Weblog of Leland Rucker
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Category — Interesting Stuff

Palo Duro Canyon: The Heart of Comancheria

October 28, 2014.

After breakfast, we went up to Ft. Sill and spent some time at the museum on the original square there. The fort was on the highest point in the area, and as we drive along the square you can see the lower elevations below on the east. We find the old fort cemetery, which contains the remains of Quanah and Cynthia Ann, finally together, prominently buried alongside American soldiers he fought and some of his chiefs and friends.

Quanah Parker's gravestone in Ft. Sill Military Cemetery. (Click to enlarge.)

As Gwynne relates, Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah’s mother, was one of the most unfortunate individuals to walk the earth. In 1836, at the age of nine, she was taken with four other captives by the Comanches during a raid on their family compound in a dangerous area of west Texas, and watched as the Indians raped the other women and tortured, scalped and killed others before she was led away into Comanche territory, where she was integrated into the tribe for 24 years, rose in stature, married the chief, Peta Nocona, and had three children, including the first-born Quanah and brother Peanut.

Cynthia Ann and her younger daughter Prairie Flower were recaptured by Texas Rangers, including future cattle baron Charles Goodnight, in December, 1860, and spent the last ten years of her life trying to return to her Indian family, the rest of whom she never saw again. Prairie Flower died in 1864 of pneumonia, and Cynthia Ann, distraught and disillusioned, died of influenza and malnutrition in March of 1871 and was buried originally near Poyner, Texas. It’s a story that, like the Alamo seige, have become part of Texas history and myth.

Her journey wasn’t over yet. In 1910 Quanah had her body moved to Post Oak Mission Cemetery several miles west of Cache. When he died in February 1911, he was buried next to her, but it wouldn’t be their final resting places. Their bodies were moved in 1957 to the Fort Sill Post Cemetery.

From that cemetery, we took Quanah Parker Road outside the fort a few miles to the Apache Cemetery, where Geronimo and many of his family, friends and warriors are also interred. We also drove through Rucker Park, a nice area that looks like an old-time park like Swope Park in Kansas City, inside the fort.

The grave of the great chief Geronimo is located in the Apache Cemetery outside Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. (Click to enlarge.)

Wednesday afternoon we drove to Canyon, Texas, just a few miles west of Palo Duro Canyon, our final destination, about three hours west of Lawton. This was our chance to drive into the area once known as Comancheria. The tribe commanded a huge swath of what is now the American Southwest. At its peak, Comancheria included much of the western part of Texas and Oklahoma, the southwest portion of Kansas, southeast Colorado and the eastern half of New Mexico.

Most of it is rolling, mostly flat plains, but we skirt the southern edge of the Wichita Mountains, declared a wildlife refuge after T.R. visited. Mostly this end of the “mountains” is a series of volcanic cones sticking out of the rolling prairie for 40-50 miles along the highway. We drove through Altus and Hollis, both in Oklahoma and both looking down on their luck, with boarded-up, historic downtowns and a Subway that was open 24/7.

The crossover into Texas offers no change in scenery. Small towns, depressed for the most part, and a Subway in every one. Clarendon was especially loaded with huge white crosses every couple of blocks and other reminders about how Jesus saves while the rest of us will lick hellfire.

Mile after mile of plains. No wonder white people were swallowed up in Comancheria and never came out. As flat as it is, and with the route we take, we never really notice that we are leaving the rolling plains and entering the Llano Estacado, the “Staked Plain” that begins in the middle of the Panhandle and extends west into eastern New Mexico. Quanah, before his surrender, commanded the Staked Plain and the Palo Duro canyon, a giant fissure that cuts through the Llano Estacado, which we will visit tomorrow.

We pull into Canyon after dark and find the Best Western almost immediately. There is a restaurant, Thundering Buffalo’s Grill and Saloon, next door, and after depositing our stuff in the room, walk over for dinner. The food is mediocre, and my fried catfish has heavy breading and some strange blend of hot sauce. But even more interesting, we’re in “dry country.” I have to fill out a form to become a member of the restaurant in order to get a drink. Texas leaves this to counties, and this county only has one restaurant/liquor license — Thundering Buffalo’s. Yes, we are back in a place where businesses stay closed on Sunday and everybody drinks at home.

The next morning after breakfast we visit the Panhandle Plains Museum on the campus of Western Texas A&M (they’re the Buffaloes, too) and tour it for a couple of hours. A truly amazing place, one that we will return to tomorrow. We walk for hours and never really find everything. One of the best museum experiences I have ever had, hands down.

Photography is encouraged, and there is an interactive old west town as well as an area that celebrates the oil industry, with a giant drill rig they brought in and another area that lets you feel like you’re working in an oil production area. Pretty amazing stuff. And in the midst of the paleontology and oil exhibits, students had put up shrines to everybody from Michael Jackson to Robin Williams, which made the whole area even more surreal. Dinosaurs, Comanches, Western towns, Texas Rangers, oil barons and pop star shrines. Oh, my.

Overlook into Palo Duro Canyon near the Main Entrance. The canyon, most of it private land, cuts a jagged swath 130 miles along the Llano Estacado. (Click to enlarge.)

We drove out to Palo Duro Canyon in the early afternoon. Seeing part of a deep canyon that stretches for hundreds of miles along the Llano Estacado makes it easier to understand why the Comanches utilized the area and why, within a year of Quanah’s surrender, it would become a major portion of Charles Goodnight’s famous cattle empire. We stop for a bit at the gift shop, which rests rustically along the canyon’s rim at a particularly scenic overlook.

Inside, there are some wonderful films with a lot of Comanche history running in places throughout the gift shop, alongside the books, chimes, jewelry and Palo Duro paraphernalia. I find a “distressed look” canyon cap. We drive to the end of the road and back and decide to return at sunset and see if the light is better. Just as we’re ready to leave, we find three beeves, Texas longhorns, grazing in the tall grass near the entrance, reminders of the Goodnight ranch that quickly replaced Quanah’s hide-out the year after he surrendered.

Miss Billie and Miss Sookie along the Gypsum Trail inside Palo Duro Canyon. (Click to enlarge.)

The canyon is only ten miles almost directly east of our hotel, ten miles of seemingly endless, exceedingly flat land severely disrupted by the canyon. We head out again at sunset to see if we can get some colors we couldn’t get at midday. We don’t succeed as much as I had hoped, but driving down in the canyon again is wonderful, and we hit a road we hadn’t found earlier. The canyon area accessible to us is mostly for campers and hikers, and we decide that tomorrow we’ll leisurely hike a few of the trails and get a better feel for the canyon from ground level.

Looking up out of Palo Duro Canyon at one of the buttes. (Click to enlarge.)

Thursday we headed back to the canyon after breakfast and hiked three of the many trails. All were great. One took us through an area of gypsum rock along an idyllic stream. Another passed by an old homesteader’s earthen home. We spend the rest of the afternoon at the Museum again. I found several areas I hadn’t yesterday. Another fun way to spend two hours. We eat dinner at Feldman’s Wrong Way Diner, a goofy place that had miniature trains running above our heads.

Friday morning we find ourselves at dawn at the Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo. We head north and find Lockhart for breakfast and rush hour in Denver before finally disembarking in Boulder. Comancheria has been good to us.

A stop at dawn at the Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo, about 25 miles northwest of Palo Dura Canyon. (Click to enlarge.)

December 25, 2014   1 Comment

Another Great Book About What Happened on 9/11/01

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in custody at Guantanamo.

Much has been said and written about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which even has its own feature film. But about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who actually planned and executed the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001? Not so much.

That’s what makes Terry McDermott and Josh Myer’s The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed> such a compelling read and major addition to 9/11 history. It tells the story of the loose terrorism network that finally hooked up KSM and bin Laden, and the decade-long search by a few intrepid FBI investigators to track down the man who conceived and carried out the attacks before they happened. KSM was finally apprehended in 2003 in Pakistan and, after being tortured by the U.S. on numerous occasions, is incarcerated in Guantanamo Prison in Cuba.

I’m not trying to lessen Osama bin Laden’s part of the story. He was the kingpin, providing money and logistical support to a plan brought to him about blowing up iconic American buildings, and his part of the story is told elsewhere, in Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower and several of Peter Bergen’s books about al Qaeda.

But KSM, whose nephew, Ramzi Yousef (aka Abdul Basit), planned the 1993 bombing of the WTC,  and then spent more than a decade crisscrossing the globe hatching plots of mayhem and death in far-flung places (thank him every time you remove your shoes because of the Robert Reid attempted footbomb, among other plots, including one to blow up several jets simultaneously over the Pacific in 1994.

KSM came to bin Laden and al Qaeda with the crazy idea of taking down the World Trade Centers using airliners as bombs. The book explains how they conspired to pull it off, but as it makes clear, KSM wasn’t actually an al Qaeda operative or member, just a like-minded terrorist whose interests coincided with al Qaeda’s at a critical moment.

The book provides plenty of evidence of the stupendous inefficiency the various agencies involved in American security displayed in the years leading up to the attacks. At one point, they came within a few minutes of apprehending KSM in 1996, and then he disappeared for seven years.

As always, I invite any of my friends who suspect or believe that 9/11 was an “inside job”  to read this book. We still don’t have all the answers, but books like this are beginning to provide a better understanding of what happened that day. More on my views about 9/11 Truth here.

January 21, 2013   No Comments

About Pot, the Feds Have a Scheduling Problem

4-20-11, CU campus Smoke-Out. CU spent $278,000 to try and end it in 2012.

Much of the problem with marijuana is its current designation as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government. The government’s persecution of marijuana goes back at least to 1935, when the newly created Bureau of Narcotics, needing some narcotic to fight, created a campaign of disinformation intended to make people believe that pot was directly related to crime, violent behavior, insanity and sexual deviance. Which led to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which considerably restricted the usage, distribution and production of cannabis products. (For much more on the government vs. marijuana back in the 1930s, here’s John Lupien’s master’s thesis on that subject.)

But it was the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 that codified the War on Drugs, President Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell’s misguided plan to stamp out psychotropic drugs in the United States.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy says that the government will spend about $15 billion this year trying to keep people from smoking marijuana. 15 billion dollars. Multiply that by 40 years, take into account that marijuana is easily available to anyone in America who wants it, and you have a policy of utter failure. (I get these numbers from the Drug War Clock, which uses government figures.)

According to the act, Schedule I substances must include the following characteristics:

1) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.

2) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

3) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

I won’t argue point one today except to say that any drug has a potential for abuse. Marijuana’s is less than most. How about another cup of coffee? And “high potential” is completely subjective. No one has ever overdosed on pot.

But with a host of studies suggesting marijuana’s medical benefits and 19 states (including the District of Columbia, which proves that Congress and the Justice Department can’t even control it in their own district) allowing medical patients to purchase and consume cannabis for pain or symptom relief, marijuana’s current status seems ready, if nothing else, for a second look.

This story has been told before, but let’s not forget the circumstances of marijuana’s Schedule 1 status. The Controlled Substances Act was aimed at the marijuana/LSD menaces Nixon and Mitchell perceived, much as the Bureau of Narcotics had 35 years earlier. Remember, the hippies were running wild and naked and fornicating all across America with blunts of the dreaded reefer sticking out of their mouths.

Anyway, Nixon dispatched a former Pennsylvania governor, Raymond Shafer, to study pot abuse in America and come up with some “wink, wink” proposals. Shafer’s National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse took the charge seriously and recommended the decriminalization of marijuana for adults in small amounts. It’s a document worth perusing. Here’s one paragraph that, given all the surveillance over citizens these days, all Americans should ponder. “The criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use. It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior which we believe is not appropriate,” the report states. “The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.”

Nixon and Mitchell roundly rejected the findings and put pot in Schedule 1, right up there with heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, mescaline, Quaaludes, peyote and psilocybin. Cocaine, because of its limited medical use, got a Schedule 2 classification, considered by the federal government to be safer than marijuana. Even before the commission’s report was released, Nixon told Shafer he would only embarrass himself and that they would pay it no heed. Read about this and other hallucinatory Nixon conspiracy theories involving marijuana, homosexuality, communism and Jews in this Gene Weingarten Washington Post column.

Now, 42 years later, two states, for starters, in November called the Justice Department on its bullshit hypocrisy. Given the mood of the electorate and, happily, the lack of concern today’s younger generation has for legalization, we won’t be the last.

So instead of Gov. Hickenlooper seeking “clarity” on marijuana from Justice – a truly laughable notion in itself — he should be asking why marijuana continues to be listed as a Schedule 1 drug when cannabis is grown and sold for medical uses in almost forty percent of states, including his own and the District of Columbia.

December 14, 2012   No Comments

Miller No Longer Racing Through the Dark

Want to know why cyclists dope? It's all here. So is the story of how David Millar found redemption after being banned from the sport he loved.

David Millar is a Scottish professional cyclist who was arrested by French authorities and confessed to illegal doping in 2004. After serving a two-year ban, he returned to cycling in 2007 and now races for the Garmin-Cervélo team based here in Boulder, Colorado.

His memoir, Racing Through the Dark, came out last year, but it didn’t really catch my eye until all the latest revelations about doping came to light when Lance Armstrong decided against fighting drug charges and facing a long line of witnesses who testified before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, essentially admitting his guilt (though still denying it, of course).

It’s easily one of the best books on professional sports you’ll ever read. Millar’s story is in so many ways compelling. A gifted young athlete who loved to party, Millar’s first drug experiences came with sleeping pills, an addiction those who ride the peleton easily find, given the rigors of life on the road and riding more than 100 miles every day for three weeks. Millar came into the sport staunchly anti-dope, and if you want to understand how that attitude changed and how and why riders do drugs to compete, it’s all here.

Like most athletes, Millar got into the sport because he was supremely athletic and it was fun to compete. He became a star and team leader at an early age, winning stages in the Tour de France and other major races. His team, Cofidis, expected him to compete and win. As it became his “obligation,” injecting vitamin concoctions (called recup) after races to recover from three-week tours escalated to signing up with certain “doctor/trainers” with whom you would prepare for big tours by shooting Erythropoietin, or EPO, a hormone that occurs naturally in the liver that produces red blood cells. EPO is used by skiers, endurance runners and extreme athletes, but it has been especially prevalent in cycling. Eventually that activity landed Millar in a French jail cell.

Racing Through the Dark exposes the complete hypocrisy of professional cycling teams, most of whom end their obligation to the drug culture by having riders sign a form that promises they won’t dope. When any are caught or confess, the teams wash their hands immediately of the stench. The buck stops with the athlete. This is the same hypocrisy we see in professional sports in the United States. Just this week Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced that even though Melky Cabrera is serving a 50-game drug-related suspension, he could still win the National League batting title if his percentage is the highest.

That’s why Millar signed with Garmin, the American team started in 2007 by Jonathan Vaughters, an admitted ex-doping cyclist whose ambitions as a team owner to clean up the sport coincided with those of post-dope Millar. Vaughters’ radical ideas, spurned by much of the cycling establishment in Europe, include drug-testing his own athletes regularly to create blood profiles.

So far, it’s worked pretty well. Garmin-Cervélo fields one of the most competitive teams in the sport. It includes other riders who, like Millar, doped back in the day and are devotedly clean now. One of them, Tom Danielson, lives in Boulder and, post-dope, is again among the world’s top cyclists. Another, Christian Van de Velde, won the Tour of Colorado last month.

There are those who say that the past is done, and there is no need to return to it. But as Millar makes clear, cycling (or baseball, or all other sports) have to face the truth before it’s able to move on.

Which leaves us with the elephant in the room. In a sense, he already has, and I’m not suggesting he go all Oprah on us, but Lance Armstrong needs to stop living the lie everybody knows about now. Armstrong is a legitimate hero for many people, me included. Billie and I started watching cycling in 2003 after watching a particularly memorable Armstrong moment when he carried his bike across a field to catch the other riders after the stage leader, Joseba Beloki, slid and fell on the hot pavement. His books on his battle with cancer are inspirational, powerful works, and his organization is a bulwark in the fight against that disease. It takes nothing away from any of that for him to finally tell the truth and move on.

September 21, 2012   No Comments

Seeing God in Municipal Auditorium

This photo was taken from the Folly Theater building at 12th and Central, where I worked on a renovation project 1977-79. (KC Public Library)

I was forwarded the Scotty Moore website (Moore was the guitarist for Elvis Presley), which included a page with information about Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. Presley and Moore played there in May 1956, and the page includes a wealth of post cards, photos and information about the building itself. (Thanks to Mike Webber for the forward.)

Reading it brought back a flood of memories on this Labor Day. Built in 1934 as part of a ten-year plan to bring the city up-to-date, Municipal Auditorium, by the time I first began showing up, was only 20 years old. Its art-deco style, subtle lighting and quiet elegance really impressed me, and I loved going there. Some of the other buildings created at this time, including the Jackson County Court House, City Hall and the Power and Light building, are equally mysterious and enigmatic. Another thing I liked about the Auditorium was that it wasn’t built on a flat surface. Standing at Wyandotte and 14th Street, it looked like it had been built into a hill to the north. You couldn’t tell from the inside, but you certainly could from the outside.

I can’t remember the first time I was there, but it was probably a large church event. I remember being in the Main Arena, which seated 10,000, and our local Lutheran choir joined with dozens of others to raise our voices to heaven – it was incredible.

As a child, I also went there for the special Philharmonic concerts for kids in the more intimate Music Hall. I really loved these. It’s where I found out that a hymn I knew as “What Child is This?” was based on the traditional English song “Greensleeves.” The melody haunts me to this day. Another time the power went off during the performance, and the Phil, undaunted, just kept on playing, something I wouldn’t see again until Joe King Carrasco and the Crowns pulled the same trick at Parody Hall in the early 1980s.

Billie and I caught a couple of Barnum & Bailey shows there, before we stopped doing the circus-as-entertainment thing. The arena was large enough (the blog says it was 92 feet floor to ceiling) to hold even the gigantic tank that a horse jumped into during the finale of one show, or the guy shot out of a cannon at another one as well as the many trapeze and high-wire acts that dazzled us.

The arena has an interesting ceiling lighting arrangement. This was the late 1950s, when nuclear paranoia was very real. When the sermons or services would fade into the background, I would stare up and imagine people above the ceiling, watching us from their perch. You know, the people who run the world only we don’t know it. And this was before psychedelics.

The interior of the Auditorium is drop-dead gorgeous. (KC Public Library)

The Moore site includes a photo of a concert by Louis Armstrong Nov. 7, 1964, that I attended. I had escaped Kansas City to attend St. Paul’s Lutheran High School down the new I-70 in Concordia, Mo. Our class took a field trip to Kansas City that Saturday, and we somehow got free tickets at a Katz drug store downtown. Sitting high behind the stage, we watched the musicians in their dressing rooms (which were just partitions) smoking and laughing in between songs. I thought they were smoking cigarettes at the time, but after learning more about Armstrong, I’m sure it was probably something else.

“Hello Dolly” had made #1 in March, and he sang it three times that night, something I wouldn’t see again until almost 12 years later, when Willie Nelson did “On the Road Again” three times July 23, 1976, in the Arena with Tompall Glaser and the Flying Burrito Brothers as opening acts.

Other memorable concerts there included a special British Invasion reunion in July 1973, with the original Herman’s Hermits line-up as headliners with the Searchers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Gerry & the Pacemakers and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. I remember they looked so old. Good acid. Good time, and I thought again about the people who control us all above the ceiling.

Blue Oyster Cult did a great show in January of 1978, with Black Oak and a third act, Millionaire at Midnight, who turned me in the direction of the burgeoning local music scene. I was forced to review Foghat/Bachman-Turner with Judas Priest opening. Ugh. The first time I saw Jethro Tull there, people were celebrating Independence Day by throwing fireworks. The second time, when I gave my ticket to be seated, I was told that the seats “didn’t exist anymore.” He wasn’t kidding; all the seats were pushed back and it was an early mosh pit out in front of the stage.

Neil Young brought his Time Fades Away tour to the Arena with Linda Ronstadt in 1974. Riverrock and Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band opened for Jerry Lee Lewis in the Arena on May 4, 1979. When he asked rhetorically at one point, “who’ll play this old piano when I’m gone,” a woman right behind us stood up and said, “Nobody, killer, nobody but you.”

The last time I was there was in the early 1980s to see the Kinks. Beginning in 1974, they had became an annual attraction at Memorial Hall and the Uptown Theatre. But that particular time they almost sold out the Arena, and I saw a younger generation, the children of the Kinks’ original fans, singing along with every song. Absolutely wonderful.

They were with Arista at the time, and I was friendly with the rep, who was traveling with the band. After the show, in the dressing room, Ray said, “I want to meet the obituary editor and music critic,” and we talked for a couple of minutes. I always hoped he would write a song about the obituary editor who wrote about rock and roll. So far, he hasn’t.

September 3, 2012   No Comments

We Watched a Man Named Armstrong Walk Upon the Moon

Neil Armstrong (NASA image)

Neil Armstrong: August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012

Black boy in Chicago
Playing in the street
Not enough to wear
Not near enough to eat
But don’t you know he saw it
On a July afternoon
He saw a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon

Young girl in Calcutta
Barely eight years old
The flies that swarm the market place
Will see she don’t get old
But don’t you know she heard it
On that July afternoon
She heard a man named Armstrong
Had walked upon the moon
She heard a man named Armstrong
Had walked upon the moon

The rivers are gettin’ dirty
The wind is getting bad
War and hate is killing off
The only earth we have
But the world all stopped to watch it
On that July afternoon
To watch a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon
To watch a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon

Oh, I wonder if a long time ago
Somewhere in the universe
They watched a man named Adam
Walk upon the earth

– “Armstrong” by John Stewart
From the LP Cannons in the Rain (March 1973/RCA Records)
Listen to the song here.

August 27, 2012   No Comments

You say Grossman; I Say Goldman

A sharp-eared listener (thanks Ginger) caught me calling the notorious manager of Bob Dylan and the Band Albert Goldman during the Levon Helm tribute program on KGNU.

Everybody knows it’s Albert Grossman.

Albert Goldman

Both of them were about the same age; Albert Grossman was born in 1926, Albert Goldman about a year later.  Each had some connection to rock and roll, and both were almost equally reviled for their efforts in that regard.

Albert Goldman was a teacher and an author, and it was his efforts in the latter that earned him the disdain of rock cognoscenti. His biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon dared to look down the subjects, instead of up. Each book had its flaws, but it was his disdain for two pop superheroes that pissed off most who read it. His biography of Lenny Bruce isn’t as reviled. His biography of Jim Morrison remains unpublished.

I would certainly recommend Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Presley over Goldman’s, but after reading Tim Riley’s exhaustively researched Lennonbio, I don’t think Goldman, though he makes some rather ludicrous assumptions, was that far off the mark about Paul McCartney’s songwriting partner.

Albert Grossman circa 1966

Albert Grossman was once the most powerful manager in the music business, and a model for an entire breed of manager that thrived beginning in the 1960s. He was, as promoter George Wein told author Fred Goodman in Mansion on the Hill, “a strong, one-way street. He was a brilliant man and a good man in his way, but a tough son-of-a-bitch.” And though he was militant about protecting his “artists,” his arrogance generally drove away all his clients, including Bob Dylan, whom he famously managed from 1962-1970.

But the most interesting thing is that both men died on jets heading from the U.S. to London,  Grossman of a heart attack Christmas Day 1986 aboard the Concorde at age 59 and Goldman on March 28, 1994, aged 66.

As it turns out, I walked past Albert Grossman once. It was forty years ago this month. I was in Chicago, May 1972, at a Peter Yarrow/Lazarus concert. After the show I saw this fellow standing near the doors cupping a cigarette in his hand who, as best I could figure, looked like Benjamin Franklin. I wasn’t sure it was Grossman, but since he created Peter Paul and Mary, it seemed right. Years later I began reading other descriptions of him as looking like a certain bespectacled founding father.

May 16, 2012   No Comments

Jesus Christ — The Superstars! Buffalo Bill & Little Missie

What is it about superstars? Why do they so fascinate us?

I thought about that as millions mourned publicly for Whitney Houston last month, as I read Tim Riley’s John Lennon biography, and again after finishing Larry McMurtry’s The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America (Simon and Schuster 2005).

Buffalo Bill: The first superstar to go viral.

Annie Oakley and Bill Cody were among the first real American celebrities, those people — mostly actors, musicians, athletes or media professionals — who become stupendously successful. McMurtry notes that we don’t remember any of the other big names from that period when live shows about the West were as popular as stadium concerts today. Pawnee Bill, Ned Buntline, Doc Carver, Johnny Baker and Lillian Smith were all renowned performers of their day. But we remember the Colonel and Little Missie. They were superstars.

And as such, McMurtry makes an equally good case that Oakley and Cody were also among the first to get swept up in the frenzy of celebrity, something they didn’t understand and ultimately weren’t able to control. In their wake, few have.

His wry, common-sense style is perfect for this kind of interpretive historical story-telling as he traces the arc of Oakley and Cody’s triumphs and tragedies, always questioning what made them so darned popular.

“Superstars cannot exactly create themselves, no matter how skilled – the public cannot be manipulated vis-à-vis superstars only up to a point. The public must, at some point, develop a genuine love for the performer – a love that grows as long as the performer lasts,” he muses. “When great stars die, thousands mourn and mourn genuinely. Exactly how this chemistry works, no one quite understands – but some deep identification is made or superstardom doesn’t happen.”

In Cody’s case, at least part of it was that he actually was a scout in the 1870s, a man of the frontier, as well as an entertainer. But Oakley, on the other hand, was just a performer who dressed in buckskins and was a damned good shot.

Luck and circumstance certainly have something to do with it. Cody’s life as a frontiersman overlapped with his performing career. His Wild West Show idea was prescient, and though he never got to see his dreams materialize, he was a film visionary as well.

He was almost certainly the first artist to go viral. His iconic image, first immortalized in dime novels, books, and on posters, sitting on a horse in buckskins looking out at the endless prairie, is still as recognizable today as it was around the turn of the twentieth century. Everybody saw his image somewhere. We all know Buffalo Bill.

McMurtry wonders aloud why Robert Duvall, an extraordinary actor who, for all his skills, isn’t a superstar, while John Wayne, hardly in the class of Duvall as an actor, was. “The sonofabitch just looks like a man,” McMurtry quotes director John Ford about Wayne. McMurtry ponders that it might be something in the way superstars move. Was it because Oakley would give a little back kick when she did well or would visibly pout when she missed that made the audience love her? Was it because Buffalo Bill looked as good on a horse as Wayne did when he sauntered, his walk slightly tilted, into a movie saloon?

In the end, like the rest of us, McMurtry has more questions than answers about superstardom, and he seems to be as bemused as the rest of us about it all, but the book is quite enjoyable. Perhaps in this case, the quest will have to be enough.

March 8, 2012   No Comments

Getting Lost in Shangri-La

I got Lost in Shangri-La (Harper 2011) for a few days last week. What’s not to like about Mitchell Zuckoff’s non-fiction book about a plane crash in New Guinea in 1945? It’s a World War II story with adventure, intrigue, danger, a daring rescue mission and a head-turning WAC, who is among the Americans who survive a plane crash in a remote canyon peopled by Stone Age tribes not listed on any maps and rarely seen by modern-day humans that gets its name from the 1933 James Hilton novel that captured my imagination as a kid.

Margaret Hastings gets her photo taken with a tribal child after a plane crash in the New Guinea wilderness in 1945.

That’s about all I’m going to say about one of the most interesting and eccentric tales of the Pacific War. On a personal note, my father was stationed on the western coast of New Guinea, an island known for its incredible natural beauty and, as Zuckoff writes, “a gift-box assortment of inhospitable environments,” for five months in 1944. Like many stationed there, he left after conracting malaria in August, several months before this incident happened, but most surely he was aware of the rumors of the hidden valley GIs called Shangri-La, and he must have read or heard news reports about this incident while recovering back in the States.

What I found as interesting as the book itself was how the author came across and pieced together the whole story, which happened sixty-seven years ago. Zuckoff’s interest was piqued after finding a newspaper story about the incident, which, mostly because of Margaret Hastings, the Women’s Army Corps survivor, got lots of contemporary press in the waning days of WWII, while researching something else. He found one living survivor, who had kept a diary and his memories, which in turn led him to the families of the other survivors, many who had journals, documents, photographs, letters and personal details about the strange story. Using these first-hand materials, Zuckoff was able to bring the very human story to life and render it in a way that it almost reads almost like a novel.

Dozens of black-and-white photos throughout the book really help advance the story, and Zuckoff posted a contemporary documentary film of the event on his website, which I’m not going to link to here because you need to read the book before you watch the film. Great page-turner for a vacation or to snuggle up with for a weekend.

January 25, 2012   1 Comment

Quanah Parker’s Star House

I have a thing about old buildings, especially ones where history took place. Whether it’s standing inside Buffalo Bill’s hunting cabin outside Yellowstone Park in Wyoming or listening to Randy Newman at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, for that matter, old buildings have a way of making history come to life. This is especially true when those buildings are in out-of-the-way places that you have to seek out.

The Star House's red roof is lower left center, not far from the railroad tracks and behind the amusement park. Only in America. (Click to bigginate.)

That’s why I want to go to Cache, Oklahoma. Yeah. Really. I just finished S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner), which traces the story of the fearsome, decentralized Indian nation that once commanded huge swaths of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico until its leaders surrendered to U.S. forces in 1875.

As with all books about the European/American extermination of Indian tribes from the Great Plains in the late 19th century, Empire of the Summer Moon tells a sad story about a miserable, irredeemable period in U.S. history. I realized how little I knew about the Comanches or the Indian wars in Texas and Oklahoma as Gwynne masterfully points out the pros and cons of both sides.

The book drops you into the Texas frontier in the early 19th century as whites sweeping westward begin tangling with those tribes and their lifestyle on the Southern Great Plains. Gwynne’s descriptions of the tribes’ nomadic life are as breathtaking as his exploration of how the Spanish, during their ill-fated attempt at conquest of the Comanches, among their many mistakes, unwittingly gave the Comanches the very thing – horses — which the Indians would then use to drive out the Europeans and stave off, at least for a while, their own extinction.

But the magic of Empire of the Summer Moon is how all this history weaves into and around the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah Parker, the last of the great Comanche chiefs. Apparently, if you grew up in Texas, you know the story of how Cynthia Ann was captured by the Comanches in 1836 at age nine in a brutal massacre against her family’s compound – she witnessed the torture and murder of her grandfather and gang-rape of other women during the incident.

Click on this to get a close-up of the immediate area.

Cynthia Ann was spared, eventually married Chief Peta Necona, had three children and was completely assimilated into the tribe for 24 years before being recaptured by famous Texas rancher Charles Goodnight and returned to her white family. Incomprehensible as it seemed to everyone at the time,  Parker rejected white society and tried to escape many times as she was shunted through a miserable life among her relatives. She never saw Quanah or her children again and finally starved herself to death in 1870.

Her first son with Peta Necona was Quanah. Six feet tall, with long hair, a stately mien and steely stare, Quanah Parker was a highly regarded, especially fearless and murderous chief of the notorious Quahadi Comanche band. Parker fought ferociously and killed and tortured many who chased the Quahadi before finally surrendering at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma in 1875.

For the last thirty years of his life, he lived out the life his mother could never accept. Perhaps more than any other Native American chief, Parker had moderate success living within the constraints of reservation life.  Though uneducated, he had great persuasive skills, and he traveled to Washington to lobby Congress on the behalf of his tribe. He was a founder of the Native American Church Movement peyote religion.

Perhaps the best expression of his desire to live in the white man’s world was the house he built near Cache, Oklahoma. It was a ten-room, two-story structure, a place where the great and the unknown came to pay their respects to the old chief. President Theodore Roosevelt dined at Parker’s house, and his table was always filled with people who wanted to meet the great chief.

Quanah Parker

There is an old photo of the house surrounded by a white picket fence in the book, and near the end, Gwynne says that he found Parker’s Star House, behind an abandoned amusement park near Cache. Beyond the peculiarly American irony of its location, this got me very excited. I quickly went to Google Maps and typed: Cache, OK. I moved down to the local level and began scanning, found a park northwest of town, and there it was, right behind what looks from the air like an old amusement park.

But what guided me to it so quickly were the stars on the red roof. You see, one story says that old Chief Parker, perhaps in a religious vision, had stars embedded in the roof of his home like those he supposedly admired on uniforms. The Star House. So I like to think that Parker himself helped guide me, lo these many years later, right to the spot.  I have to see this.

Read about our 2014 trip to see the Star House here.

December 10, 2011   3 Comments