Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why do we love Billy the Kid

He’s back. Though he never really goes away.

Billy the Kid, a.k.a. William Henry McCarty Jr., William Bonney and Henry Antrim, was born in New York on Nov. 23, 1859, and died July 14, 1881 in Fort Summer, N.M., according to most accounts. That was 132 years ago. But does he live on in spirit?

Boy, howdy.

I was reminded again of our affection (maybe even obsession, in some quarters) with the young outlaw after my Aug. 18 story about the discovery of a possible new image of the Kid. Frank H. Parrish, a nature photographer and New Mexico history aficionado, has been researching a tintype owned by a local man who wishes to remain anonymous. In the picture, Billy’s all dressed up, without the hat and vintage firearms in the iconic rustic outlaw pose in the famous tintype image historians have said is authentic. And he’s seated next to his good amigo Dan Dedrick. The presence of Dedrick, whose descendants once possessed the authenticated  tintype, is the “clincher” to this new tintype’s authenticity, Parrish believes.

This Billy is somewhat more user-friendly. He even looks a bit like MAD Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, in fact. That’s more in keeping with Billy’s rep as a charmer, Parrish said.

I never thought of Billy that way, if I thought of him at all, until I moved to Las Cruces and met Opal Lee Priestly. She and her husband Orville owned the Las Cruces Sun-News from 1946 to 1970.

I met and interviewed her just a few years before her death in 1999 at age 94. At lunches and meetings in her book-filled home, she shared anecdotes about writing her book, “Billy the Kid: The Good Side of a Bad Man,” culled from years of researching letters and talking to people who had known Billy or remembered relatives’ tales about the Kid.

What stuck in my mind were her tales about Billy’s adaptability, socializing with diverse cultural groups of the era. He reportedly taught himself Spanish. He was an adept dancer and something of ladies’ man. The stories that most touched me involved his sensitivity to the hardships of the time — and to the pride of those who endured the deprivations of a hard life on the high desert frontier. 

He was a rambling guy who often dropped in on friends unexpectedly (sometimes to take refuge from the law). But he usually came bearing food, which he skillfully cooked up and served. And he would help clean up and do the dishes afterward, endearing him to frontier womenfolk, Opal Lee explained.

It helped, to remember that, when I learned more and more about the wonders and outstanding residents of our querencia and found the best of them routinely eclipsed by Billy’s fame.

I admit I got a little cranky when I spent a couple of days with a BBC reporter, telling him about our Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, about our visual and performing arts, our award-winning filmmakers and playwrights and authors, our pioneering scientists, our remarkable Pueblo peoples and their art and culture, our rich and long Spanish and Mexican heritage, our sweet and talented citizens, our agricultural history culminating in the world’s best chile peppers.

And what made the cut in the final broadcast? The then-in-the-works Spaceport. And Billy the Kid.

This week, I heard from Billy fans around the world, from Germany to Bend, Ore, (where retired history teacher Steve McCarty, a possible relative of the Kid’s, believes he, too, has some long-lost tintypes that are images of Billy).

I also asked some Las Crucens about Billy’s enduring appeal.

“He represents so much of what made America. He was young, wild, unharnessed, a romantic, charismatic figure,” said Ross Marks, artistic director of the White Sands International Film Festival.

“He’s an outlaw and we love outlaws. He’s sexy,” said filmmaker, writer and director Rod McCall.

“A sociopath, but an appealing one,” pronounced artist Bob Diven, who has just finished a dramatic sculpture and is taking orders for life-sized statues of Billy, soon to be cast in bronze ($40,000 each at bobdiven.com if you’re in the market for an impressive desperado stocking stuffer).

Before we spiffed up Main Street, Bob once proposed a giant Billy, to be stationed at one end of what was then the Downtown Mall, with a revolving restaurant in his hat and a community-warming kiva fireplace in his derriere. After I’d lived here awhile, I realized he wasn’t kidding. And he had a lot of community support for the plan.

And why not? After all, we love Billy.

S. Derrickson Moore may be reached at dmoore@ lcsun-news.com. @DerricksonMoore on Twitter or call 575-541-5450.

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