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Get On the Bus, An Inauguration Diary

May 11, 2010 4 comments

My work as a reporter intersected with history when I embedded myself with a group of Omahans traveling by motorcoach to witness the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.  The University of Nebraska at Omaha‘s Department of Black Studies organized the trip and kindly invited me along and The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper generously picked up my tab.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I am glad I had.  My diary or journal like story appeared in truncated form in The Reader.

All a journalist like me can hope to do in a situation like the frenzy around the inauguration is to try and get the facts straight and to make sense of a bigger-than-life event.  I believe I succeeded.

NOTE: You can see photos from my trip and even spot me (I’m in a light blue-grey ski jacket with a blue stocking cap and I have eyeglasses on) at the following site: http://www.unomaha.edu/blst/

SPECIAL SCREENING: UNO Department of Black Studies chair Omowale Akintunde led the trip. Akintunde, who is also a filmmaker (see my story “Deconstructing What Race Means in a Faux Post-Racial World” about his feature debut, Wigger) directed an Emmy Award-winning documentary about the trip, An Inaugural Ride to Freedom.  The doc is being shown at festivals and may end up on television one day.  If you’re in Omaha, a special screening of the film is scheduled for October 26 at 7 p.m. at Film Streams, 1340 Mike Fahey Street.  A post show Q & A with Akintunde will follow.

 

 

 

 

 

Get On the Bus, An Inauguration Diary

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of the story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Fifty of us from the metro area signed up to intersect with history. The chance to be at Barack Obama’s inauguration came via a special bus trip organized by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Department of Black Studies and sponsored by UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Dubbed An Inaugural Ride to Freedom: The Legacy of a People, a Movement and a Mission, the trip’s mode of transportation, a Navigator charter bus, was both practical and symbolic. Buses figured heavily in marshaling foot soldiers for the civil rights movement and addressing segregation in public schools.

The UNO trip’s “freedom riders” included folks with direct ties to the movement, including older African Americans for whom this journey held deep meaning. Some are retired now and others still engaged in the struggle. Edwardene Armstrong is a UNO Black Studies adjunct faculty member. Her husband Bob Armstrong, former Omaha Housing Authority director, consults with public housing officials across America and the globe. James Freeman directs UNO’s multicultural affairs office.

Leading the university figures along for the ride was charismatic UNO Black Studies Chair Omowale Akintunde. Several UNO students joined us. One high school student was on board as well: Omaha North senior Seth Quartey. Most students were sponsored by UNO.

 

 

 

 

Community members, such as activist Katrina Adams, Youngblood’s Barber Shop owner Clyde Deshazer and gospel playwright Janette Jones, had no direct ties to UNO but strong convictions about our mission. Friends, couples and families made the trip. The youngest rider, 10-year-old Carter Culvert, traveled with his mother, Jackie Culvert. A few folks went on their own, including this journalist. All but a few made our first D.C. visit on this ride. What a time to go.

Precursor – Get to Know Each Other
A Jan. 7 briefing at UNO’s Milo Bail Student Center ballroom brings participants together for the first time. The group’s diversity is soon evident. Blacks, whites, Hispanics. Young, middle-aged, seniors. Students, working stiffs, professionals.

From the start it’s obvious Akintunde, a tall, lithe man with a brass band voice and a bigger-than-life presence, is in charge. Also a filmmaker, he’s chronicling the trip in a documentary. We all sign releases for our comments and images to be used. The film premieres at UNO’s Malcolm X Festival in April.

As things develop the shooting threatens turning the trip into a tail-wags-the-dog scenario with all its set-ups and interviews. Some students serve as crew, holding the boom, operating lights/sound, carrying supplies. DP Andrew Koch flew in from the west coast for the gig. PA Stephanie Hearn did much of the prep work.

I leave the briefing with these thoughts: this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that sweeps us along on the tide of history; and we “tourists” constitute a microcosm of the broad-based support that made Obama’s election possible.

What follows are snapshots of our group’s four-day, 100-hour, 3,000-plus mile odyssey to embrace change and to participate in history.

Sunday, Jan. 18
Rolling Out – Get on the Bus
Lot C in UNO’s South Campus is our departure point. I arrive about 7:30 in the cold dim daylight. The bus is there, its engine idling, the lower baggage compartment opened. Some early arrivals have already loaded gear and settled in seats. I choose a mid-section spot befitting my middle-of-the-road nature. Over the next 75 minutes the bus fills out and the rituals of finding a place to sit, stowing away carry-ons in overhead bins and meeting-greeting fellow passengers ensues.

Obamamania appears low key for now. Only a few folks wear anything with Obama images or slogans. One woman climbing aboard is overheard telling another, “He’s not the chosen one.” The mood is a mix of sober expectancy and fan-filled ardor.

There are the usual stragglers and late arrivals. Some of us catch Zs, others chit chat. We’re finally all together and push off on time at 9. A 28-hour grind awaits us before we reach our hotel in Chestertown, MD, about 90 minutes from D.C.

All but a few seats are filled in what are cramped accommodations. For the biggest bodies the bus will mean contortions squeezing into narrow seats and relieving pressure on sore, stiff joints. Leg room is almost nonexistent. Everyone carves out a few inches of sanctuary in the tight quarters.

By the time we cruise I-80 in western Iowa, passing brown-white splotched fields sprouting hundreds of sculptural wind turbines, Akintunde’s filming is in full swing. He captures folks slumbering, reading, cell phoning, text messaging, you name it.

Reminders of this being a Soul Bus trip are the black themed movies that light up the tiny screens suspended overhead. By trip’s end we’ll have seen blockbusters like Ray to little gems like The Secret Life of Bees to old favs like Claudine to a Tyler Perry flick to a fresh bootlegged copy of Seven Pounds.

Akintunde, with Koch manning the digital video camera, grabs establishing shots and spot interviews where he can — on the bus, in parking lots, at rest stops, restaurants, the hotel. The two seemed joined at the hip in our close confines. The director, resplendent in jumpsuits, follows “emerging stories” in our ranks.

Some of us begin our own chronicles, snapping pics and journaling. One woman strides down the aisle, clicking away on her camera as she declares, “I’m going to get me some pictures right here.” In the case of this old-school reporter, notes are jotted on a pad and interviews committed to a micro cassette recorder.

We certainly all have our own story for being here. For retirees James and Jackie Hart it’s about bearing witness to the fulfillment of MLK’s vision.

“I can’t even describe how excited I am that we’re going to have a new black president,” Jim says. “I hope I’m around to see his eight years.”

 

 

 

 

“I Wanted to See It for Myself”
For Denise Howard, a wife, mother and student, it’s about being “part of change. I wanted to see it for myself, I wanted to feel the atmosphere. It was a must.”

For UNO public administration masters student Joe Schaaf it’s about being present at “a wound healing event, not only racially but politically. This is a huge breath of fresh air. There’s a momentum to change Washington. I view it as one of the top five moments in our country’s history.”

For Keisha Holloway the trip’s a homage to her late sister, Deanna Rochelle, who died only a week before. The two shared a passion for Obama. They voted together. “To kind of keep her legacy going I’m going for me and her,” says Keisha.

Bob Armstrong’s reasons are complex.

“My family’s life has been lived trying to fight for civil rights, especially for black people. Many of the civil rights leaders had been to my house to meet during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, including Dr. King,” says Armstrong, who was in D.C. for King’s ‘63 address. At the time, he said, “we didn’t know it was history. It became historic. It’s a different setting though (with Obama). This time we’re going knowing that history is being made and so here we are 45 years later for the culmination of all those activities with the election of a black president.”

The way Edwardene Armstrong sees it, Obama’s achievement is only possible because of the work done by many others before him. Freeman agrees. He was on the front lines of the civil rights movement at Tuskegee University, and he said Obama stands on the shoulders of countless freedom fighters.

“It means so much to me because we’ve gone through so much getting to this point,” Freeman says. “We’re not where we ought to be but we’ve come a long, long way. It wasn’t only black folks. During that time there was a sense of commitment and frankly I haven’t seen that until this campaign. Back when we used to march there were so many people of all colors, of all nationalities, and then you saw that this (past) year. Just an affirmation that now I see that vision come to pass. It makes you want to cry. I wish my dad and mom could have been here.”

Edwardene can’t help be struck by the fact the new president has a similar biracial background as her great-grandfather, the son of a black slave mother and white slave master. A black president seemed inconceivable to her.

Bob Armstrong never thought it would happen, period. “It’s such a historic moment I felt we had to be there,” he says. “It doesn’t mean all our problems are solved but it means it certainly gives black people the aspirations that they can do pretty much what they want to do if they’re willing to sacrifice and get themselves educated and do those things necessary to become successful.

“It’s an emotional time. You’re going to see a lot of tears shed when he takes the oath. Tears of happiness, tears of joy, tears of pride, tears of wonderment of thinking could this really be happening…”

The stories go on all day and into the night. We drive through light snow showers in Illinois and Indiana. We cross the gray-slated, ice-strewn Mississippi River. We skirt south of Chicago and Indianapolis. We pass through Columbus, Ohio. By the time we hit Maryland more snow showers appear.

Sleep is fitful for most. A blessed few sleep through anything: the racket/motion of the bus; the sound from the DVDs; the din from up front, where Akintunde and his self-described “big mouth” holds court, and in the back, where there’s often a conversation or card game going on. Laughter sporadically breaks out.

Call it a lesson in multiculturalism but the “soft music” we’re promised late at night turns out to be hardcore Hot Country, courtesy Rebel 105.9. The driver’s choice. Quite a contrast from Marvin Gaye. Rumblings of a mutiny go up. Most take it in good-humored stride. Thankfully, that driver’s relieved, as previously scheduled, in New Paris, Ohio. The drivers repeat the process on the return trip. The music goes off and order’s restored with an Earth, Wind and Fire concert DVD.

Monday, Jan. 19
The Day Before – Get Off the Bus
We roll across Maryland on I-70, traversing forested ridges. Fog hangs in the depressions. Mills line the riverways. Colonial-style brick homes predominate.

At a Shoney’s I’m treated to a spirited discussion by three UNO students. They embody the youth Obama ignited. Brandon Henderson says Obama’s message of unlimited possibilities “resonated for us. It brought that a lot closer. He’s not just a black candidate. All kind of people are going to be at this thing. It took everybody to get him to where he is right now — to elect him as president. I just want to be part of the atmosphere of Everything Obama.”

Joshua Tolliver-Humpal says Obama “did a great job tapping into that youthful idealism. The youth vote really came out strong. I just have to be there to see the most captivating figure in American politics get inaugurated.”

“Really this is the first significant, world-changing event in my lifetime,” Joseph Lamar says. “Everybody’s going to remember where they were at this particular time and I can say, ‘Hey, I was there.’”

Upon reboarding the bus after bathroom/food breaks Akintunde takes to saying, “Is anybody here that wasn’t here before?,’ or, ‘Is anybody not here that you saw before?’ It’s the ghetto roll check,” he explains.

We never lose anyone, but we do gain two members our second night. They’re Nigel Neary and Tom Manion, whose public housing corporation in Manchester, England Bob Armstrong consults. They “crash” our trip at his invitation. Their addition lends our trip an international perspective.

A sign of the times finds many wired to their cells, Ipods, Blackberries. A few break out lap tops, too. The result is a running commentary or living blog about this trip.

We cross the massive Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the fog shrouded ocean spread out before us and make it into Chestertown by mid-afternoon, where we’ll encamp overnight at a Comfort Suites. There’s a snafu with some room assignments but we manage checking in and freshening up for an evening sightseeing tour of D.C. Signs leading in and out of the capital warn of major delays tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

“I’m Going to Take My Foot”
In response to a Fox News report that space on the Mall will be constricted to one square foot per person, Clyde Deshazer says, “I’m going to take my foot.” Given the congestion no one’s sure what we’ll actually see tomorrow. “Whatever there is to see,” Deshazer says, “I want to see it. I haven’t seen any part of history.”

Like many elders on the trip Deshazer grew up in the South. He’s struck by how a fractious nation moves toward solidarity at Obama’s lead. “I am so glad all races are coming together and focusing in one direction. The people coming together for one common purpose — that’s what gets me. That’s a soft spot in my life.”

“It’s a beautiful thing,” adds Henderson.

For tonight’s jaunt into D.C. we’re joined by Willistine Harris, a former student of Akintunde’s who lives and works in the area. She’s the trip’s consultant.
We spot our first vendors. Once in the thick of the government district we get an on-the-scene sense for the immensity of it all. Streets are choked with vehicles, including buses like ours. Tourists overrun the sidewalks. We sneak peaks of monolithic buildings and famous monuments. But we don’t leave the bus until on the waterfront, where we take in the harbor and an open-air seafood market. Dinner’s an everything-you-can-eat buffet at Phillips, which Akintunde selected “so you will see some flavor” of D.C., where he once taught.

On the bus back to the hotel Sharif and Gabriel Liwaru say what they most look forward to is being amid masses who crave the positive social change Obama advocates. They see his inauguration as a catalyst for themselves and thousands like them to go back home and inaugurate change in their communities. Sharif is president of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.

At the hotel it’s soon lights out as we have an ungodly early-to-rise call. We’re slated to leave by 4:30 to beat the rush to the Mall.

Tuesday, Jan. 20
Inauguration Day – Get on the Mall
We’re psyched for the siege ahead. Braced for swarms of people. Schooled on the Metro rail system’s dos and donts. We’re to stay as one group. Harris has secured us Smart Cards to expedite our way through the stations. We pack all the necessities — sandwiches, snacks, drinks, maps. Layered clothing means double pants or thermal underwear for what will be hours in the frigid cold

As we gear up Akintunde tells me our diversity reflects the Obama phenomenon.

“What Barack Obama says is true. That despite our differences what really bonds us as a people is our commonality as Americans. And when we can get beyond the pettiness of racial divisiveness, difference of religious opinion, and start to think of ourselves as a collective unit, we can become a more powerful, more resolute people who can achieve anything we set our minds to.”

He’s pleased how smoothly the trip’s went thus far. “I mean, this could have gone so many different ways,” he says.

On the bus we’re sleep-deprived adventurers eager to grab some rest before the main leg of the journey unfolds. Janette Jones says our tiredness will soon seem trivial once “we see the fruit of our labor,” meaning the inauguration. “We’ve gone through the wilderness and we’re stepping over into the promised land now.”

“It’s worth it,” adds Andrew Gaines.

Nearing D.C. we get stuck in a traffic snarl on the Capital Beltway. Many others headed out early, too. Some folks abandon their vehicles and walk to the New Carrollton station. We inch along and after an hour or so finally make the station exit. Akintunde emphasizes, “Don’t panic…be vigilant…stay together… We’ll be cool.” We’re let out a couple blocks from the station. Parking’s at a premium. We break into small groups, huddling near for warmth. Prayers are offered. My group’s leader, Sharif, looking sharp in his dreds, says:

“Lord, we ask you this day to bless us on our journey, to keep us safe and to keep us warm, that we may enjoy this opportunity and that we may utilize this in our lives and in our communities when we get home, and to take the energy we’ve gathered here and use it to do good. Amen.” Amen.

Moving in formation, we come upon an ever-growing line outside the station that eventually stretches for blocks. Akintunde’s plea, “No gaps,” becomes our tongue-in-cheek clarion call. It’s easier said than done in what Deshazer calls “belly press” tight conditions. Our difficulty closing the gaps prompts Miletsky to crack, “Our civil rights marching is a little rusty — we haven’t had a movement in awhile.”

 

 

 

 

“Gracious and Great”
Everyone’s in a good mood. The positive energy visceral. You can’t help observe and feel it. A woman behind me sums up the vibe with, “This is how I feel — I’m feeling gracious and great today.” Perfect gratitude.

Zebulon Miletsky, UNO Black Studies’ resident historian, puts the situation in context. “It’s just a beautiful moment to be here, to document it, and that’s what we’re all doing — we’re all documenting this history for ourselves, and to me that’s the highest form of history. That’s our history as African Americans — oral tradition. To pass that oral history along to each generation  And this story will be passed down and it will be written about. It’s already being written about. And so many times our history has been written by other people. Here we are as a people witnessing and documenting our own history and serving as the primary source.”

Gaines says he feels “so blessed” to be here with family — daughters Frelima Gaines and Gabriel Liwaru and son-in-law Sharif Liwaru — “and to experience this with so many diverse people. We’ve all come together for this historic moment I think in hope and great expectation for that better part of us that’s being expressed today,” he says. “It’s an excellent feeling. Indescribably great.”

Katrina Adams rode the Obama Express to this place as a grassroots supporter. She prays this is not the end. “This is one of those moments when I stepped up and felt like I could do something — to open the lines of communication, to let people know that regardless of what stance you’re taking you can always do more. You can speak your voice and let that be heard,” she says. “I just hope that feeling we started off with when Obama announced his candidacy replenishes itself and that people are not only touched and inspired but they’re called into action.”

Her fondest wish is that as her son “grows up as a biracial child he’ll understand there’s no limit to himself.”

Speaking of mothers and sons, Jackie Culvert brought 10-year-old Carter “so he will be able to see the change for America and be able to remember this moment.”

Every few minutes cheers go up as trains arrive and depart, moving us nearer the station. Security helicopters hover above. At 8:45 we finally make it inside. There, the crowd packs in even tighter. No shoving though. We’re connected to some living, breathing organism that moves in fits and starts. We’re one.

Akintunde says, “I don’t know why I’m not getting angry, I’m just getting more excited.” “More energized,” a woman says.

Terri Jackson-Miller marvels how “everybody’s in the same spirit…very cooperative. No one’s pushing or throwing attitudes, and I just think that’s all part of what’s out there right now, what’s happening today. Truly a blessed day. This breaks ground. The unknown is now known. It’s going to be a life changing experience.”

Between the magnanimity of the people and the cool-headed actions of cops and Metro workers, who closely monitor traffic flow, thousands safely snake through the station. Only a certain number are allowed on the platform. Once out of the crowd’s grip it’s a release and relief. Amazingly, the entire UNO contingent makes it through intact, amid hoops and hollers, all boarding the same Orange Line train. The empty cars fill in no time. It’s 10:30.

Our prearranged stop: Foggy Bottom. A half-hour ride. From there, a 20-minute walk to the Lincoln Memorial, our target area for watching the big event.

Jackson-Miller says the teeming crowds who’ve come from everywhere “really show the magnitude of this whole thing.” Confirmation is as near as the woman sitting beside me. She’s with the Red Rose Sisters from Miami, Fla. She “just had to be part of history.” Later, a man from Ireland joins me. He says Obama’s election night victory speech inspired him to cross the pond for this moment.

Akintunde announces our Foggy Bottom stop and we’re off, charging into daylight on the George Washington University campus. Vendors galore greet us, hawking Obama caps, buttons, key chains, T-shirts — “My President is Black” reads one. Food trucks do a brisk business. As Akintunde promised, “Everybody and their mamas’ selling things.” The cordoned-off district funnels a constant stream of people into the street, onto the sidewalks. A few on bikes. One atop a skateboard. We move in unison. So much activity, yet so quiet, so still. We’re like a great flock of believers bound for church. Serene. Sharing a sense of purpose and faith in a new era. A placards reads, “We Have Overcome — A New Age of Freedom.”

National Guard troops patrol select intersections.

We reach the base of the Lincoln Memorial at 11:15 and soon find the monument overrun with spectators. We make our way down to a grass field lining the reflecting pool, where thousands gather to watch a jumbo screen. We’re a mile from the Capitol, the whole of the National Mall spread out before us. It’s a grand sight with all the people, the flags, the monuments, the pageantry. Magisterial.

So many families are here. Indeed, it’s like a giant family reunion picnic. You don’t know most of the faces but you’re all linked. It’s our Woodstock.

“This is It, This is It”
Though removed from the pomp, circumstance and fanfare we’re still participants in this ritual and reverie. We angle within 25 yards of the screen, our eyes fixed on the ceremony. The mood, upbeat and solemn. Respectful. Swells of cheers and muffled applause rise as Michelle Obama and Joe Biden are intro’d. Aretha Franklin’s soulfulMy Country, Tis of Thee sets it off again. Biden’s oath of office elicits a big response. Rick Warren’s invocation is well-received. The buzz for Obama’s oath grows. When a classical musical interlude ends the crowd senses what’s next. “This is it, this is it,” a mother tells her girl, holding her tightly. The swearing-in rates a huge response, chants of “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma” lifted up. Many folks hold cameras aloft to steal away what they can for posterity. Others share the moment with friends and loved ones on their cells. Tears well up in Katrina Adams’ eyes. Mine, too. Hugs and kisses.

The love-in’s repeated again upon Obama introduced as the 44th President of the United States. People’s faces betray awe, joy, pride. His address merits rapt attention. He hits all the right notes with his call for resolve, common purpose and a new era of responsibility, moving the crowd to shout out approval.

At “Thank you and God bless you” another crescendo, more words invoked, the Star Spangled Banner, and then it’s over. In the afterglow people don’t quite know what to do. Many, including our troupe, tour the Lincoln Memorial, lingering to soak in the panorama. One more tangible link to this moment. Much picture-taking. We do the same at the Vietnam War Memorial. The procession out of the Mall an orderly exodus. Even two hours after the inauguration the people file by.

 

 

 

 

Some of us get separated in the human stream. After the long walk back getting inside the Foggy Bottom stop takes an hour due to the logjam of people. We’re exhausted, chilled, overladen with souvenirs but still of good cheer.

Impressions from our members:
Janette Jones
“It was exhilarating. It was not so much the fact of him being black, it’s just the point America has come together for the first time in unity, and that’s what his message was all about — unity. It was very inclusive.”
Daryl Hunt
“I feel like I’ve made it to the top of the mountain. It’s an awesome feeling.”
James Freeman
“It gives everybody hope because the door has been opened and so now we can come in.”
Katrina Adams
“It’s confirmed, it’s done, he’s safe, his family’s safe, and we’re going to be OK. I can’t feel my fingers but I’m happy.”
Andrew Gaines
“I’m ecstatic. I feel very hopeful we’re going to experience a new resolve as a country — to reenergize, refurbish, redevelop, reexplore…to make this American Dream we have more of a reality. I’m excited for the future. I’m engaged now.”
Omowale Akintunde
“Wasn’t it beautiful? We actually have a black president. It means we’ve evolved as a nation. You can literally feel the weight lifted. I’m amazed.”
Seth Quartey
“I feel real proud. I know with this change everything’s going to be alright.”

We all make it back to the Carrollton station and bus. Akintunde leads us in singing the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and the Star Spangled Banner. Linda Briggs offers a prayer thanking God for seeing us through. At dinner that night the event-filled day’s relived over and over. It’s a blur. Sleep comes easy.

Jan. 21-22
The Day After – Get on Home
The enthusiasm’s waned some. We’re still recovering, still digesting. The trip home is long but we have the satisfaction of achieving our mission. James Hart gives thanks for our being delivered back where we started. The bus empties, the cameras record. Goodbyes said.

Postscript
Joining the enormous throng for this slice of Americana gave each of us a personal stake in history, in something far greater than ourselves. Whether riding the human waves on the Mall, milling about the masses on monument row or navigating the gridlock in the Metro, we found ourselves literally and figuratively carried away. No matter how small, we played our parts in this celebration, culmination, commemoration. We made this more perfect union and fervent prayer sing. Hallelujah!

Seafarer Doug Hiner and His Cuban Medical Supply Runs

May 11, 2010 2 comments

Sailboat in San Francisco Bay

Image via Wikipedia

A couple acquaintances introduced me to Doug Hiner and he immediately got on my radar as someone I’d like to profile when I learned he regularly sailed down to Cuba on missions that were partly about delivering medical supplies and partly about secreting back contraband, as in cigars.  Hiner is a wheeler-dealer type who denied the illegal trafficking at the time I interviewed him, then expressing upset at my story’s suggestion that he engaged in anything like that, but subsequent events confirmed his smuggling activity because he got caught in the act down in Florida and faced serious federal charges.  He pleaded guilty to one count and received 36 months probation.

Aside from the intrigue, which occurred after my story appeared, his story is really a classic tale about his taste for adventure and his passion for all things Cuban.  A version of the following story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Seafarer Doug Hiner and His Cuban Medical Supply Runs

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

More than any other country, Cuba both seduces and vexes Americans. This island of paradoxes is at once a natural paradise fulfilled and a socialist promise unrealized. In a place where bare necessities do not go for want, chronic shortages make hustlers out of peasant and professional alike. Within a closed society and controlled economy, anything, for a price, is a black market possibility.

Fidel Castro may or may not own Cubans’ hearts and minds, but the land and culture definitely hold residents and exiles transfixed.

Social/economic problems don’t change the fact that Cuba, at least geographically, is a tropical island idyll. Sun, ocean, jungle, mountains — much of it pristine. Politicians/bureaucrats aside, the people embrace life with a live-and-let-live Latino insouciance. Music, dance, food, art, love, sun, surf. Fun prevails, if not for all, for tourists.

Omahan Doug Hiner sees the schizoid nature of Cuba every time he sails there on his 53-foot cutter, the Vitamin Sea. He captains the Tampa-docked boat on voyages that transport medical equipment to hospitals and clinics on the island. He’s been making runs like this to Cuba for seven years, a period when official American policy toward that intransigent Caribbean nation has gone from rigid to ultra hard-line. Embargoes of one kind or another have limited trade with Cuba and, in some cases, denied aid.

 

 

Doug Hiner

(naplesnews.com)

 

 

With Fidel’s recent stomach surgery making his mortality and his grip on power a renewed subject of world interest, Hiner prepared for a late December sail to bring in another boatload of supplies. But the gringo’s boat blew an engine, pushing the trip back until this month. He arrived February 10 in Havana, where the gear still sits, waiting for the red tape to be cut so he can move stuff inland.

His artist wife, Christina Narwicz, usually joins him on these maritime adventures but she wasn’t feeling up to it when he shoved off this time around.

The Man and the Sea
Hiner, 67, is a former hair dresser and a retired real estate developer and landlord. He made and lost a fortune. He’s not oblivious to the political realities that hold Cuba hostage in a state of suspended animation. Far from it. He has strong views on what Cuba and its paternalistic neighbor to the north should do to ease restrictions and tensions. His awareness of Cuban medical needs drives his missionary trips there, even as he brings in and takes back his share of contraband.

His journeys go well beyond idol curiosity. Hiner and his wife feel they have a fair handle on Cuba by virtue of not only having traveled there several times — it’s 15 trips and counting for him and about the same for her — but their stays usually last weeks or months at a time. They get around to different parts of the island and really immerse themselves in the place.

“We’re not tourists, we’re travelers,” Hiner said. “A tourist wants to have MacDonald’s no matter where he’s at. We like to enjoy the cultures of different countries and not live like Americans. We try to blend and be friendly with the people, and that’s all it really takes to be accepted. They love Americans, especially if you’re friendly to them. They don’t like the ugly-American types.”

Whatever motivates him, he ultimately makes these journeys because they put him in touch with three of his favorite things — sailing, the sea and people.

Though he grew up in landlocked South Dakota and Nebraska, Hiner long ago felt the call of the open sea.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the sea,” he said, “and I’ve always had this dream of having a boat to sail around the world.”

Years ago he and Christina “were planning to do a sail around the world …” when his “business fortunes changed,” making such a trip “impractical.” Circumnavigating the globe is not such a passion now, not with the expanse of warm southern waters to explore. “You can spend your whole life in an area like that and never see everything,” he said. “The Caribbean is a whole chain of islands. We’ve never been to Colombia or Central America, so eventually I’d like to do that.”

Besides, it’s the carefree, unrestricted, port-of-call lifestyle he enjoys, more than the challenge of seeing how far Hiner can push his sailing skills.

“A boat is like your home. You’ve got everything on it. You’re totally self-sustaining … It’s a real nice feeling,” he said. “You can anchor anywhere you want for nothing. We spent a couple New Years Eve’s anchored off of Key West, one of the liveliest New Years places in the world.”

Still, the allure of cruising wave and wind is like the call of the sirens — hard to resist. Half the challenge is dealing with weather and the other half comes with the inevitable mishaps.

“Weather on the high seas — that’s your biggest danger,” Hiner said. “We’ve gone through some pretty turbulent stuff, some accidentally, some on purpose because we had to. But it’s never been a safety issue. You’re never really out of ear shot of weather” reports via radio/radar.

Nature-related or not, things do go wrong. Take the couple’s 1999 trip to Cuba for instance.

“Going down on the second trip we blew out the sail. We ran into some bad weather. We had to have it repaired. It’s usually mechanical problems. It’s like, not if it’s going to break, but when it’s going to break. The last time we left Cuba the autopilot failed and we had to hand steer for 40 hours. Oh, and coming back from Cuba once we lost our fresh water pump, so we had no engine. There was no wind and we drifted for a day-and-a-half or two days before we finally got close enough to Key West to get a boat to tow us in.

“Our boat is about 20 years old and it needs extensive rewiring and stuff and I really haven’t been able to afford that, so we just kind of patch things together. It’s safe but it’s always a little bit of an adventure.”

Sea-faring is an apt avocation for an inveterate beach bum who, whether inland or coastal, enjoys kicking it with friends over drinks in the Old Market, where he developed some of the first condos, or partying on his boat.

He enjoys the simple, well-done pleasures of good food, good drink and good company. His wife’s the same. The residence they fashioned from an old brick-faced bar and parking lot on South 13th Street reflect their shared interests. The grounds’ richly decorated Great Wall that fronts 13th Street has a gated entry whose mammoth door opens onto a large courtyard filled with her plantings.

Hiner’s no stranger to graceful living, as he once owned a Fairacres mansion “back,” as he likes to say, “when I was rich and famous.” He made big bucks and moved in tony circles in the ’70s and ’80s. Then it all crashed. He alludes to a business partner running his development company into the ground.

The house, featured in the Spring 2000 edition of Renovation Style magazine, is designed with walkouts along the length of the courtyard that connect to a wood deck, creating a veranda. The interior opens up to a loft master bedroom and guest quarters, revealing a 32-foot-high ceiling and a bank of large windows that stream light in. At one end of the property is a screened-in porch. At the back of the lot is Christina’s well-lit studio. It all works toward a cozy hacienda feel.

As soon as he laid eyes on the spot he knew “it was exactly what I had in mind.” When he bought the former Glass Front Bar it was only a shell. But, he said, “I had this vision.” He designed the place himself. The work fit neatly into his years of “retrofitting old buildings. I’ve always had a knack for design and style and just living comfortably.” The result, he said, adheres to “the European concept of zero lot lines…where you basically use the whole property. We don’t have a back yard or front yard or side yard — we have a court yard. The same with our house. We utilize the whole house. We don’t have formal spaces. It’s just more practical and creative in my estimation. It’s just a feeling of well-being.”

His passion for this getaway within the city dovetails neatly with his ardor for Cuba. It always comes back to communing with people.

“It’s just a wonderful country. The people are so friendly and so caring and loving,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. I’ve traveled all over the world and I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country that is so warm and safe. There’s virtually no crime in Cuba. It’s true there’s a policeman on almost every corner, but the people there are so law-abiding. They’ll steal, but their attitude is, ‘If you don’t lock your bicycle up with a chain or padlock, then you must not want it.’ I’ve never had anything stolen off my boat in the marina and I can’t say that in almost any other country.”

Years living under the thumb of a dictatorship has its palliative effects.

“If a policeman on the corner points to a driver and signals him to stop,” Hiner said, “he’ll almost come to a panic stop to obey the order. They wouldn’t even think of not [stopping]. A police chase over there would be unheard of.”

Back to the contradictions bound up there, he said Cuba can seem chaste one minute and carnal the next. “It’s a real straight-laced island. Pornography is totally illegal. Drugs — zero tolerance. One marijuana cigarette would throw you in jail for a week before you’d be expelled from the country and told never to come back.” On the other hand, he said, “Cuba’s a very sexually open country. Even though prostitution is illegal…a lot of people are shocked by the young women that are readily available for sexual encounters. One, there’s a serious lack of men on the island. And two, their culture is not uptight about sex at all. I mean, geez, if some foreigner wants to give you twenty bucks, that’s even better.”

Besides, he said, “Cuba’s all extended families — there’s four-five generations that live under the same roof, and so it’s everybody’s responsibility to help support the family group.”

While Cuba prides itself on a system that accounts for citizens’ basic needs, rampant poverty compels most everyone to be on the make.

“You see very little begging, yet the young Cuban kids and the old folks are out hustling for the family,” Hiner said. “Everybody is sort of doing whatever needs to be done to provide extras. They have to have some access to dollars to really have any quality of life.”

Amid all this naked human need, Cuba takes great pains to put on a good face. “They sweep each block of Havana every day. If you don’t have anything to do, they’ll put a broom in your hands,” he said.

By Western standards, he said, Cubans lack everything we take for granted. He tries to give friends there some creature comforts otherwise unavailable to them.

“I’ve taken personal things down for people, like a microwave oven or VCR or DVD player, because all that stuff is illegal. Everything’s illegal in Cuba. Mainly, if it plugs into the wall, it’s illegal. They have an energy problem and they’re just trying to keep people’s lives basic.”

 

 

Even more basic than that, he said, he brings items like toothbrushes and razor blades that are “not a big deal here, but are a big deal there.”

He’s also brought back, on consignment, works by Cuban artists he and Christina sold in Old Market art shows, the proceeds going toward supplies for the artists.

Beat the Bushes, ‘Bend a Few Rules’
He’s sympathetic to the plight of the Cuban people, whose deprivation goes deeper than a lack of material things, to essential services. Sure, Cuba provides free health care, but many clinics and hospitals lack equipment and technology that can not only improve care but save lives. And while average Cubans and natives of nearby Latin American countries have access to free care, some medical centers are reserved for the elite. It’s why he got involved as a medical supplier in the first place. His awareness began on his inaugural visit to Cuba in 1998. The marina in Havana introduced him to fellow travelers, including many Americans, some of whom became a model.

“I met a lot of people that first time. A lot of just normal people. Some were bringing medical equipment on their boats down there,” he said. He soon discovered an informal network of doctors and suppliers. “As I met people in the marina and friends of theirs I was put in touch with various doctors and got lists of things they needed.”

Over the next year Hiner beat the bushes and made contact with “various organizations” that run aid into Cuba.” He cultivated the names of key suppliers, like Jack Oswald in Chicago, and key recipients, like surgeon Gilberto Fleites in Havana. When Oswald, who works with a group called Caribbean Medical Transport, ran a check on Hiner’s then-fledgling medical mission activities he was duly impressed.

“The medical equipment he gets is a cut above most of the stuff humanitarian aid groups get and I’ve been doing this a long time. His stuff is absolutely flawless,” Oswald said. “I went with him on his last trip because he was packing some really heavy equipment…I came from Chicago to help him figure out a way to put some of this stuff on the boat without it sinking. We put thousands of pounds on the bow…and you no longer could see to navigate…so we had to have somebody at the front of the boat calling instructions out to the captain just to avoid the reefs and boats and weather we came across on our way to Cuba. It got a little adventurous here and there.

“I’ll tell you, the guy’s fearless, he really is. He’s mission-oriented, there’s no question about it. Almost militaristically I might add. He doesn’t really let anything get in his way. Some of the stuff he does is a bit risky. And sometimes he doesn’t have the money, the equipment or even the plan…but he just keeps doing it. I think both sides are willing to let him operate, maybe even bend a few rules here and there…because they know what he’s doing is valuable.”

 

 

Joining Oswald, Hiner and his wife Christina on the voyage was a Cuban American physician who brought medical supplies to a cousin physician in Cuba. The Americans also brought art supplies for an artists collective there. Oswald said of Hiner and Narwicz, “They just know a whole lot of people and they just really enjoy Cuba. The folks I met that know them are like family.”

On Hiner’s first supply run in 2000 he was introduced to Dr. Fleites. “I met Gilberto and his wife Teresa and they were really neat people and we became really close friends and we had a really wonderful time there,Hiner said.

Hiner calls Dr. Fleites “a bit of a renegade. He ran the national cancer institute in Havana. He was on the Cuban ethics board. He tried to get some doctors removed from practice because he thought they were killing more people than they were saving,” Hiner said. “But his superiors kicked him off the board because he wasn’t ‘a team player.’ He still performs surgeries … but only on important people because they know he’s very, very good. He’s sort of like freelance. It’s kind of a bizarre situation.”

The Omahan’s “become sort of an emissary” to Dr. Fleites. “I get lists of stuff from him” the Cuban medical community “needs,” he said, “and come back and hustle my friends. I know a lot of doctors from when I used to be rich and famous.” As Hiner’s refined his networking, tons of things get donated — once, an entire operating suite. Omaha’s Children’s Hospital donated an anesthesia machine. He works with established humanitarian nonprofits that authorize him use of their license for delivering free medical goods abroad. Much of what he takes there goes to Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine, an AIDS hospital directed by Dr. Jorge Perez. It’s not an impersonal process for Hiner, who’s visited there and other sites he’s supplied. He’s impressed by Cuba’s “incredible medical system.”

What began as annual trips became twice-a-year voyages. Their last trip, in 2005, they were in Cuba four months.

He’s transported medical gear worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including mechanical operating tables and surgical instruments ranging from forceps to retractors to endoscopic devices. The goods ship to a central location and, when there’s enough for a full haul, he loads a truck and drives it to his boat in Tampa. After everything is securely stored and lashed aboard, he rigs his boat and sails for Cuba. Once there everything must be checked and approved by customs officials, a process that can take weeks. Various government stamps and seals are needed. From start to end, a single supply mission can take months.

He cuts what red tape he can with “gifts” to marina workers and ministry officials.

For the current trip, he amassed a large inventory that includes an entire delivery room donated by a hospital, complete with delivery table, incubators and monitors. So large is the haul he left half the load in Florida for a return trip next month.

Donations have never been better, but he said navigating the bureaucratic waters to get them to Cuba has become more problematic. He blames the Bush administration for “tightening travel restrictions,” especially since 9/11. He said the feds have made it harder for the nonprofits he works with to obtain or renew licenses. The main clearance he needs is from the U.S. Coast Guard that grants free passage through “an imaginary security zone between Key West and Havana that no one can define.” Without the permit, he said, “they can seize your boat, fine you $250,000 and put you in jail for 10 years.” When things were more “more relaxed,” he could slide by. Not now.

There are also new Commerce Department and Council of Foreign Currency Control approvals needed.

Cuba’s hardly immune from bureaucracy, but the tropics make the paperwork and graft more bearable. Besides, as “well accepted” as Hiner is there, he can play Lord Jim. He hopes a meeting he’s been angling for with Fidel, whom he admires, happens one day. He knows just what he’d say to the dictator. “I would tell him he needs to make more opportunities. The people there are very industrious but he keeps stifling any kind of private enterprise,” Hiner said. “He’s getting old and overly restrictive. I would tell Fidel, ‘You’ve got to loosen up. If you were a young man today you’d start a revolution against yourself.’”

To Cuba with Love
Ironically, Hiner’s romance with Cuba may never have happened if not for an accident. It was late 1998. Doug and Christina were on one of their Caribbean sailing jags and had put into port in Jamaica. There, Christina took a fall and broke her ankle, putting her in a cast. He hired a young Jamaican boy to help him crew. The trio sailed to the Camyan islands, where Christina’s pain worsened. Doug sent her home by plane. That left Doug and the boy. The idea was to make for Florida, but Doug knew the boy would be denied entry without papers.

“So, we decided to go to Mexico,” Hiner said. “I got in big trouble there because, unbeknownst to me, a Jamaican needs a visa to get into Mexico. They almost threw us in jail. I talked my way out of that.”

Next, Hiner set his sights on Key West, but learned that, too, was off-limits. Desperate, he asked officials, “Where can we go?’ ‘Cuba,’ they told him. “So, the next morning off we went to Cuba. That was my first time. We were there almost 10 days before I was able to get a plane to fly him out to Montego Bay. And while in Cuba I just loved the country. When I got back home I told Christina, ‘I loved it so much we need to go back there.’” Go back they did.

Memories of Baseball Legend Buck O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Live On


Irrepressible Negro Leagues Baseball legend Buck O’Neil is someone I always wanted to interview and it finally happened on a trip to Kansas City, MO only months before he died.  The following story, which appeared in the New Horizons newspaper and, later, in The Reader (www.thereader.com), may have been one of the last feature stories to contain a new, at-length interview with O’Neil.

The charming man I first came to know through the Ken Burns Baseball documentary proved to be every bit as charming in person.  I consider it my great fortune to have met him and I hope his personality shines through in this piece, which by the way is as much about the Negro Leagues and the Negroe Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City as it is about O’Neil. That’s only right, too, as he became the face and voice of that long defunct chapter in black baseball and of that excellent museum he helped launch.

 

 

Memories of Baseball Legend Buck O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Live On

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A July visit to Kansas City, Mo.’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) found Buck O’Neil in fine form. Sure he was stooped and moved haltingly, but the late elder statesman for African-American baseball history glowed with ardor — for life. He chatted up visitors and staff, flirting with women a quarter his age, flashing a devilish glint and smile, and generally charming everyone he met.

The image of a 94-year-old doing what he loves best — making friends, is forever fixed in the minds of people who saw him. A tall, ebullient man whose bright, jaunty attire reflected his disposition, O’Neil personified human warmth.

“The man never met a stranger in his life.“I’ll tell you what, he’s the most charismatic individual I’ve ever encountered. The energy he exerts at 94, it’s just amazing to me how he does it,” NLBM marketing director Bob Kendrick said then. Kendrick often traveled with O’Neil to spread the gospel of the museum’s mission.

Even the indefatiguable O’Neil had his limits. Last August he was admitted to a KC hospital for fatigue and died two months later from heart failture. After the National Baseball Hall of Fame‘s failure to induct him last spring into Cooperstown, it could be said he died of a broken heart. A great voice and conscience was lost, but his legacy lives on.

O’Neil’s many travels took him to Omaha, where in recent years he threw out the first pitch at an Omaha Royals game and spoke on a panel at the Durham Western Heritage Museum for a touring NLBM exhibit.

The much-beloved one was a familiar figure at the KC museum, where he held the title of chairman. He presided over the place like a bronze statue come to life from the “Field of Legends” display — eager to share the Negro leagues experience. He told it often and to great effect, most notably as narrator of the Negro leagues segment of Ken Burns’ acclaimed Baseball documentary. His vivid descriptions of the rousing place players-teams enjoyed in black communities, put a face on this story as never before. Long before the film, however, he lobbied for recognition of the Negro leagues and for induction of its stars in Cooperstown.

“I always thought the story should have been told and I’ve been telling it for the last 50 years,” O’Neil said in July. “But nobody listened to me until the Ken Burns documentary. Now everybody wants to talk to Buck about it.”

The story of a vital but long neglected chapter in the national pastime’s history is told at the museum. It’s only right the museum calls KC home, as the city gave birth to the Negro leagues and for decades hosted one of the great black ball clubs — the Monarchs. KC is also the adopted home of O’Neil, a Florida native whose father was the son of slaves. For 17 years O’Neil was a fixture at first base with the Monarchs of the Negro National League, A good, not great, player with a career .288 batting average, he four times topped the .300 mark, highlighted by a league-leading .353 average in ’46. He played in four East-West All Star games and two Negro Leagues World Series. In his later years he was a player-manager with the club, twice guiding the Monarchs to league titles.

He finally made the big leagues in ’56, as a scout, with the Chicago Cubs, with whom he became MLB’s first black coach. He was a Cubs dugout fixture for decades.

In the ’90s he played a key role in the start of the museum, located smack dab in the middle of the historic cultural hub of KC’s black community. The 18th and Vine District today is a gentrified area of brick, circa-1900s buildings, that once featured a 24/7 promenade of people taking in its clubs, eateries and stores.

 

 

A short jaunt off the Paseo exit finds you on John Buck O’Neil Way, which traverses a mixed commercial-residential area of brownstone walk ups — the Jazz Hill Homes — and places of worship — St. Stephen Baptist Church, Paseo Baptist, Bethel AME Church — whose names signify black culture. You arrive at 18th and Vine, to find an Old Market-style environs surrounded by the Blue Room, the Historic Lincoln Building, the Gem Theatre and the Swing Shop. Like a shrine stand the combined, glass-facaded NLBM-American Jazz museums and their homage to the game and the music that served to unite and thrill the black community.

O’Neil’s efforts with the NLBM no doubt helped get a record 17 Negro Leaguers and pre-Negro Leaguers elected to the Hall last year. A name conspicuous by its absence from the inductees was O’Neil’s. Kendrick said O’Neil knew well his place in baseball history and the shame of his exclusion.

“He’s a very proud man. He understands the fact he’s a trailblazer. He understands what this story represents to the core and he’s doing everything in his power to make sure others will have an opportunity to know about those who made great sacrifices and were trailblazers like himself,” Kendrick said. “And that’s why we felt so disheartened by the fact the doors to the Hall of Fame were shut on him.

“It’s difficult to assess his 70-plus-year baseball career and say he wasn’t worthy of inclusion as a contributor. You know, it leaves you to wonder what their criteria were, but certainly all of us understand the remarkable contributions this man has made to the game of baseball, across the board. Fans across the country were not just disappointed but outraged because he is the face of the Negro leagues now. He is the reason people care about the Negro leagues.”

Ever the diplomat, O’Neil downplayed the snub. “I had an idea I had a chance” to be elected “but having been on the Veterans Hall of Fame Committee for 20 years I knew what could happen.” He preferred taking the high road. He even spoke at the induction ceremony. Kendrick didn’t rule out O’Neil might one day still get in, but prayed it wasn’t too late. “We hope Buck will get this coronation at some point in time,” he said, “but the thing is we hope that it comes in his lifetime.” O’Neil fell one vote short of seeing it happen.

Hall or no Hall his name’s soon to grace the NLBM’s Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center at the nearby Paseo YMCA, a National Historic Landmark regarded as the birthplace of the Negro leagues. A $15 million rehab will provide state-of-the-art facilities for the museum’s oral history and archival work.

The museum O’Neil dedicated the last 16 years of his life to charts, in words and images, the rise and fall of the Negro leagues. If there’s a recurring theme, it’s that these teams and players made it possible for future generations of blacks to enter major league baseball. Without the Negro leagues, blacks in baseball and in society as a whole might have waited another generation for real progress.

“As Buck so eloquently put it,” Kendrick said, “it’s nice sometimes we celebrate those who built the bridge as opposed to those who crossed over the bridge. That’s what we’re doing here — we’re celebrating the bridge builders.”

Most captivating are the stories, told in interactive exhibits, that make history come alive. If O’Neil happened by, he regaled anyone within ear shot with tales of those halcyon times. He loved being a Negro leaguer. The way of life it afforded him. The people it allowed him to meet. The game he loved it enabled him to play.

“The only experience I would have traded it for would have been to have done it in  the major leagues,” said O’Neil, the prime of whose playing career came before the color barrier fell. “Yeah, that’s the only thing.”

Until the color barrier was broken in ’47, the Negro leagues offered black ballplayers the next best thing. For a time, black baseball flourished.

“The painful images of blacks are pretty much out there — the images of slavery, the struggle of the civil rights movement — but very rarely are our success stories celebrated, and this is a success story” Kendrick said. “Blacks succeeded at the highest level you can succeed playing this game and went on to spark social change in this country. I think it’s an inspirational illustration of what blacks were able to accomplish in the face of tremendous adversity.”

The Negro leagues, he said, were not only “an economic stimulus” for black businesses, but “created a sense of pride…It’s a story of men who flat out refused to accept the notion they were unfit to play America’s so-called national pastime. They created leagues of their own…They were determined, they persevered, they did whatever they had to do to prove to the world they could play this game as well as anyone. That is the prevailing American spirit.”

 

 

 

In an era when a “gentlemen’s agreement” among major league owners and commissioners kept blacks off the field, AfricanAmericans created their own baseball universe. In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster — “the father of black baseball” — met with other black team owners to create the Negro National League, the first organized black pro league. Other leagues followed. The hope was the big leagues would take-in one team from each main Negro league. It never happened.

Instead, it took another 27 years before the majors let in blacks. In the meantime, the Negro leagues prospered. The first Colored World Series was held in 1924. New leagues followed. The boom was from 1933 to 1947, with teams in KC, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Birmingham, Memphis, Baltimore, New York, et cetera.

The Negro leagues featured comparable talent as the majors and, as the museum highlights, offered innovations, such as night baseball, years ahead of the bigs. Also documented is the fact Negro league teams fared well against major league teams in exhibitions. “We would have been in the majors” a lot sooner, O’Neil said, “if it hadn’t been for the segregation. What kept us out…was not the fans, but in fact the owners. See, the baseball fans, all they ever asked — Could you play?”

This “parallel” baseball experience was relegated to the back pages of white newspapers and to the shadows of mainstream history, yet it enjoyed every bit the cachet and support among black fans the major leagues did among white fans.

Black baseball also attracted white fans, particularly when Negro league teams like the Monarchs barnstormed to play exhibitions versus local town teams or major league clubs. O’Neil and his Monarchs packed them in at Western League Park and Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha and American Legion Baseball Park in Council Bluffs.

Blacks had extra motivation in Negro versus. Big League games. “We had something to prove. We wanted to prove to the world they weren’t superior because they were major leaguers and we weren’t inferiors because we were Negro leaguers,” O’Neil said. ‘We were going to show ‘em we can play, too. It was great competition.”

The high times are what O’Neil recalled best. Black athletes and musicians were THE celebrities in black communities and they socialized together. In KC, they stayed at the Streets Hotel, near where the museum stands today. “At the Streets Hotel I might come down for breakfast and Duke Ellington and them might be there and say, ‘Come over and have breakfast with us this morning.” Or Sarah Vaughan. You’re talking about jazz and baseball. That was here, that was Kansas City,” said O’Neil, his plaintive voice rising and falling like a soft riff.

When the Monarchs were in town, it was news. “Yeah, we were very well respected,” he said. “I’ll tell you how much — I courted a preacher’s daughter.”

Churches heeded their presence. “Sunday, 11 o’clock service, but when the Monarchs were in town, service started at 10 o’clock so that they (churchgoers) could get to the ball park. And then they would come looking good — dressed to kill. It was actually not only a ball game, it was a social event. The Monarchs, this was the thing. You saw everybody that was somebody there at the ball park. People would hobnob with their friends. Yeah, mmmm…hmmm,” said O’Neil, his sing-song patios swelled with the solemnity of a preacher and the jive of a hipster.

 

 

photo

Grave of John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil in Forest Hill Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri. Negro League First Baseman “Buck” O’Neil played from 1937 through 1954. Also O’Neil led the effort to build a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum & Hall of Fame in Kansas City, MO, which opened its doors in 1990.  

 

Home or away, O’Neil said he and his fellow Negro leaguers felt the passion of fans.

“Oh, man, listen, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. at his Abyssinian Baptist Church
in Harlem, New York, preached a baseball sermon for the New York Cubans, the New York Black Yankees, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Memphis Red Sox before a four-team doubleheader at Yankee Stadium,” he said. “He preached that sermon, and man, the church was full. They followed us to the ball park. We had 40,000 at Yankee Stadium. We played over at Branch Rickey’s place” — Ebbets Field, home to general manager Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers — “and we had 20,000 there.”

Even the bus trips reminded O’Neil how fortunate he was.

“All you needed was a bus and I’ll tell you what, we traveled in some of the best money could buy during that period. And actually we stayed in some of the best hotels in the country — they just happened to be black owned and operated. We ate in some of the best restaurants in the country. Of course, during that time, the best cooks in the world were black. In that bus you’d have 20 of the best athletes that ever lived. To be able to play, to participate, to compete with these type of athletes, oh, it was outstanding,” he said. “As a young man from Florida, yeah, up north here in Kansas City playing baseball, outstanding really,”

It was Branch Rickey who signed Jackie Robinson away from the Monarchs in ’45 and brought him to the majors in ’47. Robinson was one of five blacks called up to the majors that year. O’Neil said Rickey’s enlightened move to buck the system made sound business sense. “Branch Rickey, the astute businessman that he was, saw this as a brand new clientele” to be mined, O’Neil said

O’Neil insisted the men who broke baseball’s color barrier helped ignite a social revolution. “When Branch Rickey signed Jackie to that contract that was the beginning of the civil rights movement,” he said. “That was before Brown versus Board of Education. That was before sister Rosa Parks said, ‘I won’t go to the back of the bus today.’ Martin Luther King, Jr. was just a sophomore at Morehouse (College). Jackie started the ball rolling right there in baseball.”

Robinson’s success and the success of players like Larry Doby proved, once and for all, blacks belonged on the same field, paving the way for others to follow. The same way Latino players dominate the game today, blacks did for decades.

As a Cubs scout O’Neil brought great black talent to the bigs, signing future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. He later scouted for the Royals.

He didn’t think much about his own place in history. He was too busy “running all over the country raising money” for the museum. “But, you see, I’m 94 and I ain’t going to live but 20 more years,” he said last July, smiling. “After I’m gone I want this to be here forever. That’s why we need an endowment.” To garner that support he met with everyone from MLB superstars to commissioner Bud Selig to billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to Hollywood celebs to ordinary fans.

What made him a great ambassador for the museum and the game was his ability to engage folks from every walk of life. He said he’d like to be remembered as “a spokesman for the Negro leagues — to keep this memory alive.”

Back in July, O’Neil made the rounds at KC ‘s Madrid Theatre for a Legends Luncheon, a program that raises funds for the NLBM. He greeted folks with, “Good to see you guys,” “How ya’ doin’ today?”, signed autographs and posed for pics. During an auction of baseball memorabilia, he worked the crowd, imploring and cajoling them to up their bids. “We’re going to start this off at $40. Forty, who’s going to say 40 for Buck? Fifty? Who’s going to give me 55? C’mon, bro’. Thank you, brother. Who’s going to give me $60? What do you say, sugar? There you go, love. Going once, going twice…I’ve got to let her have it,” and with that he sauntered over to the winning female bidder, embraced her and planted a kiss on her cheek.

To close the luncheon he did what became his trademark at public appearances. He invited people to join hands and sing along with him a melody from a song that best expressed the way he felt about baseball and its fans. As he crooned, he drew out each word, face beaming, lingering in the moment, basking in reflected after-glow of his adoring public.

“The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you. Thank you, folks.” Thank you, Buck. Rest in peace.

Bobby Bridger’s Rendezvous

May 11, 2010 1 comment

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and Congress of ...

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You would be hard-pressed to find a more singular artist then Bobby Bridger, who has carved out a niche for himself in music that no one now or in the near future is ever likely to challenge.  I was first introduced to this self-described epic balladeer in the 1980s, when I saw him in a sublime stage musical entitled Shakespeare and the Indians, with book and lyrics by Dale Wasserman and music by Alan Jay Friedman, that had its world premiere at the Firehouse Dinner Theatre in Omaha.

I saw him again not long after that when he performed solo at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where I was the PR director.

The following story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 1998. I’ve kept in touch with Bobby through the years and written about him a few more times, including on the occasion of the release of his widely acclaimed Buffalo Bill book and his autobiography.  My blog features additional Bridger stories I’ve written.

By the way, Bridger now has several books to his credit, including, A Ballad of the WestBuffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West, Bridger, and his latest, Where the Tall Grass Grows, Becoming Indigenous and the Mythological Legacy of the American West.

NOTE: An August 12 email from Bobby announced he is retiring his A Ballad of the West performance as of mid-July 2011 because it has run its course and he wants to pursue other projects.  He may be hanging up the buckskins, but his singular focus on music and the history of the West will survive in the huge body of work he’s produced.

 

 

 

 

Bobby Bridger’s Rendezvous

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

“Majestic mountains rise to heaven, kiss the clouds as they go drifting by. Golden eagle soaring upward, drawing lazy circles in the sky. The forest sings of wilderness, the prairie sings of space. The river sings of freedom, the wind sings with grace. Sing with grace! I’m bound for Yellowstone, and the high plains of Absaroka.” ––”Absaroka,” from Bridger’s new epic ballad “Pahaska”

A history lesson has never looked quite like this. Epic balladeer Bobby Bridger, bedecked in buckskins and beads, an acoustic guitar slung over one shoulder and a dusty trail of hair flowing from under his wide-brimmed hat, casts a spellbinding presence performing one of his odes to the Old West. With genuine mountain man blood coursing through his veins, Bridger does some serious communing with frontier spirits during his nearly sacred one-man shows in which he is singer, shaman, teacher, guide.

Bridger, who’s presented his dramatic interpretations of the West before Wyoming ranchers, Native Americans, Australian Aborigines and Russian schoolkids, breathes new life into history otherwise recorded only in books, films or paintings. His lyrics and verse are a celebration of the West and a commemoration of its passing. They tell how a nation came to be forged from heroism and hypocrisy, brotherhood and betrayal, discovery and death. How a dream was lost. A people injured. His songs are mourning wails and hopeful pleas. Hymns offered in the name of understanding.

Bridger, 53, defies categorizing. The Houston-based entertainer is a poet, author, actor, singer-songwriter, historian and storyteller. He draws on all these skills when performing “A Ballad of the West,” his ambitious, three-part epic ballad cycle chronicling the early American frontier. The project, which has consumed him the past 25 years, occasionally brings Bridger to Nebraska, where many of the key figures he sings about once roamed.
He was here most recently in September to perform benefit concerts in Lincoln and Omaha for the Prairie Peace Park. His performances, including one at Unity Church, introduced area audiences to “Pahaska,” the third and last part of his trilogy. Pahaska, Lakota for “long hair,” was the name given by Native Americans to William F. Cody, a.k.a. “Buffalo Bill.” Cody is forever linked to Nebraska, where he scouted for the cavalry and later launched his “Wild West” show. Bridger portrays Cody from a young boy to an old man, assumes the personas of those who knew him and serves as the tale’s narrator.

While in town Bridger also taped an upcoming “River City Folk” program with host Tom May. During the session, recorded at the studios of radio station KVNO 90.7-FM on the UNO campus, Bridger performed selections from his epic ballads as well as from his non-Western work.

Bridger’s immersion in the West began 35 years ago and sparked a quest to tell, in song, its epic story. That he’s stayed this non-conventional path so long reveals much about the man. It meant turning his back on a budding folk-country-pop recording career in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s.

“My family still thinks I’m absolutely stark raving mad for abandoning that, and all the obvious riches it held, and chasing this other thing,” he said.

He cut records on the Monument label in Nashville and for RCA in Hollywood. He collaborated with legendary studio musician-producer Fred Carter, Jr. He scored feature films. He was poised for a run at the big-time.  But he was unhappy. He chafed under the creative limitations imposed by music executives, who wanted formulaic love songs, not epic ballads.

“In the mainstream music business you’re expected to fit into a mold of whatever’s the flavor of the month. All they really want is a puppet that sings to belong to the masses, and I didn’t want to do that,” Bridger said in his soft Southern twang over a mug of tea at the mid-town Barnes & Noble.  “It was extremely frustrating. Executives at RCA told me, ‘No one wants a history lesson from an unknown folk singer.’ But I knew the only job an artist has is to evolve the form. And I thought the only way I’m going to be happy is to push all the chips in the middle of the pot and gamble on it.”

A Louisianian by birth, Bridger found both his subject, the West, and the form to express it in, the ballad, at about the same time. While a student at Northeast Louisiana University he discovered he might be the great-grand nephew of mountain man Jim Bridger, which spurred his research into the fur tapping era. Meanwhile, he discovered the writings of John Neihardt, the late epic poet from Nebraska whose “Cycle of the West” is THE source material for western scholars.

Bridger, who never met Neihardt, nonetheless describes him as “a guiding inspirational light” for “chronicling this great Homeric story of the Western hemisphere.” Bridger’s first two epic ballads parallel Neihardt’s.

As if drawn to the ballad “by the ethers,” Bridger found in it the medium to tell the epic story welling up inside. “On a ballad-collecting expedition in northern Arkansas I heard a woman sing a ballad from ‘The Canterbury Tales’ in Elizabethan English, and that experience hooked me forever. She was just as hillbilly as you could ever imagine, but she was raised in a little pocket of people that had held onto the old-timey songs,” he said. “I was just flabbergasted by the power of a song…of a ballad that could endure and thrive over physical oceans as well as oceans of time. I came back to school just obsessed with finding a folk song about Jim Bridger.”

 

 

Jim Bridger

 

 

He never found one, so he began writing one himself. Others followed, and before long he had an epic ballad in the making.

“My original interest in Jim Bridger only led me into the greater story that he was simply a part of. I realized everything that had been painted and written about the West could be sung about, and it didn’t have to be cowboy songs. The only aspect of the American West that had been recorded in song is the cowboy era, a little ten-year period. The rest of it had never been dealt with by the balladeers. No one had chronicled the mountain men or the immigration wagon trains or the Indian Wars. There was a void there.”

Bridger changed that with his first epic ballad, “Seekers of the Fleece,” which depicts the mountain men who opened the undiscovered country west of the Mississippi and forged a strong alliance with the native peoples they met. Its central figure is Jim Bridger, whom Bobby’s genealogical research proved was indeed his great-grand uncle.

His relative’s exploits form the backdrop for an odyssey about the harmony existing among whites and Indians before the onslaught of encroaching civilization. The song “Rendezvous” — about the trade fairs on the Green River in Wyoming that brought trappers and natives together in peaceful commerce — paints the early West as a Paradise Lost. It yearns for how things were before the great migration and expansion turned ugly.

His second ballad, “Lakota,” describes, from Native Americans’ perspective, the spoiling of the West as seen through the eyes and words of the holy man Black Elk, the vigilant conscience for a long-suffering people.

His third ballad, “Pahaska,” tries reconciling the myth and reality surrounding Cody and his relationship with Indians.

Bridger, who published his first two ballads in book form and adapted them into full company outdoor musicals, is writing a biography on Cody. He often performs and conducts research at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. For years now he’s spent each summer in the state. In “Pahaska” he sings, as the elder Cody, a love song to Wyoming called “Absaroka” that expresses both men’s deep feelings for the place.

For a long time Bridger struggled finding an original slant on Cody, America’s first bona fide celebrity. He wrote and discarded two versions of “Pahaska” before finally hitting the mark. “I wrestled with him for 25 years to get beyond the mythology and the debunkers to reveal who the real man was…and to present the Indian side of Cody.”

His “new interpretation” portrays the complex man as a genuine friend of Indians whose shrewd use of them and the buffalo in the Wild West show guaranteed its success while giving Indians a venue for preserving their endangered culture and buffalo a sanctuary from likely extinction. Bridger feels sure he will stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy with certain academics, who view Cody as a genocidal exploiter, by suggesting the frontiersman-turned-entertainer “created American show business as we know it.” He adds, “He was creating theater based on his real experiences, often with the very people who partcipated in the historic events. And he got it all directly from Plains Indians. ”

What is it about the saga of the West that’s motivated Bridger to keep at it so doggedly?

“It’s our Homeric story. It’s the backdrop that produces the heroic archetypes of a nation. Aside from our quest to land on the moon, it is the great American heroic story. But even that pales beside it. If truth be told the men who went to the moon knew a lot more about where they were going than the fur trappers who went to the head waters of the Missouri River in 1822. Most of them had never seen anything like it before. There was nothing in their whole genetic coding that could have prepared them for the Rocky Mountains or the tall grass Great Plains.

“I just stumbled into it, and it’s the kind of thing that in ten lifetimes you couldn’t chronicle. There’s so many stories…”

Although he sometimes wonders what might have been had he stuck with more commercial material, he rarely looks back now. “I’ve spent my whole life involved with the West and I have no regrets about that because I’ve created a singular career. No one does what I do. I’m doing exactly what I want to. I know it deep in my cellular structure, and that’s vitally important.”

 

 

 

 

After he walked away from potential fame, however, he dropped out, fled to the wilderness and adopted an extreme lifestyle  – all in a search for meaning. “I was disillusioned and didn’t know what to with myself. I went down to the Big Bend area of Texas and lived in the Chihuahua Desert for nearly two years,” he said. “I didn’t eat any cooked food. I dressed in skins. I slept outdoors. I was trying to get right to the edge of that existence…living nomadically, fasting, performing all sorts of cleansing rituals.”

The experience proved a crucible for him. “After a three-day period in a cave eating roots I came face to face with the hypocrisy of trying for this purity in the desert in an E-mail world. I realized, ironically, that I was running from the spotlight. That I was afraid of being on stage and really opening up who I was to people. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be in the  spotlight. I wanted to, but I just didn’t know how. And so I came back and made the album ‘Heal in the Wisdom’ and became involved with ‘Shakespeare and the Indians’ and ‘Black Elk Speaks’ and all that stuff.”

“Heal in the Wisdom’s” theme — of letting go the past to heal in the now and after — grew out of Bridger’s self-imposed exile and his grief over losing two close friends. The title track has become his signature tune and, among other things, the closing anthem for the Kerrville Folk Festival in Austin, Texas, an event he’s played since its inception.

Bridger said music industry-types misread the album’s spiritual context to claim he was “a born-again freak,” adding, “That wasn’t true at all. I had been born again, but not like they thought. It represented getting out of the desert and getting back in the spotlight.”

After the release of “Wisdom” in 1981 on his own Golden Egg Records label, he turned his attention from recording to the theater. He landed the lead in Dale Wasserman’s folkloric musical “Shakespeare and the Indians” (debuting at Omaha’s Firehouse Dinner Theater) and co-starred in a theatrical version of “Black Elk Speaks.”

He moved to Austin in the early ‘70s and was a pioneer in its development as an arts haven. “I was a part of that whole genesis of the Texas music scene,” he said. “It was truly an alternative thing and I found people there who were doing what I did by going against the grain and swimming upstream: Willie (Nelson), Michael Murphy, B.W. Stevenson, Steve Fromholz, Kinky Friedman. A journalist there referred to me as “a misfit in a city full of misfits.’”

Having come to terms with himself and his quest, Bridger next had to find the right voice for communicating his vision. He had begun performing his ballads in traditional theatrical settings — on stage, with sets, dramatic lighting and all the rest. But it didn’t feel right.

“After it succeeded in the theater that success bothered me because I felt it was still sanitized. I wanted to break out from that Fourth Wall and address the audience…and the only way I could get through there was to step off the stage out into the audience as a balladeer. So I started living out of the back of  my truck and going to Wyoming cowboy bars on Friday and Saturday nights when folks were rip-roaring drunk and the places were about to blow up. Nine times out of ten they would kick me out and never want to hear me again. But that tenth time I would catch ‘em and put ‘em under the spell. Then I knew it was working as a balladeer.”

He’s since appeared on “Austin City Limits” and re-released “Heal in the Wisdom” on CD. He is recording his epic ballads on CD as well.

It is a credit to Bridger’s performing power he’s able to conjure a distant time and place with merely his period garb, soulful music and stirring verse. He usually performs unplugged — no lights, no mikes, no videos.

“In the world of MTV you’re told immediately what to see with every song lyric,” he said. “What I prefer doing is letting you create your own image of the lyric and place in your mind, and hopefully I can take you back in time with me. That creates a unique experience for you and a unique bond between the two of us. It’s a vestige of an ancient form of communication…exactly what Homer was doing.”

His salty tenor voice soars with deep-rooted feeling. His vibrant Martin guitar resounds with no-holds-barred bravado. His work remains something all too rare today: genuine. It may not be cool or politically correct, but it is honest and heartfelt. There’s no attitudinal baggage. Just a passion to sing for the people. To sing our story.

“At the Rendezvous, white man and the Sioux…smoked the pipe, traded hair…for the maidens fair. To the Rendezvous, men came from St. Lou…wanting beaver and mink, bringing whiskey to drink. On the Rendezvous, 1832, on the Green River side, where I took my first bride…a black-eyed Shoshone, daughter of Eagle-man. At the Rendezvous, white man and the Sioux…traded fur for their guns, raced their ponies for fun. And with Rendezvous done, Mountain Men were one.”
––”Rendezous” from “Seekers of the Fleece”

For more information on Bridger and his music, check out his web site at:  www.bbridger.com

Bertha’s Battle, Berth Calloway, the Grand Lady of Lake Street, Struggles to Keep the Great Plains Black History Museum Afloat

May 11, 2010 1 comment

Picture of Bertha Calloway

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I have written and continue to write many stories about the African-American community in Omaha.  One of the first articles I did in that regard was in 1996 about Bertha Calloway and her Great Plains Black History Museum for The Reader (www.thereader.com)..  Since then, I’ve since written about her and her museum, which subsequently fell on hard times and closed, a few more times.  She’s one of those force of nature characters you just cannot ignore, embodying a formidable spirit that demands your respect and attention.

Her vision for her museum has yet to be realized but there are promising new developments that a future blog post, in the form of a recent story I did, will detail.

Bertha’s Battle
Berth Calloway, the Grand Lady of Lake Street, Struggles to Keep the Great Plains Black History Museum Afloat

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.coom)

These are hard times indeed for the Great Plains Black History Museum and its 71-year-old founder, director, curator and guardian, Bertha Calloway.

The future of the museum, at 2213 Lake Street, is in doubt unless significant funding can be secured. For months now, it’s survived on meager admission income, a few small donations and grants, and the limited personal savings of Calloway’s family.

Added to these difficulties, Calloway’s recently experienced personal setbacks and tragedies. In 1993, she underwent brain surgery to remove a benign tumor and then lost her husband of 47 years, James, when he died of a ruptured artery. A grandson was murdered in New Orleans in 1994.

She continues under medical care today and sometimes walks with the aid of a cane. One of the cruelest setbacks, though, has been the partial memory loss plaguing her since the operation. As one whose work depends on a steel-trap mind, she’s keenly frustrated when once indelibly etched names, dates, places and events elude her — just beyond her recall.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.Not now. Not in what should be golden years for her and halcyon days for the museum.

Still, she hasn’t lost hope of realizing her “perfect dream” — a fully funded, staffed and restored institution free of the financial difficulties that have nagged it over its 20-year history.

Calloway saved the turn-of-the-century building housing the museum from the rubble heap in 1974, when she and her husband bought it. The 1906 red-brick building — headquarters for the original Nebraska Telephone Co. — was designed by famed Omaha architect Thomas Kimball. With the help of volunteers and a $101,000 grant from the federal Bicentennial Commission, the couple converted the structure into the museum, opening it in 1976, and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

 

Now, however, Calloway sees the building she put so much of her life into deteriorating around her. Major repairs and renovations are needed, including replacement of the leaky roof and installation of new climate control and lighting systems. IN some exhibition spaces, ceiling pane;s are water-stained and others are missing, exposing warped wood. Bare light bulbs hang overhead in many rooms.

There is no paid staff except for William Reaves, a jack-of-all-trades on loan from the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Without anyone to catalog the museum’s extensive archives, heaps of newspapers, magazines and photographs sit in open boxes and on shelves. Calloway, whose ill health has forced her to slow down, relies on her son Jim to help run things. Money’s so tight that paying the utilities often is a leap of faith.

At least she can joke about it. When Reaves answers the phone one recent morning, she instantly quips, with her sweet, sing-song voice an enchanting smile: “Tell ‘em the money’s on the way.”

The call was from a Smithsonian Institution researcher, among many scholars who frequently use the museum as a resource.

Despite a glowing national reputation, the museum’s always only barely scraped by. Calloway’s kept it intact through guile, gut, sweat, spit, polish and prayer. Lots of prayer.

“People just don’t understand how difficult it’s been to keep it going,” she says, “until they come through it and see how much is in here and how much work it takes. It’s even more of a struggle now than ever before. We’re always on the verge of closing. But I don’t want to sound too negative. I think our main focus should be on keeping the building open and providing jobs for people to give tours, file, catalog. Those are things that could be going on right now, but it takes money, and I hope we get the same amount of money from the city that other museums get.”

Calloway feels her museum has long been neglected by local funding sources in comparison with mainstream museum such as the Joslyn and Western Heritage. She’s had little cause for hope lately, especially when a major funder — United Arts Omaha — withdrew its support. She poured out her discontent over UAO’s action in a passionate editorial published in the Omaha World-Herald.

Other than occasional benefit events, the museum’s fundraising efforts have been dormant recently. But they are being revived, along with a planned membership drive, following a board of directors reorganization. Although Calloway tries to remain diplomatic about the museum’s second-class status, her supporters do not.

“It’s an embarrassment to her that the museum is treated the way it is by the larger community,” says Larry Menyweather-Woods, an associate professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It’s representative of the fact that many people don’t consider our (black) history to be that important.”

According to Vicky Parks, a librarian at Omaha’s W. Dale Clark Main Library, “She does not get the respect and support she deserves. I’m truly saddened that we have not as a community chosen to provide the financial resources to institutionalize that museum.”

Aside from a trace of bitterness she can’t disguise and a rare memory lapse that upsets her, Calloway still has a sharp, often biting wit and and feisty — even stubborn –determination to see this latest crisis through. The museum truly is her mission, and she vows “to keep it going…so that my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren know that African-Americans were involved in the settlement of this country and the settlement of the West in particular.

“That’s important because it makes you feel like you belong.”

Calloway’s own displaced sense of belonging began as a young girl in Denver, where her family settled after too many years of Jim Crow discrimination in the South.

She resisted the one-sided history taught in school that conspicuously ignored blacks. Instead, she embraced the anecdotes told by her grandfather, George “Dotey Pa” Pigford, who regaled her with tales of his cowboy exploits in Texas and the accomplishments of black pioneers and settlers she never heard about in class. Those stories inspired her to learn more about the rich heritage of blacks on the Great Plains and eventually led her to become a serious collector, preserver and interpreter of black history.

 


 

“The history I was forced to learn and hated just consisted of white history,” she says. “I never felt like I belonged to that kind of history. I knew there had to be some other kind where black people fit in other than slavery. One reason I started the museum is that I realized when my children were growing up there wasn’t anything in the public schools about African-Americans.

“People must see black history in order for the images they have of black people to change. That’s what our museum is all about. It’s about revealing a history that’s been withheld.”

Calloway has displayed that history in exhibitions and discussed it in countless lectures given at the museum, public schools, universities, historical societies. She’s also lent her expertise to documentaries and books and currently is collaborating with Alonzo Smith, a research historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on an illustrated history of blacks in Nebraska. Dozens of awards honoring her achievements hang on the wall of the Great Plains Black Museum.

On this particular day, someone asks if she’d ever thought if becoming a teacher. “I am a teacher,” she bristles. “You’re learning right now, aren’t you?”

Properly chastened, the questioner asks more precisely if she’d considered a formal teaching career. “The approach is too disciplined for me,” she answers. “I think it’s more fun to jump up and do what I want instead of staying inside a classroom all day.”

As confirmation of her free-spirited ways, her son says, “My mother’s always been an adventurous type of person. As a young boy I can remember plenty of times when she’d go out ‘scavengin’, as she called it, into condemned houses and at work sites” to retrieve artifacts.

Her scavenging netted many museum finds. Other item were donated by individuals and families who — encouraged by her appeals — scoured attics, basements, cellars and garages for precious remnants of the past that might otherwise have been trashed.

Before opening the museum, her own collection threatened over-running the family home at 25th and Evans, where she raised her son and two daughters — Beverly and Bonnie. She has five grandchildren and four great-granchildren. “Our house was so full of magazines, books and things,” she says, “that my beloved husband was glad to see them leave, please believe me.

“I still have lots of things in my own personal collection that I’m sure my son would love me to lose,” she adds with a chuckle.

Calloway’s private stash practically bursts from a small museum office that includes a holster and branding iron used by her grandfather on cattle drives.

Indeed, poking around the museum is like rummaging through Grandma Calloway’s attic. Unlike the foreboding marble palaces that traditionally house history and tend to embalm it, the museum’s a homey, unpretentious, slightly disheveled place whose small rooms are overstuffed with a hodgepodge of memorabilia lovingly scaled down to human size.

The exhibits range from African art to artifacts of black settlers, soldiers, musicians and athletes and to interpretive histories of civil rights leaders. A strong local flavor is preserved in exhibits devoted to Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, social activist Malcolm X, major league baseball pitcher Bob Gibson, and so forth. The inviting displays beckon visitors to linger and soak up the living history they commemorate.

 

 

Calloway’s charming presence is felt throughout, whether chatting with visitors or bearing witness to some of the history-making events documented there, including early civil rights demonstrations in Omaha led by the late Father John Markoe.

Despite her health problems, she’s still at the museum most every day and pores over materials at home until the wee hours of the morning.

“Even though the last few years have been very traumatic for her, she’s still driven,” her son says. “She’s up until midnight, one o’clock every night doing research. It’s just embedded in her. I think it’s her love for the history and a very legitimate concern for the direction the community is going.”

Calloway explains it this way: “I love what I’m doing. I really do. The kids want me to stop, but I’d just as soon be there as sitting at home watching television. I figure I might as well get up, come on down to the museum and do a few little things that make a difference.”

During a recent lunch at the nearby Fair Deal Cafe, whose bustling atmosphere and authentic soul food put Calloway in a reflective mood about the neighborhood she first came to in 1946:

“Things were jumpin’, as they used to say. You didn’t have to leave 24th Street to get anything you wanted. That’s a fact.”

The Dreamland Ballroom, among other now defunct night spots, featured jazz legends. And the area thrived with activity.

Driving around the neighborhood she’s been such an integral part of, Calloway expressed sadness at the empty storefronts and vacant lots and indignation at the closed Kellom Pool, since reopened.

“I love North Omaha,” she says. “But I hate to see the old buildings torn down. A lot of history is destroyed, and that includes North 24th Street.”

She believes that, with enough help, the museum “could be an anchor” of stability in these unstable times. “Other states don’t have such a resource. People come from all over to research here. Twenty-Fourth Street could be beautiful again,” she adds, wistfully.

Her dream, like her life, has been all about defying convention:

• It’s why, when traveling by bus en route to Texas years ago, she refused to budge when the driver commanded she and her sister move to the back upon crossing the mythical Mason-Dixon Line.

• Why she participated in peaceful demonstrations that helped integrate Omaha’s Peony Park and downtown lunch counters.

• Why she organized such black-pride events as the Stone Soul Picnic and Miss Black Nebraska Beauty Pageant.

• Why she can say “I know I’m a pioneer” without sounding boastful.

• Why she’s invested so much of her life in an old building on the depressed near north side and still searched for artifacts from Pullman Porters and others.

Ask her what’s so special about saving Pullman Porter history anyway, and she replies: “We want to help people in this neighborhood understand their father and grandfathers worked on the railroad in a dignified way. It isn’t something just for black people. A good education is very important and must include African-American history.”

Calloway’s ignored doubters along the way. Her late mother, Lucy Carter, who operated Carter’s Cafe on North 24th Street, wanted Calloway to follow in her footsteps there. But Bertha had different ideas.

Long before there was one, she says, “my dream was to be another Oprah Winfrey, and also start something like this (museum). My mother always thought I was kind of crazy.”

Calloway did her Oprah thing, working as a public affairs professional at WOW-TV in the ‘60 and ‘70s and becoming one of the first black women in the Nebraska broadcast industry.

Through good times and bad, she says, “a dream and a loyal, faithful man kept me going. I had a husband who was very supportive of everything I did. He always made me feel like I could do whatever I wanted to do.” She despairs her “main support” is gone now, as are the “militant friends” she waged the fight for equality with.

She sees the museum’s fight as emblematic of the plight of Omaha’s black community and challenges others to carry on the struggle — with or without her.

“I’m 71 now and my health is failing,” she says. “The torch has to be passed. It’s just a matter of keeping things going.”

And keeping the dream alive.

Like a mighty flame still burning brightly — old soul Bertha Calloway illuminates the past and casts a light on the future.

My Midwest Baseball Odyssey Diary

May 11, 2010 3 comments

"Slammin" Sammy Sosa at bat for the ...

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My lukewarm feeling about baseball got raised to a high fever the summer of 1998 because of an assignment I did that found me joining a baseball tour of the Midwest with some two dozen die-hard fans.  The tour was actually offered as part of a local community college class looking at baseball in the context of popular culture.  It was a good if exhausting experience that I may repeat one day.

The thing that sold me on the trip is that it coincided with the great home run race that season between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, each of whom was chasing the single season record of Roger Maris.  The fact that two star players involved in history were on two of the teams that we would be seeing play, in their home ballparks no less, was enough to convince me the timing was right.  That and the fact that I felt a bit stale by then with my usual story projects.  This would be something different, something away from my home base of Omaha, something that would push me out of my comfort zone.

I was happy with the results of the trip and with the story I wrote about it.  The piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

My Midwest Baseball Odyssey Diary

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball…”
Jacques Barzun, French-born historian

Hearts and Minds

An overcast Sunday afternoon last summer found me joining 22 other pilgrims at Iowa Western Community College for the start of an eight day bus journey (July 26-August 2) exploring America via its most cherished game — baseball. As part of IWCC’s first “Baseball and American Culture” class/tour, we made a Midwest circuit of professional ball, attending games, visiting archives and speaking with players and officials, past and present.

Synergy was on our side too as, in the Year of the Home Run, we saw the two men chasing Roger Maris’ single season record in action.

Before departing we filed inside a lecture hall for an orientation by class instructors John Shorey and Bill Ricketts, young professors with the shaggy good looks of sandlot bums. In the spirit of the class, Shorey, a Cubs fan, and Ricketts, a Mets fan, showed their team colors. They laid-out the groundrules for the tour and had Creighton University professor and baseball author, Jerry Clark, steel us with diamond lore.

“Baseball is America’s game,” Clark told us. “There are those who feel this is no longer true. With things like players’ strikes and runaway salaries souring a lot of fans and sportswriters, some have been predicting the demise of baseball. Its demise has been forecast before. But baseball has always bounced back. It survived the Black Sox Scandal, the talent drain in World War II, the coming of TV. Now, we’re seeing a new resurgence of fans, fresh talent and new ballparks. What’s THE story in sports this year? Mark McGwire. He’s a folk hero. I envy you guys.”

Why follow the baseball muse down Mid-American byways? For me, it was about discovering what this game, that looms so large in the collective American conscience, means to people. These diaries are a compendium of what my fellow travelers and I found on our 1,700-mile journey. The result is a road story winding through the very heart of baseball and America.

Day One — On the Road

We look like any other tour group in our assorted ball caps, T-shirts, sneakers, shorts, shades and cameras. Our ranks range from die-hard fans (mainly Cubs rooters) to casual followers. The youngest aboard is 18, the oldest 65. Most squarely fit the demographics of baseball fans: white middle class Baby Boomers with disposable income to burn. Among our ranks are teachers, coaches, professionals, retirees. Most hail from Iowa. The rest from Nebraska. Eight days of total baseball immersion await us.

“Our traveling class,” as Ricketts calls it, finally hits the road at 3:30, bound for Kansas City. Hauling ass south on I-29, the Grant Wood Iowa landscape sweeps by in flat green and gold-speckled corn-row swatches. Marshy fields and roadsides are evidence of recent flooding along this bottomland. Traffic grows heavier the farther south we go, the undulating landscape taking on Thomas Hart Benton dimensions, spilling over itself like a wind-swept ribbon of earth. We arrive, just before dusk, at the Holiday Inn Sports Complex across from Kauffman Stadium. That night, a group of us descend on the sports bar off the lobby for some grub and get-to-know-you gab.

 

 

 

 

John Hazel of Omaha sports the full brush mustache, slicked-back hair, middle-age paunch, seasoned insight and avuncular ease of an old-time manager. His soulful eyes reveal hard times (He’s a recovering alcoholic working as a drug and alcohol counselor at St. Gabriel’s). His wiseguy voice betrays his Chicago roots. This lifelong student-of-the-game and Cubs fan is soon my personal guru on tour. Always ready to talk baseball, he explains what makes the game so special.

“Baseball is very unique in that there’s no time limit. A game can go on forever. It’s a team sport that’s built on individualism. There’s nothing like the one-on-one confrontation of pitcher and batter in any other sport. And there’s so much going on on any given play. There’s always something new, always something unexpected. In most sports you control the ball to score points. In baseball, the other team controls the ball while you try to score runs. It can be as cerebral as you want. It can be as basic as you want. It’s different things to different people.”

Speaking of differences, we’ll view baseball through the prism of the black experience, followed by the Royals-Anaheim Angels game tomorrow.

Day Two –The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Setting out this morning we cross the George Brett overpass and traverse age-old racial lines en route to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at the epicenter of Kansas City’s 18th and Vine historic district, a traditional hub of black commerce and culture in the midst of a revival.

We pass the Holy Ghost New Testament Church, whose sign out front implores passersby “Don’t Give Up!” As we pull up to the baseball museum, which shares the same building as the Kansas City Jazz Museum, the area’s renaissance is apparent in the glut of nearby restaurants, clubs and theaters, which stand silent this early in the day. Lamp post banners proclaim “The Legacy Plays On,” no doubt referring to the legends honored inside and displayed in life-size neon cutout figures above the entrance.

 

 

 

 

We’re led into a small screening room with bleacher-style seating and watch a short film on the Negro Leagues. Later, we tour the museum’s vibrant exhibits, which give a fine sense for the dynamic flavor of black baseball and the heady impact it had on many communities. But the real treat is meeting Negro Leagues veteran Henry “Pistol” Mason, who still cuts a trim figure in his 60s. With the fervor of a Pentecostal preacher (He is a United Methodist minister today.) the former hard-throwing pitcher recalls breaking in with the Kansas City Monarchs . “I dreamed of being in the Negro Leagues. I came up by bus to Kansas City in 1951 from my hometown in Marshall, MO to try out. I can remember it as if it was yesterday.” Arriving with nothing but the clothes on his back, his strong right arm so impressed player-manager Buck O’Neil he was signed on the spot.

Mason toiled with the team during the 1951, 1952 and 1954 seasons, earning $250 a month. After their some 100-game regular season, Negro Leaguers like Mason went barnstorming in the off-season. Then, he says, it was all about “the love of playing baseball.” And wowing the crowd.

“We had a different brand of baseball. People wanted to see our brand of baseball, with its action and enthusiasm, running and bunting. It was more festive when we played. The fans enjoyed the game. Going to the ballpark was just like going to a picnic. We had something to prove too. We wanted to prove we were good enough to play in the major leagues.”

The then recent emergence of black players in organized ball gave new hope. “It meant that maybe, just maybe someday I could be signing a major league contract, and that dream came true when I signed my first contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.” In the Phillies minor league system he played for the Miami Marlins, with the legendary Satchel Paige as a teammate, and for the Schenectady Blue Jays. Off-seasons he earned big bucks playing south of the border. Back home, he endured racism.

“When we sent to spring training in Clearwater, Florida we couldn’t stay in the hotels. I was the only black baseball player in Schenectady. I ran into some difficulties there. When I walked into the clubhouse the first time I could just feel the tension. But you learned not to shoot your mouth off and to let your ability do your talking for you, and that’s what I did.”

Mason finally made it to The Show in 1958, recording only a few innings that year and in 1960. By then the Negro Leagues were dying, a casualty of the majors siphoning off the best black talent. Mason says the end of all-black baseball meant progress, but at a price. “It was good in one way because we were finally getting a chance to play in the majors, but bad in another way because it hurt a lot of black businesses that thrived off it.”

The game that night proves a let down. The reeling Royals lose 6-1 in a boring affair. The action’s scarce. The pace lethargic. The 17,000 fans apathetic. No spark, no panache, no pizzazz. That, and the scarcity of black players today, is why Mason doesn’t care to attend. Kauffman Stadium is a dreary concrete fortress outside and a gentrified gated-community inside. A white bread theme park with all the bells and whistles but minus the grit of the old stadiums or the charm of the new ones.

Day Three – Flirting with History

On the road by 8:30, we head east on I-70 for St. Louis and a rendezvous with destiny, we hope, in the form of a McGwire blast. But the Cardinals rate a poor second on this trip. Fittingly, Shorey  announces, “It’s a great day today. Sammy hit two last night and we picked up a half-game on the Mets in the wild card race.” His fellow Cubbies roar approval. Ricketts stews. A daily tour ritual is getting USA Today or the local daily for overnight game summaries and box scores. The results invariably spark debate.

While in-transit Shorey prompts a discussion about yesterday’s activities. Dan Schleisman, a coach-teacher from Shelby, Iowa who likes getting a rise out of the home fans with his bench-jockeying, remarks, “I was really disappointed in the Kansas City crowd. Here I am cheering for the other team and they’re not even saying anything. Usually you can get a reaction from the home team.”

As for the museum, Laura Barker of Council Bluffs says, “Before I started this class I had no idea what blacks went through in baseball. Now I suppose every time I think about baseball that will be a part of what I think about.” From an educator’s viewpoint, Shorey feels “it reinforced what we’ve been talking and reading about and made it come to life.”

Heading into St. Louis a bridge takes us across the majestic Mississippi River. We check in at the Henry VIII Lodge and Inn and catch a bite before reaching Busch Stadium. First, we wend our way through the club’s front office for a briefing by P.R. man Marti Henden. In keeping with the Cards-Cubs rivalry, the big huckster needles us, saying, “Let me show you something you haven’t see before,” and holding out a fat finger adorned by a World Series ring. Cubs fans are used to such abuse, even revel in it. Calling 1998 “a very abnormal year for us,” he adds, “Thanks in large part to Mr. McGwire we’re going to sell three millions tickets for only the third time in our history.” St. Louis averted losing its fan base (as some cities did) during the ‘94 strike season, he says, by courting fans as never before. “That started the turnaround.”

Next, we tour the Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum across from the stadium. It recounts the club’s rich heritage in loving detail. With the gates opening at 5:10 for the start of batting practice, I join the line. Any other year, you’d find a mere trickle of fans this long before game time (7:10 start), but with the McGwire phenomenon in full swing the queue snakes around Busch. It’s humid, and by the time we settle in the upper right center field bleachers, downright stifling. Hardly prime home run hunting territory as McGwire, a dead pull hitter, rarely hits one out here. The stands are packed anyway. His every move scrutinized. His every swat “Ooohed” and “Ahhhed” by the faithful.

None of his pregame moonshots come our way.

 

 

 

 

In the game Big Mac is kept well in check through the 7th by the Milwaukee Brewers. Even with his Cards trailing 8-5 and the putrid air hanging still in this fish bowl of a stadium, the crowd is alive and involved, a sharp contrast to K.C. The excitement builds as the Cards stage a dramatic comeback in the 8th, loading the bases with Ray Lankford up and McGwire on deck.

Lankford caps the rally with a grand slam, pulling the home team ahead, and igniting a wave of noise. With the place still buzzing McGwire settles in and suddenly, sweetly IT HAPPENS. His powerful uppercut sails a ball directly toward us, carrying up and over into a tangle of bodies rushing the lip of the fence for a crack at the prized souvenir. In the ensuing melee one lean young man emerges with the ball and, improbably, it’s our own Matt Oviatt, 18, of Logan, Iowa, who leaped several rows below. He deliriously holds the ball aloft, twirling around, charged with the good vibrations of 38,000 cheering fans, repeating over and over, “Oh, my God.” For one moment anyway, he shares the stage with a superstar.

The solo shot is only the second opposite field homer of the year by McGwire, his 45th overall, and gives him his 100th RBI.

Later, a still juiced Oviatt says, “I can’t believe I caught this ball. I’m feeling nothing but freaking joy. I was just hoping we could see Mark McGwire bat one more time before we go. I never thought I’d catch a home run ball. Then, I saw it coming and I just jumped for it. It hit my left hand, bounced, and I caught it in my right hand. I just had to squeeze hard when everybody started tackling me. It’d be awesome if I could get it signed.”

An ESPN Magazine reporter on the scene interviews The Kid and tries pulling strings to secure The Man’s autograph, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the Cards’ weak relief pitching falters in the 9th, giving up five runs, and the home team goes on to absorb a numbing 13-10 loss. Later, on the bus, Hazel expresses all our sentiments about Matt’s feat. “It’s got to be the thrill of a lifetime. One he’ll treasure for years. That’s what this game’s all about. It’s one of the reasons people keep coming back.”

Day Four – If It’ll Play In Peoria, It’ll Play Anywhere

The morning after, and The Catch is still the topic of the tour. Matt’s grab even made ESPN’s Sports Center highlights. His celebration must have lasted into the wee hours as he and his roomie straggle aboard some 15 minutes late. A sheepish Matt’s given a good razzing too. “This grandstanding has got to stop,” jokes Ricketts. Our star stores his coveted possession in a backpack he never lets out of sight.

Our next stop is Peoria, Ill. and a date with Rocky Vonachen, general manager and co-owner of the Peoria Chiefs, the Class A Cardinals affiliate we’ll see play this evening. We tool northeast on I-55, crossing the grand Mississippi again into Illinois. Shorey pops in a tape of “Bull Durham” to get us in a minor league frame of mind. You know, the band box parks, the kitsch sideshow antics, the groupies. As groupie extraordinaire Annie Savoy declares: “The only church that truly feeds the soul is the church of baseball…” Shorey asks, “Is baseball a religion?” Nancy Mulholland of Malvern, Iowa replies, “No, it’s an addiction though.” Shorey says we’re getting a taste of what life on the road is like for minor leaguers with the long bus rides, the motel stays, the fast food pit-stops. It’s getting old fast.

Ensconced at the Fairfield Inn, we head for the ballpark. It’s about on par with a major college baseball stadium. The outfield fence screams with ads for River City Demolition. Bliss Implement Co. and Butternut Bread. Dressed in sport shirt and shorts,Vonachen greets us in a small picnic area down the right field line. He’s a genial guy eager to share the ins and outs of running a minor league franchise. His father, Pete, for whom the stadium’s named, owned the club in the 1980s. Then, when the Chiefs languished under outside ownership and were in danger of moving, Rocky and a group of Peorians bought it in 1994. The timely investment came in a booming  market. Where the franchise sold for $100,000 in 1982, it brought $2 million in 1994. Triple A clubs sell for five times that. Gate receipts are up too.

“Minor league baseball is growing by leaps and bounds. Back in the early ‘80s it was more of a Mom and Pop business. Now it is big business,” he says, adding the ‘94 strike provided a catalyst for the minors.“People still wanted to see professional baseball and started going to minor league parks. Parks across the country saw an influx of fans during the strike. As people got to see minor league baseball they found how affordable and fun it was. At the minor league level, it’s entertainment, folks. We do all the goofy promotions and all the giveaways at the gate because that’s what families come out for, and we focus on families.”

Chiefs tickets, typical of the minors, range from $3.50 to $5.50. During a pregame picnic-style repast players (in full uniform) grab supper at the concession stand. The game is marked by sloppy play, including drops of several easy fly balls. Maybe it’s the uneven grass field, which suffers from some kind of rot, or the low wattage lights overhead. The Chiefs’ fan-friendly attractions include a grocery cart race, a mascot, a contraption flinging T-shirts in the stands and Trash Man, a Generation-Xer in black tie, shorts and Day-Glo tennis shoes who dances in the aisles when not retrieving refuse. The distractions include the local groupies, brickhouse babes whose conspicuous primping behind the dugout and bullpen has heads turning all night. Still, far more families than singles are on-hand.

By 8:30, Magic Time rolls around, the setting sun muting the night sky in pastel shades of blue, purple and pink and, with the light towers, casting a burnished glow on the field that etches players in a kind of soft electric haze. Very Rockwellian. The Chiefs win in a rout 9-2 and personally greeting fans on the way out are Rocky, his dad and staff. “Thanks for coming. Hope you come back again.” They mean it too.
“That’s what minor league baseball is all about,” Rocky says.

Day Five – Baseball of Another Kind

By now we’re a caravan of gypsies wheeling from one baseball camp to another. We depart a little past 7 a.m., our earliest start yet. The discussion centers on last night. Everyone agrees the Chiefs put on a good show. Tom Lustgraaf of Council Bluffs, says, “To me, the things they’re doing are the things that will keep baseball alive and make it a positive experience for fans.” Lana Taylor, a nurse from Hastings, Iowa, notes how much more “relaxed” and “friendly” the confines were compared to the big league parks. “The goings-on really got me excited.”

Traveling northeast on I-80, we navigate our first toll roads and pass our first rock quarries. The Holy Scriptures of the tour, “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” is reverently consulted in settling trivia disputes. We’re bound for South Bend, IN, where we’ll meet All-American Girls Professional Baseball League veterans and catch the hometown Class A Silver Hawks. For proper inspiration we view “A League of Their Own.” Later, Shorey strikes a nerve asking why girls play softball, not baseball. A battle of the sexes erupts but nothing’s settled.

The site of our panel discussion with the All-American Girls is the Northern Indiana Center for History, an old stone mansion with extensive gardens. Inside it’s bright, modern, airy. We sit in an auditorium to watch a documentary on the women’s league, with some of the featured players right beside us. When the video shows a reunion of players singing the league’s anthem, the teary-eyed veterans present sing-along.

 

 

 

 

The five panelists, who played in the  ‘40s and ‘50s, soon enchant us. We pepper them with questions about their uniforms (they began with skirts and went to pants), about the charm school set-up for them (“It didn’t rub off,” one quips), about breaking tradition (“We weren’t out to strike anything for women’s lib. We were just grateful we got to play baseball,” explains Janet “Pee Wee” Wiley.). Elizabeth “Lib” Mahon says when a scout asked her, “‘How’d you like to play ball for money?’” she replied, “‘Money? I’d play ball for nothing.’ It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It changed my life completely. I have friends all over the country now because of it.”

Betsy Jochum notes the attention the league’s received this decade “has made us realize how unique it was to have a league of our own.” Frances “Big Red” Janssen adds, “It’s amazing to us people would still be interested in what we did.” Adds Lou Arnold, “It’s a pleasure for us to be meeting you people today. It’s like the feeling at our reunions — so warm.” The feeling’s mutual.

After the Q & A we rush the stage for autographs and a chance to kibitz one-on-one. Then we all go downstairs, where the veterans proudly show us a case filled with league memorabilia. Later, at our Super 8, it’s clear the women left quite an impression.

“The ladies were fantastic. I’d love to sit in a bar some night and really have a ball,” says Mulholland, a lifelong fan who grew up a tomboy on an Iowa farm, played catch with her dad when he came in from the fields and avidly followed town ball. “They’re just plain ordinary women, as common as dirt, who made a great difference in baseball and America in general.”

Chris Hartwig of Logan, Iowa adds, “Hearing the women’s stories and seeing their emotion and excitement about being part of history touched me quite a bit. I think it gives me a more complete love and appreciation for the game.” Hazel, who saw All-American games as a boy with his dad, says, “Once the game began there were no differences. It was a baseball game.”

South Bend Stadium is a spiffy new facility out of character with the old brick and mortar warehouse district it occupies. The immaculate grass field puts Peoria’s to shame. The South Bend-Kane County Cougars game goes by in a blur, overshadowed by nearly non-stop music, promotions, gimmicks. The star attraction is Myron Noodleman, a Jerry Lewis knock-off whose geek show leaves us cold, though the abundance of kids present eat it up. Still, on a cool clear night like this nothing can detract from the magic amber dusk illuminating this Elysian field where men are made boys again.

Day Six – Take Me to the Promised Land

A sound night’s sleep and late start (9 a.m.) buoy us in advance of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, mecca for our Cubs contingent. After St. Louis, we feel fate leading us to Mr. Sosa, who’s been on a tear. As an added bonus, pitching phenom Kerry Wood is on the mound today. It’s gorgeous out and soon the virile Chicago skyline crops into view. Nearing downtown, a Cubs video treats us to a swinging version of “My Sweet Chicago” and Harry Caray’s signature “Holy Cow.” Tidy row houses and cozy bars line the narrow congested streets of the neighborhood around Wrigley Field.

Parked by noon, we walk to the promised land. The Cubs-Colorado Rockies game has a 2:20 start, leaving ample time to eat, shop, browse. The energy is palpable. A Chicago Sun-Times vendor notes my K.C. Royals hat and asks, “Sir, you have the wrong cap on today, don’t you?” Boy, do I.

 

 

 

 

Wrigley is a tavern of a stadium. A homey place where beer flows freely and patrons mix easily. It throbs with the pulse of the city, as fans root atop adjacent brownstones and arrive via L’s lumbering overhead. Back on his home turf, Hazel beams like a kid again on his old stomping grounds.

“That’s exactly what Wrigley Field is — home. So many memories are coming back of my Cubs childhood. I was born and raised within walking distance of Wrigley. I remember coming home from school in the middle of summer to our hot apartment and finding my mother in her bra and half-slip with a quart of Pilsner beer in one hand and an iron in the other, watching the Cubs game on TV. I was about 8 when my folks took me to my first game. Later, I went with buddies after school to catch the last couple innings of games. They let us in free. The homework could wait. Summers, we sat in the bleachers for 50 cents. It’s a fantastic place. There’s nothing like it, eh?”
Nothing indeed.

Even with the Cubs winning handily (by a final score of 9-1) most fans remain boisterously attentive throughout. The few idiots who dawdle in the aisles elicit cries of “Down and front!” The 40,000 Cubs faithful leave happy, having seen Sosa smash his 42nd homer (it lands no where near us) and Wood notch his 11th win. A briskly played game on a crisp afternoon in the Tottling Town. Who could ask for more?

After crawling through rush-hour traffic we spend the night at a Quality Inn. Some do the town, scoring autographs at Harry Caray’s place. I enjoy my first decent meal at a Greek Town eatery. Sated, I sleep soundly.

Day Seven — Dream State

Another fair weather day finds us still in high spirits from the the Wrigley trip, which rates a rave from most. Ricketts sums it up with, “For me it was like going back into history. I feel like I could have been there in 1902 and experienced the same thing. I’m a Mets fan and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Wrigley Field.” Adds Hazel, “On behalf of the city, I appreciate the comments…It is a special place.”

Illinois-20, a classic American back country highway, follows the rolling contour of the planted fields and patchwork meadows spread out on either side. As we watch “Field of Dreams” I realize it’s search for simple truths parallels ours. Seeing it right before arriving in Dyersville, Iowa lends a surreal quality to an already other-worldly site. Sure, it’s a tourist trap, but with a difference. It may only be the film’s influence, but a ballpark merging with a cornfield into an endless horizon is a kind of never-never land come to life.  A place where time stands still and dreams unfold.

The place is crowded, kids and adults alike lined up waiting for a crack at the ball, others jostling for a spot in the field. Why do we come? A pretty young Texas woman, traveling with her sister on a baseball pilgrimage of their own, offers a clue. Peering out at the field, Kris Flabiano says, “I mean, just look at this. There’s people here from every state and they’re all playing ball together. Everybody’s talkin’ to everybody like they’re next door neighbors. Baseball’s a staple. It holds people together.” Our own Lana Taylor adds, “It’s like living a baseball dream out there. It’s reliving things.”

Once back on the Illinois side of the Mississippi we meet two minor league umps who compare their travails of making it to the majors with that of players. They describe a “brotherhood” among The Men in Blue and the restraint needed to weather expletive-filled temper tantrums on the field.

Hopping the border to Davenport, we stow our gear at an, ugh, Super 8 and then make the Quad Cities River Bandits-Burlington Bees game. Davenport’s downtown riverfront provides a scenic backdrop. Just outside the quaint, brick-faced Quad Cities stadium, casino and cruise boats course down the Mississippi on one side and freight trains rumble past on the other. Added to the organ tunes, the vendor barkers, the lively fans and the heroics under the lights, it makes for a carnival atmosphere. After the River Bandits thump the Bees 11-1, a fireworks show sends us off with a bang.

Day Eight — Coming Home

Daytrippers at last. No more motels after tonight. “Headed for the home stretch” is how one of our group puts it. By 8 a.m. we’re bound for the Amana Colonies and a hearty brunch. We hit our first patch of inclement weather nearing the Bob Feller Hometown Exhibit in Van Meter, Iowa, a shrine to the fireballing Hall of Fame pitcher. A sculptual relief mural outside shows “Rapid Robert” delivering one of his high hard ones. Moving ever eastward, we gather at Sec Taylor Stadium in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Cubs, to hear hitting instructor Glenn Adams talk about helping players “be selective” at the plate, pitcher Kurt Miller describe life in the minors as “a job” and G.M. Sam Bernabe extol the virtues of “group sales.”

After a steady diet of Class A ball, this Triple A outing is a welcome way to end the trip. The park, a smaller version of Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium, features 44 skyboxes. Fixtures aside, the scene here or at any ballpark is much the same. Baseball invites fans to take it in their own measure. To banter back and forth about the game or life (maybe it’s the same thing), whether it’s Dan Schleisman yelling “C’mon guys, rally time!” or John Shorey musing why “there’s no phrase for an easy grounder,” unlike, say, “a can of corn” for an easy popout.

“Due to the nature of the game, with its momentary lulls,” says John Hazel, “there’s a camaraderie in the stands among the fans, be they rich-poor, whatever. It’s a real simpatico type thing.” Jack Duggan of Omaha adds, “What I like about it is you can keep up with what’s happening on the field and converse at the same time.”

Yes, the game flows like a great river from town to town, its mighty current rolling slowly, methodically on. You can return to it at your leisure and know it’s still there. “I think that’s the beauty of the sport,” says Shorey. “The times, the players, the issues, the settings may change, but the game itself doesn’t change.” There’s comfort in that. In its continuity and connection to more earlier times, like Nancy Mulholland playing catch with her dad or Hazel sneaking into Cubs games. In its being a proving ground and launching pad for the Henry Masons or Elizabeth Mahons of the world.

If I had to boil it down to one truth, baseball is big and enduring enough to embrace America’s dreams. It’s like coming home.

P.S. Iowa lost 6-4 to the Colorado Spring Sky Sox. But that’s besides the point, isn’t it?

“This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that was good, and that can be good again…”
From the film “Field of Dreams”

Separate Voices, Separate Lives: The Alien Abduction Chronicles

May 11, 2010 2 comments

Extraterristrial

Image via Wikipedia

About 10-12 years ago an Omaha World-Herald newspaper column mentioned that a certain physics professor at my alama mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, was actively involved in a community of individuals who believe that extraterrestrial contact is a reality. Dr. Jack Kasher led me to a family living not far from me who believe they have been the victims of repeated alien abductions. The family in turn led me to a group of fellow believers.

The subject matter fascinated me and I began to read up on this alleged phenomenon. As I met the people and heard their stories and read a couple books, including Whitley Strieber‘s Communion, my curiosity was peaked and my skepticism was challenged.  I was also seriously freaked out by it all.

I ended up writing the following story, which appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and much to my amazement it didn’t seem to make much a of splash. Perhaps the alien abduction theme was already played out by then. I’m interested to see if the story generates any buzz this time around.

Separate Voices, Separate Lives: The Alien Abduction Chronicles

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Late on a Tuesday night in September I find myself being taken for a ride by a married, middle-age couple who are among a group of Omahans and Lincolnites purporting to be alien abductees. Jim drives, I sit beside him and the chain-smoking Sue crouches on the floor in back. Having left the couple’s north Omaha home, we head south on Highway 75 – bound for Bellevue and the site of a certain incident. I try remaining dispassionate, but my professional veneer is cracking under the strain of their weird tales.

Swirling in my head is Jim’s cautionary note about poking into things others want concealed: The Men in Black factor. “What you will find, whether you want to or not, is that when you start looking into this stuff, things start happening,” he says. “You start talking to people and asking questions and the next thing you know you start getting strange phone calls in the middle of the night and somebody saying, ‘You don’t want to know about this.’ This is not something to be treated lightly.” Sensing my apprehension, he asks, “What are you prepared to hear?” I answer truthfully, “I’m not sure.” He proceeds to test me.

 

 

 

 

“The fact is, as far back as I can remember I’ve always known things I had no basis for knowing,” says Jim, a former Air Force intelligence staff sergeant, who worked until recently for a high-tech Bellevue firm that is a major U.S. defense contractor. Today, he’s an independent computer consultant. “My work is a case in point. It has always been with advanced, leading-edge technology, yet my degree is in history,” he says. Referring to his peculiar gifts, he continues: “I developed a conceptual model of this advanced computer intelligence system, and I don’t have a f_ _ _ ing clue how. I just knew what it was supposed to be like. I’ve had the distinct feeling all my life that someone is plotting out what I’m going to do next and that somehow knowledge is communicated. That information is just there and it becomes like second nature. Not that I don’t read a lot or don’t immerse myself in a lot of things. Some of it’s inspiration, but I’ve always known inside that some of it’s not. I’ve always felt fiddled with.”

Sue has too. Despite no formal training, she claims an unusually deep grasp of all things medical. Further, the couple say their three children unaccountably display detailed knowledge of historical periods and recall living past lives. “I have this haunting sensation that what we’re doing and contributing is part of some other purpose,” Jim says. “You can easily dismiss it as creativity, but when you’re in the middle of it, there are pieces of it that don’t add up that way. It scares us.”

And alone with them in the van, their tales of alien intervention weighing on my mind, the clear cool night turns ominous. I dread what the horizon obscures. I scan the sky for strange lights. I sense danger in shadows. Claustrophobia and paranoia grip me. I feel utterly trapped and vulnerable.

Then I make the mistake of asking if there are tell-tale signs of an impending abduction. “Oh, yeah,” Jim says. “It’s a restlessness, a feeling of foreboding, of uneasiness. A real funny kind of agitation. It’s equivalent to that state animals go into before an earthquake. There must be some low level rumble going on. We don’t know if we pick it up psychically or at some low communication level.” Noting I have all the symptoms, I cringe to see my companions looking tense too.

Jim continues, “Sometimes, if there’s going to be a visitation, you will get absolutely, uncontrollably knockout-tired – totally inappropriately.” Then I remember Sue telling me Jim suffers from sleep apnea. I glance to see if he’s still alert. He is, thank God. Indeed, he and Sue are hyper-alert, having become night owls as a way of warding off sleep and the phantoms it brings.

“Now sometimes there’s no warning at all,” he adds. “Like with missing time, you only know afterwards that something doesn’t feel right.  Other times, things go quiet or don’t look right.”  Then, as if on cue, having earlier turned onto a Bellevue side street, we reach a dark, isolated dead-end and Jim says cryptically, “That’s weird…Where’s the road?” I wonder, ‘Does he mean run-of-the-mill weird, or alien weird?’ Conditions are ripe for  an “X-Files” case. As if we’ve been drawn to this spot. To my relief though, we right ourselves and uneventfully retrace the route of what the couple calls “the swimming pool incident.”

It was a February night in 1989. The entire family was already  besieged by paranormal phenomena at their former home in Bellevue’s Leawood Oaks. There were disturbing dreams: The youngest child, Dan, complained of “starlights“ and “robot doctors” coming for him at night. Eerie presences: Sue’s dead father is said to have appeared in the front room. It all hearkened back to weird occurrences in Jim’s and Sue’s own childhood, but no firm connection was made with that. Certainly not with aliens.

One night the couple drove to the nearby South Cinema 7 to catch the late show. He insisted on taking a “short-cut” home even though the route led in the wrong direction. “I knew I had to go this way – like a person possessed. In our delusion, or whatever you want to call it, we pulled into this parking lot,” Jim says, parking just as they did that earlier night. It’s a nondescript lot bordered by a chain-link fence and trees. “We found ourselves stopped at a swimming pool at midnight. We sat there a long while looking at it, with snow falling outside. What we didn’t find out until months later was that not only wasn’t there any pool there, there never had been or anything resembling one. It was a craft.”

Even years later, the site upsets them. “I’m still saying, Where’s the pool? How did someone create a pool there?’ I don’t like to be in that lot,” Jim confides. “I was going to have you turn the van back around, Jim – I really was,” says Sue. To everyone’s relief, we start home. With the long unnerving night nearly over, I’m just calming down when Jim sends the panic edging back up my throat, asking, “How scared do you really want to be?” I think:  ‘Oh no, here we go again. How’d I ever get in this mess?’”

It began last spring when I read about a local physics professor,  John “Jack” Kasher, who investigates UFO sightings and alien abduction reports. He put me in touch with Doreen, a member of an Omaha abductee support group. She arranged an interview with several group members, including Jim and Sue. My first meeting with THEM took place on a mild July night at the couple’s plain north Omaha home.

 

Jack Kasher

 

 

The home’s been the site of many unsettling events. Perhaps the most compelling occurred one night in 1992. First, the family’s dogs reacted to an unseen presence in a closet. Later, the whole family was disrupted by bizarre, vivid “dreams.” In the morning Sue said she recalled her and Dan having been aboard an alien craft, where she was examined. Dan said he recalled aliens grabbing him in the night. Bruises were found on his shoulder. Odd circular marks were detected in the front yard. Some nights later, Jim said, a stealth-like helicopter hovered over the house, training a searchlight on the property – as if someone knew where to look.

Despite the home’s reputation, I found nothing unusual there on that July visit or later visits. No bad vibes. No spectral auras. No bumps-in-the- night. What I did find that first meeting was eight adults and two children who’ve been traumatized and transformed by their mysterious encounters and who speak about them the way charismatics speak about their revelations. Most insisted on anonymity. An exception was John Foster, 60, a retired engineer living in Lincoln who claims his alien encounters span nearly half-a-century.

The group filling the living room variously sat on chairs, a sofa and the carpeted floor. Lit candles lined the front window sills. A light breeze (or a blithe spirit?) puffed the drapes. They were a huddled few gathered for one reason: To testify. And, like true believers at a revival meeting, each testified to their extraordinary experiences. Experiences unique to each, yet shared by all. That are part ephinany, part nightmare. Part inspiration, part trial.

A cottage industry has sprung up around alien abduction phenomena and as research I read books by two of its gurus – Budd Hopkins and John Mack. Although troubling stuff, it’s easy to distance oneself from written/filmed accounts and to dismiss them as fabrication, hysteria, psychosis. However, it’s quite different when people tell you their accounts first-hand. Then – peering into their sad, plaintive eyes, hearing their anxious, stricken voices and feeling their sincere, sober emotions – you cannot patently reject the tales as hokum or hallucination.

Yes, the experiencers described inexplicable things, but these people struck me as intelligent, rational, earnest and completely genuine. They told, without dramatics, of traversing a shadowland whose boundaries stretch beyond our known universe. A shadowland of this Earth and not. An ethereal realm intersecting both hard visible reality and soft invisible dimensions where metaphysical wonders occur and supernatural entities roam. They told of their communion with the Other Side. Of being plugged into a mysterious life force known by mystics, shamans, psychics and prophets. Of relating their encounters to revelations recorded throughout history.  Of participating in an ancient ongoing experience with profound implications for the planet. Of feeling their role is preordained.

“Whether it’s alien or angelic, I think in the end they’re all different faces of the same kind of phenomena,” Jim said. “We’ve called it by lots of different names and I think it comes in a lot of different forms. Mankind has always recognized there is something beyond us that interacts with us, and it may be interacting with us in whatever form we’re comfortable with. Or maybe it plays to our own innate psychic abilities or sensitivities. For whatever reason, some people are more attuned to it than others. Another strong aspect of the experience is that it seems to be very personalized, tailored and aimed at you, where you’re at and where you come from.”

They believe they share a group consciousness. “When one of us has experiences, we all seem to have experiences,” said Alan, a Bellevue avionics systems expert. “There is a synchronism. It’s like a mass mind through the group.” On one occasion Jim said he rudely awoke to find himself slamming onto the bedroom floor of his Omaha home, only to find an experiencer named Julie, a Lincoln housewife and mother, had the same thing occur that very morning. Other times, experiencers have recounted identical dreams. Jim speculates “something is stimulating that area of the brain responsible for psychic sensitivity, which may explain “how experiences often happen at the same time.” And then, as if to illustrate the subject’s tenuous nature, he said, “But if that’s true, you get back to: Who’s doing that? Why are they doing that? And is it targeted or random?”

 

 

 

 

Like the other contactees that night, John Foster said he had had UFO sightings for some time, but never suspected an alien connection. He was troubled, however, by the unaccountable anger he felt in the early 1980s. Then, suddenly, came “a flood of recollections” in 1986 and 1987 that, he believes, revealed a lifetime of alien encounters extending back to early childhood. “I began to get angry at home and at work for no apparent reason,” Foster said. “It was all that unknown information I had in my subconscious that wasn’t able to come out.”

The recollections came to him in his waking and sleeping hours and what they revealed “completely devastated” him. He adds: “There’s an anxiety that just completely consumes you sometimes. Once I did accept that I did have encounters with beings…it was a real turning point for me. I realized the dreams and experiences I had been having, which were increasing in number, were not necessarily dreams – but memories. It was like a whole other part of my life had been kept from me.”

There is great similarity in contactees’ descriptions of how  abductions unfold. It often starts with a disturbance in the air, as if the surrounding energy field becomes charged. The contactees enter a  hypnotic-like state, while non-contactees present are paralyzed. Then, a brilliant light appears, followed by the beings and their craft. The beings – most often the frail-bodied, bid-headed, bug-eyed Little Grays – communicate telepathically. They escort the contactee to the light and  levitate together to the craft above, where medical-like procedures are performed on the subject and prophetic-like information shared. Then the contactee is returned to the abduction site.

A disjointed feeling follows and there’s no accounting for lost time. Immediate memories of an event are rare. Afterwards, contactees may find strange marks on their bodies. For example, Julie said after some experiences she found “burn or brand marks” on her left forearm that she later interpreted as historical and alchemic symbols.

According to Foster, his first remembered abduction occurred at age 13 amid dozens of people on the playground of Lincoln’s now defunct Bethany Grade School. He said a craft landed nearby and “a voice” from within addressed the crowd. He recalls being levitated aboard with others and undergoing “excruciating conditioning” sessions that exerted “strong forces on our bodies and minds.” He views this as his “initiation experience.”

There are as many variations to the classic pattern as there are contactees. Foster said the majority of his experiences have been more on the order of sightings rather than abductions, including one vision or visitation during a University of Nebraska football game in Memorial Stadium. On that occasion, like others, he said, “The craft manifests out of a distorted atmosphere – a blue haze or a dense gray fog  – and into our visual spectrum, and it controls the minds of the individuals involved.” He and other contactees discount any suggestion such sightings are figments of the imagination. “It’s not in any way a mental or psychological condition. I know that this is an external intelligence that is other dimensional and usually not seen and that is communicating with me. It’s what you might call a holographic image, rather than a physical object.”

Foster said he’s never encountered the Grays, but instead a variety of “lizard-like beings” and “humanoid” figures. He said he’s experienced time travel episodes in which he and fellow experiencers glimpsed the future and were told of their role in an ongoing alien project impacting the Earth. “I believe it was planned for me to be involved. They said they were here to change humankind, and the way they did it was to enlist people like myself.”

Many experiencers feel they are harbingers of a dawning new age and pioneers in a cosmic mission having to do with preparing for a new world order. Foster said, “I believe that we’re all brought together for the purpose of this project, so it’s real meaningful that we do interact with each other in order to carry out certain plans set out by the so-called E.T.’s, which I believe are the ancient gods that have been with us since pre-history.”

Jim feels contactees are used as vessels to “convey a message about ourselves – that something transcendental is upon us.” Sue sees a clear generational thread, adding: “I know it has something to do with what our children are going to do with their lives. That sense has been given to me.”

“We’re kind of a chosen few,” said Alan. “We’re kind of the precursors to what all of mankind is going to be walking into in our evolutionary development, when we’ll be able to interface with other dimensions at will.”

Despite the elaborate framework contactees apply to their experiences, most have more questions than answers. Julie said, “I think at the very least, having these experiences is kind of an awakening. And I think everyone would agree that one positive aspect…is the fact that it’s caused us all to look at ourselves and to know ourselves. Even if the experiences are of a horrifying nature to some people, it still causes them to take a closer look at themselves in their search to find out, ‘Why me?’ I think the truth is different for all of us. It’s a matter of our interpretation and our personal belief systems.” And Jim said, “I don’t really pretend to know what the interaction is about, other than that it seems to be directed, targeted and long-term. It’s not something haphazard.”

While most experiencers keep a low profile for fear of ridicule, they exhibit a certain zeal for telling their stories and reaching out to others like them. As Jim explains, “In a way it’s like early Christianity. You’re afraid of the lions, but you feel this compulsion to bear witness, because you know there are people out there (like us) who are afraid and alone, walking around with this terrifying secret.”

It was months before Jim and Sue could tell others about the pool that wasn’t. The first oddity they noticed that night eight years ago, she said, is the fact they “got home much later ” than they “should have.” Missing time.

“It gnawed at us so deeply. I’d check the time when I left home and check the time when I got back. I still do that too, because once you’ve had missing time, and we’ve had several episodes, you begin to be a clock watcher. Then we went to where we thought the pool was, but there was no pool there. We kept searching and searching because we thought, ‘Well, maybe we were somehow disoriented.’ It became such an obsession.”

 

 

 

 

As anomalous events mounted, the incident proved the catalyst that sent them in search for answers. Said Jim, “It was so disturbing an event in a whole series of disturbing events – encounters, sightings, all sorts of things – that we finally tried to figure out what was going on. We were in a place where life didn’t make sense at all. It was totally intruding on our lives. People were even getting afraid to be around us. We’d be in the car with a friend and here’d be strange lights dancing around in the sky. Or someone would be staying over the house and pots and pans would clatter across the room. One bizarre event after another.”

Sue, whose family is Catholic, called their parish priest for counsel. “I talked to him about the very bizarre things that were happening and he said, ‘You’re not praying enough.’ Well, that really wasn’t an answer for me,” she said. “I do pray. I do believe in God. But this is something beyond that. Still, I believe whoever visits our skies is also part of God’s plan.” They say they did consult mental health professionals, but took little solace in being told they were of sound mind – as they were left to sort out their experiences for themselves. Their frustration with the mental health community’s resistant attitudes echoes that of other experiencers.

Jim and Sue also wondered if some strange childhood visions might be related. Sue recalled a “dream” she had at age 8 while living in Thornton, Colo. In it, she was enveloped by a blue light while walking to school.  “People” appeared who whisked her away to a “vehicle” that brought her to a magical “playground.” She recalled a conscious episode at age 14, while living near Yutan, Neb., in which an “egg-shaped” silver craft appeared to her and her younger brother outside their house. She felt she and the craft’s occupants read each other’s minds. Her parents dismissed it as a dream.

Jim recalled a dream at age 12 in which “skeleton” creatures took him from a schoolyard adjacent to his Napa Valley, Calif. home and flew him high overhead, from where he viewed his house below.

Did these memories fit in with all the rest? “We didn’t have any way to tie all that together,” he said. “All we thought was, ‘We’re in this spot from hell.’  “It had progressed to the point where I would have been more than happy to be told, literally, ‘You’re crazy.’ At least it was an answer. We didn’t know anybody in Omaha who was tracking any of this. It was like, ‘We can’t be the only ones having weird things happening,’ so we found ourselves following reports of strange things.” Eventually, they contacted Scott Colborn, a Lincoln abductee support group leader and paranormal investigator. “He basically reassured us that we were not alone in experiencing strange events,” Jim said, “and that there were possible explanations for these and that there are people we could talk to about this.”

Colborn referred them to Fowler Jones, a clinically-trained Kansas City, Kansas psychologist. In separate 1993 hypnosis sessions with Dr. Jones, the couple relived memories of alien abductions. Sue said she accessed repressed memories extending back to infancy, including repeated contact with an alien “doctor” figure present during apparent medical procedures.

She feels one of these procedures may have caused a rare blood disorder she suffered from – Factor VIII Clotting Deficiency – to miraculously vanish. She also suspects an alien cure factored in the unexplained disappearance of an ovarian cyst: On the eve of surgery, she recalls a female doctor, whom she never saw before or after, examining her in her room at Bellevue’s Ehrling Bergquist Hospital. The next morning, she said, her regular physician informed her the cyst was gone.

Many female experiencers recall abductions involving medical procedures, particularly those dealing with childbirth. Such women, including Sue, report “missing pregnancies” and believe they’re used as part of an alien cross-breeding program. Sue’s youngest daughter, Ellen, has had dreams of being escorted to places filled with part-human, part- alien infants, whom she was encouraged to hold and fondle.

Jim said under hypnosis the skeleton creatures of his boyhood dream turned out to be the Grays, who floated him away, performed an exam and inserted an implant up his nose. “It was a terrifying experience to relive.

In the end I was left with this notion that they take you when you’re young because you’re more receptive then. They do something to your brain so that they can better communicate with you…telepathically and symbolically.”

The regression offered more clarification than relief. He said, “I’d known since I was very, very young that I was carrying a terrifying secret.  Like I was living a separate existence. The hypnosis didn’t so much relieve that feeling as it did justify it by adding missing pieces.” Armed with this startling new information and still bothered by what might lie behind the pool incident, the couple was next regressed in Lincoln by Richard Boylan, a visiting California psychologist. Under hypnosis the incident took on the features of an alien abduction. Sue said she recalled entering an altered state, then spinning wildly in the car and next finding herself lying unclothed on a table inside an alien craft, surrounded by Grays. Then the “doctor” appeared and a procedure caused tingling in her legs and sharp pain in her hip. The next thing she knew, she was back in the car  – Jim restrained by the aliens. He recalled being “switched off” or immobilized, helplessly watching the aliens take Sue into a light and later return her to the car. Driving home, they remembered only the pool.

As a pattern of alien abduction emerged, the couple began coming to terms with the Pandora’s Box they’d opened and the expanded reality it suggested. “I was desperate for any answer,” Jim said, “and after time, as the stuff started coming out, it was rational that alien beings were doing something to us. As we became more comfortable with that, we started talking to other people who were dealing with the same discontinuities.”

The support group has helped them cope. “It has been like an absolute God-send for us,” said Sue. “We’ve all had our own experiences, and some might sound a little weirder than others, but we accept them because each of us is getting the information in the way that we can best assimilate it and understand it. I feel like we all have pieces of the puzzle. If we could just get the puzzle together…” That puzzle has at times strained Jim and Sue’s marriage. Amazingly, their kids seem well-adjusted and do well in school.

Even as they teeter on the edge of infinity, the family feels safe in their home. Helping ease their minds is their belief that the alien interaction is benign. They don’t feel they’ve ever been harmed. Still, they’re wary enough to stay up late – trying to hold off the night and its intruders.

“I don’t think there’s one comfort zone people find,“ said Jim. “Given the nature of the incidents my family has had and the way we’ve been able to integrate them and go on, I feel comfortable. We don’t sit around quaking in fear. But at the same time we’ve had enough disturbing things go on that we don’t know what’s going to be thrown at us next.”

“We have gone through hard times. We don’t really know where this will all end,” said Sue. “We may never know what it all means.”

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