HangEmHighIt was back in the days when every little boy in America owned a toy six-gun and our national character was formed in half-hour TV episodes featuring taciturn deadly loners who spent most of their lives riding horses from one dusty cowtown to another and never saw a problem that couldn’t be solved with a little high velocity lead-poisoning.

I was just five or six years old, with two older brothers. We watched all the TV Westerns.

But our favorite Western, mine and my brothers, was Gunsmoke, featuring James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon.

Marshal Dillon’s signature in the teaser for every show was the shoot-out in the street– the fast-draw duel at high noon– something that probably never happened in the historical Old West.

When I was a kid, just like Marshal Dillon, each of us boys carried a six-shooter– a “Fanner Fifty,” so named because you could fan the hammer with your left hand while firing with your right, just like Marshal Dillon did on TV.

That day we were playing Rustler and Marshal. I was the rustler, and my brothers, Matt Dillon and his sidekick, had captured me red-handed on the open range, unstrapped my gunbelt, and, in the interests of frontier justice, were about to lynch me. They herded me at gunpoint into the backyard, where my mom had strung her clothesline between four metal posts concreted into the ground. One of them grabbed a picnic bench and set it under the pole.

My other brother unlooped the spare clothesline and fashioned a hangman’s noose (to this day I have no idea where he learned to tie one—surely not in Sister Marie Michael’s third grade class).  I stepped up onto the bench, manfully resigned to my fate. I was a dirty scoundrel, a rustling outlaw and a dry-gulcher, a tin-horn and a big galoot.

They looped the noose over my neck and tightened it.

At some level, I must have understood that it was a real rope knotted around my neck, that once I was flailing around, a couple of feet off the ground, it would strangle the life out of me, and my brothers would not be strong enough to lift my body high enough to save me. But it didn’t seem real, you know? The way the Fanner Fifties didn’t seem quite real. It was TV stuff. We knew the actors didn’t really die each week. Sometimes the same bad guy would show up episode after episode, each time playing a different part.

I stood on the picnic bench, the clothesline noose tightly knotted around my throat, and my brothers asked me if I had any last words. Just as they were about to kick over the bench and set me swinging, I heard a scream from next door– Mrs. Watson. We all froze in place. She came flying out her back door and ran to my side, quickly undid the rope and helped me down. “Don’t you boys know better than to hang your brother?” she asked, or words to that effect. Probably she was screeching incoherently, like my mother would have had she seen our little horse opera unfolding. I just remember she was angry and utterly unnerved, while we really didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

As one of my brothers explained, “It’s okay– it was my turn next.”

Philip Gerard is the author of three novels, four books of creative nonfiction, and numerous essays, short stories, and documentary scripts. His book of essays The Patron Saint of Dreams is forthcoming from Hub City Press in March 2012, and in Fall 2012 his long narrative River Run: Adventuring through History, Nature, and Politics Down the Cape Fear to the Sea will be published by UNC Press. He chairs the Department of Creative Writing at UNC Wilmington.


Photo by Maria Romasco-Moore