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Outward Bound Omaha Uses Experiential Education to Challenge and Inspire Youth

April 26, 2012 6 comments

After seeing some high school students navigate the high ropes challenge course at the Outward Bound Omaha center site I understand why youths and adults, really anyone physically able to access and maneuver on the apparatus, could benefit from testing onself on it.  I woulnd’t mind trying it myself.  I know I would be better for the challenge.  The following story for a coming issue of Metro Magazine gives a sense for what Outward Bound Omaha tries to do and how it fits into the mission of the sponsoring North Star Foundation, which is bringing this and other community engagement and personal enrichment resources to northeast Omaha to address the crisis of disenfranchised youth there.  The idea is to get kids out of their comfort zone through challenges that reveal their inner strength and capability.  If they can complete a ropes course or canoeing expedition or rock climbing challenge, then they may be more inclined to think they can finish high school or go to college, after all.  You get the idea.

 

 

 

 

Outward Bound Omaha Uses Experiential Education to Challenge and Inspire Youth 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in Metro Magazine

 

The North Star Foundation formed in 2007 to address Omaha‘s disenfranchised African-American youth. The organization sought a way of engaging and inspiring young people to keep them on track academically so they finish school and become productive citizens.

With board members such as Dick Holland and Susie Buffett, North Star arrived on the scene with heavy hitters deeply committed to improving outcomes of underserved youth. Too many kids underachieve in North Omaha, where there’s a dearth of quality opportunities to learn trust, gain confidence, be a teammate and discover capabilities. North Star looked to the national experiential and expedition education model Outward Bound as an answer.

North Star executive director Scott Hazelrigg knows the effectiveness of Outward Bound programs because he participated in them as a student and contracted them as a youth services director. After an exhaustive needs assessment by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and discussions with Outward Bound officials North Star launched Outward Bound Omaha in 2010. The Hitchcock High Ropes Challenge Course, where youths and adults test themselves in safe, supervised exercises, is tucked into the folds of the rolling Omaha Home for Boys campus, easily visible to surrounding apartments and single family homes.

The course site is both practical and symbolic. A half-block north is the foundation’s office in the Ames Avenue strip mall where a new Walmart will go in next year. A couple blocks east is the abandoned Park Crest Apartments, a former crime-ridden complex North Star purchased and partly demolished to make way for a neighborhood reclamation project. The land the razed units sat on is now home to the Sahler Street Community Garden. Big Muddy Garden will farm a half-acre there this summer. North Star is weighing a for-profit urban farm to employ local youth. It’s all part of efforts to turn blight into sustainable, healthy community resources.

 

 

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Hazelrigg says, “We wanted to get rid of that negative and put positive assets in that space.”

The neighborhood is home to many youths and families OB Omaha seeks to serve. A high percentage of northeast Omaha residents live in poverty and underachieve in education and employment. North Star and initiatives like Building Bright Futures attempt to address such systemic problems at the grassroots level.

Hazelrigg says North Star’s tasked with “a critical challenge to changing the safety, security, trajectory and economy of this community.” One way to lower truancy and dropout rates and raise graduation rates, he says, is to get kids on target academically and to keep them there.

Students completing a ropes or expedition course, he notes, can come away knowing they successfully met a challenge they might have thought insurmountable. If they do that, than working to solve a math problem or completing high school may not seem so daunting. “They feel more empowered or better able to face a challenge and to overcome that challenge because they have more in the toolbox,” says Hazelrigg.

OB Omaha is more than a ropes course. It also offers peer leadership expeditions. A pilot excursion the first year saw North O youths do a canoeing and camping trip in Ely, Minn. Most adventures happen closer to home but they’re no less challenging for urban kids without prior wilderness experience.

 

 

Among the benefits of experiential ed, Hazelrigg says, is it “gives kids an opportunity to fail in a safe space and to challenge themselves to see more in themselves than they knew was there.”

“The transformative power it has is that it gives you permission to discover who you might really be and it gives you a road map to figure out how to actualize that,” says OB Omaha director of Community Partnerships Liz Cornish. “What we do is create a challenge, an adventure and uncomfortable situations. Outward Bound instructors facilitate people to step outside of their comfort zone and to dig deep and discover what lies within.”

Each graduate receives a pin in a ceremony celebrating completion of the course. “It’s the student’s choice whether or not they take that with them, whether they feel they’ve earned that yet,” Cornish says. “It’s about how committed are you to certain values Outward Bound promotes and how far you have come on your journey to incorporating those into your every day life. if you take the pin you have to talk about why you’re taking it.”

She says courses are designed to teach “the core values of inclusion and diversity, compassion, integrity and excellence.” To complete a course, she says students must practice “positive communication, conflict resolution and the qualities of a good leader.” When they get to the end, there’s a real feeling of accomplishment. “A lot of it’s about confidence and how they see themselves and how they value themselves. Our programs are really about instilling self worth so that they can start to see themselves as whatever it is they want to be.”

No wonder then many schools and youth serving organizations elect to have students participate. Hazelrigg and Cornish say care is taken to ensure OB Omaha can deliver what teachers and program directors want to accomplish. Not every class or group is the right fit. But enough are that thousands of students have graduated by now.

She says the center’s worked with everyone from the South High football team to incoming  Benson High students in the 8th to 9th grade transition program to Monroe middle school students to Girls Inc. members. On a cool April morning students from Westside High School‘s Future Problem Solving club crossed from one tower platform to another by navigating ropes and poles. Instructors and teammates provided encouragement. For each harnessed, helmeted participant the progressive tests presented their own challenges and rewards.

“When I’m going to school principals and talking about why they need to have Outward Bound in their schools,” says Cornish, “I tell them that as an Outward Bound center we have the luxury of teaching your students what you no longer have time to do in the context of a school day.”

The Omaha Public Schools, Westside Community Schools, Millard Public Schools and some private schools regularly send students to do Outward Bound programs.

 

 

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“We also offer open enrollment opportunities during the summer,” Cornish says.  “Parents and families are looking for ways to give their child a high quality leadership experience and we’re able to offer a quality and intense experience right here.”

 A June 4-8 canoeing trip on Missouri River Valley rivers is open to Omaha area high school students. A July 11-20 youth service leaders course for 14 to 16 year-olds offers rock climbing and canoeing in Blue Mounds, Minn. and western Iowa, capped by a food and justice service project with Big Garden in Omaha.

Outward Bound isn’t just for kids either. Adults participate through employer team-building and leadership programs.

“We believe Outward Bound is for everyone and so we offer programs that do that full transformative leadership experience to lots of different groups, including corporate clients,” says Cornish. “We’ve worked with management teams at nonprofits, even sales teams at for-profit businesses. We do educator training as well.”

Courses run all year. The outdoor April through November courses are weather dependent but the center also provides indoor programming.

Cornish says staff instructors “come from all different paths but the common factor is mostly a passion for the students we serve.”

Hazelrigg aims to make programs recurring experiences at “deeper levels for target youth.

For course and program details, call 402-614-6360 or visit http://www.outwardboundomaha.org.

Fabulist Adventures in the Deep Blue Sea: Disney’s 1954 Version ofJules Verne’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ Gets the Full Technicolor-Cinemascope Treatment

April 9, 2012 1 comment

My guilty cinema pleasures include plenty of kitsch movies, though over time I have less and less patience and tolerance for these less than great films that enthralled me as a kid but do very little for me as an adult.  The 1954 Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea certainly held my attention when I first saw it on television in the late 1960s.  I have maybe seen it in one sitting a couple times since, but mostly it’s one I’ve caught in bits and pieces in the intervening years.  Any film with Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre has to hold your attention for a minute or two, and then add in the action-adventure and fantasy aspects of the story and one can perhaps overlook its sometimes clunky specal effects.  I missed what may have been my only opportunity to see it on a big screen when Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford presented it a few years ago.  He’s been reviving classics for more than two decades and he has a new program planned for May 19, the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, that falls in the same camp as 20,000 Leagues.

 

 

 

 

Fabulist Adventures in the Deep Blue Sea: Disney’s 1954 Version of Jules Verne‘s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ Gets the Full Technicolor-Cinemascope Treatment                                       

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Sure, one can quibble with some of Bruce Crawford’s selections for his now semi-annual film revival events. The Omaha promoter’s picks are not all classics for one thing. Two of his last three screenings — the creaky 1960 The Time Machine and the 1997 bloater Titanic — don’t compare with the stellar, stand-the-test-of-time cinema of, say, West Side Story or The Misfits or The Searchers, all of which he’s presented in recent years. But, like all show people, Crawford has a nearly unerring sense for putting on the dog. His newest foray into extravaganza is a December 17 unreeling of the wide screen spectacle 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Disney’s 1954 film version of the speculative Jules Verne adventure yarn

Working his Hollywood contacts as usual, Crawford’s secured a restored print of the Cinemascope and Technicolor film from the Disney vaults for the Omaha showing at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The film is the main attraction for another boffo Crawford program, beginning at 7 p.m., that in addition to the flick will feature reenactors in Victorian splendor, a live theater organ performance of music from the film and special guests.

The one-night only screening is a benefit for the National Kidney Foundation of Nebraska.

 

 

You won’t find 20,000 Leagues on any all-time Best list. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a richly entertaining romp. There’s enough going on to please all but the most discriminating viewer. For starters, the story imagines — from Verne’s amazingly visionary 19th century perspective — a host of technological advances. At the center of it all is the fictional submarine the Nautilus, whose limitless diving feats are fueled by a revolutionary power source that modern audiences can only interpret as nuclear-based. Mistaken for a leviathan serpent from the deep, it surfaces to wreak havoc on war ships at the bidding of its creator, Captain Nemo, an inventor turned militant political activist and seafaring terrorist.

With its cold metal hull and soft upholstered interior, Crawford said, the ship makes a striking visual contrast between the Victorian period’s harshness and plushiness. It even has a pipe organ on which Nemo, in scenes reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera, plays Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor.”

The vessel’s brilliant but bitter skipper, played by James Mason, is bent both on revenge and on a punitive mission to end the war-making ways of the world. Brooding Mason’s Nemo dominates the film and, in true mad scientist tradition, he’s a figure to be feared, revered and pitied all at once. The haunted Nemo’s rather sketchy back story is the impetus for his reign of terror, as we learn his family was killed by mercenary forces seeking the secrets behind the amazing energy that powers his futuristic submarine and underwater domain. Nemo, Crawford said, is “a tortured soul brilliantly realized by Mason.”

The post-World War II story opens with a U.S. naval expedition being launched to investigate reports of “a monster” attacking and sinking ships on the open sea. The expedition is led by a professor Arronax, his assistant Conseil and harpooner Ned Land, a survivor of a ship wrecked by the Nautilus. When the expedition team’s ship is rammed and sunk by what they at first believe to be the “monster,” Arronax, Conseil and Land are rescued by the Nautilus crew. The hostages soon learn they are aboard a man-made vessel, meet the mad genius behind it and witness the wonders of underwater voyaging, deep sea diving and ocean farming.

 

 

 

 

As Ned Land, virile Kirk Douglas hams it up as a singing, dancing, guitar-strumming mariner who plots to escape the sub. He’s the heroic, swashbuckling antithesis to Nemo’s ruthless radical. Bug-eyed Peter Lorre cracks wise as the comic relief Conseil. Earnest Paul Lukas is the idealistic Arronax in awe of Nemo. A pet sea dog, Esmeralda, steals scenes. Oscar-winning special effects and art direction bring the ocean floor to life, capture the destruction of ships targeted by Nemo and realize a climatic battle between the Nautilus and a giant squid. As if that’s not enough, anointing the action is the Disney studio’s seal of family approved entertainment.

Disney, still a newcomer then to live-action films, spared no expense bringing the 1870 Jules Verne novel to life. Originally conceived as another animation feature, company head Walt Disney was convinced by some of his studio artists and technicians that the film could work as a live-action project. To undertake a live-action film of such visionary scale, however, meant animation-based Disney had to out-source many human talents and resources, including renting 20th Century Fox’s back lot water tanks. Known for his demanding, meticulous attention to detail, Disney and his production chiefs assembled a veteran Hollywood crew and cast and gave them a long leash that he only occasionally felt compelled to rein in.

Using full-scale models, as well as miniatures, matte paintings, rear screen projection and animation, Disney threw everything into the making of 20,000 Leagues. The Nautilus seen in the film was built to scale — reaching 200 feet in length. The squid, constructed of rubber, springs, tubing and plastic, had tentacles 40 feet long. A crew of dozens worked the squid’s remote control movements.

According to Crawford, early footage of the squid’s duel with the Nautilus was a disaster Uncle Walt himself nixed. “It was horrifically bad. It looked like Ed Wood with a big budget. They filmed a sunset sequence in bright light. The squid was wrong. It just didn’t work. They wanted to keep it from being optical. Stop motion would have been perfect, but they wanted to make it full size. They were building Disneyland at the same time this film was being made and of course it became famous for its Animatronics, and that’s what they wanted to utilize,” Crawford said.

 

 

The final squid sequence, he said, “was filmed at night during a heavy storm. It works perfectly. It holds up just as good today as it did then. The squid was full size and all controlled through hydraulics and wires and such. It was clever of them to film it at night during a hurricane-like storm because it adds to the eeriness and the fear factor and, of course, it masks any possible flaws in the visuals.” For a purist like Crawford, the old-school special effects rule. “Well, they hold up, don’t they? It’s not CGI (computer generated images). It’s tactile. It’s organic. You can see it and touch it. I mean, two TV films (of 20,000 Leagues) were made. They bombed. You can’t remake a classic. It just doesn’t work, especially one like that. You can’t out-Disney Disney — even with today’s technology.”

Underwater and beach scenes were filmed off Jamaica and the Bahamas. When all was said and done, 20,000 Leagues supposedly owned the biggest production budget for any film up to that time. Matching the production values, Disney signed an “A” list cast. Douglas and Mason were at the height of their fame. Lukas and Lorre were top character players. After a string of highly-regarded “B” film noirs for RKO (Bodyguard, Armored Car Robbery, The Narrow Margin), Richard Fleischer was commissioned to direct the picture and displayed a flair for the fantastic that he would brandish again with such later pics as The Vikings and Fantastic Voyage.

That Fleischer was entrusted with Disney’s first foray into Cinemascope, the super wide screen format that became the tail that wagged Hollywood’s dog in the ’50s, is interesting since his previous work had mainly been with back alley crime tales. But his effective use of small spaces and instinctive handling of suspense action may have been just what Disney was looking for, said Crawford. “Disney wanted to treat the film like a prison breakout story. It’s very clever. It works.”

Indeed, the film largely plays out on the Nautilus, whose mates, we learn, are former prisoners who broke out of bondage with Nemo, only to become hunted outlaws in his service. When Ned Land and company are taken as hostages, they see both the danger and the promise that Nemo and his new technology pose. When they try and fail to get him to end the attacks and to share his discoveries with the world, they hatch an escape plan. The drama then becomes a race against time. Will the hostages escape before the megalomaniacal Nemo self-destructs?

Crawford said what Hollywood producer-director George Pal did for H.G. Wells with his ’50s production of War of the Worlds, Walt Disney did for Jules Verne with 20,000 Leagues. The success of 20,000 Leagues “certainly was a breakthrough” in paving the way for future adaptations of Verne works, including Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Mysterious Island, the film that first stirred Crawford’s passion for film.

“It set that template for the ones that successfully followed it,” he said. “It ranks at the very top in that genre because it was not only the first, but because Disney spent so much time and effort and money on it to make it the best. Disney wouldn’t settle for anything but the best.”

To Doha and Back with Love, Local Journalists Reflect on Their Fear, Loathing and Everything Surreal Adventure in the Gulf

December 11, 2011 2 comments

 

 

When I learned months after the fact that some Omaha journalist colleagues of mine had picked up and left this provincial Midwestern burg to pursue a magazine opportunity in Doha, Qatar of all places, well, it peaked my interest to say the least.  It would be a year or more before I caught up with Bryce Bridges and Tessa Jeffers to find out what, besides sheer curiosity and wanderlust, propelled them to make such a dramatic move.  Here is their story, along with that of another Omahan who joined them, Kathleen Flood, complete with the good, the bad, and the surreal of their desert sojourn.  A fourth Omahan, Danae Mercer, also joined the crew for a time.

 

 

Kathleen Flood, Bryce Bridges, Tessa Jeffers

 

 

To Doha and Back with Love  – Local Journalists Reflect on Their Fear, Loathing and Everything Surreal Adventure in the Gulf

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Imagine your field of vision as a print journalist being confined to Nebraska your whole career. Then, suddenly, an offer to practice your craft in Doha, Qatar arises.

Qatar? After a Google search locating it you discover Qatar is an oil-rich nation striving to be cosmopolitan like its United Arab Emirate neighbors. Qatar though is a far less refined and developed cousin of, say, fabulous Dubai.

In a Muslim Arab world poised somewhere between feudal paternalism and capitalism run amok, the press must first submit stories to the state before publication or broadcast. Reportedly much of the domestic media has ties to the royal family.

A visiting journalist working for a Qatari employer with monarchy influence is a very different thing than working for an independent Western media outlet. The sponsor-employer who brings you to Qatar expects you to be beholden to him and his interests, not the public’s. You are more subject or serf, than autonomous journalist.

Given all this, you either balk at taking the plunge or else you embrace this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. In late 2008 photographer Bryce Bridges and editor Tessa Jeffers of Omaha found themselves in that very quandary.

Their Qatar connection was Rami Shinnawie and Kataryna Dmoch Shinnawie, an Omaha couple who were fans of the short-lived but much buzzed about Medium magazine Bridges co-founded with Eric Stoakes in 2000. Medium plugged into the creative class culture here in an unprecedented way

Shinnawie, a Lebanese-American dentist, and Dmoch, a Warsaw, Poland-native designer, owned and operated an Old Market dental spa and gallery. The pair met at Creighton University. In 2008 they decided to move their various ventures to Doha, where they’re friends and partners with Qatari luxury real estate magnate Ahmed Hassan Bilal, the power-wielding sheik in this story.

Bilal’s many holdings include Qatar Happening, a monthly events guide.

With the unlikely partners wanting to launch a new magazine capturing the pulse of the booming Doha social scene, Shinnawie and Dmoch approached Bridges, who liked the sound of it.

“I thought, This is exactly what I need, I need to be inspired by different points of view and different cultures,” recalls Bridges.

He in turn sounded out Stoakes, whose career has included stints with Omaha Magazine and more recently as promotions-creative services director at The Reader. When Stoakes backed out, Bridges asked another colleague, Jeffers, then Reader arts editor, to come on board. Jeffers welcomed the adventure but wasn’t about to take a job in a misogynist land sight unseen. At her request the owners flew her to Qatar, where she found the set-up safe and enticing as long as she covered herself appropriately and kept her place.

“I was wined and dined,” says Jeffers. “That place is crazy. There’s people from all over the world. I met people from everywhere and they had such interesting stories. There’s a lot of beautiful things about that culture.”

So she and Bridges threw caution to the wind to make the leap, going all in on an experience that challenged them on many levels. Jeffers arrived first in 2009. Bridges shortly after that. A few months later Kathleen Flood and Danae Mercer of Omaha joined them as interns.

“It was wild and I don’t know if it would have been as amazing if it didn’t happen the way it did,” says Jeffers. “Some crazy things happened.”

For starters, there were red carpet interviews and photo shoots with Josh Hartnett, who partied with Jeffers and Flood at a club, an exclusive with Ben Kingsley, profiles of internationally renowned artists, entree to elite Qatari society. There were also harsh restrictions and troubling incongruities.

 

 

Tessa doing a red carpet interview with Josh Hartnett

 

 

Then there was the growing rift between the owners. The disputes started as a distraction and annoyance but eventually impacted the publication. Jeffers says everything had to be run through Bilal and Dmoch and each seemed to have a competing agenda. “He would say something and she would say another, never agreeing, with us as the ping pong ball, constantly back and forth,” recalls Jeffers.

Toward the end, she says, Bilal and the Shinnawies “were constantly fighting about money.” The spillover resulted in fewer magazines being printed, from a normal run of 5,000 to a fraction of that. She says the in-fighting made for “many headaches.”

It turned out to be a mix of the routine, the exceptional, the surreal and the absurd, all framed by unrelenting desert heat and sand, stunning Gulf-front properties, conspicuous consumption and stark disparities. In the end, disputes between the owners and the editors, marked by Bilal’s heavy-handed interference, caused Bridges and Jeffers to cut and run, he in late 2009 and she in mid-2010.

Bridges oversaw nine issues. Jeffers, 15.

With the advantage of time, red flags aplenty appeared from the start signaling this would be a compromised endeavor. The way things were described, if not promised contractually, was “so far from what it really was,” says Jeffers wistfully.

 

 

Doha skyline in the distance

 

 

Despite the owners’ stated desire to put out a quality 84 to 100-page magazine, the editors found their hands tied by a lack of resources and by a fundamental misunderstanding of paid advertising versus free editorial content. She says the owners often confused the two, making it difficult to plan issues.

Jeffers says she and Bridges were prevented from accepting invitations to cover major cultural events outside Doha. “The daily fight though,” she says, “was about how these journalistic assignments and stories were generating money. For every page in the magazine they wanted it bought and paid for. They did not understand how a publication with integrity could operate based on writing interesting stories and interviewing dynamic people.”

Cultural divides got in the way, too. Bridges recalls what should have been the magazine’s greatest coup and his shining moment — scoring a Ben Kingsley spread — being ruined when Dmoch demanded to know “Who is this ugly old bald man on the cover of my magazine?’ “It was utterly ridiculous,” he says. Incredulity aside, Bridges was upset ownership didn’t seem to appreciate “it took me awhile to cultivate the kinds of connections that would allow me to get Ben Kingsley on the cover.”

 

 

Ben Kingsley, ©photo by Bryce Bridges

 

 

Then there was an ad for a major Middle East fashion store featuring Scarlett Johannson that Bilal nixed. “He told me her skirt was too short and that she was looking very naughty and too sexy for this region,” says Jeffers. Even when Jeffers pointed out it was a top dollar ad competing magazines would die to get he refused it.

Promise and reality diverged, too, when it came to living-office accommodations, staffing and other things. Then there was the fact Jeffers ended up going over there in the capacity of Bilal’s personal assistant before assuming editor duties.

Originally, say Bridges and Jeffers, they were to create a brand new magazine from scratch. Instead, he as editor in chief (creative director) and she as managing editor took over an existing one, ABODE, the owners purchased.

The American editors say they couldn’t be sure of anything, but they believe ABODE has been published since 2000, going through many incarnations before they arrived. It’s mainly distributed to hotels and partner companies and at events. It sold for 12 Riyals or about $3.30 per issue.

Bridges and Jeffers kept the name but reinvented the slick publication from a celebrity-centric women’s mag filled with reprinted and, he says, pilfered photos-stories to a sophisticated city lifestyle pub driven by original local content.

“My very first edict was, ‘We will not steal any content anymore,'” Bridges says.

An ongoing battle ensued, he says, between his desire for compelling original content and the PR fodder the owners preferred. “I just wasn’t down for that,” he says. “I wasn’t willing to compromise like that.”

 

 

A pair of Qatar filmmakers, ©photo by Bryce Bridges

 

 

Culture shock greeted the visitors at nearly every turn. Take the lavish lifestyles the ruling class live. “There’s a lot of money there,” says Jeffers. The opulence contrasts with the humble living conditions of average Qataris and non-Western guest workers. The labor class, she says, is largely comprised of Indians, Pakistanis and other ethnic minorities, who she says are roundly mistreated. She says these workers walk on egg shells, afraid of doing or saying anything that might lose them their jobs and get them deported.

“They can just be fired like that and treated like crap. There were times when distinguished Qatari people would slap them if they got in a traffic accident. Abuse.”

A salary of $300 a month is typical, she says, for “so-called lower class workers.” She says the racism-classism she witnessed extended to unfair housing. “One situation involved about 10 to 12 adult men forced to share a three-bedroom apartment provided by the sponsor-employer.”

Flood won’t soon forget the yin and yang of the place, saying, “I saw opulence and poverty, skill and stupidity, beauty and utter repugnance… juxtaposed on a daily basis. That’s what made it magical. I would literally wake up expectant with the reality that I had no idea what would happen that day, every day.”

Jeffers says a weekly day is set aside for families at local shopping centers. Single shoppers are officially banned. But as family day falls on the designated holy day (Friday) most expatriates use to get out and shop she often went to the mall by herself. She says while she and other Westerners “were treated with unabashed high regard” non-Western migrant workers were turned away.

Free, open travel of the kind we know doesn’t exist. The grip of an oppressive regime is felt. “There aren’t many open public spaces you can go,” says Jeffers.

“Living there turned my world completely upside down,” says Flood. “Everything I thought I knew about how the the world worked was proved incorrect, or at best was exceptionally skewed. Our main struggle was trying to run a magazine owned by people who did not have a publishing background, and in a region whose system is strictly censored. Let’s just say our ideals clashed on a daily basis.”

Jeffers still can’t quite decipher her sponsor-employer, the enigmatic and autocratic Ahmed Hassan Bilal.

“Mr. Bilal is so interesting. It’s really hard to explain Mr. Bilal. He can be really funny and open, but then once you challenge him or you have some kind of conflict he gets very angry. ‘This is my way, blah, blah, blah…’  At the very beginning Bryce and I had a lot of clashes with him. We were the two pesky Americans making trouble in his company. I got in trouble a lot. He’s a 75-year old man who comes from a totally different background than me. Very powerful, very rich. He does try to take care of his workers and everything but he also always gets what he wants.

“Still, I came to have a pretty good relationship with him.”

Ahmed Hassan Bilal

 

 

Breaking old habits, Bridges found, is easier said than done. For example, his tendency to want to get down to brass tacks as soon as possible runs counter to how Arabs conduct business, as did his and Jeffers’ tendency to question a man who’s only used to sycophants.

“There’s a certain amount of ritual welcoming — ‘You’re my friend. How are you?’ — that you have to go through before you actually get down to business,” says Bridges. “That was a tough one. It took me a long time to get used to do that. I dealt a lot with Mr. Bilal. He’s a Qatari billionaire and he’s very well known and respected, and I was a brusque American. He would not necessarily tell me how to act but I learned a lot from him about the cultural differences.

“It was a long process.”

Bridges says Bilal “counseled” him on how rude it was to rush things. The behavior modification lectures must have had some effect because, he says, “I have developed a much healthier respect for those small moments of conversation that can happen by breathing instead of speaking. I realize that if I slow down and allow for the ritual then it may give birth to genuine moments.”

The large expatriate community also became a sounding board for dos and donts and a nurturing place where the Americans felt free to be themselves.

 

 

Tessa Jeffers and Danae Mercer hanging out, @photo by Jeffrey Reloban Navarro

 

 

Bridges says, “There’s just something wonderful about being an expat. The expats come together, they’re all very far away from home and because of that they bond in a very serious way, so there’s an instant kinship. You jump right past the getting to know you phase.

“There’s this sort of implied idea that perhaps one day you may need a couch to sleep on and so the couch is always open or the extra bedroom is always open. The hospitality is pretty phenomenal.”

Tensions with ownership aside, the experience provided personal and professional growth opportunities.

Flood says, “I had the opportunity to really bury myself in my work, and I got to write a ton and at the same time meet people of all nationalities and from all walks of life. That in itself is completely and utterly priceless, and has informed my professional career to the nth degree.”

The opportunity for all four Americans came at the right time. Each was single. And it’s not like they had better offers waiting. The job did mean Bridges ended up apart from his teenage daughter for the better part of a year. But among his motivations in going, he says, was “I wanted my daughter to know that crazy things are possible — there are dreams you can follow or chase.” He says it also afforded a vehicle for him to “selfishly” go “and do something great.”

As things unfolded, Bridges, Jeffers and Co. pressed to get a revamped ABODE out every month, improvising to do more with less in a totally foreign culture and without the full support of ownership.

Inheriting only two full-time office staffers, it was left to Bridges and Jeffers at the outset to handle every editorial function.

“We’re talking 14 hour days. We worked our asses off,” says Bridges. “Tessa bore the brunt because she had to organize the editorial content, find writers, cultivate stories, edit…I ended up doing most of the principal photography (unable to find suitable editorial portraiture shooters) and I contributed a few stories. Writing is a lot harder for me, although I think I can pull it off fairly well. But writing is not my forte.

“We kind of went crazy. Tessa and I obviously bonded. We were the only ones that understood what we were going through. It’s one of the reasons we brought on Kathleen and Danae from Creighton University.”

Danae Mercer later left the team to continue her studies at Cambridge. Kathleen Flood stayed on after her internship was over to become associate editor.

The few staffers who came with the acquisition proved invaluable as well.

“What I’m most proud of is the team and how we came together. We inherited an incredible graphic designer from India in Fauzid Hassan and a helluva salesperson in Deliah Amira Furcoi,” says Bridges.

“The thing about Qatar is you have to have somebody who knows how to get from place to place because there’s no addresses and so basically his job was to distribute and to run things that needed to be run around town and Naseeb Khan (a Pakistani) did a great job.”

The blend of nationalities and backgrounds somehow all meshed.

“The way we worked together was pretty incredible,” says Bridges. “I mean, we had our fights and our disagreements and everything, but I think the publication really looked smart and the way it all came together was pretty incredible.”

Flood says, “As much as this is a story of conflict, it most definitely is a story of friendship. Outside of my family, I’ve never known such support, love and camaraderie before I lived, worked and got to know Tessa, Bryce and Danae. I was schooled.”

Despite not getting many things they wanted, Bridges says, “I think we produced a pretty outstanding publication. We also showed other publishers in Qatar that local content was important. Most of the publications there had little bits of local content but most of it came from other places. When we started getting a little bit of notoriety we noticed those publications began creating more local content.”

“There were a lot of people that respected what we did,” says Jeffers, who notes with pride BODE became a regionally recognized magazine under her and Bridges’ watch.

 

 

Laura Barrettstudents attending

Dichotomy: Two views of Doha, Qatar

 

 

Standing up for what she believed in in a closed society where women are barely seen and rarely heard was a kind of empowering thing. “Living there is like an endurance test,” Jeffers says. “It’s so uncertain living so far away from home. You always have like this weird fear on your shoulder. That’s just the way the culture is.

“The fear was a strong combination of many factors. It was a paralyzing and helpless feeling to be simultaneously beholden somewhere AND to someone, to truly feel trapped in situations out of your control. Even though you’re not in a literal prison at times it felt like a social prison.”

She says more than irritating her social justice sensibilities, the experience toughened her up in a way.

“You just learn to think on your feet all the time. By the end I felt like i could take on anything. It was also magical just being in such a strange melting pot where nothing is certain and where it felt as if there was no accountability. Yes, that’s scary, but it brought people together. People that speak different languages have to find a universal language.”

Says Flood, “I learned how to respect myself in a world where women struggle to be able to do so.”

By late 2009 Bridges was on the outs with ownership.

“It was a lot of butting heads. They became more aggravated tussles,” he says.

Bridges was finally fired. He stayed in Qatar awhile and even after leaving returned to continue a relationship he was in with a woman living there.

Looking back, he feels he may have been naive about certain business considerations but maintains ownership was out of its depth on editorial matters.

“As a whole I absolutely look at it as a positive. It was an unbelievable experience. It was the kind of experience most people are not given. I’m glad I did it.”

With Bridges gone, Jeffers and Flood tarried on for six more months before feeling as though what editorial freedom they’d established was being undercut.

“We did some good work still but finally we wanted to go home.” Jeffers says. “The reason we really wanted to leave is because ownership wanted the magazine to push their properties and self-interests. I’ll never forget the day Mr. Bilal called me up to his office and told me — he didn’t ask — that I was to write an article about his Swiss doctor’s new ‘brain hospital.'”

Leaving wasn’t as simple as she imagined. “I tried to resign, but the sponsorship thing…they prevent you from leaving the country without permission,” she says. Bilal didn’t want her to go. “I would have had to get the embassy involved and everything.” Desperate for a way out, she recruited two rival editors in Doha to assume her and Flood’s positions. She says Bilal and the Shinnawies signed off on the deal when “they realized these new editors were a little more business-like and a little less passionate creatively, and they could kind of manipulate them more.”

Jeffers, too, would like to return one day, only on her terms. She says Qatar has a lot of progress to make if its hosting of the 2022 World Cup is to be well-reviewed. “They aren’t ready for that. Journalists are going to have a field day.”

Apart from the ongoing employer-sponsor machinations that wore on her and the blatant inequality that bothered her, she says much of what she saw inspired her.

“Ramadan was amazing to see. Muslims are so devoted to this time of great fasting.”

The generosity and hospitality of the people, she says, took her aback. “Often complete strangers or people I had just met wanted to give me a gift or to help me.”

Then there are the aesthetics. She admires the “mystical” and “gorgeous” design, adding, “The buildings, the ornamental robes, the heavy makeup and jewelry, all combine to give it an incredible identity unlike anything I have ever experienced.”

As for Flood, she says, “I miss the rawness of Qatar, the freshness of the scene, the dusty sun, the country’s fragrance, the persecuted and exploited beauty, but I am so happy not to have The Fear anymore.

“I want to go back, I need to go back, but it’s going to take some time. I wish for a world that can respect and accept all people regardless of gender or nationality, and I pray for the reality that it may be someday. It will take longer there.”

It took Flood and the others months to decompress from the intense Otherness they were immersed in. Flood’s an editor and a blogger with The Creators Project in New York City. Jeffers left journalism for a period to help run her family’s A&W restaurant in North Platte and today is editor of Premier Guitar magazine.

Bridges continues his freelance photography career and is trying to get yet another magazine, Flyover, off the ground. If he’s learned anything after Medium and ABODE, he says, it’s that he needs to have sufficient capital and control “to protect the integrity of the mission.”


Retired Omaha World-Herald Military Affairs Reporter-Editor Howard Silber: War Veteran, Reporter, Raconteur, Bon Vi Vant, Globe Trotter

October 6, 2011 2 comments

I have done my fair share of stories about journalists by now, and my favorites are generally those profiling venerable figures like the subject of this story, Howard Silber, who epitomized the intrepid spirit of the profession. Howard, though long retired, still has the heart and the head of a newsman. It’s an instinct that never fully leaves one.  His rich career intersected with major events and figures of teh 20th century, as did his life before becoming a reporter. I think you’ll respond as I did to his story in the following profile I wrote about Howard for the New Horizons.

 

 

Howard Silber

 

 

Retired Omaha World-Herald Military Affairs Reporter-Editor Howard Silber: War Veteran, Reporter, Raconteur, Bon Vi Vant, Globe Trotter

©by Leo Adam Biga

Oriignally published in the New Horizons

It’s hard not viewing retired Omaha World-Herald military affairs editor Howard Silber’s life in romantic terms. Like a dashing fictional adventurer he’s spent the better part of his 90 years gallivanting about the world to feed his wanderlust.

A Band of Brothers World War II U.S. Army veteran, Silber was wounded in combat preceding the Battle of the Bulge. Soon after his convalescence he embarked on a distinguished journalism career.

As a reporter, the Omaha Press Club Hall of Fame inductee covered most everything. He ventured to the South Pole. He went to Vietnam multiple times to report on the war. He interviewed four sitting U.S. Presidents, even more Secretary of States and countless military brass.

He counted as sources Pentagon wonks and Beltway politicos.

Perhaps the biggest scoop of his career was obtaining an interview with Caril Ann Fugate shortly after she and Charles Starkweather were taken into custody following the couple’s 1958 killing spree.

A decade later Silber caught the first wave of Go Big Red fever when he co-wrote a pair of Husker football books.

As Veteran of Foreign Wars publicity chairman he went to China with an American contingent of retired servicemen.

Even when he stopped chasing stories following his 1988 retirement, he kept right on going, taking cruises with his wife Sissy to ports of call around the globe. More than 60 by now they reckon. They’ve even gone on safaris in Kenya and South Africa. Their Fontenelle Hills home is adorned with artifacts from their travels.

In truth, Silber’s been on the move since he was a young man, when this New York City native left the fast-paced, rough and tumble North for the slower rhythms and time-worn traditions of the South. His itch to get out and see new places may have been inherited from his Austro-Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents.

Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Silber learned many survival lessons. HIs earliest years were spent in a well-to-do Jewish enclave. But when the Depression hit and his fur manufacturer father lost his business, the small family — it was just Howard, his younger sister and parents — were forced to move to “a less attractive neighborhood” and one where Jews were scarce.

As the new kid on the block Silber soon found himself tested.

“Fighting became a way of life. It was a case of fighting or running and I decided to fight,” he said. “I had to fight my way to school a few times and had to protect my sister, but after three or four of those fracases why they left me alone.”

Sports became another proving ground for Silber. He excelled in football at Stuyvesant High School, a noted public school whose team captured the city championship during his playing days. An equally good student, he set his sights high when he attempted to enroll at hallowed Columbia University.

“I wanted to go to Columbia as a student, not as an athlete,” he said. “They turned me down. I had all the grades but in those days most of the Ivy League and other prestigious schools had a quota on so many Jews they would admit per year.”

Columbia head football coach Lou Cannon offered Silber a partial football scholarship. The proud young student-athlete “turned it down.” The way Silber saw it, “If they wouldn’t take me as a student I didn’t want to go there as an athlete.'”

He said when the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa recruited several teammates he opted to join them. The school’s gridiron program under then head coach Frank Thomas was already a national power. Silber enrolled there in 1939.

At Alabama his path intersected that of two unknowns who became iconic figures — one famously, the other infamously.

Paul “Bear” Bryant was my freshman football coach. I thought he was a great guy. He did a lot for me,” Silber said of the gravely voiced future coaching legend.

 

 

Paul “Bear” Bryant

 

 

The Bear left UA after Silber’s freshman year for Vanderbilt. It was several coaching stops later before Bryant returned to his alma mater to lead the Crimson Tide as head coach, overseeing a dynasty that faced off with Nebraska in three New Year’s bowl games. Bryant’s Alabama teams won six national titles and he earned a place in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Silber makes no bones about his own insignificant place in ‘Bama football annals.

“I was almost a full-time bench warmer,” he said. “The talent level was higher than mine.” He played pulling guard at 170 pounds sopping wet.

His mother wanted him to be a doctor and like a good son he began pre-med studies. He wasn’t far along on that track when the medical school dean redirected Silber elsewhere owing to color blindness. Medicine’s loss was journalism’s gain.

Why did he fix on being a newspaperman?

“I always had an interest in it. My environment had been New York and jobs were hard to get in those days and it just never occurred to me I would try for one. I was more interested in radio as a career. Actually, my degree is partly radio arts. I interned at WAPI in Birmingham and after three weeks I quit and went to work as a summer intern for the old Birmingham Post, a Scripps Howard paper, because it paid four bucks a week more. That’s how I got into print journalism.”

Silber became well acquainted with someone who became the face of the Jim Crow South — George Wallace. When he first met him though Wallace was just another enterprising Alabama native son looking to make his mark.

“George Wallace and I shared an apartment over a garage one summer school session,” recalled Silber. “I had known him a little bit before then. We became pretty good friends. There was no sign of bigotry at that time, and in fact I’m convinced to this day that his bigotry was put on for political purposes.

“He (Wallace) ran at one point for the (Alabama state) judiciary and his opponent was Jim Folsom, who later became governor, and he lost, and he made the comment, ‘I’m never going to be out-niggered again.'”

 

 

George Wallace

 

 

Years before Wallace uttered that comment Silber witnessed another side of him.

“We had our laundry done by black women in town. Their sons would come around the campus, even the athletic dorms, to pick up laundry. Tony, a big lineman from West Virginia, was always hazing them and finally George, who was on the boxing team, wouldn’t take it anymore and he went up to Tony ready to fight him, saying, ‘We don’t treat our people down here that way.’ I wouldn’t have wanted to get into a fight with him. He was a tough little baby.”

In 1968 the one-time roommates’ paths crossed again. By then Silber was a veteran Herald reporter and Wallace a lightening rod Alabama governor and divisive American Independent Party presidential candidate on a campaign speaking tour stop in Omaha. Wallace’s abrasive style and segregationist stands made him a polarizing figure.

“Wallace’s advance man Bill Jones was a mutual friend and because of Bill I was invited into Wallace’s plane as it was sitting on the ground and George answered some local questions. He seemed familiar with local politics and the local situation and he was interested in agriculture. We talked for a good 15 or 20 minutes.”

That evening at the Omaha Civic Auditorium Wallace’s inflammatory speech excited supporters and agitated opponents. A melee inside the arena spilled out onto the streets and in the ensuing confrontations between police and citizens a young woman, Vivian Strong, was shot and killed by an officer, setting off a civil disturbance that caused serious property damage and looting in Northeast Omaha.

In some ways Northeast Omaha has never recovered from those and other disturbances that burned out or drove away business. It’s just the kind of story Silber liked to sink his teeth into. Before ever working as a professional journalist Silber found himself, likes millions of others, caught up in momentous events that forever altered the course of things.

He was an undergraduate when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The call to arms meant a call to duty for Silber and so many of the Greatest Generation. Boys and men interrupted their lives, leaving behind home-family-career for uncertain fates in a worldwide conflict with no guarantee of Allied victory.

“The day after Pearl Harbor hundreds of students went to the recruiting offices in Tuscaloosa, the university town. The lines were terrible and finally several days later I got in. I wanted to become a Navy pilot but I was rejected because I was partly color blind. So I just entered the Army.”

He was 21. He went off to war in 1942, his studies delayed button forgotten.

“The university had a program where if you finished the spring semester and had so many hours you could enter the armed services and finish your degree by correspondence,” said Silber, who did just that.

His military odyssey began at Fortress Monroe, Va. with the Sea Coast Artillery. “We had big guns to intercept (enemy) ships,” he explained. “Because I had some college I was put in the master gunner section where with slide rules we calculated the azimuth and range of the cannon to zero in on the enemy ships that might approach. The Sea Coast Artillery was deemed obsolete by the emergence of the U.S. Air Force as a reliable deterrent force.

“I was transferred to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, an anti-aircraft training center (and a part of the country’s coastal defense network). “I loved it down in El Paso. It was a good post.”

From there, he said, “I went into a glider unit and once in action we were supposed to glide in behind enemy lines to set up for anti-aircraft. Well, the glider unit was broken up. So I had some choices and I just transferred to the infantry. I went to Camp Howze (Texas), a temporary Army post, and became a member of company A, 411th Infantry Regiment, 103rd division. We did some pretty heavy training there,” said Silber.

“We went by train to Camp Shanks, New York — a port of embarkation. One morning with very little notice we were put aboard trains and transferred to a ferry stop in New Jersey and ferried across New York harbor to the Brooklyn Army Base,” he recounted. “There we boarded a ship that, believe it or not, was called the Santa Maria. We sailed to Southern France. It took about two weeks in a convoy strung out for quite a distance.”

Silber, whose descriptions of his wartime experiences retain the precision and color of his journalistic training, continued:

“We landed in Southern France (post-D-Day, 1944). We were equipped to go into combat but we were diverted to the Port of Marseilles. The French stevedores, who were supposed to be unloading ships of ammunition and such, went on strike. So we spent about two weeks unloading ammunition from ships to go up to the front.

“We were encamped on a plateau above Marseille. It was a happy situation. We’d be able to go in the city and enjoy ourselves.”

The idyll of Marseille was welcome but, as Silber said, “it ended soon enough. Part of the division went by truck and my regiment went by freight train with straw on the floor to a town called Epinal in Eastern France. From there we went into combat. The first day of combat eight members of my platoon were killed. A baptism by fire.”

That initial action, he said, “was in, oddly enough, a churchyard in which most of the graves were occupied by World War I German soldiers. I didn’t learn that until later.” Many years after the war Silber and his old comrades paid for a monument to be erected to the eight GIs lost there. He and Sissy have visited the site of that deadly encounter to pay their respects.

“It’s become kind of a shrine to guys from my old outfit,” he said.

The next phases of his combat duty exposed him to even more harrowing action.

Although wars historically shut down in winter or prove the undoing of armies ill-equipped to deal with the conditions, the record winter of ’44 in Europe ultimately did little to slow down either side. In the case of the advancing American and Allied forces, the treacherous mix of snow and cold only added to the miseries. When Silber and his fellow soldiers were ordered to cross a mountain range, the dangers of altitude, deadly passes and avalanches were added to the challenge.

“We fought our way through the Vosges Mountains in Alsace,” he said, adding cryptically, “We had a couple of situations…

“We were the first sizable military unit to cross the Vosges in winter. We had snow for which we were not equipped really. It turned out to be the worst in the history of that part of Europe. We didn’t have any white camouflage gear or anything like that that the Germans had. We met some pretty heavy combat in the mountains for a time. It was an SS outfit, but we managed to fight our way through.”

 

 

 

 

If any soldier is honest he admits he fears engaging in hand-to-hand combat because he doesn’t know how he’ll perform in that life or death struggle. In the Vosges campaign Silber confronted the ultimate test in battle when he came face to face with a German.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” is how Silber begins relating the incident. “We went out on patrol at night trying to contact the enemy and pick up a couple prisoners for intelligence purposes. By that time I had become a second lieutenant, courtesy a battlefield commission. I didn’t really want to become too attractive a target for the Germans, so I pretended I was still an enlisted man in dress and in emblem, and I carried around an M-1 rifle instead of a carbine.

“What often happened was the Germans might send out a patrol at the same time just by coincidence and we would kind of startle each other at the same moment and ignore each other purposely. That happened a lot and we thought it was going to happen this time, but they opened fire on us.”

In the close quarters chaos of the fire fight, he said, “I jumped into a roadside ditch with my M-1 and it was knocked out of my hand by the guy I killed. Had to. I had a trench knife in my boot and I attacked him with that and fortunately I beat him, or he would have beaten me.” Only one man was coming out alive and Silber lived to tell the tale. He does so without boast or pleasure but a it-was-him-or-me soberness.

A desperate Germany was sending almost anyone it could find to the front, including boys. The SS troop Silber dispatched was an adult, therefore, he said, “I didn’t have that to worry about on my conscience.”

“After that most of the units we encountered were made up either of young conscripts, and I mean below the age of 18, or middle aged men, as almost a last gasp. I saw German soldiers who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 years old. I also saw men in their 40s and 50s.”

This last gasp “was a hopeful sign” Germany was through, but he added, “We didn’t feel very comfortable fighting against 14 year olds. I mean, if we had to do it, we did it because they were trying to kill us. We lived with it, that’s all.”

Finally breaking out of the mountains onto the Rhine Plain was a great relief. For the first time since the start of the campaign, he said, “we got to sleep in an intact house. We proceeded around Strausberg. We were in the U.S. 7th Army and integrated into our army corps was the French 1st Army and they were made up mostly of North Africans. Most of them were Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians, I guess. They had come across the Mediterranean with de Gaulle. We saw them from time to time. They had a reputation of being good fighters.

“We headed north paralleling the Rhine River and we were approaching the Maginot Line (the elaborate French fortification system Germany outflanked during its blitz into France). On December 14, 1944 we had orders to break through it. The Germans had artillery, some troops and some tanks zeroed in and ready to go.”

All hell then broke loose.

“We woke up one morning to the sound of artillery high above us, exploding in the trees,” recalled Silber. “We were on the side of a ravine through which a road had been cut and on that road was a tank destroyer outfit — using World War I leftover anti-tank guns. They were a platoon of African-Americans. The bravery those guys exhibited was unbelievable. When I think of it I become emotional because they were shot up to hell and kept fighting.”

 

 

 

 

His second close brush with death then occurred.

“The artillery action slowed down and we began to advance into the Maginot Line,” he said. “The Germans had some tanks positioned between fixed fortresses. We encountered off in the distance a tank — 400 or 500 yards away. It was very slowly approaching us. The tank destroyer outfit had been so decimated they were pretty much out of action, so we had bazookas. Our bazooka team in my platoon was knocked out. By that time I was the platoon leader. I picked up the bazooka, knelt and loaded it, fired once and missed. It was quite a distance still.

“The last thing I can remember is that tank lowering its beastly 88 millimeter cannon in my direction…I woke up the next day in an Army field hospital. Apparently the shell was a dud but its impact half buried me in my foxhole. Our platoon medic dug me out of the collapsed foxhole and got me out of the way. I was unconscious. Both my arms were broken and my left rib cage was pretty well beat up. I woke up December 16 and that was the day the Battle of the Bulge erupted about a hundred kilometers north of us.”

Silber spent the remainder of the war healing.

“The next day the field hospital was emptied out of patients and it moved north to take care of casualties from the Bulge,” he said. “I was shipped along with other patients by ambulance to the U.S. 23rd General Hospital at Vittel, France, a spa town. It had been a resort. It had a racetrack and a casino. We wound up in the grand hotel.

“Even though my arms were in casts by then I enjoyed being there, believe me.”

Ending up sidelined from the action, banged up but without any life threatening injury, reminded him of something he and his buddies often joked about to help pass the time.

“Especially when I was an enlisted man we used to sit and talk in our foxholes, usually at night when things were quiet, smoking a cigarette under a tarpaulin or something, about the ‘million dollar wound.’ We’d speculate on what it would take to get us back to the States without getting really hurt.

“Well, maybe I should be ashamed of this, but that was one of the things I thought of in the hospital — that I had kind of one of those (wounds). Except I was hurt a little more than I would have chosen.”

Back home, he continued mending at Rhodes General Hospital in Utica, New York. A restless Silber completed his college studies by correspondence and volunteered in the public relations office. He penned the script for a weekly radio show written, produced and acted by patients, mostly on war experiences, that the hospital sponsored. Silber shared in a George Foster Peabody Award for public service a show segment won. “It wasn’t my brilliant writing or anything,” he said, “but I was part of the process.”

He was still hospitalized when VJ Day sparked celebrations over the war’s end.

One of his PR tasks was delivering copy to the local Utica Daily Press, where he secured a job upon his discharge. “I took my swearing out ceremony as we called it at 10 o’clock in the morning and by two o’clock I was down there working for a salary, not much of a salary — $38 a week. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Utica. I actually was stationed in a bureau in Rome, New York 15 miles away.”

From there he returned to his old stomping grounds in the Big Apple, where he worked for the New York Sun. A plum early assignment put him in the company of Harry Truman, “the VIP who really impressed me most,” said Silber. “I rode his (1948) campaign train. I was pretty raw material then, a real cub reporter, but I got the assignment and I ran with it. I even got to kibbutz his (Truman’s) poker game.”

Silber recalls Truman as “very kind, although he’d pick on guys for fun,” adding, “He was just a pretty decent man but he had shall we say a frothy tongue.”

When the Sun folded in 1950 Silber got on with “a blue ribbon” PR firm, but as he once put it, “I just had the romance of daily journalism in my blood.” Thus he began searching for a newspaper job. His choice came down to a Kansas City paper and the Omaha World-Herald, and $5 more a week brought him here in 1955.

He started out on the rewrite desk.

The Herald had a team of reporters out covering the Charles Starkweather story but Silber was familiar with the mounting murders and resulting manhunt around the upper Midwest from rewriting field reports. Then, as things often happen in a newsroom, Silber found himself enlisted to cover a major development.

“When the Starkweather case broke, our chief photographer Larry Robinson, who was versed in aviation and friendly to some of the operators out at the air base, chartered a good airplane on standby. So when we got the word in the newsroom about Starkweather being captured in Douglas, Wyo., city editor Lou Gerdes pointed to me and said, ‘Go!,’ and I went with Robby and John Savage.”

“We got there ahead of anybody else outside the immediate area and because of that we were able to have a lot of informality that wouldn’t exist today. We got friendly with the sheriff, Earl Heflin, and his wife, the jail matron. We got some good stories.”

 

Charles Starkweather in custody

 

 

 

Minus a wire to transmit photos, Robinson flew back with the negatives, while Silber and Savage stayed behind to cultivate more stories.

That night, a keyed up Silber, unable to sleep, walked from the hotel to the courthouse where the captured fugitives were held.

“The sheriff was answering telephone calls from all over the world with his wife’s help, and he was dead tired, so I said, ‘Why don’t you get some sleep while I sit in for you?’ He took advantage of that, and I took advantage of it, too.”

The story was a sensation everywhere it headlined.

“There weren’t that many serial murders in those days for one thing,” said Silber, “and it seemed to have all the elements — a teen with his girlfriend going around shooting people, not at random but for one reason or another, and it just caught on. Besides that, we were feeding a lot of stuff to the Associated Press and United Press. I was a stringer for Reuters and they were getting plenty of it. I was also stringing for the New York Daily News and at that time it was the largest circulation newspaper in the country.

“It just captured the imagination of readers.”

 

 

Caril Ann Fugate

 

 

So Silber wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to further play the story when one presented itself. Having relieved the sheriff, Silber then convinced Heflin’s wife to let him interview Caril Ann Fugate when Mrs. Heflin went to check on her. He ended up doing interviews with Fugate and Starkweather, separately, while Savage snapped photos — getting exclusive stories and pictures in the process.

Regarding Fugate, Silber said, “I had mixed feelings about her at the time, and then over a period of several weeks when more and more reports were coming in about her I became convinced she was not innocent. She was goading him to shoot people.” He said Starkweather struck him as “the upper end of juvenile delinquency, because he was 17 when he was captured. He was inarticulate. He couldn’t give a straight answer.”

Silber’s most far-flung assignment took him to the South Pole in 1962 as part of the press pool on a military junket with dignitaries Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, radio-newsreel commentator Lowell Thomas and Notre Dame president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. “We staged out of Christchurch, New Zealand,” he said. “It’s a long ride down there in a prop plane.” En route, everyone geared up with layers of thermal clothing.

 

 

U.S. South Pole station

 

 

“We landed at (Amundsen-Scott) Pole Station — the actual landing strip they carved out of the ice about a mile or so from the pole. When we got there the temperature was 60 something below zero. They made heated track vehicles available, but Gen. Doolittle, Lowell Thomas and Fr. Hesburgh said no, They walked. So as a result we in the press pool had to walk, too (much to their curse-laden dismay).

“The actual stay on the ice as we called it was 2 1/2 weeks. We took day trips to scientific-research stations and historical places where early explorers had froze or starved to death.”

Flying to the pole station in a C-130 a tired Silber clambered atop crates lashed in the aisle and when he awoke a fellow member of the Fifth Estate said, “You know where you’ve been sleeping?” A clueless Silber shrugged, no. “On cases of dynamite,” his colleague gleefully informed him.

Among the most unforgettable characters Silber knew was bombastic Gen. Curtis LeMay, the first commander of the Strategic Air Command. “He was tough but he was a patriot through and through,” he said. “I admired him but it was tough to get along with him.” An enduring LeMay anecdote Silber attests is true found the general lighting a cigar near a refueling plane. When an aide mentioned the danger of the plane blowing up, LeMay blustered, “It wouldn’t dare to.”

 

 

Gen. Curtis LeMay

 

 

Silber and Sissy attended many a lavish black-tie officers’ party at Offutt.

There wasn’t much posh about reporting in Vietnam, where Silber covered the war as early as 1964. On a later visit there he ran into Omaha television reporter John Hlavacek, a former print foreign correspondent for whom Silber has high regard.

In 1970 Silber and other press accompanied Ross Perot on a chartered trip the billionaire organized ostensibly to deliver supplies to U.S airmen held as prisoners of war in North Vietnam. The hopskotch trip, which Henry Kissinger was behind, failed to deliver any supplies but did raise awareness of the POWs’ plight.

Upon reflection, Silber said his military reporting, which earned him numerous awards, “was satisfying — very much so. It was a high point.”

Back home, Silber claims credit for thinking of the Husker football books he and colleagues Jim Denney and Hollis Limprecht collaborated on, the second of which was a biography of Bob Devaney. Silber thought highly of Devaney.

“I loved the man. He was just a hell-raiser. A down-to-earth guy. A man’s-man.”

Over the years Silber wrote pieces for Readers Digest, Esquire and other national publications. He was a Reuters stringer for 20 years.

“I could never be satisfied with just working 8 hours a day. I had to be doing other things, too. I had a little office set up at home and I would do what I could.”

He means to resume his memoirs — for his grandkids — now that he’s cancer free for the first time in years. Long ago divorced from his first wife and the mother of his two daughters, Silber and Sissy have been partners 36 years now. Her warm, bigger-than-life personality complements his own hail-fellow-well-met charm.

Each retired comfortably from divergent careers. While he never became rich as a reporter he did well as a World-Herald stock holder. When Sissy’s father left behind his Katelman’s hardware supply store she and her mother took it over and ran it till 1981, when the Kanesville Highway went in.

Howard and Sissy met as a result of, what else?, a story Silber was working on. They’ve been inseparable since marrying in 1975.

Summing up his eventful life and career, Silber said, “There’s not too many things I’d change.”

From the Archives: Former Omaha Television Photojournalist Don Chapman’s Adventures in Imagemaking Keep Him on the Move

September 29, 2011 1 comment

Here’s another story from the dust covered archives, this time about Don Chapman, who was already a veteran commercial filmmaker when I did this Midlands Business Journal profile of him in 1990. He came out of the ranks of early television photojournalism to launch his own commercial production house and when I caught up with him he had already made the transition from film to video and analog to digital technology,  in what was still very much a transitional time in his industry, and how he talks about one versus the other is quite interesting given how ubiquitious the video-digital platform is today. He clearly saw it as the new standard for his field and wasn’t fighting this new format, though he did express some regret about losing the romance of working in film. He covered some big stories as a newsman and once made news himself when he was detained in Cuba during the height of the Cold War. Most of his career was much more prosaic than that, but he had his share of adventures and he established himself as a journeyman imagemaker for large corporations.

 

 

 

 

From the Archives: Former Omaha Television Photojournalist Don Chapman’s Adventures in Imagemaking Keep Him on the Move

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Midlands Business Journal

Have camera, will travel.

Don Chapman has lived by that intrepid code since the U.S. Navy made a photographer out of him during his 1953-56 tour of duty.

The owner and president of Chapman & Associates, an Omaha film, video, slide and multimedia production company, paid his professional dues as a WOW-TV photojournalist in the late ’50s. He followed news trails throughout the Midwest, learning to tell compelling stories through pictures. The reporter became a newsmaker when, as a freelancer, a case of bad timing led to his becoming a political prisoner of a hostile Latin American government.

Ah, adventure!

Since 1961 he’s applied his newshound instiincts, storytelling knack and adventuresome spirit to commercial photography and film production, which have taken him to Mexico, Spain and other parts of the world.

After a 20-year partnership with former WOW-TV colleague Robert Spittler, Champman formed his own production house in 1981. Chapman & Associates serves a national, mostly industrial client base. Video editing, optical and computer graphics design, slide processing and sound recording facilities are located at Chapman’s two-story location at 1912 California Street,. The site contains 10,000 spuare feet of office and studio space.

About 90 percent of the firm’s photography is shot on location, including some pretty far-flung places. Chapman handles a large share of field assignments himself.

“I still really enjoy going out and being busy in the field, no matter what it is,” Chapman said. “The most fun is doing the work, not everything else…I hate the drudgery of politics. One of the things about this business is that you start out with new challenges every day. Every job we do is a little bit different, and that’s probably what keeps us in the business.”

The photographer said crafting a well-told story via stills or moving pictures is what it’s all about. “It gives you a feeling you’re doing a good job. It can be anything from a freight train to a landscape – if the composition’s there and everything flows well, there’s a feeling of satisfaction and achievement.”

He said one of his favorite storytelling formats uses photography and music, minus any narration. In this way he recreated his 1976 white water trip through the Grand Canyon in a multi-screen show featuring 2,000 of his slides and music from Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. “I had all the right conditions — spectacular scenery, an action-packed subject, world class music scoring, and best of all, I didn’t have to get client approval. It was one of those things you do for yourself.”

Now in his 30th year as a film producer, the veteran photographer has traveled many varied roads in pursuit of images. In that period he’s seen video technology change the face of his industry, which like everything else in America is now computerized and online with our insatiable appetite for instant gratification.

Although he rues the lost romance of the old days, when he cut a dashing figure with his 35 millimeter Arriflex motion picture camera, he’s adapted to new realities. “We haven’t finished a project on film for a couple years. Everything is video now,” he said. “We’ve shot some projects in 16 millimeter but we always rank (transfer) the footage and finish it on videotape. It’s more client flexible.”

 

 

Serial killer Charles Starkweather in custody

 

 

Long before Nike made it fashionable, Chapman exemplified the “just do it” work ethic. He honed this work ethnic and storytelling ability while earning his color bars at WOW-TV, whose parent Meredith Publishing Corporation also owned WOW Radio. Because the stations shared a combined news operation, reporters like Chapman filed stories for both. Since TV was still in its infancy Chapman shot black and white still photos and motion picture film for later broadcast. The days of videotape and live feeds were far removed yet.

“We did our own motion picture processing and used the original 16 millimeter footage on the air,” he explained. “Many times we left stills in the hypo just long enough to let them fix, then pasted them against a board in front of a camera while they were still wet – just making the (live) news broadcast.

“It seems primitive today, but it was exciitng then because of the immediacy. You learned to react and make a decision, right or wrong. You didn’t have the luxury of time.”

 

 

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Iowa

 

 

Chapman and a colleague from those days, Bill Ramsey, often lugged around a 16 millimeter Bell & Howell movie camera, a Speed Graphic still photo camera and an audio tape machine to log TV and radio reports. “You were feeding a lot of different news purposes,” said Ramsey, president of Bill Ramsey & Associates Inc., an Omaha public relations firm. “Don was a good newsman.”

Together, they covered the Charles Starkweather murder spree and trial, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev‘s visit to an Iowa farmhoouse during his celebrated U.S. tour and John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. At a Kennedy campaign stop Chapman was indelibly linked with the future president when a French photographer snapped a picture of the candidate against a backdrop of paparazzi. Cropped for use on a campaign poster, the picture prominently featured Chapman poised with his camera behind the famous JFK profile. The picture’s been published countless times.

 

 

JFK campaign stop

 

 

The unexpected is the companion of any photographer. It took a dangerous turn for Chapman in 1959 when, after a photo tour of Europe, he was returning home on a Liberian freighter. During an unscheduled stop at Havana, Cuba to unload cargo, an explosion rocked the ship. Soldiers rounded up suspected saboteurs. Chapman was arrested.

Communist Cuba, still aflame with revolutionary fervor, was testing its new found status in the Cold War in terms of how far it could push the United States and its allies.

He had the double misfortune of being the only American aboard and carrying expensive camera equipment, which was confiscated. “Here I was in the middle of a great story, and no camera,” he said. “I was held incommunicado and interrogated many times. One of his interregators was Cuban dictator Fidel Castro himself, who not long before had led his revolutionary guerrilla forces in deposing the U.S.-backed Batista regime.

 

 

A Cuban prison

 

 

Chapman watched helplessly during two trials, unable to communicate with his Spanish-speaking “defense attorney.” I stopped worrying about losing all my camera equipment. It looked like I might lose a lot more. Fortunately, American government officials were able to intercede and convince the Cubans that I was at best an itinerant photojournalist traveling overseas. In this case I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

While that close scrape stands out, physical danger is a professional hazard he’s encountered his share of times. On an aerial shoot in the mountains near Santa Barbara, Calif., Chapman was strapped in a helicopter mount. As the chopper skirted over the 5,000 to 6,000 foot peaks, he filmed panoramic scenes from his exposed perch. It was a position he’d been in many times before.

“On one sharp maneuver the pilot stood the helicopter on end and the mount slipped and fell into space about four inches. I was just hanging there by my straps, looking straight down at the ground. While the mount only slipped a few inches, it was enough to cause concern,” he recalled, laughing at his own understatement. “The mount was safety-bracketed in and the safety bracket caught, so there was not problem. But from my standpoint I didn’t want to do any more filming that day.”

Some Champman clients have operations in remote places, where the terrain is less than hospitable. An example is Union Pacific Railroad, which hired Chapman to photograph a 10-minute film, The Rivers of Steel, for exhibition at the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair, The job took Chapman and cinematographer Roger Mazur all over the U.S., including the mountains above Salt Lake City, Utah, where they went in search of snow scenes.

 

 

Shooting from a helicopter mount

 

 

They found snow all right. Plenty of it. But the two men weren’t outfitted to negotiate on foot the deep snow fields they encountered. “We headed out to this area that was nothing but snow,” Chapman recounted. “Roger carried a 35 millimeter motion picture camera, which is not light, plus tripods. All of a sudden Roger finds himself in snow up to here,” he said, indicating his chest. Champman followed suit. “Every time we took a step we went down in to our armpits because of all the weight.” After wriggling free of the snow trap they “ended up going back to Salt Lake to buy snowshoes.”

According to Chapman, photographers are bound to “run across situations like that. That’s just part of the job. We’ve had to rent backpacks to get equipment into the back country.”

Not all jobs are rugged or dramatic. In fact, much exterior location work involves setting up equipment, followed by long periods of inactitivty waiting for the precise light that only Mother Nature can provide. “I’ve sat for hours in some pretty bad environments waiting for the right moement,” Chapman said.

Having waited out more than his share of sunrises and sunsets on motion picture shoots, Champman said clients could afford  a wait-and-see approach in the past.

“You’d go out and scout a day ahead of time to see where the sun would rise or set. Other times you had to guess where the sun was going to be. Sometimes it was exactly where you wanted it…that has to be instinct. Sometimes, though, the sun was a half-mile off – it didn’t come down between the two mountains the way your scripted it, it came down behind one of the peaks. That’s bad luck.”

When it comes to motion picture work today Chapman said most clients choose video because it is faster and less costly than film, key attributes in a leaner, faster-paced business age. He said video’s smaller budgets and shorter deadlines have diminished the maverick image and freedom motion picture photographers embodied. The romance of the old days is gone. “It’s not there like it was because everything is a rush today. There’s no playing around because there’s no budget to play around with. But I don’t think that’s anything unique to my business. The budget’s the bottom line of everything.”

He believes a major factor why video is the medium of choice today is the “instantaneous review” it permits. “There are a certain number of people who want to see results now. Managers don’t have the time to finish the project on film because it can take up to eight weeks. We can turn around a video project in less than a week in some cases.”

Chapman said the very fact that raw video footage can be viewed on a monitor in the field or back at the studio the same day has robbed photographers of the independence and mystique they enjoyed in the film era, when exposed celluloid had to be shipped off to be processed. Photographers were vagabond kings with highly specialized skills: few people could operate a 16 or 35 millimeter motion picture camera. The filmmaking process was regarded as equal parts craft, intuition and pluck and its practicioners were alchemists with film and camera.

Adding to their mystique was a lonewolf persona. As Chapman explains, “One man could go out and I still do on a motion picture shoot. You never worried about batteries or monitors. A lot of times you were so confident you didn’t even look at your footage for weeks. The clients trusted us. They never saw the results until they looked at the work print two weeks later. You just knew it was going to be. You knew you had something in the can. You were just very sure of yourself.”

Roger Mazur agrees. “We also had a thing called reliability. You had a camera that 99 percent of the time was going to work. In video you have a camera, a recorder and all these electronic components that can just go out. I cannot leave a location now without checking the tape because there could be a drop-out or glitch,” he explained.

Yesterday’s trust has been replaced by accountability. “Nowadays,” Chapman said, “clients look at everything immediately.” With VCRs and camcorders as commonplace as microwave ovens, he said, everyone believes they’re an expert.

“Today, because video technology is so accessible,” Chapman said, “anybody can go out and take a video picture. I’m not saying that’s the best video picture, though. A client who’s not knowledgable as to what’s good and what’s bad may buy a video service and not be satisfied with it. That may sour him on video for a while. Ten years ago there were only a certain number of quality motion picture producers around the country. Motion picture production seemed to take more technology and expertise compared with today’s video explosion, when everybody seems to have a video camera.”

 

 

A state-of-the-art audio-video production suite

 

 

Despite his nostalgia for the good old days, Chapman acknowledges video’s advantages. For example, he said video cameras are self-contained units that record sound while most film cameras are silent. “With a film camera you have take a separate piece of equipment and a sound crew. And video lighting’s much more portable than it ever was with film. You don’t need the big grip trucks and crews you did before.”

He added that “you can’t do the nice quality opticals and visual effects in motion pictures without spending thousands of dollars. But in video you can do it instantaneously. You can program a four-sided cube that spins. You can’t do that on film easily unless you’re producing Star Wars, but most people don’t have the budgets Hollywood productions do.”

About a year ago Chapman & Associates had a video post-production facility installed on site, including a DVE or digital video effects system that can create computer generated graphics. The editing facility capped a remodeling and expansion project by the firm.

Chapman describes the facility as a “boutique edit suite that has all the bells and whistles we can use in industrial production.” Before adding its own editing capabilities the firm used facilities at Editech, a local postproduction house.

“We put the post room in to do a lot of our own work. Part of the advantage of having your own post facility is that you can experiment a little bit and do a lot more for your client, rather than try and learn on somebody else’s time and money. It may cost $200 an hour to hire another post room. Then I can’t experiment at all because I’m working under a client’s budget.”

He said a typical post room is a $200,000 investment but larger facilities can cost “a lot more.” He continued, “The cost of doing business today is a lot more expensive than in the past. The biggest cost today is the overhead of equipment. A video camera will cost from $10,000 to $40,000 and because it’s very electronic there’s more up-keep. It’s a lot more expensive to send a crew out today.”

While video production is more economical than film, he said, “no one realizes what the true cost of a video is until they do it. Cleints don’t realize the equipment and post-production it takes.” He estimates video “can run from $10,000 to $60,000 for a 10-minute to 40-minute show, whereas on film you can run up to $100,000 without even trying.”

In an environment where costs are high, clients are penny-pinching and film/video competitors are numerous, Chapman said it’s vital for a production house to niche itself in the market. “But the biggest single problem we have is educating the consumers of our products of differences in quality. We have a broadcast quality component video system that takes reds, greens and blues and separates them. With the exception of one other house in town no one does that. This is the highest end of half-inch tape editing you can do. Everybody shoots on half-inch, but they edit on one-inch and they lose the component factor of quality. We feel we have to educate people to why our system is superior.”

Chapman uses digital Betacam tape and equipment. “Digital technology has taken over every large market area. On digital tape there’s no degradation of quality. You can run a tape thousands of times and it’s still first generation,” he said.

He said his company does a large amount of work for agricultural clients but does not concentrate in that area as it once did. Its clients today are a diverse group, including hospitals, community service organizations and trade associations. The majority are corporate and industrial giants such as BASF, Dow Chemical, Con Agra, Union Pacific Railroad and Mutual of Omaha. Although some of Chapman’s work airs on broadcast television, most is seen by a closed-loop audience of industria/corporatel clients and their customers and employees.

“Multi-image slide shows for national sales meetings are probably the most challenging jobs because you can’t make a mistake. It’s a one-time only performance and everything has to flow. It’s live,” he said.

Chapman’s produced such shows using up to 40 projectors at once. He added that the trend is moving away from multi-image slide shows to video because of the cost factor.

“As far as the most gratifying project we’ve done, it had to be Rivers of Steel because people clapped,” he said, referring to the Union Pacific film shown at the ’84 World’s Fair. He believes that film has probably had the largest viewing audience of anything he’s produced.

Chapman said the video boom that has flattened out the U.S. motion picture industry is a worldwide phenomenon. He keeps abreast of international trends through his participation in I.Q., the International Quorum of Film Producers.

“At our 1988 convention in Canada I was telling a group from South America to be careful because all of a sudden video is going to come in and overtake you. They acknowledged that, but they didn’t think it was going to happen very soon. Within the year the South Americans were complaining about how they had to get rid of all their motion picture gear because Brazil’s video industry had taken over the South American market. That’s going to be true in any Third World nation.”

Hungary was the setting for last year’s I.Q. meeting, giving Chapman a glimpse of Eastern Bloc technology. He said the state prodcution facilities he visited were out-of-date by Western standards.

“In Eastern Bloc countries such as Hungary video facilities are, from our standpoint, very quaint.”

He said the edit suite he visited was extremely hot because such basic enviornmental controls as ventilation and air conditioning were absent. Hungarian officials told him funding shortages are an endemic problem, stalling the installation and updgrading of needed equipment. Officials also acknowledged the impact video is having in Europe.

I.Q. provides a network of information and resources for member producers who share their stock of images with peers. If Chapman receives a request for agricultural or farm scenes he can access his computerized files of more than 50,000 slides and miles of videotape to find images that match the request. He can fax or mail materials as needed. Likewise, he said foreign producers provide him materials and help cut through the red tape of shooting abroad.

Chapman is in the midst of cataloging the vast stores of motion picture film he has accumulated over 30 years, which he hopes to market. “I have a ton of film that is historically some fabulous stuff, and nothing’s ever been done with it.” For instance, he said he shot much footage for Storz Brewery and other landmark businesses from Omaha’s past. “The film is extremely valuable for documentary purposes. It’s got a lot of potential. We’re getting a lot of requests from film stock libraries for any scenes of cities from a certain period.”

He said some of the footage has been transfered to videotape but the vast majority of it remains on film.

From the Archives: Cowboy-turned Scholar Discovers Kinship with 19th Century Expedition Explorer

September 17, 2011 3 comments

 

 

NOTE: My apologies to those who read this post when I first put it up, as it was filled with typos. I failed to proof the copy and it made for a very rough read. It won’t happen again.

With this post I am starting a periodic series featuring favorite stories of mine from deep in my archives. The story below is from 1990 and profiles a charming man, Paul Schach, who has since passed. I got to know Schach just a bit when I worked as public relations director at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. My friend, then Joslyn western history curator Joseph Porter introduced me to Schach, who was engrossed in a multi-year translation project of a vast set of journals or diaries that German explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied kept of a historic expedition he made of North America. The 1832-34 expedition also had a fine artist along, Karl Bodmer, who made sketches and watercolor paintings of the vanishing West. The Maximilain diary and the Bodmer artworks are in the Joslyn’s permanent collections and I was struck both by how uniquely suited Schach was for the project and by how deeply connected he felt to Maximilian.

Also on this blog is a story I did a few years later about an artist who drew inspiration from the life and work of Karl Bodmer. That piece is titled, “Naturalist-Artist John Lokke – In Pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and in the Footsteps of Karl Bodmer.”


From the Archives: Cowboy-turned Scholar Discovers Kinship with 19th Century Expedition Explorer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Orignally published in Omaha Metro Update (now Metro Magazine)

In his 52 years as a language scholar retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Paul Schach has seldom strayed far from his German heritage and rough-and-tumble roots. It’s only fitting that Schach, who loves a good yarn, has lived a storybook life – from cowboying along the Arkansas River to doing top-secret intelligence work during World War II to forging a distinguished academic career.

Until his 1986 returement Schach held the Charles J. Mach professorship of Germanic languages at UNL, where he taught 35 years. The noted philogist has traveled widely to record and study ethnic languages and literary traditions native to Northern Europe. He’s published his work in scores of articles and eight books.

Schach’s work has taken hiim to Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Germany. A companion on some of his overseas trips was his late wife, Ruth, who was also a colleague. She typed and proofed all his work during their 48-year marriage. In 1956-57 the couple and their three daughters lived in Germany, where the children attended public school while Schach taught and worked on a book.

“Ruth typed the manuscript of the first book I ever published, during the winter of 1956 in Germany,” Schach said. “That was a cold winter and buildings were only heated two hours out of 24 because of fuel shortages. I would come back home at noon for lunch and she’d be at a little red Remington portable typewriter.

“She had a sweater, overcoat, woolen cap and scarf on. She’d type for awhile, stop, blow on her hands, put on gloves, blow on her hands a bit and then type a few more sentences. And that’s how that first book came to be typed. I’m just beginning to realize now she did about half my work for me. I got the credit for it – she did the work.”

Today, the 74-year-old is still busy writing and researching, only now his daughter Joan is his proofreader. Schach hopes to finish three books yet. But one project in particular has occupied much of his attention the past three years. It’s the translation of the diary kept by German explorer-naturalist-ethnologist, Maximilian Furst zu Wied of his 1832-34 expedition to North America with Swiss artist Karl Bodmer.

Maximilian’s chronicles, along with Bodmer’s paintings and sketches, document their historic journey along the Missouri River. The diary, artwork and related articles are housed at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Center for Western Studies, where Schach commutes from his Lincoln, Neb. home to work with the original manuscript. Scholars regard the collection as an unparalleled record of the early American West.

 

 

Prince Maximilian

 

 

Translating the epic, 4,000 -page diary is painstaking work which Schach is uniquely qualified to do. He grew up speaking and reading a dialect very similar to Maximilian’s – one few are fluent in today. As a boy Schach reveled in stories told in German by his extended immigrant family.

Schach’s work is made more difficult by Maximilian’s tiny script, which can be read only with the aid of a magnifying glass. The diary will be published in four volumes by Joslyn and the University of Nebraska Press. Schach has only a final reading to do before volume one is published within a year. Work on volume two is nearing completion and by July Schach said the translation project should reach its halfway point.

His careful reading and meticulous translation of Maximilian’s observations have put him on intimate terms with the man, whom he feels a close kinship with by virtue of their shared dialect, heritage and interests. Strengthening the bond is the fact Maximilian spent a summer in Pennsylvania, where Schach was born and raised.

“I’m seeing parts of that state much more clearly now through his descriptions. So many of the things he describes are things I have experiencd in my life,” said Schach.

Just as Maximilian spemnt a lifetime as both a rugged outdoorsman and rigorous scholar, so too has Schach. During his long career Schach has remaimed true to bedrock values learned as a boy gorwing up “mainly in mining camps and cow towns” during the Great Depression.

Despite harships, he enjoyed an arcadian youth in the fertile back country of eastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal mining region, where he developed a lifelong love for the great outdoors.

“Until I was about 20 I lived outdoors whenever I could – hunting, fishing and trapping. My father was a coal miner. Some days he’d strike it rich, and then for weeks he wouldn’t have any money at all. We spent quite a bit of our free time fishing and hunting for food. Yes, times were hard, but people in those times were hard, always shared things. Everybody helped everybody else. I was always being farmed out to work on different farms when someone got hurt or sick.”

Schach learned a healthy respect for nature and the land from his maternal grandfather, nicknamed the “Old Black Hessian” for both his dark features and horse-trading skills.

“When people came and wanted to buy soome wood on his farm, he refused to sell. They said, ‘We’ll pay you more money for those trees than you’ll get for the rest of your farm.’ ‘It belongs to the farm,’ he replied. ‘Well, the farm belongs to you, doesn’t it?’ He wasn’t quite sure,” Schach said, “because it would go to his son or daughter. It was his farm, but it was there for people to use and the idea was to make it a better farm then when he got it from his father.”

Schach laments, “There’s not so much of that (philosophy) “left anymore – people are mining the soil and destorying the forests.”

 

 

A Karl Bodmer watercolor from the expedition

 

 

He said Maximilian espoused the same Old World wisdom and was “shocked, even at that time, at the way Americans were destrorying their forests and their soil. In Europe, if you cut down a tree you have to plant two to replace that one.”

According to Schach, Maximilian’s enlightened environmental concerns were typical of a man who was ahead of his time. “There were so many ways in which he was so very modern, such as the idea of conserving the soil and forests. There’s so much to learn from a man like this.”

Far from a rural idyll, however, life for the Schachs was full of severe trials, just as Maximilan weathered blizzards, epidemics and other miseries on his trek.

Then there were the man-made problems the Schachs and their neighbors confronted.

“There was a lot of trouble in the coal mines,” Schach said. “The owners would shut down the mines so the miners wouldn’t ask for more wages. You couldn’t even buy coal in the coal regions – you had to go out to slag dumps at night, where we were shot at frequently. My father wanted to get out…there was just no future there because he didn’t own any land.”

The family pulled up stakes and headed west. They settled in Colorado, where Schach’s father hoped to dig for gold but was disillusioned to find “the gold mines had petered out just as coal had in Pennsylvania.” He opted for running a grocery store instead.

Schach helped support the family of eight by working as a hired hand on a cattle ranch along the Arkansas River, riding horseback in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. The full-fledged cowboy broke wild horses, drove cattle and lived a Western life most young men only dreamed about.

“I enjoyed working on the farm and especially on that ranch. Coming from the East to the West, I suppose, made it more romantic.

“We used to move the cattle up in the spring to a higher pasture in the mountains and then, in the fall, bring them down. When you brought them down they were just as wild as buffalo. you could handle them on horseback, but on foot they’d either run away from you or they’d come right at you,  in which case you ran for the closest fence,” he recalled, laughing heartily.

“I liked working with horses, but I guess I was never too good at it because I’ve been banged up pretty badly several times.”

The last time he tried taming a horse was just 10 years ago. The result: three broken ribs. Years later he still feels the effects and carries the scars of his horse spills. He joked that it’s open to question whether he broke horses or they broke him. “But I still love them,” he said.

Schach passed on what little horse sense had to two of his daughters, who are “very good with horses.” He sometimes goes riding with them at a local stable. But to his daughters’ amusement a bronco buster’s old habits die hard. He’s been bucked, bitten and kicked enough times that he mounts any horse, even a tame one, as warily as if it were a time bomb.

“I set up close to the shoulder, facing the back, so he can’t get me with his foreleg. I pull his head away from me so he can’t bite me. And I watch his hind leg and am conscious to get my left foot in the stirrup and to swing into the saddle. Then I wait to see what’s going to happen. Of course, with these horses around here, nothing happens. He just sits there,” said Schach, who delights in telling the story.

 

 

A Karl Bodmer watercolor from the expedition

 

 

He exchanged a saddle for a school desk in the mid-’30s, when he enrolled at Albright College in Reading, Pa. Although he was a roughrider, Schach always found time for books and writing. He had as his models two older sisters who taught school.

“I always read a lot. I read German and English from the time I was 5. I used to keep notebooks with lists of all the words I could find in German and English of colors, for example. Or synonyms of all kinds.”

He was immersed in his people’s rich reservoir of culture and language. “The Old Black Hessian was a marvelous storyteller. I remember one story had two different endings. When I was about 10 I got up enough courage to ask him which of the two stories was the true one. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Paulos, the one is as true as the other,’ which was a marvelous answer.”

Schach, who’s recorded German immigrant dialects from Canada to Texas, has collected Russian-German folktales handed down through generations. He cherishes both the grassroots education he got at home and his formal training in high school. He feels today’s students are shortchanged.

“If you intended to go to college you had to have a thorough knowledge of French, German and Latin. You took science and math courses straight through, including trigonmetry and geometry. I would say graduates of my high school in 1935 or so had a much more solid education than the average college graduate today.

“We’ve lost touch. I read European newspapers all the time…people all over the world are talking about what’s happened to the United States, how we’ve fallen behind in science and can’t make anything that meet their standards. The neglect of languages has been a terrible handicap to our country and we have suffered greatly from it, too.”

He believes language studies are vital “not only for what they tell us about language” but for what they reveal about culture, history and ourselves. As an ethnologist, Maximilian studied the cultures and languages of Native Americans from a humanist perspective rare for expolorers of the period. His progressive learnings helped him empathize with the Indians while his scientific training lent his descriptions great objectivity. He approached the study of Indians not as something strange, not as the savages we’re used to reading about in cowboy and Indian stories, but as human beings. He didn’t idealize them. He didn’t denigrate them. They were people – good, bad, indifferent – and he just portrayed them as they were,” Schach explained, adding that Maximilian’s accounts are treasured for their wealth of detail and accuracy.

 

 

Statue of Karl Bodmer and Prince Maximilian at the Castle of Neuweid in Germany

 

 

Maximilian, whom Schach described as “a very well-educated man,” had both a priviliged and liberal upbringing. A nobleman by birth, Maximilian’s inherited title was Prince of Wied. His grandfather had established the city of Newied, on the banks of the Rhine, as a refuge for victims of religious persecution. The family castle was located there.

“Early on, Maximilian was in contact with peoples of all nationalities, religions and so on,” said Schach. “I think this was a big help to him when he studied the Indians.”

Schach’s own educational pursuits have been diverse. After graduatiing from Albright in 1938 he began work on his master’s degree at the University of Pennyslvania. Before finishing his thesis, World War II erupted and Schach soon found himself putting his language skills to use in the U.S. Navy. He was the only U.S.-born member of a translation project team assigned the top-secret duty of translatiing captured documents on Germany’s jet propulsion and rocketry programs.

“As soon as they developed something, we knew about it,” said Schach. “The material was easy to read and understand, but we had no (compatible) terminology in English. We hadn’t done anything  in those areas yet. We literally had no words to translate into English. That was a strange and a frightening situation.”

It was all the more frightening, he said, because “we knew the V-2 was designed for an atomic warhead. We also knew there were German engineers who could construct an atomic bomb.”

The stateside team based in Philadelphia did hands-on work as well – once reconstructing a Messerschmitt 262 from parts of three of the German jet planes that had crashed. It flew, too. “I guess that the first jet plane to every fly on this country,” he said.

After the war Schach taught at Penn, where he also earned a doctorate. He taught several years at Albright and at North Central Collge in Chicago. He joined the UNL staff in 1951, lured by the opportunity to study the area’s many varieties of German, Czech and Scandinavian dialects. Another factor was Lincoln’s close proximity to Colorado, where the Schachs often vacationed summers, roughing it in the outback.

“We never had much money. The salaries were miserable then. One summer we had $75 – I took the tent, a gun and my fishing pole and we all headed west in the car.” En route to Colorado their meager funds were cut by a third when a flat tire needed replacing. To conserve money that summer the family ate whatever Schach hooked or shot. “We ended up eating mostly fish that summer. At one point the children just sort of sat and looked down their noses at the fish, and Ruth said, ‘You better go to town and buy some hamburgers.'”

Until recently Schach still hunted regulalry, favoring the Nebraska Sand Hills for ducks and the Pine Ridge area for deer. He ventured as far north as Ontario, Canada for bigger game, including a bear he bagged with one shot.

Translating Maximilian’s diary leaves precious little time for the outdoors these days. “I’ve become perhaps too much interested in the man. This is one of only several major projects I’ve been working on. But it’s like reading a good book – you read it four times and you see things you didn’t see the first time. Maximilian was a very remarkable person.

Some would say Schach is no slouch himself.

Buffalo Bill’s Coming Out Party Courtesy Author-Balladeer Bobby Bridger

September 6, 2011 2 comments

Bobby Bridger has been performing his epic ballads about the American West for decades now, but it’s only in the last few years he’s cemented his status as a serious historian and interpreter of that subject matter with his book, Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West. His fresh take on the controversial William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, and the real life adventures and PR machinations that went into making him and his Wild West show worldwide sensations makes clear that more than a century before the Internet Cody imprinted his legend into the collective consciousness and we’re still impacted by it it today in popular culture depictions of the West.

His other books include  A Ballad of the West, Bridger, and his latest, Where the Tall Grass Grows, Becoming Indigenous and the Mythological Legacy of the American West.

 

 

 

 

Buffalo Bill’s Coming Out Party Courtesy Author-Balladeer Bobby Bridger  

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Bullwhacker, pony express rider, cavalry scout, buffalo hunter. Actor, impresario, hotelier, town-builder. Dreamer, schemer, dodger, master of ballyhoo. Devoted son, doting brother, grieving father, absent husband. These were the many faces of William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, the man behind the legendary Wild West Show. An expert at reinventing himself, he straddled the frontier and the stage, using his real-life adventures as the basis for his theatrics.

Early on, Cody developed an acute sense of the gallant visage he struck — with flowing, shoulder-length hair sweeping out from under his wide-brimmed hat and fine physique pressed into his buckskin and tan regalia – and spent the rest of his life polishing that image. A showman at heart, he brandished his trick riding and crack shooting long before performing in arenas or under tents, often pitting his talents against others in wagered contests. By the time he launched his Wild West in Nebraska in 1883, he was already famous as Buffalo Bill owing to purple-prose dime novels and stilted melodramas extolling his bravery as a warrior, his expertise as a horseman and his skill with a rifle. Realizing the potential of Buffalo Bill as a brand name, he systematically exploited his image in the nascent media-show business realm.

A man both of his times and ahead of his times, Buffalo Bill is the mercurial subject of a new book —  Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West, published last fall by the University of Texas Press – by singer, composer and playwright Bobby Bridger. A Cody aficionado, Bridger splits his time between Houston, TX and Cody, Wyo, the town founded by William F. himself and the home of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, where Bridger is poet-balladeer in residence.

For 40 years now Bridger has steeped himself in Western lore, carving a niche as a folkloric interpreter of the mountain men, settlers, Plains Indians and Westerners whose lives he chronicles in expressive song and verse. Based on years of research, Bridger’s three-part epic A Ballad of the West is an ambitious and visionary consideration of American frontier history and myth. Bridger has recorded Ballad of the West on CD and performs its sections – Seekers of theFleeceLakota and Pahaska -in one-man shows. Pahaska, the Lakota name – meaning Long Hair – given Cody by the Sioux, is an ode to Buffalo Bill that is equal parts concert, drama and poetry recitation.

Bridger, outfitted in buckskins and beads, a Martin guitar slung over one shoulder, and salty hair flowing out from under his Stetson, will perform Pahaska, unplugged, in a 7 p.m. show on February 23 at the Omaha Healing Arts Center, 1216 Howard Street, as part of a promotional tour for his book.

That Bridger has made Cody such a major focus of his work is no surprise given how  Buffalo Bill represented the virtues of the Plainsman in his own time and still symbolizes the Westerner of our collective imagination today. Generous to a fault, a gullible speculator and a glad-handed, two-fisted, hail fellow-well met imbiber, Cody earned millions from the Wild West he created and headlined in but died in debt and despair after years of failed business enterprises and declining health. His only son died young. His acrimonious marriage to a woman he rarely saw ended in divorce. In a life full of improbable feats and reversals of fortune, he became both legend and myth in his own time, thanks largely to his own image-making machinery.

 

 

Bobby Bridger

 

 

An example of just how complex a man he was and of how controversial he remains is his relationship with Indians. Growing up fast on the Iowa and Kansas prairie – he saw his father killed at 11 and his mother die before he was 17 – he was a childhood playmate of Indians only to become their sworn blood enemy as a young adult in the service of his country.

“Much like in the Civil War (when Cody scouted for the Seventh Kansas Cavalry), Cody found himself in the Indian Wars fighting (as a scout) against men he had known since boyhood. Men who were his dear friends and often his blood brothers,” Bridger said.

With the Indian uprisings quelled, Cody befriended Indians, then being displaced on reservations, by employing them in his Wild West, where he portrayed them as fierce, wild natives now tamed.

The apparent hypocrisy of Cody’s treatment of Indians, at once benevolent and stereotypical, can be explained, Bridger said, not only by Cody’s commercial instincts but by his sincere desire to heal a divided America. Cody and the Indians shared a warrior’s code he said, regarding each other as brothers under the skin. In programs and promotions for the Wild West, Cody went to great lengths in describing how “former enemies, now friends” had “buried the hatchet” and co-existed harmoniously as a single troupe.

In the Wild West, Bridger said, Cody wasn’t so much “exploiting” as “reconciling Indians” to their rightful place as Native Americans and co-creators of the Wild West. He said Cody, whose advocacy for Indians was by all accounts enlightened, saw himself in the role of protector and preserver of their culture otherwise being “dismantled” back on the reservation. Indeed, Cody enlisted into the Wild West many of the religious, political, social and military elders of the Lakota and Oglala Sioux, including Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, who were seen by U.S. government officials and Christian crusaders as mere troublemakers but treated by Cody as wise and dignified leaders of tribal nations.

Part rodeo, history lesson and carnival, Cody’s Wild West was inspired by a failed Western exposition mounted by renowned painter George Catlin and by the major circuses of the era. Besides being a rollicking, rip-snorting good time that attracted hordes of paying customers, the Wild West was conceived by Cody, Bridger said, as a kind of living history exposition meant to immortalize the most popular or colorful facets of the Old West even as they were fading into history.

For Cody, it was not a show.

“He was insulted when someone called it a show,” Bridger said. “He considered himself a meticulous historical reenactor. What Cody was doing was essentially bringing dripping wet from the battlefield the participants and then restaging it in an arena before thousands of people. And what he was doing in that role, as my poem Winter on the Boards, Summer in the Saddle says, was literally presenting living mythology and parading it before people because he knew it was vanishing.

“And I think that motivation came from the fact that he saw with the explosion and astonishing success of the dime novels that people came to view him as the person responsible for destroying the Native cultures and buffalo herds, and I think he could not bear to be remembered that way and that had a great deal to do with the creation of the Wild West.”

 

 

 

 

By the end, Cody’s Wild West, which went through many incarnations, was more sideshow spectacular than exhibition, even touring its last few years with circuses, and a weary, besotted Cody was more caricature than hero. But that was long after the Wild West’s heyday, when the widely touring extravaganza played before monarchs, heads of state and countless throngs of commoners, young and old alike, who thrilled to breathtaking demonstrations of horsemanship and marksmanship most had only read or dreamt about.

At its peak the Wild West, which played 30 years, was an enormous production numbering 600 cast and crew members, hundreds of horses and dozens of buffalo. Among the featured attractions were live, full-scale reenactments of: an attack on the Deadwood Stage; a bison hunt; a train robbery; famous battles; and a raid on a burning cabin. Special features were added on certain tours, such as a restaging of Custer’s Last Stand. Other staples included trick riding and shooting displays.

Much of Bridger’s book and ballad examine the amazing journey that Cody took in transforming himself from dashing Plainsman to consummate Performer. As Bridger said, “You have to understand his life from another point of view to understand this” compulsion he had to perform.

“Every major transition in his early life had to do with horses, whether he was learning fancy riding as a boy or serving as a Pony Express Rider or breaking ground as a scout. He literally rode horses onto the public stage. And when he entered the theater with its proscenium stage, where he couldn’t have a horse, he promptly went to the arena. He had to show people what a good rider he was. He was a show-off. He loved it. He absolutely loved it.”

In a life intersecting virtually every American epoch of the 19th century – from the great trek made by settlers to the tragic Plains Indian Wars to the laying of the transcontinental railroad to the Civil War to the near extermination of buffalo and Native Americans to the gentrification of the West – Cody was an active participant in both the building of an empire and the vanishing of a frontier.

In his book Bridger suggests Cody shared a destiny with the Indians, whose way of life was lost as America emerged from the wilderness, but who found a friend in Cody and a refuge in his Wild West. When considering how Cody was present at the convergence of so many transforming events, one wonders if a higher power might not have been at work. “

 

 

 

 

He was there, as a boy, at the very confluence of one of the largest migrations the world has ever known,” said Bridger, referring to the young Cody’s interaction with pioneers on the Plains. “He was perched right on the fence between, if you will, the frontier or the unknown and what was then known as civilization or Western European culture. And so he spent his entire life in between those great forces, right at the edge of it, and basically surfed it right to the pinnacle.”

Cody was also influenced by the trailblazers he crossed paths with.

“Sitting at the feet of Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and Wild Bill Hickcock, Cody learned first-hand about flamboyant costumes and about exaggerations based on truth,” Bridger said. “All those things became his personality. He just absorbed all of that. So, what you had in him was a repository of everything from the fur trade forward.”

Perhaps more than any other figure, Cody embodied the quintessential Man of the West. By his early 20s he’d participated in every conceivable aspect of frontier life  – from trapping and hunting to prospecting for gold to escorting bullwhacker and wagon trains to being a Pony Express Rider to driving a stage to fighting Indians. He was the real thing. The genuine article. A bona fide Knight of the Plains. If he’d stopped there, his place in history would have been secure. But, seeing an opportunity to make a dollar from his derring-do, Cody embarked on a path that blurred the lines between reality and fiction.

His destiny was cast in July of 1876 when, mere weeks after Custer and his Seventh Cavalry met disaster at Little Big Horn, he led a squad of soldiers and scouts in a retaliatory charge on a band of Cheyenne. When, in a close-quarters skirmish he killed Yellow Hand and proclaimed he’d taken “the first scalp for Custer,” a rallying cry was born for a nation galvanized by the high drama on the Plains. Cody parlayed that fame via dime novels and dramatic plays embroidering his exploits and, later, via Wild West shows recreating and further embellishing his by then already brocaded deeds.

Along the way, Cody imprinted on the world the very conventions of the West dramatists have used ever since to portray it. In the process, he elevated himself from legend into myth, fashioning the West of the Imagination as a time and place of romantic dimensions and mythic proportions.

Whenever a figure becomes as inflated as Cody, detractors are sure to follow. Debunking Buffalo Bill became a popular pastime around the Jazz Age and picked up steam again in the 1960s and ‘70s, when works like Arthur Kopit’s play Indians and Robert Altman’s film Buffalo Bill and the Indians depicted him as a vain, right-wing opportunist and racist who, like that era’s John Wayne, was discounted as a stooge of the military-industrial complex in fighting an unjust guerrilla war.

While Cody’s role in the Indian Wars is undeniable, Bridger said any comparison with The Duke is wrong.

“The difference here is that Buffalo Bill was a legitimate hero who became the first star whereas John Wayne was a star who became a kind of illegitimate hero.” When Bridger first began examining Cody’s life he was prepared “not to like him. I was a product of the ‘60s and really viewed him very much in the Kopit vein — as a handsome, perhaps not-so-smart matinee idol and drunken blow hard who made up all this stuff and was manipulated by the government and military to do their bidding.”

 

 

 

 

Needless to say, Bridger’s opinion changed over time. “Now, having been seriously involved in researching his life since 1970, I have this great respect for him, and the more I dig into William F. Cody’s life the more I like him.”

If you accept Bridger’s notion that Cody became the world’s first true superstar, then it seems silly he should be denigrated, as he is by revisionists, for indulging his celebrity and always being on-stage. After all, what star has not reveled in his or her own fame?

If Cody can be criticized for anything, and the sins attributed to him are legion, from helping extinguish Plains Indians cultures to wiping-out the once vast bison herds to exploiting Native Americans in his Wild West, it is how he allowed his image to ultimately consume him. You could say his run-away ego set the model for how future self-absorbed icons should act, which is to say he embraced excess in his life, in his work and in his mythology. But in defense of Cody it cannot be emphasized enough that the kind of fame he achieved was a new phenomenon for his era and he responded to it without the benefit of any real precedent to call on. All in all, he did as well as anyone in that position could do.

“Before him, people were either famous or infamous and the famous were royalty and the infamous were mass murderers and military leaders and whatever,” Bridger said. “He was the first person to make a living being famous. That whole system of celebrity was created with him.”

Ned Buntline

 

 

Cody’s genius for self-promotion was also something new. He shamelessly courted attention with the press and admirers, always exploring new venues, adding new attractions and looking for new angles to cash in on. Near the end, his instincts betrayed him when, hoping to make a splash in the new medium of motion pictures, he produced a silent film in the Pine Ridge area that had Lakotas reenact the Wounded Knee Massacre.

“That’s an indication of how desperate he’d become to deal with his financial problems and to reinvent himself once more,” Bridger said. On the whole, he said, Cody was a visionary. “He gave everyone in modern show business a template for how to do it. If he didn’t do anything but just that, for everyone from Tom Mix forward, he’d be an important figure.”

Cynics, Bridger said, discount the charitable acts attributed to Cody, whether giving away free Wild West tickets to orphans, bootblacks and newsies or making time for old cronies and drinking buddies at his North Platte, Neb. ranch, by asserting he only did these things so they would “sing Buffalo Bill’s praises.” Bridger said this sniping is misguided. “Yes, he was a showman and, yes, he was very calculated about his promotions, but he was also an orphan boy who loved kids and understood their needs. He was always giving back. That’s the way I prefer to see him.” A famous soft-touch, Cody was also forever sinking money into cockeyed ventures, from hotels to mines, that cost him dearly.

The reason debunkers have a field day with Cody, Bridger said, is his contradictory nature. “You know, it’s funny, but you can say just about anything about him and answer, Yes, he was.” Upon Cody’s death in 1917, newspaperman Gene Fowler wrote: “Indiscreet, prodigal, as temperamental as a diva, pompous yet somehow naive, vain but generous…Cody lived with the world at his feet and died with it on his shoulders. He was subject to suspicious whims and distorted perspectives, yet the sharpers who swindled him the oftenest he trusted the most.”

Bridger sees a reappraisal underway.

“Since 1995 there’s been an average of two books a year coming out on Cody and all of them present a very positive perspective.” Even Lakota philosopher Vine DeLoria has kind things to say about him, noting how Cody sheltered Indian “chiefs from undue pressure and persecution by the government” by retaining them in the Wild West and how, “instead of degrading the Indians and classifying them as primitive savages, Cody elevated them to a status of equality.”

In the end, Bridger contends, Cody will be vindicated. “He will eventually be recognized for the wonderful things he gave us. He gave us our romantic template for a very long time, and it was a good one. As my friend Paul Fees of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center says, ‘We’re beginning to pull the man out of the myth.’”

Bridger will sign copies of his book at 2 p.m. on February 23 at the Barnes and Noble in Oak View Mall.

To find out more about Bridger and his work, check out his web site at www.bbridger.com.

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