The next morning I ran to Daddy all excited, “Tell me about Gunsmoke! Was it good? What happened on it?” Daddy just smiled and answered, “Ah, Sugar, it was just a bunch of guns and a bunch of smoke.” His answer didn’t satisfy me at all and I wasn’t sure if Daddy liked the show. But Daddy began watching the show every week so I knew he really did like it. After I got old enough to stay up and watch, I loved it but didn’t understand the adult themes. And as I got older I could see that Gunsmoke isn’t for little girls.
Gunsmoke is a drama for one thing. It’s not a shoot-em-up like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. Both those men could whip a bad man and never lose their hat. They sang a happy song at the end and loved their horses more than the women. They weren’t real, but Matt Dillon was. Gunsmoke didn’t always have a happy ending; it often ended on a sad note. Gunsmoke offered something different than the other westerns. There was humor, violence, assault, cruelty, ignorance tinged with evil, justice, and a lot of drinking. Having a drink at the Long Branch Saloon was done daily. I loved Kitty Russell. She was from New Orleans and started out as part owner of the saloon. Later she buys her partner out. She was a businesswoman, a rare thing for a woman back then. She wore beautiful clothes and perfect makeup. She even had a beauty mark. She had a heart as big as Kansas and many times offered a room to some homeless person.
If the Long Branch had existed back in the Bible days, then there would have been room in the Inn for Joseph and Mary. The most frustrating thing to any avid Gunsmoke fan is Matt and Kitty’s relationship. Never, ever, do you see them kiss and they only embrace briefly on rare occasions. And yet there’s something in Matt’s voice when he tells Kitty, “Ill see you later.” It was all left up to the imagination of the viewer. They never said, I love you to each other, but you knew they did. They both kept an open mind and weren’t jealous or possessive. And yet, they would have laid down their lives for each other.
Matt chose to be a lawman and Kitty was owner, and operator of the Long Branch. They both followed their chosen paths, but their intimate relationship was evident if you could just read between the lines. And then there’s Doctor Galen Adams, who removed bullets from someone almost every episode. Matt himself got shot several times but always survived. I always wondered why Doc Adam’s office was upstairs. It would have been handier to be on the ground floor. But then you wouldn’t hear Matt say, “Some of you men, get him up to Doc’s office.” Dodge was an open town and most all the men wore guns. It was OK to shoot someone in self-defense. No lawyers to deal with and the circuit court judge only came through every three months.
Chester Good was Matt’s sidekick of sorts. He had a gimp leg and did some really dumb things. But when things got bad he was handy with a gun and always had Matt’s back. He was excitable and on many episodes can be heard yelling, “Mr. Dillon? Mr. Dillon?” He was usually the bearer of bad news and the fact that some gunfighter had just arrived in town. Doc Adams loved to spar with him and Chester never quite knew how to take the doctor’s dry sense of humor. Doctor Adams was an educated man and would quote Latin on occasion.
All four of them took their meals at the Delmonico Restaurant, and even the prisoners were fed from there. If you look closely, the menu sign outside usually features antelope stew as their special. They always finish their meal with black coffee and pie. It always looked so good; it made me want to eat there sometime. Gunsmoke was the longest running western ever on television and I can see why. I still watch the old re-runs on cable and the black and white ones are my favorite. Matt Dillon was such a noble lawman. He was hired to keep the peace in Dodge and he did just that.
Matt Dillon was wise, fair and straightforward. He had a way of cutting through the fat and getting to the truth. Sometimes all he had to go on was a hunch and he was always right. He wasn’t afraid to do his duty even if he met opposition from the town’s folk. In one episode he decides to close down Front Street due to a killer being protected by a trail boss from a nearby cattle drive. He faces the city council and tells them his plans and goes over their heads to catch the killer.
The storeowners don’t want to miss out on a sale from the drovers but Matt is more concerned with his sacred duty. He had the courage to tell some men, “Get out of Dodge.” He had so many one-liners and among them I have a favorite. In this episode a young gunman is sent to take out the Marshall. Matt shoots the gun out of the guy’s hand and then won’t let him pick the gun back up. The man says, “You don’t leave a man with much.” Matt replies dryly, “You didn’t have much when you came.” The world could use some more men like Matt Dillon.
In memory of James Arness, May 26, 1923 - June 3, 2011.
Kaye Steadman lives in Chickamauga. She is a storyteller, published writer and author of the book “My Name's Not Verly.” She can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Facebook.