Rob Taylor: What’s really sad about ‘Old Yeller’
December 4, 2007
I spend most of my adult life trying to make sense of my childhood.
For instance, what kind of sicko introduces horror stories to those barely out of diapers? I am referring to what many call “classics,” like “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “Bambi.” The plots of these sordid tales are all the same: Introduce a whiskered critter, endear it to children, and then – suddenly and without mercy – butcher it. It might take a village to raise a child, but it only takes one of these melodramas to screw up a kid for years: The nightmares, the visits to the shrink, the fear of pet ownership.
During my two-year bartending stint at Grand Lake’s historic Rapids Lodge and Restaurant, I chatted with a local who decided that one such story, “Old Yeller,” was the perfect device for teaching her two boys.
“It’s so touching when a man tears up,” she said, sipping a hot toddy while absorbing the sights and sounds of the Tonahutu River, “and I want my sons to become sensitive men.”
She took a moment to reflect and then “cleansed” her palate (fine dining’s excuse for eating dessert before the entree) with a spoonful of raspberry sorbet. Obviously, her teeth – which had just survived the one-two punch of hot liqueur and frozen ice cream – were not as sensitive as she intended her boys to be.
But it was her premise that was most peculiar: Reading the bloody tale would produce sniveling men from thin air. Historically speaking, run-ins with electric outlets and diced onions are the only hazards potent enough to squeeze tears out of 8 and 10-year-old boys.
Despite my reservations, I found her experiment worth listening to.
During the cold, winter nights, she read a chapter a night to her sons, attempting to drown out the whir of snowmobiles at play in the streets of Grand Lake. Reading the classic tale was a lot like pulling teeth, she said.
“They would rather have me read ‘Lord of the Rings’ or something horrid like that,” she said. Translation: The boys enjoyed normal stories where the bad guy is killed in the end.
Despite her sons’ natural distaste for “the never-ending dog story,” mom forged ahead each night.
The chapter reading went on for weeks until – at last – they reached the dramatic conclusion: Old Yeller’s kiss of death. Mom was barely cohesive as she read the final words, openly sobbing while clutching her Kleenex.
She embraced her youngest son, who was pretending to cry. Though not quite grasping the full weight of the story, he was aware that mom expected tears. Despite his youth and ignorance, he delivered. The sight of her misty-eyed son gave mom a rush of parental adrenaline.
“Isn’t that sad?” she asked, turning to her oldest son, hoping to bond some more.
For her oldest boy, the sight was an oxymoron ” a woman crying and smiling at the same time. And yet, at his tender age, he – like his brother – felt the burden of expectation. He let the question hang in the air, like a sixth-grade story problem ” a mind-numbing imposition of the absurd and the impossible.
What was clear was that Old Yeller’s sole purpose was to make him cry – a fact that only hardened the lad. He worked through the conundrum, using the silence to his advantage. Eventually, he found closure in reaching the only logical conclusion. Girls are messed up.
“It’s just a story,” he finally said, wondering what form of parental torture would be next. “Geez, mom, it isn’t even real.”
The chapter of the boys’ life called “sensitivity training” is over. Their mother will never endorse the classic tales of good versus evil, but – through the experience – she has learned to pick her battles more carefully.
As for the boys, they have put Old Yeller to rest once and for all ” somewhere in Grand Lake.
” Have a gender tale to share? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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