Rarely, in this life, does sitting at home staring at the TV make any of us a better person. The Waltons, a classic of American television, is the exception.
This week the lesson is bravery.
In the fourth episode of the series, titled “The Hunt,” John-boy Walton practices aiming a hunting rifle, but he struggles with the concept of using it to take a life.
As a teenage boy transitioning into manhood, he wants to do the manly thing — join his father on a wild turkey hunt and help provide for his family.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to stand off and look at your home, know your wife and loved ones are inside, safe and warm, you’ll know one day,” John says to John-boy as they investigate a noise outside a few days before the hunt.
John-boy knows it’s true. He wants to be provider and protector. But he writes in his journal that night, “It’s knowing that I’m going to take life from something that treasures life as much as I treasure mine. It’s the planning ahead, going looking for it, hunting for it that makes it murder. I’m right sick about it, and I’m right scared of tomorrow. I'm also scared at what my life is going to be like if I fail.”
While he sits at his bedroom window, writing out his fears, there is a subtle and oh-so-beautiful bit of foreshadowing about the source of John-boy’s inner strength.
One by one, John-boy’s younger siblings come into his room to ask for his help in one small way or another. They linger, curling up on in a pile of tiny bodies on his bed while Jason plays harmonica.
It’s not a long scene. John-boy gets frustrated with the crowd of seven in a small room and shoos them off. But it’s long enough for the viewer to understand that family is his reason to fight.
In another room, John and Olivia debate whether John Boy should even go on the hunt.
“He’s been looking forward to this for weeks,” John says.
“Not looking forward, dreading,” Olivia responds.
Dismissively, as he pulls off his suspenders, John says, “Well that’s natural. He’s going up the mountain with seasoned hunters … he wants to prove himself a man in front of men.”
“There’s more to being a man than shooting turkey’s,” Olivia says.
“That’s for sure, but part of being a man is providing for a hungry family. Did you see him practicing earlier today?”
“Practicing is one thing, but coming face to face with a living creature and having to kill it is another.”
We all have different fears. One man’s shooting a turkey is another man’s riding an aeroplane. My biggest fear is failure, and it stops me from taking big chances. My sister’s biggest fear is being alone, and it has caused her to devote her time and energy to men who mistreated her. My father’s biggest fear is that he isn’t good enough, that all of his achievements have just been luck. By letting our fears consume us, he said, we miss out on trying to accomplish even more.
On the hunt, the men jaw about the early pioneers of the U.S., including the slaves that helped build it. They talk about the difference in killing for sport and killing to provide. The exchange ideas on what it means to be a man.
Eventually a bird wanders by. John-boy is given the first shot at the turkey, but he doesn’t take it. He aims a second time, but meets eyes with the bird and gives up again.
“What happened?” John asks.
“I just can’t do that,” John Boy says.
“The first time I was in with water over my head, papa decided it was time I learned to swim, so he threw me in. I’m not forcing you in deep water before you’re ready am I son?” John asks.
“I’m not like you or grandpa,” John-boy says, defeated. “I’m cowardly and I’ve shamed you.”
“You stop talking like that now,” John says. “Not shooting some old turkey don’t make you a coward! Sometimes it takes a sight more guts not to do something that goes against your feelings. You’re a Walton. You’re a Walton man. And you’ve never done nothing yet to shame me, you understand?”
John-boy isn’t satisfied. He may not have shamed his father, but he still feels ashamed of himself for not being brave. He climbs back down the mountainside, instead of finishing the hunt.
On his way home, however, he comes upon the bloody tracks of a wounded bear. He follows them until he finds the bear, where it has cornered and attacked the family dog.
Nearby is John; searching for the dog and unaware the bear is waiting for him just beyond some trees.
The bear sees John before John sees him. He lumbers toward the unarmed man in a rage.
John reaches for his gun, but the bear’s massive claws reach him before his fingertip touch the barrel.
In the heat of the battle for survival between man and beast, John-boy has mere seconds to line up his shot, and try not to hit his father.
The deafening rumble of rifle fire issues from the gun. Everything collapses into silence.
As a viewer, just as you think you can’t hold your breath a second longer, John climbs out from underneath carcass.
John-boy’s bravery in the exact second when it mattered most saved his father’s life.
Back around the kitchen table, picking turkey bones clean, John explains how John-boy saved his life.
“He was brought down with your gun, grandpa,” John-boy says, not recognizing the true heroism of his actions.
“I good gun is a good gun, It’s the mind behind it that counts,” Grandpa Walton says.
Each and every one of us has the capacity for bravery. Sometimes we let our fears consume us. We talk ourselves into believing that we cannot conquer the challenges laid before us.
But you are capable. You can be your own hero. When the moment calls for it, you’ll face down your demons.
And the opening line of this episode of the Walton’s just might be the opening line of the next chapter in your life. “A mountain has no need for people, but people do need mountains. We go to them for their beauty, for the exhilaration of standing closer to mysterious skies, the triumph that comes from having labored to reach a summit. And I remember a day in the 1930s when I went to Walton’s Mountain in search of manhood.”
Kayleigh Thesenvitz is a reporter at the Claremore Progress. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org