March 20, 2010
Note: This column appeared in the March 20, 2010, edition of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg.
Known for his coon skin cap, Fess Parker as Davy Crockett was an idol to many young baby boomers.
When I opened up the Web site for my hometown newspaper, out of the corner of my eye I saw a photo of Fess Parker in the far left column, the one reserved for the obituaries of famous or infamous people. I hesitated before I would let myself look.
Davy Crockett was dead.
“LOS ANGELES (AP) — Actor Fess Parker, who became every baby boomer’s idol in the 1950s and launched a craze for coonskin caps as television’s Davy Crockett, died Thursday of natural causes. He was 85.”
He got me drunk once. Well, a little tipsy. More on that in a minute.
If you’re of a certain age, you remember that tall, lanky figure dressed up in fringed buckskin, fighting his way across the mythic American frontier of the first half of the 19th century, wrestling bears, fighting or befriending Indians and besting bad guys.
OK, it was the frontier as imagined by Walt Disney, which had little relationship to reality, but never mind. Disney was all about imagination, and he gave us somebody bigger and better than real life — a hero, a straight-shooter (literally and figuratively) and a guy we all wanted to be.
Parker later sort of reprised his role as Crockett in a TV series about Daniel Boone, playing the title role and, for all appearances, wearing the same suit, expression and personality.
Back in the spring of 1997, I was in the Santa Barbara area on vacation with Sue. Her dad had worked for Disney for a long time and during an occasion where he and Parker were receiving Disney Legend awards, Parker had said if we ever got up his way, to stop in and visit his winery.
A few years later, we did. We went in, sent a message to the offices upstairs, and went to look around in the gift shop.
“He’s not going to come, you know,” I told her. “Somebody will come down and say Mr. Parker is tied up, but they will be happy to give us a tour.”
A few minutes later, I’m poking around wondering if I could live with myself if I bought a Fess Parker golf shirt, because I don’t golf, when a voice, THAT voice, called out Sue’s name as a question.
I turned, and there stood Davy Crockett.
He looked about nine feet tall, with a mop of white hair, a cotton shirt and blue jeans. Solemnly, I shook his hand and introduced myself. I am a newspaper reporter. I have interviewed my share of famous and notorious people. I am cool.
In my head, though, a small blond boy inclined to chubbiness and wearing a coonskin cap charged forward to the front of my mind and squealed “It’s DAVY CROCKETT!”
It went pretty much like that all day.
It was like hanging around with an old friend. Part of that, for me, was because I had known him forever, had been him, in important ways, wearing my coonskin cap and slaying swarms of bad guys in scores of backyard battles.
He invited us to a private wine tasting. My memory is foggy, but it was from nine to a dozen wines. He was giving me a lesson in why wine lists use words like “earthy” and “woody” to describe background flavors in various wines. By the end of the tasting, I was pretty buzzed.
He piled us into his enormous old Mercedes sedan and hauled us into the village of Los Olivos for lunch.
On the way, he told a story about little Fess riding his dad’s mule into nearby Fort Worth. The animal got into the middle of an intersection and decided he had had enough traveling for one day, and simply stopped. Parker said his father had to come to town to jump-start the beast.
All the while, though I remained outwardly calm, that dumb kid in the coonskin cap kept running around in my head, issuing war whoops and being obstreperous.
Finally, I told him about that little hellion stomping around in my imagination.
“Don’t worry,” he said, with that lopsided grin, “I get that a lot.”
I’ll bet he did. Goodbye, Davy.