When I Was Annie Oakley

Oakley circa 1899

the real Annie Oakley Image via Wikipedia

“Aim at the high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, not the second time and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect. Finally you’ll hit the bull’s-eye of success.”   — Annie Oakley

One of our favorite programs on PBS is American Experience. If you are not aware of this program, let me highly recommend it for excellent, in-depth American history features.  During January 2012 the theme was The American West.  Some of the weekly shows included George Armstrong Custer, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Wyatt Earp and my childhood idol, Annie Oakley.

I discovered Annie in the early days of television.  The show Annie Oakley premiered in 1954, when I was seven.  I was crazy about her and believed everything portrayed on the show—that she was a deputy sheriff, had a younger brother, Tagg, and was a great sharp shooter.  I even had Annie Oakley pajamas!  My dad always claimed they would keep me up all night with all the horse ridin’ and guns a-blazin’.

Aunt Emily visiting from Illinois, with Beth and Mary Julia 1954 I believed I was Annie Oakley!

A few years later, a Sunday supplement to our newspaper featured an article about the REAL Annie Oakley. [see picture above] Was I horrified!  She wasn’t a cute lady with pigtails wearing buckskins!  She looked very plain—even ugly—compared to Gail Davis, the actress who portrayed her on TV.  That was the end of Annie Oakley for me!

Gail Davis as Annie Oakley

Fortunately, American Experience featured a wonderful biography of my forgotten heroine a couple of weeks ago.  It reignited my admiration for this woman.  Annie was born in 1860 to a Quaker family in Greenville, Ohio, and endured a poverty stricken childhood after the death of her father.  She was put out to work very early in life and suffered considerable rough treatment until she finally returned to her family and honed her sharpshooting skills.  She supported her family from the age of nine by shooting game.   Possessing superior eye-hand coordination and a sturdy grip, she could out shoot every man around her.

Annie was a petite 5 feet tall and only 15 years old when she went to Cincinnati to participate in a sharpshooting contest where she met and out shot Frank Butler, a well-known sharpshooter.  They were both attracted to one another, married and traveled the vaudeville circle as a shooting act.  Eventually they joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and traveled the world with horses, buffalo, American Indians, teepees, cowboys and other sharpshooters.

Approx. second half of 1880s poster showing An...

Wild West posterImage via Wikipedia

Annie was one of the featured members of the Wild West Show because she was so small, and feminine, yet amazingly competent with a gun.  Unlike some of the other acts with women, she always dressed conservatively in clothes that she made.  They covered her body and accentuated her ladylike personality, even though she could shoot better than anyone else, male or female.  She always had a star on her cowboy hat and shooting metals displayed across her bodice.

As her acclaim grew, she used her reputation to promote charity for young women, widows and orphans and advocated that women learn to handle guns and shoot straight.   She was quoted as saying, “I would like to see every woman know how to handle [firearms] as naturally as they know how to handle babies.”  So many women took her advice that she was able to offer President McKinley the services of “50 lady sharp shooters” should a war between Spain and America occur.

In 1902 Annie and Frank left the Wild West show for a quieter life.  Annie took up acting in a play written for her.  She continued to enter shooting competitions and winning.  In her later years she suffered two series injuries that could have ended her shooting career.   One was a spinal injury obtained in a train wreck, the other a leg injury in a car accident.  Both times she overcame the injuries and returned to sharpshooting in contests.

Annie cherished her hard earned reputation.  When the Hearst Corporation spread an untrue story about Annie Oakley being arrested for stealing to support her cocaine habit, she fought it in the courts.   In fact, an actress claiming to be “Annie Oakley” was arrested for this crime, but she had given a false name.  Annie took part in 55 court cases for libel to clear her name, which she did at considerable cost to her time and finances.

Annie Oakley continued her sharp shooting into her sixties.  She died in 1926 from pernicious anemia at the age of 66.  “After traveling through fourteen foreign countries and appearing before all the royalty and nobility I have only one wish today. That is that when my eyes are closed in death that they will bury me back in that quiet little farm land where I was born.”  Indeed, she was.

Annie Oakley, with a gun Buffalo Bill gave her

Image via Wikipedia

Annie Oakley is a relevant role model for today’s woman.   She took charge of her life and lived it with integrity and pride.  She encouraged women to be more than the role that had been defined for them.  She worked to improve the lives of women and children who were impoverished.  She gave encouragement and material help to young women who needed it.  She never compromised herself.  I was wise when I chose to admire her at the age of seven.  I wish I had not let a bad picture discourage me from finding out more about the real person behind the invented legend.

Annie Oakley

She actually was an attractive woman! Image via Wikipedia


Where, oh where, has civility gone?

Surf through the channels on your television set.  It doesn’t matter if you have cable, satellite or just the basic channels.  Somewhere in the mix you find people behaving very, very badly.  People shouting at one another, trading putdowns, bragging, flaunting huge houses and tank-sized luxury automobiles–and these are the “reality” shows, not the dramas and comedies.

The news channels offer the same wide assortment of  truthiness.   One news pundit shouts at the audience or another pundit or they all shout at each other.  They threaten, predict or promise chaos.  They have the CORRECT viewpoint and everyone else is wrong.  This is the media–not a religious channel.  We can have the same experience on the radio as well, with shouts, insults and threats assaulting our psyches twenty-four hours a day.

Then there is the audience. We can pick sides!  We are either PRO or CON, and those who don’t are OUT.  I’m an “outie”, but we are not talking about belly buttons here.

I was raised in a mid-20th century middle-class Protestant household.  We went to a moderately liberal church every Sunday.   Girls wore dresses to worship and public school.  We were taught to be courteous to adults and to listen and think before we spoke.  My parents encouraged us to speak our minds, but only one person spoke at a time.  We learned about other religions–how we were alike, how we were different.

I was a baby boomer, but not a hippie.  I was idealistic, but also realistic.  From my childhood on I witnessed race riots, protests, assassinations and wars on my TV screen and in the newspapers.  I watched a president resign.  I know the world is not perfect.  I even remember the HUAC hearings on the flickering black and white screen of our very first television.  My parents were nervous–not because they were worried about being called to testify.  They were worried about the threat it posed to freedom of expression.

As an adult, I have accepted the responsibility to both raise and teach the next generation.  I taught my children and my students to respect other people’s ideas, to accept those who are different, to speak with “inside voices,” to listen and learn, to follow the Golden Rule, to cooperate, collaborate and settle disagreements peacefully around the table.  A good winner shook hands with the loser, a good loser congratulated the winner.

As a parent and teacher, I celebrated our nation’s history and ideals.  My children and students learned about the founding fathers, the constitution and civil rights.  It was also important to me that children understood the ways in which we were linked to the world–ecological connections as well as international policy connections.  If there is an earthquake in Haiti, how are we linked to that tragedy?  We are all part of the worldwide web of life.

I can accept change, whether I adopt all of it or not.  I love the internet and the cellphone, hundreds of TV channels, Kindles and Nooks, streaming videos, You Tube, social networking–the world is growing smaller by leaps and bounds. I celebrate choice and convenience.

What I cannot accept is xenophobia–the fear and hatred of people from other countries.  I cannot accept jingoistic patriots–aggressive or warlike foreign policy.  How can we survive in a smaller world if we cannot see things from the another point of view and find a comfortable middle?  When did civil discourse become weakness?

The extreme polarization of our country and our world is threatening the survival of civilization.  That is the outcome of disregarding civility.