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My Cisco & Pancho trauma
By Charlie Haeffner
ODESSA, Aug. 3, 2005 -- When I was a small boy -- perhaps 6 years old -- I was watching a TV western on the old black-and-white set in the small family room of the Haeffner household in Birmingham, Michigan.
The show was a popular serial program of that era -- a weekly saga about a couple of Western heroes who roamed the West righting wrongs. I loved the show, but on this long-ago day, this particular episode triggered something in me: a fear that prevented me from seeing the outcome, and left me scarred with a sort of residual trauma -- one that came back periodically, echoing new traumas across the years.
The incident was, in retrospect, a key moment in my life -- one that blurred things for me; that became far more important than it ever should have been. And somewhere in there, among the wreckage, I lost touch with just who those two heroes were. I literally pushed their identities from my mind. I'm sure I never watched another of their weekly episodes.
The scene that triggered my reaction was basically this: The two heroes were behind big boulders, in an extended desert-rock outcropping. They were positioned low, while some bad guys were up above, at a higher elevation, shooting down at them with a clear advantage. I remember a bolt of fear -- a belief that my heroes were about to be killed -- and I remember running from that room to the kitchen, and hiding under the sink or behind a cupboard door; I'm not sure which.
I recall my mother asking what was wrong, and me telling her, and her telling me in return that it was just a show and that, in any event, I should face my fears -- not run from them. And so, after a period of time away from the family room, I went back in there, breath held in check ... only to find that the program had ended.
And so I didn't know what had happened to my heroes. It was possible, I thought, that they had indeed perished ... and I had great difficulty handling that.
And the matter settled in, and resided in my soul.
Decades passed before I encountered a reference book that dealt with old TV shows, and in scanning it I came upon the name of a show that rang a bell within me: The Cisco Kid. It starred Duncan Renaldo as Cisco, and Leo Carrillo as his sidekick, Pancho. The book described how the pair wandered the West, setting things right while getting into and out of trouble weekly.
This activated a memory pocket that had closed down; had been stifled by the fear, I suspect. I recalled my heroes now -- one in black garb and a Mexican hat, and wearing a fancy gunbelt. The other was kind of a slob, heavy and mustached and funny. They were, I knew now, Cisco and Pancho.
And I knew, in revisiting them in my mind, that they could not possibly have perished in that episode that had so frightened me. They were, after all, heroes in a weekly series, and you just didn't kill off heroes back then, unless the hero was Davy Crockett -- whose death was, after all, historical fact and hard to ignore.
But still ... still I carried the fear that the episode had triggered -- a fear that my failure to watch the episode to its conclusion had seemingly hardened. It was as if having settled in, the fear had sent out roots, grabbed hold, and was not about to depart easily. I still felt uneasy, when I allowed myself to think about the episode even obliquely -- felt that someone who mattered to me was imperiled, and I could do nothing to help them.
Other trauma have come and gone. Life is full of them, large and small. The death of a parent, the loss of a pet, the loss of a job, the death of a friend, the death of a spouse.
It is mostly about loss.
That's what the Cisco episode had created: a loss. I had lost heroes in there, and I had lost a chunk of childhood innocence. Fear had crept in and taken a toehold.
Each time I encountered loss over the years, I would think in vague terms about that show -- and I got to wondering just how it did turn out. How in heaven's name could Cisco and Pancho have escaped what to my young eyes had been overwhelming odds?
Each loss in my life brought the image of Cisco and Pancho crouched behind those boulders back into focus yet again .... not sharply or for any duration, but in small recurrent waves when my energy was ebbing; when weakness and fear were dominant.
And each time they reappeared, I chafed anew under the belief that I would never know -- could never find out with certainty -- that they had somehow eluded that which I was certain had awaited them.
They were still lost to me.
And then ... and then the wonders of DVD technology stepped up, while my son David and I were wandering through the Sam Goody's store at the Arnot Mall recently. I was perusing titles in the "Under $10 section" of DVDs when one caught my eye. It showed a fellow in Western garb, dressed in black with a fancy gunbelt, waving as the horse he was riding reared up on its back legs. At the top left of the package were the words "Classic Television Series," and to the right the words "20 Episodes."
At the bottom was the title of this find: The Cisco Kid.
I grabbed it and turned it over. It was a two disc-set, with titles of the 20 episodes on the back. I scanned them. But I never knew -- or had long forgotten -- the title of the episode that had frightened me, and so the list proved useless. Besides, I thought, if the Cisco series had been on for several years, as I thought it had, then the 20 episodes might not even include the one I sought. Twenty episodes would only be a small percentage of the series' total. (There were, I have since determined, 156 episodes produced across a six-year period.)
"Do I want to buy this?" I asked myself, as I do when facing any purchase of more than a buck or two. And I answered quickly, "Of course, dummy, even if it were $100."
I had in my hands a possible answer to a lifelong question: Did they escape? And if so, how? And would this somehow mend my soul -- a soul pummeled by losses that had started with that long-ago episode?
David saw me holding the package, and asked what it was, and I told him -- and briefly explained the particulars of that day in my distant past.
He shook his head.
"Weird obsession," he said.
Which was one reasonable conclusion. But it seemed to me to go beyond mere obsession. This was deeper, buried within my innermost core. Obsessions I learned long ago to shed. This I could not.
And so I made the purchase, and took my treasure home with me.
I started with Side One of the first disc, and watched a little bit of an episode -- saw the interplay between Cisco and his sidekick. Both of them spoke a smattering of Spanish when the situation dictated, but (naturally, since it was a U.S. show) generally spoke English.
Pancho had a strong south-of-the-border accent, while Cisco seemed to slip in and out of one. I suspected that the Cisco actor, Duncan Renaldo, might have come from a home that catered to both languages. The name "Duncan" struck me as more Irish than Hispanic, although Renaldo obviously didn't.
A check of his biography online showed that Renaldo's lineage is unknown, since he was a foundling. He was raised mostly in Europe, including some time (probably) in Spain. The role of Cisco came fairly late in his acting career. He retired not long after the series ended, and died in 1980 of lung cancer at the age of 76.
Pancho, or Leo Carrillo (shown at far right with Renaldo), had a long film and TV career, playing Hispanics, which was his lineage. According to biographical information, he was a much smarter and more literate man than the characters he portrayed -- many, like Pancho, sort of lovable buffoons. The Cisco Kid series was a late hurrah for him, since he died at the age of 80 just a few years after it concluded.
Anyway, having gotten the flavor of the interplay, and a sense of the picaresque nature of the series, I started fast-forwarding through episode after episode, looking for a scene in which our heroes are outnumbered and outgunned in a rocky outcropping, holding the low ground against the enemy's high ground. I went through both sides of the first disc, and started on the second, and had started to doze from the repetitiveness of it when I snapped awake.
Cisco and Pancho were riding along, and suddenly ambushed from gunfire above them, in a rocky outcropping. They dove for cover behind large boulders, and I slowed the action to watch. Here, I thought, could be the scene -- although now, from my perspective of years and experience and knowledge and artistic judgment -- I couldn't help but notice that the duo, having been in at least one scrape each episode, were merely encountering another.
And the superior firepower above them was coming from just three gunmen -- each brandishing a six-shooter, when in fact a rifle would seemingly have been much more effective. And the bad guys were spraying their shots all over the place, from what I could tell. Only a couple seemed to land close to Cisco and Pancho, who were returning a surprisingly large number of shots from guns that housed but six bullets apiece. I didn't see Cisco or Pancho reloading. For that matter, neither were the bad guys.
And yet ... that is the same scene, I'm relatively sure, that had sent me scurrying from the family room so many years ago and out to the safety of the kitchen and my mother. It is, I believe, the scene that had left me traumatized -- by its menace and by the inconclusiveness bred by my absence from the room that day.
As I watched, I found that there was no palpable fear now ... just bemusement as the bad guys, one and then another, left their safe cover to try and flank our heroes, and got picked off for the effort. Cisco wasn't to be trifled with. Step out in the open, and he'd put a hole in you. The third bad guy, seeing the tide turned, scampered around a couple of nearby boulders and out of sight, making his escape.
I finished watching the remaining episodes to see if there was anything remotely similar to that one. There wasn't. I concluded (and still feel) that, changed perspectives aside, I had just viewed the specific show that had so skewed my childhood senses -- that had affected me down through the decades.
It turns out that Cisco and Pancho survived very nicely, thank you -- that the threat they had faced, while serious, was nothing that these two stalwarts of right and moral might couldn't overcome. They could always depend on the inclination of the bad guys to step into the line of fire.
I have watched several episodes at regular speed since, and enjoyed them thoroughly, and realize now that Cisco and Pancho weren't very nimble, but somehow managed to always knock the other guys on their behinds when push came to punch. Renaldo was by the end of the series some 50 years old, and Carrillo was in his 70s, so it stands to reason that the choreography of the fights was a bit stilted.
I also noticed that the same sets were used over and over again, even though Cisco and Pancho supposedly roamed all over the West. The same jail and the same exteriors kept popping up from episode to episode, indicating to me a very low budget.
But even so, I found myself smiling as I watched. For I had regained -- from the shelf of a store -- the heroes that my memory had once misplaced.
Only time will tell, I suspect, whether the lingering trauma has decided to retreat -- whether it has yielded its longtime grip and disappeared from my life.
Maybe it has... and maybe it hasn't. Maybe seeing the Cisco series for what it was -- a mild, well-intentioned entertainment -- has cured me, and maybe not. It is possible, I suppose, that the childhood trauma is so much a part of me, that only my eventual demise will mark its own.
But I have to believe that in some measure, at least, it has been compromised -- and with luck neutralized.
That would be great, of course -- a lifting of a curse. It would be as if Cisco and Pancho had come to my rescue.
But whatever the circumstance, I can say this with certainty:
It is good to see those guys again. It is good to have them visit me in my home.
It is good to know they survived unscathed ... and continue to thrive in the Old West.
It is good to be able to say to them: "Welcome back, my friends."
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