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


Wanna-Be Cowboys

Today my younger daughter, Jennifer, and my three grandchildren are visiting the National Western Stock Show .  I guess I should have been more diligent about taking my daughters, Jennifer and Julianne, to the Stock Show every January when they were young since Jen considers it a yearly event for her daughter.  She values the experience for her child and enjoys it enough to take her two nephews as well on a rare day off.

Julia, Andrew and Beck at the National Western Stock Show. 16 Jan 12

I remember my own visits to the Stock Show while growing up in Denver.  We went to the rodeo several times.  It is always held indoors, since this is Denver, Colorado in January!  There are three venues near what used to be the stockyards.

I think I got my fill, though, as a teacher of second graders for six years.  The National Western Stock Show was a regular field trip for that grade in the Denver Public Schools.   We had guides who helped us lead 30 or so youngsters through the throngs of visitors and around the cattle, sheep and horses.  Still, I always worried about those children who lagged behind or wandered off.  There’s always one!  The children I taught didn’t usually attend the Stock Show with their families, so this field trip was a good educational experience for them.  Even though they always held their noses with the first whiff of the animal droppings, they came back to the school very excited about the animals and cowboys, trailing an earthy stock show fragrance.

National Western Stock Show Parade - 17th Stre...

Herding longhorns down 17th Street Denver National Western Stock Show Image via Wikipedia

English: Downtown skyscrapers in Denver, Colorado.

Denver SkylineImage via Wikipedia

My sister-in-law has visited Dave and me in Denver several times.  She lives in Evanston, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.  On one of those trips she mentioned her surprise that people from Denver consider themselves Westerners.  When Dave told me that, I was surprised.  Of course we consider ourselves part of the West—the Wild West even—although throughout my lifetime Denver has been trying to be considered MORE than a “cow town.”  Anyone who visits Denver today will see a city that has grown beyond the “cow town” image.  Maybe that’s why Connie was surprised that Denver’s citizens consider themselves Western, not Midwestern!

My mother’s family came to Denver from Columbus, Ohio in 1920.  My grandmother’s younger brother, Edwin, had moved to Denver for a job opportunity selling mining equipment.  My grandparents and family followed a few years later.  Eventually, the entire Horne/Rockfield side of the family had settled in Denver.   The legends and myths of “The West” were clear in their minds, as you can see by these pictures.

My Ohio to Denver family saw themselves as pioneers when they moved to Colorado. This is taken in about 1925 in Indian Hills, a mountain community outside of Denver. It is almost in the suburbs now.

My mother (the tall "Indian") with her cousins, parents and sister at their cabin in Indian Hills. circa 1925 They look rather grumpy here. A fascination with western lore, the many westerns on TV in the 1950s and early 1960s, influenced Baby Boomers around the country. When I visit antique stores and look at old pictures, people in cowboy clothing prevail.

World War II brought my father to Denver.  Lowry Field, as it was called in those days, provided technical training for the Army Air Forces involved with armaments, i.e. gun sites and the loading and dropping of bombs from the air.  He fell in love with my mother, Denver and the mountains and returned here after 3 years as a Bombardment Officer in the Mediterranean Theater.  This is where I was born and my love of Denver began.

English: Lowry Field, Denver, Colorado

Lowry Field Denver, CO World War II era Image via Wikipedia

A fascination with western lore, the many westerns on TV in the 1950s and early 1960s, influenced Baby Boomers around the country.  When I visit antique stores and look at old pictures, people in cowboy clothing prevail.

Aunt Emily visiting from Illinois, with my sister Beth (pointing the gun) and me, Mary Julia 1954

Last year I wrote a post titled The Code of the West in which I referred to a set of principles developed for a curriculum unit in a local school district.  I believe this code applies to our lives today as well in the past, whether we live in the west, the east, the north or the south.  These are universal principles.

The Code of the West
▪   Live each day with courage
▪   Take pride in your work
▪   Always finish what you start
▪   Do what has to be done
▪   Be tough but fair
▪   When you make a promise, keep it
 ▪   Ride for the brand
▪   Talk less and say mor
▪   Remember that some things aren’t for sale
▪   Know where to draw the line

                                                                                                                 Happy trails to you!

O, Tannenbaum and Auld Lang Syne

Auld Lang Syne

Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday we took down the Christmas tree.   It has always been a tradition to take it down on New Year’s Day—a tradition that extends from my childhood.   We always felt sad when we were children to see the decorations disappear.  To dull the melancholy that came with the end of the holidays, my mother would put the tree out by the incinerator (now banned because it pollutes the air).  We would decorate the tree’s branches with cubes of dried bread strung on thread.  That did help us feel better.  My sister and I never knew what happened to the tree after our bread cube ritual because we were swept back into the school routine.  It was probably cut into pieces and burned.  The smoke from hundreds of incinerators is one of my memories from childhood that my children never experienced.

Christmas Tree Fort 1958 -- Holly Hills, Arapahoe Country, Colorado

One year when I was still in elementary school, all of us in the neighborhood gathered up our discarded trees and made a Christmas tree fort.  You can tell it was a warm day because we are all in tee shirts.  What a scraggly bunch we were!  I guess we were beyond the bread cube strings by that time.

My entire family now owns pre-lighted Christmas trees.   Oh, we modern city dwellers!  We don’t have to worry about taking our trees to a local Christmas tree dumpsite where it will be mulched into ground cover for the city or county gardens.  Instead, we take the ornaments off, pull the tree apart, fold the branches up and wrap them with the enclosed pipe-cleaner style wires.  These we stack back in the box and store them in our crawl space.  Easy-peasy!   By the time the ornaments and other traditional items are wrapped and put in boxes for storage and the house is vacuumed and dusted, we are ready for a new year.  It feels good to be cleaned up, but the house seems a little empty and dull now.  Hanging the new calendar does help a bit.

Missing the brightly lighted tree, the angels, Santa Claus, elves and nativity scenes is undoubtedly what welcoming Christmas back in December is all about.   If the holiday season lasted all year, it would soon fade into the background!

There were many debates this year about the crassness of Christmas shopping and shoppers, the mixing of the religious with the secular, keeping Christ in Christmas and so on.  Whatever the arguments, the beginning of winter, the changing of calendars and the singing of Auld Lang Syne return every year.

Kitchen calendar

Cat Calendar

Revised post: Survival Stories Inspire Us

I’ve always loved to read.  I completed every story in my elementary school reader (you must remember those) in a week.  We weren’t supposed to read ahead, but I couldn’t wait! For me, words are manna from heaven—both the written and the spoken.

When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher had us keep a card file with a small book review of every book we read that year.  I kept up my card file until I went to college. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to it after that.  Fortunately, one of my sons-in-law gave me a book journal for Christmas in 1999.  I filled it up in a year, and then started a new card file based on the journal format.  Now I have a record of twelve years’ worth of books!

Eloise May Library

Two years ago, our local branch of the Arapahoe Library District moved from a small space on the third floor of a local government building to a new building two miles from our house.  Once it was so close, Dave and I made a pledge to stop buying books and start borrowing them.  Neither of us has ever had trouble finding a book to read in this library branch. We keep lists of favorite authors and new book titles, but we also have found authors unknown to us on the May’s library shelves. I have also requested books for us, even though we sometimes wait a month or two for a best seller. Every visit to the library is an adventure for us, searching the shelves for the right book that will provide us hours and hours of reading pleasure.

Dave urged me to publish my book reviews for many years, but I didn’t know where I could do it until I started blogging and using Facebook.  I’ve done two reviews on this blog and a few on Facebook, but I decided to make book reviews a regular blog feature. So, let me begin with two of my favorite recent reads…

Alexandra Fuller (Bo Fuller) at cabin near Pinedale, Wyoming. Offhand decor includes an even mix of African and cowboy artifacts. CREDIT: David J Swift

This summer I stumbled upon the author Alexandra Fuller in the book review section of The Denver PostShe had written a book about growing up in Africa.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

Alexandra Fuller (nicknamed Bobo) lived in Africa from 1972 until 1994. Her parents lived in Kenya and then Rhodesia before she was born, beginning their family with her sister, Vanessa, and a brother who died from meningitis in his infancy. Unlike her older siblings, Bobo was born in England, where her mother retreated to recover her health and give birth to Bobo.

Before Bobo arrived in Africa, the Fullers acquired their own ranch Rhodesian ranch where they could grow most of their food and run some sheep and horses.  Unfortunately for them, after a few years of ranching, a civil war interrupted their lives.  Bobo’s father joined the white colonial army, fighting unsuccessfully against the black Rhodesians.

When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, the Fullers lost their home and began a peripatetic lifestyle fraught with deprivation: poverty, homelessness, hunger, danger and illness.  They moved from Zimbabwe to Malawi and finally to Zambia, running from conflicts and hellish conditions. The family lost two more children, numerous pets, livestock and land.  Bobo’s mother fought depression constantly, but her condition worsened with alcoholism. She displayed manic episodes as well and became unpredictable.

Bobo wrote this 2001 memoir based on her childhood memories. She uses a light and humorous touch as she describes learning to load and shoot a gun and riding in the family truck over roads that could be mined. I was captivated, as well as appalled, at the conditions this family endured, but their love for Africa was clear.  Bobo’s irrepressible spirit and her family’s indomitable pluckiness shine through their troubles.  I couldn’t put down this fascinating book.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

The sequel to this book was published this year, a few months after I read the first memoir.  After Nicola, Alexandra Fuller’s mother, read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, she condemned it as “that awful book.”  She didn’t like her one-dimensional portrayal. She made the point when she told her daughter, “You don’t know me, and you don’t know anything about me.”  The book was written from a child’s memories of her parents.

For Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller listened repeatedly to hours and hours of family interview tapes and tackled her second book as portrait of her mother.  In a New York Times review she is quoted, “This book is my love story to (my mother).  Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight was a love story to place.”

There is no question that this portrayal of both the Fuller parents comes across differently, especially for Nicola.  She is a vulnerable woman who overcomes her depression with resolve and comes to terms with her losses through self-acceptance and forgiveness.  As a reader, I grew to admire Nicola and Tim Fuller for their courage, self-sacrifice and ability to build themselves the life they always wanted.  There is no doubt that the star of Cocktail Hour is always Nicola–and Africa.

Nicola Fuller pulled herself together and taught her daughters to make the best of their situations.  She cultivated their artistic and literary gifts and inspired them to endure.  Vanessa still lives in Africa and is the mother of several children. She is also a graphic and textile artist. Alexandra went to college in Nova Scotia and met her American husband there.  They live in Wyoming with their two children. Cocktail Hour is her fourth book.

Both of these memoirs are beautifully written, but Cocktail Hour has a compact, spare quality that is powerful as well as eloquent.  It is also laced with humor, a quality the Fullers must possess in triplicate to have survived their African troubles.

I close with some favorite passages from each book.

Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight: “What I can’t know about Africa as a child … is her smell; hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft. It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass.”               

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness:  “No one starts a war warning that those involved will lose their innocence—that children will definitely die and be forever lost as a result of the conflict; that the war will not end for generations and generations, even after cease-fires have been declared and peace treaties have been signed. No one starts a war that way, but they should.  It would at least be fair warning and an honest admission:  even a good war—if there is such a thing—will kill anyone old enough to die.”                                                     


▪    Running From Grief (seattleweekly.com)

▪    Books of The Times: A Mother’s Long Love Affair With Colonialism (nytimes.com)

▪    Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller: review (telegraph.co.uk)

Another favorite book about an African childhood, this time in Kenya.

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

I’m Remembering A Sunny Christmas

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On this sunny day with no snow on the ground, we still enjoy Christmas.  Everyone thinks Colorado is perpetually covered in snow, but that isn’t true in Denver.  Some years, maybe–but I don’t have nostalgic memories of snowy Christmas days from my childhood.  Yes, I am a Denver native and I grew up here!

The persistent rumor that Denver is like the mountains isn’t true.  We are high, dry and sunny most of the time.  The Christmas days I remember when I was a child include running around outside without a coat, wondering what to do with the sled stored in the garage.

When I was a child, we spent Christmas time driving to different people’s houses to visit, admiring the gifts spread under the tree and eating tasty snacks.  When we were young we enjoyed a big dinner with all the old relatives coming over.  Eventually they didn’t travel, so we went to them on Christmas Eve day.

When I had young children at home, my parents came to our house.  My daughters and stepsons would watch out the window until they arrived, then jump up and fly out the door, crying, “Grandma, Grandpa!”

We unwrapped gifts for hours it seemed, since there were eight people sitting around the family room.  No ripping into gifts for us!  Everyone watched the person opening the gift, waiting for that pleased look of happiness and surprise.  The wrappings were neatly disposed of, the presents set in each family member’s personal pile.  Then the next person would unwrap.  The youngest person in the family always handed out the gifts.

Some years my mother brought the turkey, all cooked and cut up, while I prepared everything else.  I usually concocted a fancy dessert.  My specialty was Baked Alaska, created several days ahead of time, with the finishing touches done just before eating,

After we finished dinner, my parents and I would sit around the table and talk. The kids would drift away to play, but mother, dad and I would reminisce about the old days.  The candles would burn down to stubs, leaving wax on the tablecloth.   The short winter day dimmed to dusk.  This ritual is what I miss most at Christmas, especially since both my parents died around Christmas time, many years ago.

Christmas is nostalgic for many folks.  Maybe that hint of nostalgia makes the holidays that much richer.   A few tears for those who are gone–mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, children…

They exist in other places and times, maybe in another city or state or country.  They may be only a memory, their bones in a grave under a headstone,  or their ashes blown away by the wind.  However, for as long as we live,  they are the beloved wisps of memory around our Christmas tree.

I have worked for years on a poem about the losses time brings.  I end  my 2010 Christmas thoughts  with this work, dedicated to my parents.

Mary Elizabeth Rockfield Harris        16 Sep 1915-4 Jan 1990

Roy David Harris                                  25 Aug 1911-14 Dec 1997


“sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”

“these are the tears of things, and our mortality cuts to the heart”

Virgil, The Aeneid

Little did I know of time,

when wishing for tomorrows,

these moments I was living in

would never be again.


There would never be again an

hour when growing shadows

dimmed every dear face

gathered near, the candles

weeping their demise

upon  the white linen.

There would never be again a

time when sunlight streaked the

faded carpet, while you sat beside

me, dust motes between us

swirling to the rhythm of our words.

The  hope of our tomorrows lost,

too soon today becoming yesterday;

Sunt lacrimae rerum–

these are tears for all those things

that will never be again.

©2010 M. J. Oliver

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