Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

Cyrus Stevens Avery: The Father of Route 66

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

An undaunted champion of human rights and civic causes throughout his almost ninety-two years, Cyrus Stevens Avery — a proud Tulsan by choice — led the effort to establish U.S. Route 66, the most famous highway in the United States and possibly in the world. Without the hard work and persistence of the untiring Avery, it is doubtful that U.S. 66 – the 2,400-mile ribbon of asphalt and concrete that ties together eight states between Chicago, Illinois, and Santa Monica, California – ever would have become a reality.

As a result of his dedication and diligence, Avery — founder of the U.S. 66 Highway Association — has become known to tens of thousands of admirers, including legions of travelers and historians, as “the Father of Route 66.”

Born in Stevensville, Pennsylvania, in 1871, Avery came with his family to Indian Territory in a horse-drawn wagon when he was in his teens. He grew up on a farm near Spavinaw Creek in the Cherokee Nation. An energetic highway entrepreneur long before most roads were even paved, Avery graduated from William Jewell College at Liberty, Missouri, and launched his business career in Vinita and Oklahoma City. In 1907, the year Oklahoma became a state, he wed his wife of sixty-five years, Essie McClelland. The Averys established their home in Tulsa, where they raised three children and Cy soon became a successful business and civic leader.

Besides launching several businesses and boosting many major public-works projects, Avery emerged as a voice of reason in 1921 when his adopted city was the scene of bloody racial violence. During the turmoil when the notorious Klu Klux Klan terrorized African-American citizens and brought murder and mayhem to Tulsa’s streets, Avery supervised a victim-relief effort and stood firm against the forces of intolerance and bigotry.

Nicknamed “Mr. Democrat,” the politically active Avery, who among other duties served as a Tulsa County commissioner, was a proponent of the good-roads movement even before he became the first chairman of the Oklahoma State Highway Commission. He served as a leader of the American Association of State Highway Official and also acted as a consulting highway specialist as the federal government developed a national system of numbered highways.

Avery’s efforts paid off when Route 66 became a reality. “We assure you that U.S. 66 will be a road through Oklahoma that the U.S. Government will be proud of,” Avery wrote shortly before November 11, 1926, the day U.S. Route 66 was officially born. Avery’s words hold true today for the many people who continue to use the long stretches of “the Main Street of America” that remain.

Top of the Earth

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

I shall never forget a man from Taos Pueblo who passed through my life like a shadow long, long ago. It was late in the day when our paths crossed in a patch of sunlight on the edge of the town plaza. He stopped me with a gesture and I lit his cigarette. The man, basking in the uncertain warmth of a winter sun, nodded his thanks but maintained his proud bearing. I said something inane about the weather. There was no response. I was just about to walk away when he did speak.

“We were here long before the Spanish came,” he said in a nonchalant way as if we had been visiting for hours. “And, we were here long before the Anglos. “

I acknowledged that he was right, as if he needed my approval. He spoke again. “We will be here long after the Spanish and Anglo have gone.” There was not a hint of threat in his monotone voice.

He took another drag on the cigarette and slowly exhaled the smoke. Then the man — with long plaited braids and swathed from head to knee in a blanket — looked at me for the first time.

“Do you know where I live?” the man asked.

“I imagine you live out at the pueblo,” I said.

“I live at the top of the earth,” he told me. “Don’t you know where you are? You are at the top of the earth.” Then he turned and walked away. I watched him until he was out of sight, swallowed up by twilight and the dark mountain.

The Tamiami Trail: Florida’s Bridge Over a River of Grass

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

It’s 1980 and Saturday night in Miami. I have taken time off from my duties as a magazine correspondent in the hard news capital of the nation for an evening of badly needed rest and recuperation. Tired of Coconut Grove’s trendy hangouts and the familiar haunts of Miami Beach, I turn to the west. Soon I find what I’m after just beyond the glow of city lights at an Everglades oasis called Glader Park.

Inside, thirsty workingmen belly up to the bar. Their nerves are still raw from a week of hard labor. A honey-blonde barkeep named Star clad in a halter-top and cutoff jean shorts doesn’t help calm things. One tattooed biker gets a migraine just from staring as the leggy Star pours drinks — mostly tap beer, hard whiskey, and cheap tequila.

Marathon games of eight ball rage at either end of the joint and Hank Williams, Jr. gets a long ride thanks to a semi-intoxicated patron who has fed five bucks in quarters into the tarnished and battered juke box.

Along a wall oozes a man who has tried to drink all the beer in Florida. He gropes for the john door but just as his hand finds the knob a ragtag family resembling the fictional Joads marches in from the darkness. The gaunt mother clutches her purse so tightly it seems to have fused with her body. She stands guard, her hawk eyes dancing, while her two dingy boys scramble by the drunk for the toilet. They slam the door in his face. The drunk grins and pardons them with a belch.

A blend of alcohol, smoke, and sweat fills the air. Some hounds snarl and snap at their master’s feet and the bully of the bunch is pitched outside to bay at a sliver of cold moon. Nearby, under crackling neon lights, a bear-sized fellow wrapped in a blanket gapes at a battery-powered television and waits for gasoline customers who never come.

Past the gas pumps on the edge of the road fading words printed on a fifteen-foot-tall rusting beer can tell everyone that this is Glader Park. A gathering place for hog hunters and frog giggers, out here nervous tourists order mixed drinks to go and Miccosukee Indians sip and dream of times past. Miami tour guides bring people out to gawk and get a taste of the wild side.

It is also a sweet enough place for an overworked reporter, weary of covering cocaine smugglers and Caribbean refugees. Watching the droves of swamp angels who regularly roost at the bar recharges me. They drool over plates of smoked gator meat — Everglade’s caviar — and wash it down with icy suds.

Glader Park was one of my favorite stops — a comfortable spot on a ribbon of road stretching into the dark night. A well-worn path with different names, back in Miami it starts as a city street called Southwest Eighth or Calle Ocho in Little Havana. Snowbirds in their bug-splattered cars know the road as U.S. 41. For the crusty souls who live and play in the lush lands bordering the road there is only one name. For them it is The Trail. The Tamiami Trail.

“Lots of folks come down this road,” Uncle Bernie Freed, an owner of Glader Park told me that Saturday night so long ago. “A good many people drive the Tamiami Trail and they stop here. Even a bunch of wealthy types come out here and you can’t tell them from the poor ones. Everyone looks alike. You see, the Trail and the Glades have a way of equalizing people.”

All these years later Uncle Bernie’s words still ring true.

The Sophian

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

In the Sophian Plaza we find refuge in the treetops with our books, art, and totems.

Living in the Sophian feels like living in a sturdy landlocked ship built of brick, concrete, and steel. It must have felt this way even back in the 1920s when a newspaper advertisement for Tulsa’s first luxury apartment building bragged, “There’s nothing just like Sophian Plaza in all Tulsa.”

Indeed, those words hold true to this day.

Ghosts whisper in the lobby and pad down carpeted halls scented with the aroma of cooking breakfast and supper. They wander in and out of apartments, ride the elevator, and sometimes pass through the basement where an enormous furnace bellows and snorts and keeps time on winter days. Visions of servants summoned by buzzers secreted under fine rugs linger, as do uniformed doormen who announced visitors and shuttled gleaming automobiles from the garage to the porte-cochere.

They are not stalking specters but well-mannered spirits from times past when seekers of oil and princes of commerce and coiffured ladies lived here. They recall the days of the riding stable, a delicatessen and barbershop, and a dining room with room service. These phantoms remember Babe Ruth — the “Sultan of Swat” — at rooftop parties sipping bootleg highballs with pals.

From our windows we see old Route 66 — the most famous highway in the nation — straddling the Arkansas, a coffee-colored river flowing southeast on its way to a rendezvous with the Mississippi. Traffic crosses on the newer concrete span built next to the Eleventh Street bridge, a deserted relic that serves as a shelter for the homeless who sleep in makeshift camps beneath the old bridge.

We gaze down at the Sophian grounds and take in the tapestry of flower and herb gardens, the arbor and pool, and the sloping tree-lined lawn. Beyond we see the architecture and landscape of the surrounding neighborhood.
In our bed we hear the call of geese flying low over the shining river as the moon silently glides through clouds. The breath of night wind comes into the room and touches our faces. Midnight trains whine and our cat turns in her sleep.

On most mornings great tribes of birds greet us. They lift off as one from the tallest trees and make grand sweeping circles amongst the morning stars. Outside, on the open stairway, we see the soft touch of spinning spiders in the cool shadows.

Sometimes we are so comfortable we contemplate never leaving our lofty domain. This is a coveted enclave where the past and present gently collide. It is an elegant building with authentic style and grace. The Sophian — steeped in Tulsa history — is a portal to the past.

The High Road

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

“Improvement makes straight roads; But the crooked roads without improvements are roads of genius.” — William Blake

Like the 18th century poet William Blake I am an aficionado of crooked roads. I find them as irresistible as freshly baked pie. A true son of Route 66, I prefer cruising the twists and turns of America’s Main Street, or any of the nation’s other venerable two-lanes, to coasting those endless slabs of monotony littered with generic culture that pass for today’s interstate highways.

One of my most revered roads of genius is the High Road to Taos, a narrow and often treacherous ribbon of asphalt that snakes through a necklace of enduring Hispanic villages in the forested Sangre de Cristo (“the blood of Christ”) Mountains of northern New Mexico.

I have maintained a passionate love affair with this region for many years. That is why, no matter how far I stray, I always return. When I was a struggling young writer in the late 1960s, it was northern New Mexico, and especially the countryside and villages flanking the High Road to Taos, that provided me with unforgettable adventures and extraordinary teachers. The people and the land nurtured my creative soul.

As I would later write, “I sucked in piñon smoke as if it were holy incense. I smoothed my palm over petroglyphs — graffiti etched in stone by ancient people. I parked my pink-and-white Ford Ranchero named El Coyote on a trail high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and never found it again. I stalked rainbows that stretched back to the beginning of time. I rubbed the adobe earth into my hide. I became a moon hunter. I drank snowmelt beneath evergreens that climbed slopes once cloaked in glacial ice.

“I watched the classic dance of planets in the night sky and worshipped star clouds. I walked with saints and looked the devil right in the eye. I absorbed the nuance of history and culture. I bathed in the intensity of visible light flooding through the rarified mountain air. I held hands with a bonafide witch. I found countless mentors, wisdom keepers, and bold lovers.”

I also promised myself that I would die in this land. I intend to keep that pledge.

This is a place that offers choices and opportunities. It is a land of poco tiempo, or “little time,” where clocks seem useless. It is also a land of variety, including the many trails and roadways that crisscross the region. Simply the act of going from the ancient capital city of Santa Fe to the funky chic town of Taos provides two interesting options.

One way is the low road, or U.S. Highway 84/285. This direct four-lane route passes through the Río Grande Valley highway towns of Pojoaque and the low-rider haven of Española. It then enters a soaring black basalt canyon as New Mexico 68. The narrow road runs alongside the Río Grande and eventually leads to Taos.

The other way to go from Santa Fe to Taos is the High Road, designated a New Mexico Scenic Byway in 2002. I always tell anyone making a round trip to try both the river and mountain routes, but if it is only a one-way trek those intrepid folks who prefer roads of genius should take the 70-mile long High Road. They will never regret it as long as they use some caution and common sense.

For some the journey to Taos via the High Road — with its looping switchbacks and long picturesque approaches — can take as little as a few hours or, it may require an entire day. For a special few it is a never-ending journey.

Since I first traversed the High Road many years ago, the traffic count has increased while most of the landscape and the sites along the way are as familiar as always. There are some exceptions. Nothing stays the same — even in Chimayó, Córdova, Truchas, Las Trampas, Peñasco, and the other mountain villages, including some that in the late 1700s acted as the first line of defense on the frontier of New Spain.

History and culture have been tampered with and it shows. A sense of isolationism in the villages has largely gone along with some of the old adobe structures and a way of life — replaced in part by house trailers, quaint b&bs for the turistas, television dishes, and other evidence of so-called progress. Many of the modern conveniences have helped make village life more comfortable. Sadly, the problems that plague our cities, such as alcoholism, drug addiction and the resulting crime that is spawned, have also spread to some of the villages along the historic route.

Yet, I return to the High Road every chance I get. Enough of the old treasured enticements are left to lure me back. And, like all roads worth taking, it is never predictable. That counts for a lot, at least for me and other two-lane wanderers.

T. “Yellowstone” Moran

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

From the very beginning, the American West has captured people’s imagination.

The expansive land west of the Mississippi was considered a mystery when President Thomas Jefferson purchased it in 1803. Some people dreamed of it as Eden. Others rushed after it as though it represented hope itself. In fact, it was both. It also was much more. The great American West was a majestic mix of tallgrass prairies caressed by the wind, water slicing and falling through the wrinkles of monumental peaks, and a maze of tinted canyons sculpted by the earth’s restlessness.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the first ones officially dispatched to map the new territory and solve the mystery through a scientific eye. Traders, explorers, and adventurers followed. In the mid-1860s, organized teams of geological surveyors accompanied by photographers and artists, set out to find answers from the American West. When they shared what they had discovered, the curiosity of vast audiences both at home and abroad was even further ignited.

The early wave of scouts had left as recorders. They returned as mythmakers. They had been on a quest for information. What they encountered was remade into a sublime experience. What had been a mystery soon took on the magic of myth.

Those early artists inspired much of the mystique and lure of the so-called “Old West”. The works they left recorded a time, place, and cultures that vanished long ago.

One of those artists was Thomas Moran.

Born in England in 1837 and raised in the United States, Moran became one of this nation’s foremost landscape painters. He was one of the very first to visit the region now known as Yellowstone. Images that Moran created from a journey there in 1871 made an impact that is still recognized today. Moran returned from Yellowstone with copious notes and dozens of field sketches and watercolors, many of which were distributed to members of Congress. His work became a critical ingredient in the passage of legislation that resulted in the designation of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park.

Moran was a fierce champion of Yellowstone. Ultimately, He became so identified with his paintings of the region that he adopted the nickname “T. Yellowstone Moran,” and often signed his monogram TYM.

Thomas Gilcrease also loved the American West and among the Oklahoma oil man’s favorite artists was “Yellowstone” Moran. Beyond the monumental paintings and watercolors of Yellowstone, Gilcrease enjoyed Moran’s magnificent portraits of the Grand Canyon and other western locales. Today the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa boasts more than 2,500 works by Moran — the single largest collection of the artist anywhere in the world.

Star Dome

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Near the edge of the earth in the low country of South Carolina on an island sculpted by wind and waves they found a special place. They went there at nightfall, after a day of listening to oysters sing from the tidal pools, watching clouds of wood storks dance through pink and orange skies, and running through groves where sorcerers dwelled amongst live oaks draped in moss.

They went there when the butterflies and dragonflies and black-skinned fox squirrels slumbered and the creatures of the shadows emerged. They went there when the still black lagoon waters reflected palmettos and magnolias and only fish stirred in watery chords twisting through marsh grass. They went there knowing they were far from the canopies of fouled city air.

As regular as the tides they were drawn to their special place like moths to candles. The ghosts of Indians, Spanish mariners, and African slaves watched them take their place inside a cathedral of pines that reached high into the night heavens like ship masts anchored to the rich soil.

They looked up as one into the dome of heaven. Starlight filled their eyes. The hazy arc of the Milky Way, star clusters, and constellations — each of them figments of the human imagination — bathed them in silver light.
They stood for an eternity beneath the pure light of the mysterious stars, which evolved out of cosmic gas — stars that guided ships and fueled the dreams of poets. There was no need to speak. Speech had no meaning. The choreography of the night sky said it all.

They returned home with a bouquet of feathers, a handful of seashells, some pine cones — all souvenirs of the time spent in the celestial glow. And with the passing of each year the fond memory of their star dome brought them the light of other days. Through dark times and death and the monotony and sorrow of the human condition, just the thought of those starry nights gave them comfort and peace.

With this new year may each of you find your own special place. May you stand in a star dome and be covered in light.

Ride to Live, Live to Ride

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” — Harley-Davidson saying

Way out west on a stretch of varicose concrete two-lane, stained from the vermilion earth of surrounding wheat fields, a man clad in supple leathers and faded denim slips outside and welcomes the Oklahoma morning. Faint tracks of night stars wither and vanish and a hint of breeze stirs the weeds along a wire fence. Filled with stout coffee and plenty of courage, the man sees in a heartbeat that it is a postcard-perfect day — tailor-made for a ramble on a motorcycle. A smile buds on his lips. All is right with the world.

Mindful that a motorcycle is not just another vehicle but a distinct lifestyle, the man considers himself doubly blessed. For he will not be riding just any cycle — he owns a Harley. This fellow is a true believer. He fears no evil; lives life full bore, and holds to the opinion that on the eighth day God created Harley-Davidson.

Leather skullcap, gauntlets, and goggles in place, the man secures the straps on the saddlebags, swings a booted leg over the seat, and mounts his gleaming machine — a Heritage Softail Classic. Just a turn of the ignition key, a push on the starter button, a gentle twist of the throttle, and the brawny Harley engine rumbles to life.

As he glides off in the direction of his dreams, the rider experiences what many others can only fantasize. The process of unfettered travel takes over. All thoughts disappear of the kid’s college tuition, a volatile stock market, and the favorite football team’s losing season. Every one of his senses is heightened and at full alert. For the next several hours, man and machine blend into a sweet concoction and dance through time and space.

Convinced that life begins at the off-ramp, the biker and his Harley stick to roads less traveled. No need for maps, turnpike change, or reservations. The possibility of pure adventure waits around every curve and bend. The ride is all that matters. Time becomes meaningless. Only the aroma of succulent ribs wafting from a roadside pit reminds the rider to pause for a late lunch.

The road beckons. With each passing mile, the man astride the metal-and-chrome pony is transformed into a Chisholm Trail drover, an escaping desperado, and a Kiowa scout. He becomes a young Brando, the Lone Ranger, Easy Rider incarnate. He is nineteen once again, en route to a Jimi Hendrix concert. Images of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey dance in his head.

Through sunshine and buffeting wind and beneath the shadows and light of heaven, the rider cruises the open roads of Oklahoma all day long. Bound only by his own imagination, he does not turn the Harley around and head for home until long after the moon rises.

Old Roads

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

As I travel this land I witness cities coming back to life. I see buildings of value with architectural merit and historic significance saved and recycled. I hear more and more voices speaking up for the built environment, for preservation, for honoring our history and culture. I listen to children and adults of all ages who truly care about saving the past, protecting what is left today, and who also are committed to fight the good fight in the future.

I am, of course like some of you, a helpless and chronic optimist. I see no cure or hope for that condition ever changing. And for that I am pleased.

Perhaps that explains in part why I travel ALL roads. But if there is a choice involved, I choose the old ones — the historic roads — every time.

I keep in mind the words from so long ago of the renowned English artist and poet William Blake:

“Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.

This country still has such roads — roads of genius.

To be sure, the land is also crisscrossed with no shortage of interstate highways and byways built to try to handle the constantly increasing glut of vehicles that crowd the lanes.

As I already told you, I drive ALL roads. So do all of you. We have no choice. Even I possess a Pike Pass to make my journeys more efficient when I traverse Oklahoma’s turnpike system.

Yet I also construct my daily life in such a way that as often as possible I shun the Pikes and superhighways and go to the winding two-lane bands of varicose concrete and asphalt. Some times I even seek the timeless trails of dirt and stone. I prefer traveling the roads of genius.

That requires not getting oneself in the position where you are forced to “make time” as some say. Like everyone I am seduced by all of the technology created to supposedly make our lives more efficient and expedient. But sometimes — sometimes — it is so good to choose an old path. Click off the cell phone, switch off the CD and the AC, roll down the windows, ease up on the gas and experience America before the nation became generic. Before the country was littered with gargantuan malls, slap dash franchises and chains that all came out of the same cookie cutter.

When you travel one of many remaining stretches of the Lincoln Highway — the Father Road — making its way through thirteen states from Times Square to the Golden Gate, you encounter a broad range of pure Americana.

When you find yourself on the Tamiami Trail with a belly full of stone crabs and sporting a fresh sunburn, you can become a Miccousouke Indian on the prowl for gators, a smuggler bringing in a load of contraband, an eight-year-old kid hoping Dad pauses at Everglades City so you can buy a carved coconut head.

When you rise and fall on the High Road to Taos in the Sangre de Cristos, you become part of an O’Keefe canvas as you pass through a litany of villages where people once uttered the language of Cervantes in this often puzzling land that time forgot.

And when you cruise Route 66 through eight states between Chicago and Santa Monica, you can transform yourself into anything or anyone you want to be — Billy the Kid, Woody Guthrie, Dorthea Lang, Tod and Buz, Ma Joad, Easy Rider, Lightning McQueen, Elvis.

Journeys down the historic roads are up close and personal. You are not as distant from the ecology of the land and from the people who live there, as you are when you drive an interstate highway. On the old roads you are physically closer and more connected to the land and the people. You use all your senses during the driving experience. Sometimes it is good and sometimes not so pleasant. You may see the woman in hair rollers mowing her lawn and smell the freshly cut grass, on the other hand you also pickup the aroma of fresh road kill. You may dine at a greasy spoon and come away with ptomaine or you may find a cafe serving a meatloaf platter worth dying for.

It can be a crapshoot. The old roads are never predictable. You find the good, the bad, and the ugly but come away with memories —both bitter and sweet — that enrich your life and stay with you forever.

Historic road treks promise the quintessential road trip for all those willing to steer clear of the predictable, the banal, and the humdrum. If, however, only the predictable will do and the notion of adventure and discovery bring on anxiety, then a historic road trip should be avoided at all costs.

These old roads are paths for travelers, not for tourists. There is a huge difference between the two. Tourists invariably stand out amongst the locals. You can tell if someone is a tourist with a single glance. They are the folks who when they go abroad always want to take America along for the ride. And when they travel in the United States, they still look and long for the familiar from their hometown. They flock to the franchise eateries and the chain motels because they know what to expect. They are not risk takers and will never take a chance, even if it could lead them to a memorable place or a person that they will never ever find again.

Tourists have a tendency to gawk at history and culture from afar. They do not wish to get too close. Also there is the time factor. Tourists are in a hurry, willing to fit in as much of the ordinary and predictable as possible as long as it is safe, cheap, and by all means comfortable. Interstate highways and turnpikes are their made-to-fit courses of choice.

Travelers on the other hand are more apt to enjoy cruising one of the historic highways. People who hanker for the hidden places off the well-beaten tourist path know that is the way to go. They are flexible, curious, and ready to discover new things and in so doing perhaps discover something new about themselves.

A Writer’s Life

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

As the old proverb puts it:
Live not in the past, look instead towards the future,
But in order to know where we are going
It is well to look back to see where we have been.

As a writer my job is to depict life and its events in the way I see them. I need to stay in tune with everything going on around me. I have to feel what others do not feel. I have to see what others do not see. I have to reveal the human condition. Because of that I am difficult to live with and I know that full well. So do others near and dear to me.

Still I go on. I have to write. I have to do that. It is so important that I leave behind the best of my work. My writing must be good. It has to be. Nothing else matters but that. Nothing.

I think of John Steinbeck. I consider him on an October morning all his own.

It was the morning of October 26, 1938. Steinbeck, fighting flu and facing all the demons that writers have to battle daily, completed writing The Grapes of Wrath. The last sentence of his diary entry for that date reads: “Finished this day — and I hope to God it’s good.”

I know that feeling. Many of you know it as well.

Through my published books — and I hope they are good — I pray I am leaving enough of the past to help others know where they are going by looking back to see where we have been.

Early in my life I was fortunate to figure out that I wanted to be a writer. I had no notion it would be such an interesting journey and one littered with all sorts of decisions.

Writer’s decisions. Countless decisions that go into every single act of writing. Daily decisions we all face. Which way to go . . . which way to turn . . . The sweet cruise … the ride to a rendezvous with danger.

Along that path I made some decisions that were very difficult. Most I stand behind; there are some I deeply regret — more than any of you will ever know.

Yet I have no choice but to move forward. To make amends where and when I can and continue to work at what I do best. In the end, my own life is of little consequence. I know that. I remember Georgia O’Keeffe saying it this way: “Where I was born and how I lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”

You need to strive to be all you can be. Make every single day your own masterpiece. Make wise choices but never be afraid of risk. Seek out the crooked paths, the roads of genius. Enjoy the journey.

On the Road Again

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

I am now on the tour circuit promoting three books — actually two new books and a third that is being re-published. Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd was originally published in 1992 but has been out of print for a few years. I am delighted it is now back in print thanks to W. W. Norton, also the publisher of my new biography entitled, David Crockett: The Lion of the West. The third book just released from Abrams is The Wild West: 365 Days, a collection of authentic stories and more than 700 images and photos (many never before published) chronicling the Wild West between 1830 and 1930.

My first exposure to Mr. Crockett — this inimitable American icon came, and I can vividly recall the exact date — came on the frosty night of December 15, 1954, in my hometown of St. Louis. ABC television network had just aired Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter, the first of three episodes produced by Walt Disney for his studio’s then-new series that had premiered only two months earlier. Called simply Disneyland during its first four years, this anthology series, under a variety of other names, including most commonly The Wonderful World of Disney, which would become one of the longest showing prime-time programs on American television.

I was just nine years old that December evening but I could have predicted the show’s success. I was hooked only moments after hearing the theme music “When You Wish Upon a Star,” sung by cartoon insect Jiminy Cricket from the soundtrack of the movie Pinocchio. Longtime Disney announcer Dick Wesson introduced host Walt Disney and, with some visual assistance from a flittering Tinkerbell, Uncle Walt unleashed the legendary frontier character Davy Crockett into our living room, as if from a runaway train from the 12-inch screen of our 1950 table model RCA Victor television set.

As they say in 50s parlance, I was a goner. Within only minutes the larger-than-life Crockett, clad in buckskin and wearing a coonskin cap, had won me over. My fickle, nine-year-old heart pounded. That past summer at two separate appearance events on a department store parking lot, I had shaken the hands of both Hopalong Cassidy and the Cisco Kid but now they were instantly demoted to lower rungs on my list of heroes. Even Stan Musial — “swinging Stan the Man” — the legendary St. Louis Cardinal All-Star slugger, whose name was etched in granite at the top of that list, was in jeopardy of being topped.

By the time that first episode ended, the image of Crockett, as portrayed by 29-year-old Fess Parker was firmly ensconced in my psyche. I did not even consider staying up for Strike it Rich and I Got a Secret. I forgot about the promise of fresh snow and the good sledding sure to follow. Instead I headed straight to my room where I poured over the World Book Encyclopedia entry for Crockett, dreaming of the swashbuckler with a proclivity for dangerous behavior, a most commendable quality for any red-blooded American kid.

As I would quickly learn, I was not alone. More than forty million others tuned into Disneyland that Wednesday night. By the time the next episode, Davy Crockett, Goes to Congress aired on January 16, 1955, followed on February 23 by Davy Crockett, At the Alamo, I, along with much of the nation — especially the growing ranks of the so-called Boomer Generation — was swept up by the Crockett frenzy. We wanted more.

And more came in the form of an unprecedented merchandising whirlwind, in which Crockett was commercialized in ways that would have been unthinkable to the man himself. Every kid had to have a coonskin cap like Davy’s and almost overnight the wholesale prices of raccoon pelts soared from twenty-five cents a pound to six dollars, resulting in the sale of at least ten million furry caps. Within only months of the series premiere, more than $100-million was shelled out for at least three thousand different Crockett items, including pajamas, lunch boxes, underwear, comics, books, moccasins, toothbrushes, games, clothing, toy rifles, sleds, and curtains. The catchy theme song “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” sold more than four million copies and remained No. 1 on the Top Ten list for thirteen weeks. On May 7, 1955, I proudly wore my coonskin hat when Giselle Mackenzie sang the top tune of the week on “Your Hit Parade.” Like every one of my pals, I knew the words were true. We sang Crockett’s ballad at the top of our lungs as we built forts from old Christmas trees and cardboard boxes, transforming the school ground into our own version of Crockett Country. Davy Crockett quickly became our obsession.

It’s hard for anyone born, say, after 1958 to recall the “Davy Crockett” frenzy that swept America in the 1950s. So profound was Crockett’s cultural inundation that no baby boomer can fail to recall this charismatic American hero’s name. This recognition, to my way of thinking is a good thing, but the veritable flood of misinformation about Crockett’s life that resulted – something I became aware of only later in life, which in part has motivated me to write this book – has also created a Crockett mythology that continues to this day.

This is not another straightforward chronological biography of Davy Crockett, nor is it a regurgitation of the many myths and lies perpetuated about Crockett over the years. Instead this book is for those people interested in learning the truth — or at least as much as can be uncovered — about the historical and fictional Crockett and how the two often became one. Hopefully readers will gain some new historical insights into the actual man and how he captured the imagination of his generation and later ones as well.

Now the same hold true for The Wild West: 365 Days. Co-authored with my wife and creative partner, Suzanne Fitzgerald Wallis, and with more than 700 photos and images from the collection of Robert McCubbin, this book spans the century from 1830 to 1930. It begins with Indian Removal and such characters as Crockett and Sam Houston and ends in 1930 with the death of Wyatt Earp and the emergence of Pretty Boy Floyd and other Dust Bowl desperados.

All books are labors of love and passion, at least for me, but as Suzanne will attest, The Wild West: 365 Days was a particularly difficult book to assemble. We are ecstatic with the results and hope you share our feelings once you come to meet the array of characters, events, places, and untold stories we offer.