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


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Time Warp

This past Sunday Dave and I browsed some favorite antique and collectibles stores, and we discovered some new ones too.  When I visit one of these stores I have an  “out of body” experience because I travel into my past.   Dave always teases me because I like to touch everything, pick it up and hold it, often losing myself in a rush of nostalgia.  It is fortunate that the shops we like are not high end!  I guess one of the reasons my husband and I are so compatible is that we are historians even more than collectors–always connecting the past with the present.

Because I am in my sixties, the items I find that link me to my childhood or teenage years are now between fifty and sixty years old.  On a shelf I might see a doll with a cloth body and molded plastic face, very much like the one I spotted in a baby picture of me.  I don’t even remember the doll–just a wisp of memory that I can’t really capture.   A darling fitted wool coat with matching hat and muff  tickles a memory of me wearing such a coat to church or school when I was my granddaughter’s age.  Aisles and aisles of dishes, lamps, spice cans, old magazines, Golden Books, Life magazines, furniture, Corning Ware, pottery, coffee carafes–all of them transport me back to childhood remembrances  of a different world, a different time, another country all together.

Recently we have begun renting old television shows from Netflix .  These anthologies come from Playhouse 90, Kraft Theater and Westinghouse’s Studio One, to name a few.  The one we watched last night featured Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in a 1953 Studio One performance.   Of course they are performed live, broadcast  in black and white with patchy sound and the poor picture quality.  Nevertheless, Gleason and Carney’s talent surmounted all of that.  The story was nuanced and and had a spiritual quality to it that is missing from much of modern television.   Of course, early television was avant garde at its outset.   These shows originated from New York City, so they featured Broadway actors for the most part, many of whom were experienced and older than the actors who populate most of our television today.  Given the newness of the medium, they were pioneers and took chances.

Cable shows such Damages, Breaking Bad and Mad Men dare to take these kind of  risks with meaningful stories today, but they are a premium. Anyone who views them pays to have cable or satellite link-ups.   I guess, in a way, people in 1953 who could afford a television set and lived in an area where it was available also paid because televisions were a luxury item.  The argument that I am making, however, is that television producers and their sponsors believed that people wanted quality programming all the time. They had respect for the  audience.  Even the old Perry Mason series featured a more complex vocabulary than most television today.

Okay, okay–I’m beginning to sound like my grandmother, talking about the malaise of the modern world.  I guess that is part of having  lived several decades so I can compare and contrast, but I have to say that I don’t think everything new is an improvement.

Another program we ordered from Netflix was a documentary from 2005 titled The End of Suburbia. Since it was produced in 2004/2005,  it seemed prophetic when it predicted the recession and decline of the American lifestyle, the continuing war and threats to American safety, the gasoline price crisis and the problems we have because we built our lives around suburbs, cars and highways.   The huge divisions between haves and have-nots were also analyzed.  In fact, experts knew in the late 1960s/early 1970s that we would run short of oil before the end of the century, but kept silent about it.  Anyone who did speak out, such as Jimmy Carter, was called a gloom and doom naysayer.   Dave and I  kept pausing the video to analyze all that we were hearing.

On our drive home from “antiquing”, we talked about how much more complicated life has become.  We know so much more than we did twenty or thirty years ago and the world has changed so fast, even within the last ten years.   The very idea of living to 100 years of age seems daunting–how much more change can we absorb?   Childhood seems a long, long time ago.  And 30+ more years of life seems more of the future than we might be able to endure.