I Met the Lone Ranger
(or "Who Was That Masked Man?")

Gary Koppel

Chicago. November. 1969. Sunday afternoon. Currently: cold and bleak, with the promise of ‘nothing’ in the forecast. Ever optimistic, my buddy and I, found ourselves wandering around Grant Park, smoking a joint and waiting for our luck to change. This was the very same Grant Park, where Chicago’s Finest, beat, bashed, and bloodied the anti-war protestors, during the summer of the ‘68 Democratic convention. The brutality was televised, directly in front of the posh Hilton Hotel. Outside the hotel: Tear gas and the sounds of sirens, screams, and cracking skulls. Inside the hotel: A piano bar, cigar smoke wafting, and the sound of ice cubes clinking against a glass. The whole world was watching.

 

With the wind whipping off the lake, I turned up my collar, as the promise of ‘nothing’ had suddenly turned into pelting rain. My buddy and I decided to duck into the Hilton to avoid the elements. I think that’s what we did in the 60’s….Avoid the elements.

 

We stumbled upon a huge ballroom buzzing with people with a purpose. Unbeknownst to us, we had just discovered what is known as a ‘franchise show’. Dare to dream.  Own a piece of America…Buy a franchise; McDonald’s, KFC, Holiday Inn, Midas Muffler, you name it. Just sign on the dotted line.  Businesses in the business of trying to do business with people who know nothing about business. For a longhaired, bead wearing, tie-dyed, non-conformist, this was counterculture comedy gold. Let the cynicism begin.

 

But in a moment everything changed.  Off in the distance, “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!” If you listened closely enough you could hear The William Tell overture trumpeting in my head.

There he was! The Lone Ranger, Himself…in all his splendor… signing 8x10 glossies, and pitching The Lone Ranger Family Restaurants.  I was transfixed.

 

As a kid growing up in the 50’s, television was brand new. Every week, we’d wait for The Lone Ranger to gallop into our living rooms. He made Saturdays, ‘Saturday’. We grew up with him. You could count on him.  He’d be there. My mission was clear. I had to meet him.  My buddy, still cynical, wondered what all the excitement was about. “What are you going to do? Get his autograph?”

 

I stood in line waiting. Waiting to meet The Lone Ranger. Was I excited? Like a four year old kid, wondering ‘how did he get out of the TV?’.  My buddy on the other hand, straddled the line somewhere between annoyed and embarrassed. “Come on…Let’s get out of here.” I wasn’t going anywhere. I had a date with destiny. There were only two people ahead of me waiting for his autograph. A rush of adrenalin. And then…That deep sonorous voice called out unto me…”Son, come ‘ere. I want to talk to you.” Me? The Lone Ranger wanted to talk to me? I was pulled out of line and found myself standing shoulder to shoulder with the Lone Ranger. While he continued to sign autographs and seemingly, without looking up, he asks me, “Why the long hair?” I said to him, “Why the mask?” Momentarily stunned, he thinks and then says, “It’s part of my image.” “Likewise…Mine too.”. Now, it’s on. The Lone Ranger counters with, “Well if you are going to have long hair, you might as well be wearing frilly shirts, don’t you think?”…Implying anyone with long hair must be gay. “Don’t talk to me about being gay, I said…Look at you.”.

A quick note here. The most striking thing about seeing The Lone Ranger in person was, it was the first time I saw him in living color. Prior to that, I only saw him on TV…when the world was still seen in black and white. Naturally I had assumed his outfit was either white or beige. But in fact there he stood, dressed in a powder blue outfit…that’s right, powder blue, with a red bandana, and a white hat. Red, white, and blue.  Get it?

 

The autograph seeking line had now transformed into a throng of spectators, watching me go one on one with the Lone Ranger.  Make no mistake, I had no intentions of sparring with The Lone Ranger. I loved the Lone Ranger. He was my childhood hero. No, from my experience, you’d be a fool to mess with him. He always got his man. (So to speak) The only reason I was there in the first place was to get out of the rain.  But, remember, he not only questioned my masculinity but the masculinity of hippies everywhere. Let’s face it…this is one of those moments you don’t want to miss. So I said, “Don’t talk to me about being gay. Look at you…wearing those skintight powder blue pants. You have to admit, that’s a bit effeminate.” He thought for a moment and then shot back, “Yeah? Well, wrestlers wear skin tight pants.” Really? Wrestlers? This was his defense? He was actually making my point.  I think he lost sight of the fact that two, half naked men, wearing tights, sweating and rubbing up against each other is a touch homoerotic. But I went on…”And what about the fact you always saved more men than women? Huh? What’s up with that?” The crowd was suddenly in my corner.  He was losing ground.

 

Our banter continued for a bit, but mostly The Lone Ranger just wanted to know what was happening to our country, to our kids, and to our culture. He didn’t understand. And suddenly, I had been thrust into the position of designated spokesperson for an entire generation.  "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some of us have to explain the world to the Lone Ranger " Sure, the pressure was on, but duty called. I shared the irony, that he himself was one of the founding fathers of the baby boomers. He had a major impact on our generation. TELEVISION had just arrived. For us, the whole world was watching HIM; our first televised American Hero. We grew up with him. Watching him save people, watching him deliver justice, watching him take charge. Singlehandedly, all problems could be resolved within thirty minutes, including commercial breaks…And then he’d just ride off into the sunset in search of his next adventure. If you were a kid, growing up in the 50’s, all you’d needed to do was put on a mask, and you too, could take on the world.

He had no idea what I was talking about. Hey, I barely knew what I was talking about. But what he did respond to was, being a mythic hero…An American icon. He confesses to me, “I wish I could have been that person, living in the old west.” And he meant it. But this wasn’t just some fantasy of his, this was a full blown identity crisis. And here’s the ‘tell’. He’s standing there, resplendent, in his Lone Ranger regalia, hat to boots, and on his finger is a huge diamond studded ring with his initials on it. But the initials are not L R. for the Lone Ranger, but rather C M…standing for Clayton Moore…the name of the actor…the man himself. The actor and the myth had become one. He didn’t just admire the character he played, he spent the rest of his life trying to become the character. For the next 30 years he was rarely seen in public without wearing the mask. 

 

Now, instead of riding the open range saving people in distress, this American hero was here at the Hilton Hotel, on a cold, rainy, November Sunday afternoon in Chicago, pitching his fast food hamburger chain. He needed to get back to work… but had one more question for me.  “Can I ask you something?”  “Sure”, I said, “shoot”. The pun was lost on him; probably, just as well. Still trying to make sense of the world around him, He turns to me and asks, “Tell me, son, do you take drugs?” Without hesitation, I say, “Yes.” He thinks for a minute and then says, “Well, you’re still a good boy.” “Why am I good boy?” “Why? …Because you came to the franchise show.”  And then, with the speed of light and a cloud of dust, the Lone Ranger was off …signing those 8x10 glossies.

My buddy and I savored the moment. Then, as we walked away, my buddy turns to me and says, “Who was that masked man? He never gave us the chance to say ‘thank you’.”

 

In the end, all the Lone Ranger or Clayton Moore, or whoever he was, wanted to do was ‘make a difference’. I know he’s made a difference in my life; a profound, life altering difference. But not the one that either of us had hoped for or imagined.

Hi-Yo Silver… away. Far, far, far away.

Gary Koppel has been working in the entertainment industry for over 20 years, writing and producing movie trailers and television promos for a number of studios and TV networks. Additionally, he is teaching memoir writing and storytelling to older adults with the City of Los Angeles Recreation and Parks’ Wellness program. He currently lives in Sherman Oaks, CA. For more information, see his website:

Koppelconsulting.com

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