The elderly man was sitting by himself, in a corner not too far away from the main ballroom in the Atlanta Hilton just a few steps away from the elevator. The corner was dimly lit, but the man looked familiar. My wife, Brenda, and I were attending the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings in Atlanta, Georgia. The likelihood of seeing someone we knew was unlikely.
“Would you like to sit down, son?” the man asked, motioning toward the overstuffed chair next to his. As soon as I heard the voice, I recognized the Texas drawl I had heard many times in front of my parents’ our old Zenith black and white television set years ago.
Suddenly, my heart skipped a beat when I realized I was talking to Gene Autry, the cowboy star and owner of the Los Angeles Angels. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
As we sat down beside him, he asked, “Would you like some pretzels?” pulling a small bag from the tray.
Acting as though I had every right to be sitting next to Gene Autry, my boyhood hero, I replied, “Sure, Mr. Autry. That would be very nice.”
Just as he handed me the pretzels, the alarm on the elevator started ringing loudly. Hotel and security personnel came running over to check out the situation.
The elevator doors suddenly opened, and a former manager of the New York Yankees told one of the security personnel how sorry he was for bumping the alarm button.
“That sounds like Billy Martin!” Mr. Autry said with a laugh.
I could not believe he was talking to me, a perfect stranger, like an old friend. “I’m glad he wasn’t stuck,” I said as my mind went totally blank.
His conversation was easy, and I felt like I had known him all my life. In a way, I had known him for most of my life. I remembered seeing him ride across the silver screen at the Murphy Theatre on his horse, Champion, when I was just a kid.
Knowing the window of opportunity would close quickly once an aide saw us talking with him, I cast a glance toward Brenda and smiled, as I asked Mr. Autry about his movies.
“They didn’t like my pictures in places like New York and Chicago, but the small towns loved them,” he said with a warm smile.
There was a large, white cowboy hat sitting on the table next to Mr. Autry. For a moment, I thought about asking him if I could try it on, but as a forty-year old man at the time, I thought it would be silly to ask. I immediately regretted my decision. I could have been Gene Autry … for a moment or two.
“Was it hard to quit making the cowboy movies?” I continued.
“No, not really,” he said. “But, when they had to help me climb onto old Champion, I knew it was time to hang up my spurs,” he said with the familiar laugh I had heard so many times before on Saturday afternoons long ago.
Not wanting to press our luck, Brenda and I said goodbye to Mr. Autry and excused ourselves as we walked off into the sunset. “Thank you for stopping by,” he said, as we headed on our way from the magical corner of the hotel.
Before it was too late, I asked, “Mr. Autry, would you do us a favor? Do you mind signing this paper napkin for us?”
With those words, Gene Autry took out a pen and signed his name. We have it in our scrapbook to this day. He was still sitting alone when we left.
Many years later, I happened to read an article his former secretary had written. She said that when she was packing up his office items at a radio station he had sold, she was sitting on the floor sorting through stacks of records. Mr. Autry saw her pull out That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine, and he sentimentally began to sing it.
“He just burst into song,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is a special moment for me.’ There he was in his cowboy hat singing this beautiful song.”
On our way home, Brenda and I talked about our visit with Mr. Autry. We reminisced about the Saturday morning movies, our cap guns which at the time were mighty fine shootin’ irons, and cheering for Gene and Champion. Those of a certain age know what it was like to stumble out of the Murphy Theatre after a daytime move, walking into the bright sunlight, waiting for your eyes to adjust to the brightness on the way home.
The Statler Brothers may have said it best:
“To every silver cowboy who rode the silver screen,”
“And do you remember me, I’m the front row kid,”
“Who galloped right behind you till the end.”
Gene Autry really was a cowboy in a white hat.