One year, it was decided that, instead of them coming to Waldron to pick us up, Janet and I would ride the bus to Fort Smith, where Gary would pick us up at the bus station. Well, needless to say, we were excited beyond measure. Mama walked us down to Denver Plummer’s station, where we got our bus tickets and waited for the bus to arrive. Soon, we were on board, and on our way. We really felt big, riding that bus to Fort Smith. The driver made some kind of announcement when we got into the city, but it was hard to understand what he said. That was pretty unfortunate, because he probably said something to the effect that we would be making two stops in Fort Smith, one at the Trailways station and then at the Greyhound station. So, at the first stop, we got off and proceeded to the waiting room, expecting to see Gary waiting for us there. But there was no Gary. So, we sat down and waited. And waited. And waited. Gary, meanwhile, was frantically contacting Mama to find out why we hadn’t gotten on the bus, and then frantically trying to figure out where we were. After what seemed like a few hours but was probably about 45 minutes, Gary showed up. We were glad to see him.
|Richard Long and Peter Breck, stars of The Big Valley on|
ABC, sign autographs at the Fort Smith Rodeo
Now, I must confess, I wasn’t that much into livestock. No, I went to the rodeo for another reason. In those days, the rodeo always featured a big TV star as entertainment. One year we saw Fess Parker, who played Daniel Boone (a great TV show, by the way). I believe we also saw Ed Ames, who played the Indian Mingo on the same show. Another time, we saw two stars from The Big Valley, Peter Breck and Richard Long, who played brothers Nick and Jarrod Barkley. But this year, this year, I couldn’t wait. The featured entertainer was Ken Curtis, who played Festus Haggen on Gunsmoke. Festus was a particular favorite around the Yates household. So much so, in fact, that we later named a cat after him.
Of course, the Grand Entry was pretty spectacular, and the calf-roping was pretty exciting, as well as the bareback bronc riding. But I was just waiting for the entertainment, which normally occurred around the mid-point of the night. Sure enough, the announcer finally introduced Ken Curtis, who rode out on a silver horse, riding around the arena before finally coming to a stop at the stage that had been set up in the center. Much to my surprise, Festus began to sing. My jaw dropped open as I heard one of the most beautiful singing voices I have ever heard. Ken Curtis sang with a deep, rich baritone; completely opposite of the nasally twang that he gave Festus. Ken told us that he once sang with The Sons of the Pioneers, and he followed that with a rendition of the classic Tumbling Tumbleweeds. It was sublime.
Too soon, his part of the show was over. But I had my mind made up. I was going to wait in the autograph line after the rodeo was over, I was going to get the picture in my program signed, and I was going to shake Festus Haggen’s hand.
It was a long line, and it moved achingly slowly. But I was patient as I inched ever closer to the table where Ken Curtis was sitting. Finally, I was there, standing before Festus. He took the program from my hand, and signed his picture with one of those old white-barreled marker pens. He handed me back my program, and when he did, I extended my right hand toward him. He reached out, still holding the pen in his right hand, and grasped my hand firmly (or, as firmly as you can grasp a hand while holding a pen.) He looked me squarely in the eyes, and said, “Pleased to meet you, Sonny.”
Pleased to meet you too, Mr. Curtis.
Click here to view Festus singing "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."