rural hill country of Texas. In both of the books and the movie renditions, the boy of the story becomes attached to an animal, and, in the end, due to unforeseen circumstances, he is forced to kill it. Both Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Fred Gipson wrote about what they knew. Rawlings grew up in rural Florida, and Gipson in the hill country of Texas. In both cases, these rural locations were central to their stories.

Fred Gipson was born in the Texas Hill Country’s Mason County in 1908, and grew up on a farm there. After graduating from high school, he briefly attended the University of Texas, but soon left to write for newspapers and magazines. Eventually, he began writing books. Among the many books he wrote, Old Yeller became a classic. Now, once again, I told you that story to tell you this one.

Fess Parker, the Texas-born actor I mentioned earlier, after graduating from the University of Texas, soon left the state to pursue an acting career. Over the years, he acted in many television and movie roles, including Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett. But one of the movies that helped make him a Hollywood Star was playing the part of the father in the Disney movie, Old Yeller, based on Fred Gipson’s novel. And, while he occasionally played characters with Texas themes, he never returned to live in Texas.

Fred Gipson, on the other hand, never really left Texas. He died in the hill country in 1973, not far from where he was born. Along the way, he wrote a string of books, several of which became movies, and which dealt with rural Texas themes and the animals he loved. Upon Gipson’s leaving us, his burial in the exclusive Texas State Cemetery in Austin was approved by a proclamation of the governor. And, as Paul Harvey used to say, “now you know the rest of the story.” The epitaph on his headstone sums up his life in the nicest and, most appropriate way.


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