By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
ACTUALLY, THE chalkboard said more. Someone already had edited "Elvis" and "JFK" into the pantheon of legendary gunslingers, pop singers and romantic poets who died too young. Though many of the symposium participants were dead serious about chasing Billy the Kid, there was a wild element to the crowd. After all, the symposium's subject was not a world-class historical figure, such as a Caesar or a Pharaoh or even a prime minister. He was a hell-raising cowboy adolescent, a good kid gone wrong, a screenwriter's dream. A great American archetype, in other words. Around the world today, Billy is America personified, a brazen cowboy who shoots first and asks questions eventually. America's image as a young, reckless country is personified to the world by cowboys, and the personification of "cowboy" is Billy the Kid.
But others see the wild boy we idolize as a juvenile delinquent. Frederick Nolan, a writer, researcher and Billy expert, came to the symposium from his native London. He put our Wild West heritage into the perfect world-view perspective. "In England," he said, "a cowboy is someone who comes to fix your tap and ends up wrecking your car."
But who cares about the world view? A little bit of Billy sleeps within all the citizens of a country whose leaders endorse an Oliver North or who still draw lines in sand. John Wayne is not best remembered for his work in detective movies. Ronald Reagan did not make a transition to politics straight out of the movies he made with chimps, but instead came to his leadership role from a job as host of Death Valley Days, a TV anthology of Old West stories. You still see Billy the Kid all over, in the faces of guitar players, fighter pilots and urban gangsters. Billy the Kid would approve of the current status of American handgun laws. We are all sons and daughters of Billy the Kid. "In the folklore of the nation," said Robert Utley, during his keynote speech, "Billy the Kid is a figure of towering significance."
The Billy the Kid of legend was a rebel, a lifelong opponent of constituted authority, a rugged individualist "who could not or would not conform," Utley said. He was the product of a particularly lawless time in American society, when the corruption of seemingly all public works--from Grant's White House to the bosses of New Mexico's Lincoln County--was endemic. Billy was capable of lethal, mostly remorseless violence, as were most of his fellow citizens. During his lifetime, the Kid's exploits were well known and often celebrated around the New Mexico territory. He was a living folk hero--at least a bit of a hero to the folks who knew him or knew of him, and he was often kept from danger by friends--often friends of Spanish descent. In death he has grown exponentially larger. BILLY ESCAPED from jail several times. His last break came in 1881, in Lincoln. He was hiding out in Fort Sumner, 100 miles away, when he was accidentally discovered by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett, who had been tracking the Kid for months. They met in a dark room at about midnight. Billy never got a shot off.