Shtick and history: Renaissance Festival offers mud, sweat and cleavage

BY ROBERT TRUSSELL
rtrussell@kcstar.com

As I approached the main gate to the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, I heard war drums pounding away just inside the compound, and my pulse quickened.

What lay in store? Acrobats? A stunt show? Dueling swordsmen?

To my right was an impossible-to-miss figure standing on the periphery of a grassy field where an archery competition apparently was to be held. Certainly there were archers in the Renaissance era — generally considered to span the 14th to 17th centuries as a bridge between the Middle Ages and modern Europe — but this fellow would have been an odd sight on the streets of Shakespeare’s London or Michelangelo’s Rome. I shall call him Thor, because he was costumed as a bearded Norse warrior holding a massive hammer in one paw.

Thus, even before I entered the grounds, was I introduced to the fungible definition of “renaissance” at the annual Renfest, which began decades ago as a fundraiser by the Kansas City Art Institute but is now a commercial enterprise operated by a Minnesota-based company.

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The King and Queen lead the daily parade through the festival grounds. Photo by Robert Trussell

Inside the gates, I saw a number of young women wearing plastic elves’ ears (Were there more elves in the Renaissance than other eras?), a man wearing what appeared to be a Plains Indian feathered headdress and, of course, a few court jesters.

So, too, were there “bawdy” wenches with expansive decolletage, costumed strollers greeting visitors with “Good day, sir,” and boys and men dressed as medieval knights. There were moments when the mashup of incongruities became so vivid that I felt like I had stumbled into the multispecies cantina in “Star Wars.” Sadly, I saw no White Walkers (the frozen zombies from the pseudo-medieval “Game of Thrones.”)

People strolled around munching fried chicken served in paper cartons and enormous turkey legs. You could buy a $6 domestic beer if the sun made you thirsty. As you moved through the fairgrounds, there were times when the air was filled with the smell of hot grease and others where the dominant aroma brought to mind a cow lot. And, thanks to the recent rains, you had to sidestep patches of mud.

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Mounted knights join the parade and will soon meet in the lists. Photo by Robert Trussell

But there wasn’t much to do with the real Renaissance. Nowhere did I find a single reference to William Shakespeare, Johannes Gutenberg or Galileo — not that a visit to the festival is meant to be a scholarly pursuit.

No, the general era conveyed by the stage shows, attractions and gift shops spread across 16 acres in Wyandotte County invites a description no less vague than “olden.” As in Ye Olde (fill in the blank) Shoppe.

The war drums, it turned out, weren’t warlike at all. Just loud. They were part of an early-afternoon performance by Soul Fire, a “gypsy” troupe of young men and women who danced, tumbled (rolling in the dirt), twirled flaming batons and indulged in PG-rated banter with the audience.

Within minutes it was time for the parade — the daily procession in which most if not all of the resident performers fell in and toured the festival grounds with drums and trumpets. Knights on horseback, kings and queens, dancers and clowns shuffled, marched and pranced through a Sunday-afternoon throng of spectators. Bringing up the rear was the masked Executioner, an axe resting across one shoulder, who repeatedly called out: “Parade’s over! Bye-bye! You can all go home now!”

I followed the parade through the wooded festival site to the jousting arena, which is one of the festival’s big selling points.

The bleachers were packed by the time I got there and when the fellow dressed something like Henry VIII told the audience through his wireless microphone that they were to see merely a demonstration, the spectators were audibly disappointed.

“There will be no bloodshed today,” the King told them and a collective “aww …” rippled across the crowd.

I expected some bad theater and the alleged jousting didn’t disappoint. There was more talking than fighting as the King and Queen traded quips with the armored Sir Arthur, Sir Malcolm and Sir Duncan, who sat on costumed horses. The shaky accents, I could tell, were meant to sound British. First the mounted knights competed by spearing rings tossed in the air by a female squire. Finally, it came down to the real matchup — a joust between Arthur and Duncan.

On the third pass, Arthur unseated Duncan, who slowly fell to the dirt without injuring himself. Then they fought with swords. Let it be said the level of violence was less than shocking.

The festival has plenty of entertainment for family and kids. There’s a stand near the lists that sells foam swords. There’s a petting zoo. You can pay to ride horses, ponies, llamas, camels — even an elephant. There’s musical entertainment at stages throughout the park. But there’s also stuff for people in the market for something less than wholesome.

That’s why I ducked into the Dungeon Museum and paid $2 for a quick walk-through. The first window showed me the skull crusher, which worked something like a vise. The minimal written information in each display informed me that most of these interesting inventions were employed to extract confessions. No kidding. I’d confess to anything if the skull crusher were wrapped around my cranium.

It’s a short tour and the ineptly crafted mannequins representing torture victims won’t score points for realism. Yet the museum, whether by design or not, stood as a reminder that the Renaissance, for all its stunning achievements in art, philosophy and mathematics, had a grotesque side that reflected the worst in human nature.

With that happy thought, I called it a day and headed for the exit.

This article was originally published in the Kansas City Star on Sept. 23, 2015. Visit www.kansascity.com

 

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Drag queens, circa 1880

Note: This article appeared in the Nov. 26, 1880 edition of the Kansas City Evening Star.  There was no byline. This is a verbatim transcription.

The Kansas City Evening Star (from microfilm)

The Kansas City Evening Star (from microfilm)

STRANGE MEN

Female Impersonators — Their Manners, Customs, Life and Amusements

A Queer Set of Men Who Make From Thirty to One Hundred and Fifty Dollars a Week

By Aping the Frailer and Fairer Sex — Some Ridiculous Love Scenes

Among the many queer people on this terrestrial ball, the variety actors and actresses may be set down as the queerest. They constitute a little world in themselves to which all other people are merely visitors. They have their grades, their heroes, their scandals, their butts of ridicule, their philosophers, their aristocracy, middle class and lower ten thousand just like the busy world of which they form a very important yet exclusive factor, all of which is introductory to the subject of female impersonators in general and some in particular who are the queerest of all these.

VERY QUEER PEOPLE.

Two of this class are now performing at one of the variety theatres. Their stage names are Lansing and St. Leon, and an Evening Star reporter interviewed them in regard to their business with very satisfactory results. One fact that would interest anyone from a Methodist deacon to a sport is the number of “mashes” that these men in the guise of women have made in their travels. It is an actual fact, well substantiated, , that men of intelligence and wealth have fallen madly in love with them. Some of these cases, The Evening Star proposes to relate.

MASH NUMBER ONE

While playing on the island opposite Philadelphia, Lansing made the acquaintance of a rich resident of the Quaker City, who became very much infatuated with him. Lansing was playing Columbine in the Farette pantomime troupe, and formed the singular acquaintanceship in the green room of the theatre. The man was a prominent citizen , and the case became very interesting to the actors and actresses , who carried out the joke so well that the duped man did not discover the sex of his idol for several months. In the meantime he fairly revelled in his absorbing love passion, and every day presented Lansing with silk dresses, laces, jewelry, or some costly article to the great delight of the recipient and his friends. He pressed

HIS QUEER SWEETHEART

to let him see her outside of the green room, but Lansing invariably refused, and never met him unless fully equipped for the stage. Finally the enamored suitor became so pressing that the secret could no longer be kept, and so one night the object of his affections, just before going up on the stage, revealed his sex. The distinguished resident of the city of white window-blinds was paralyzed for a few minutes, and then solemnly declared that he did not believe it, and continued his attentions for several more months, until he was thoroughly convinced that he had been duped, when he desisted, much disgusted with the turn of events.

MASH NUMBER TWO

In Terre Haute, Ind., about five weeks ago, a prominent railroader beheld the fascinating can-can performed by St. Leon and Lansing and was very much struck with it. Without troubling himself to investigate the programme, he went into the green room and inaugurated a very violent flirtation. He ordered wine at a big price per bottle and the two female impersonators drank it. Then he ordered more which went to join the first bottles and he furthermore kept on ordering until $100 of the costly beverage had been consumed, by which time he was very much elevated, though strange to say the alleged females were reasonably sober. Then he proposed that they go out with him on

A BIG “TEAR”

and after much solicitation, they agreed, but first excusing themselves they retired and resumed their natural garb, after which they returned to the green room, “guyed” him a little without being recognized and quitting the theatre went up the street leaving their friend leaning against a telegraph pole waiting for his lady companions. It was three o’clock in the morning and very cold, but the railroad official waited with a persistence worthy of a better cause. Returning in fifteen minutes they watched  him until they became chilled, when they walked past him on their way home, leaving him still braced against the post

WAITING FOR HIS “MASHES.”

Here in Kansas City the dupes are numbered by the dozens, and over $100 in bets have changed hands upon the question of their sex. They receive visitors every night who become smitten with their bogus charms and furnish any amount of fun to the actors and actresses in the green room.

Kelly and Leon sheet music from the Harvard Theatre Collection

Kelly and Leon sheet music from the Harvard Theatre Collection

Female impersonators form a very exclusive class among actors. As a rule they are, outside of their business, very effeminate, and are not in high favor with the members of the profession. Ricardos, Justin Robinson and Leon, who traveled with Kelly & Leon’s minstrels, are among the most noted. Leon was thought, by those who ought to know, to have been a woman, and there are many facts to bear out this belief. The writer was personally acquainted with

KELLY & LEON

at the Grand Opera House, Chicago, now the New Chicago Theater. At that time there existed between the men an intense affection, which was of the nature of a passion, which should or could exist between men. In addition to this, they loved each other far in excess of even the most intense masculine relationship. Many are familiar with the history of Leon’s humorous intrigue with Coal Oil Johnny, from whom Leon received presents of fabulous value — by some estimated as high as a million dollars; at any rate, whether he received these presents or not, he assisted in no small degree in despoiling that very famous young man of all his many dollars. Leon died in Australia several years ago.

GUS MILLS

Another very famous female impersonator is Gus Mills, now playing his second season in Leadville. He is the most singular of his tribe. He not only personates female character on but also off the stage. He dresses like a woman on all occasions, associates with the opposite sex, associates with the opposite sex, with whom he is a great favorite; cuts, fts and sews all his own dresses, underwear, etc., in fact performs all the duties of a woman and completes this strange anomaly by falling in love with men. As a female impersonator he draws a huge salary and is a most remarkable success, but as a man he is a gigantic failure and not worth the powder that would blow his effeminate soul to purgatory.

WOMANLY MEN

There is another singular circumstance connected with this subject and that is that off the stage there are many men who are so effeminate that they dress constantly as women, act like women and become as womanly as possible. In all large cities, and to a greater or less extent in Kansas City, these men are to be found. In Chicago they are so numerous as to form a class by themselves, and it is no uncommon thing for a score of them to be seen at a masquerade ball, acting their parts so well that they make any amount of conquests. To while away the hours they congregate in each other’s rooms and occupy themselves in cutting and fitting

ELEGANT COSTUMES

in which they dress when they give their private parties, known as “drags,” where they take the place of women and invite a select gang. The “drags” are kept very quiet or the police would not hesitate to raid them. So secret have they kept these dances that they have never been exposed by the lynx-eyed reporters of the Chicago papers; still they exist, as can easily be proven if search is made diligently.

There are worlds within worlds, circles within circles, and The Evening Star has opened one of the innermost to the gaze of the public. It is a strange subject, and the people are strange characters. What is their economy in this world is “one of those things no fellah can find out,” and must be relegated to the list of unanswerable conundrums, in which are included the questions “Of what use is the bedbug, the New Jersey gallnipper and a lawyer.”

Notes:

1. “Coal Oil Johnny” refers to John Washington Steele, a 19th century heir to an oil fortune who spent astounding sums according to his whims but died in near poverty. I haven’t dug very deeply but at the moment I’m unaware of any evidence corroborating the assertion that Steele lavished gifts on a female impersonator named St. Leon.

2. Gus Mills was a well-known female impersonator who did, indeed, appear often in Leadville, Colo. His most famous role, apparently, was Pocahontas.

3. Kelly & Leon refers to Edwin Kelly and Francis Leon, who led a blackface minstrel troupe and performed internationally. Leon was highly regarded as a female impersonator, prompting a New Zealand critic to write: “Were it not announced that this artist belonged to the male sex, people would be quite ignorant of the fact, as neither by word, look, nor gesture is it betrayed.” The performer named St. Leon, interviewed by the Evening Star, was likely not Francis Leon, but someone cashing in on his fame. Francis Leon often was billed as “The Only Leon.”

4. The abrupt change in tone in the final phrase of the paragraph on Gus Mills suggests the brutal hand of a disapproving editor — perhaps William Rockhill Nelson himself.

5. I have no explanation for the obscure quotes in the mystifying final paragraph of the article.

Bob Barker is the Devil

[ Note: This column, in slightly different form, was published in 2005 in the Sunday magazine of  The Kansas City Star. ]

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

Bob Barker is the devil.

You know it’s true. You’ve watched him on television your entire life. He never goes away. He’s always there, smiling, intoning, seducing, inviting us into a world of naked materialism.

Maybe this seems self-evident, but my conclusion was not reached lightly. It began when I drove my wife to the emergency room. There was no way we could know it at the time, but that was the prelude to our passage into cancer world.

Hospital waiting rooms and oncology clinics are never very happy places, of course. Patients and their loved ones gathered there devote their psychic energy to a set of basic goals: Don’t bolt from your chair and flee. Don’t scream. Don’t cry. Don’t do that thing you see people do in movies where hysterical laughter morphs into inconsolable sobbing and only a slap to the face can return them to their senses.

They gather every morning in clinics and hospitals across America, sitting beneath flourescent lights in rooms often lined with dreary wood paneling, terrified of what the doctors may find but trying not to show it.

Some people thumb through magazines. Some stare into the distance. Others watch television.

The Monarch of Hell

There’s always a television. And it’s always on. And in the mornings it’s always tuned to the station that carries The Price Is Right.

This is why I will always link the image of Bob Barker, the 81-year-old host of the longest-running game show on television, with my wife’s cancer.

When I sat in a waiting room at Baptist Medical Center during her surgery, Bob Barker was there. When I accompanied her to chemotherapy at her oncologist’s office on Prospect, Bob Barker was there. Not long ago I drove her to a sonogram at St. Joseph Health Center, and there was Bob Barker—the silver-haired, silver-tongued Dark Lord of Greed.

Here’s a memory: My wife is seated in a recliner as a plastic tube pumps chemicals into her system through a port imbedded in her chest. From a television across the room emanates the screams and antiseptic music of “The Price Is Right.” I’m in a room full of women facing their own mortality, and there on the screen are screaming, jumping contestants focused on one thing only: Taking home a Cracker Jack prize.

My wife and I had fallen into the living hell of cancer—there’s no better word for it—and Bob Barker was our master of ceremonies. This is how I came to view him as El Diablo.

Look at his face and tell me I’m wrong. Study the glint in his eye as he builds the expectations of contestants who moments later walk away empty-handed. Listen to that effortless tone of empathetic disappointment when a contestant loses or the calculated elation in his voice when somebody wins a coveted piece of merchandise.

Oh, Barker’s good. He has been performing before television cameras for most of his adult life. In the ’50s he starred on Truth or Consequences, a game show that featured, among other things, a chimpanzee named Beulah the Buzzer.

But for most television viewers below a certain age, Barker is the face of The Price Is Right, a show that never goes away. It began in 1956 with a different host, but Barker’s involvement goes back 32 years—longer than many of his viewers have been alive.

Recently I made a point of watching several episodes of The Price Is Right. The experience simply confirmed my belief: Bob Barker is the Prince of Darkness, a leering, malevolent presence in doctor’s offices across America.

With a soothing tone, suave bearing and calm authority he appeals to the worst instincts in all of us. The show celebrates our lust for possessions and our need to be anesthetized against the horrors, big and small, of daily existence. Crucial to its popularity is the implied promise that you can get something for nothing.

That’s untrue, of course. There’s always a price. Those who fill the Bob Barker Studio at CBS in Hollywood each day agree to humiliate themselves for a chance to spin the Big Wheel or to play Bonkers or Pick a Pair or Switcheroo. They greet Bob with a frenzy usually reserved for football games and rock concerts.

They cheer. They shout. They scream. They high-five each other. They exchange hugs. It all has the aroma of a tent revival, with Bob Barker playing the role of preacher. It is, in fact, a form of worship—the worship of stuff.

Listen to him.

Barker put it rather eloquently at the conclusion of one episode. A contestant named Kathleen had won the “Showcase Showdown” and rushed off camera to be with her new possessions.

“And there she goes,” Bob Barker said, “to look at her motorcycle and her boat and all that stuff.”

Bob likes people to win. He doesn’t much care what they win as long as they win something. Cars, living room furniture, cappuccino machines, sailboats, motorcycles, gas grills, luggage—the list is infinite. The unseen Rich Fields—successor to legendary announcers Johnny Olson and Rod Roddy—trumpets the unveiling of each product with a high-decibel carnival barker’s pitch: “It’s a new C-A-A-A-R-R!” or “It’s an exciting P-O-O-O-L table!”

Barker is beloved by his contestants, and they seem to love him all the more when he mocks them in his cool, detached way.

One day a contestant named Alisa played a game called 3 Strikes, shoving her hand into a canvas bag designed to look like a big baseball in the hopes of pulling out the correct token to win a new Lincoln LS. With each unsuccessful try she screamed bloody murder.

“That scream may sound loud at home but I’m telling you when you’re no more than 36 inches away from it, I will never hear out of this ear again,” Barker said.

The camera never gets too close to Bob on The Price Is Right. You usually see him from the waist up and sometimes in head-to-foot shots. That way you can see Bob’s masterful body language and the cut of his suits.

A few years ago, however, Bob made a cameo appearance on the long-running daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful. Bob appeared as himself, accompanied by a couple of his “beauties,” the models who with fluid hand gestures and frozen smiles “present” the refrigerators and ranges and motorcycles and new cars.

But The Bold and the Beautiful showed Barker in disturbing close-ups. The unnatural tan had a sort of radioactive glow, and there was something about the thick white hair that wasn’t right. He looked like an animatronic theme-park character.

This is why it’s so easy to imagine Bob as a demonic presence. He seems “natural” only on the set of The Price Is Right. Remove him from his universe of cardboard sets and garish lighting and it just seems wrong—even when you insert him into the phony world of a daytime soap.

For many The Price Is Right is nothing more than addictive entertainment. And Bob is widely admired for his devotion to animal rights. The former Springfield, Mo. resident projects an unassuming Midwestern manner, often greeting his guests with “Howdy.”

Cloven Hoof and friend

Oh, there were some unpleasant lawsuits from former staffers and models a few years ago. They accused Barker of behavior that was unbecoming to a beloved celebrity.

But Bob has never been distracted from his overriding goal—dragging Americans into a vortex of consumerism. Picture yourself, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, caught in the eye of a tornado, with patio furniture, vacuum cleaners and skate boards spinning all around you.

That’s where Bob wants you to be.

But the funny thing about products is that they really don’t mean much to people dealing with cancer. People on chemo just can’t get excited about new kitchen gadgets or curio cabinets.

What they see on Bob’s show is an endless river of disposable junk—cars that will rust, vacuum cleaners whose belts will break, furniture that will someday be scarred and pitted. All the shiny new products destined to reside in landfills simply remind us that our bodies will eventually fail and that life must come to an end, no matter how diligently we try to forestall the inevitable.

But Barker keeps on keeping on, his place in the Television Hall of Fame secure. Five days a week he torments his guests with condescending charm as they struggle to guess the price of a stereo or a sofa or a ping-pong table.

Maybe you have your own notions of the Dark One. Maybe you believe he really exists. Maybe you just see him as a metaphor for the human animal’s capacity to inflict evil on his own kind.

Regardless, history and literature offer plenty of stand-ins for His Satanic Majesty: Vlad the Impaler, Richard III, Jerry Springer, Hannibal Lecter. It’s a long list. And somewhere near the bottom is my personal Mephistopheles: Bob Barker.

And what an impoverished figure he is. At the end of the day he’s just a huckster with a cane and megaphone promising unimagined pleasures if only we’ll step inside the tent.

(c) 2005 the Kansas City Star

A Case of Black and White: The Night They Beat Up Cab Calloway and Gave Kansas City a Black Eye

Note: This story appeared in slightly different form in the Kansas City Star Magazine on Feb. 28, 1988.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

It was three nights before Christmas and His Highness of Hi-De-Ho was on his way to the worst headache of his life.

This was 1945, the first holiday season since the end of World War II. It was time for people to put their lives back together, to get back to normal, to dance and sing their blues away.

Glowing caucasian Santas decorated Kansas City newspaper ads aimed at Christmas shoppers. Movie fans looked forward to the holiday releases: “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” a sentimental drama with Bing Crosby, would open on Christmas Day. A Technicolor Fred Astaire would dance and sing his way through “Yolanda and the Thief,” scheduled to open on Christmas Eve.

Dale Jones and his Hollywood Orchestra were appearing at Tootie’s Mayfair. June March and her Nifty Cuties inspired male fantasies at the Folly Burlesk, which promised “red hot” midnight shows and the “special attraction” of a “Royal Beauty Form Contest.”

But one of the biggest attractions of the holidays fell on Dec. 22 — a Saturday — when bandleader Lionel Hampton would perform at the Pla-Mor Ballroom.

Lionel Hampton

Hampton, the vibraphonist with the big smile and the big band, was among the best-known black entertainers in the country. “Tonite only,” an ad proclaimed in the Kansas City Star. Table reservations for the 9 p.m.-to-1 a.m. dance were required. Advance tickets cost $1.25, tax included. Hampton, baton in hand, smiled up from the newspaper page.

But although Hampton had plenty of black fans, there was no ad in the black  weekly, the Kansas City Call. The reason was simple: You had to be white to see the show.

~ ~ ~

There was nothing quite like the Pla-Mor. The ballroom’s official address was 3142 Main St., but it was just one part of the vast Pla-Mor Amusements complex.

Dancing. Bowling. Roller skating. Billiards. Ice skating in the winter, swimming in the summer. The Pla-Mor sold fun — clean fun — and plenty of it. And it was all in three massive buildings between Main and Wyandotte.

Founder Paul M. Fogel named the place for his kids, Pauline and Morris. But if some people saw the name as an invitation to “play more,” well, that was OK, too.

The Pla-Mor Ballroom (UMKC Special Collections)

The ballroom was a good place to fall in love if you were young and white in the ’30s and ’40s. It was easy to do in the age of big-band romance, when well-dressed young people moved across the 108-by-125-foot maple floor supported by 7,800 coiled springs. The red, blue and amber lights reflected by twin globes gave the place an atmosphere as intoxicating as a Technicolor musical.

But, like most places in Kansas City, the Pla-Mor conformed to a rigid color code. Paul Fogel would later testify that blacks were sometimes admitted and allowed to sit in a segregated area. But the black teenage pin-setters in the bowling alley couldn’t get their own food from the alley soda fountain. Whites had to bring it to them.

In Kansas City, however, racism was not unique to the Pla-Mor. Seating at Municipal Auditorium was segregated. The Swope Park swimming pool was, too. So was Fairyland Park. And Wynwood Beach, north of the river. So were theaters and schools. And there were two General Hospitals — one for whites and one for blacks.

~ ~ ~

“Come on out tonight,” Hampton told Cab Calloway. “We’re really got the place jumpin’ . . . I’ll make arrangements with the management.”

Hampton was invoking the power of celebrity. There were few exceptions to the normally inflexible rules of racial separation, but this was one. The rules said blacks couldn’t just walk in and claim a table at the Pla-Mor. But it was OK for one world-famous black entertainer to visit another. So neither Hampton nor Calloway had any reason to expect trouble.

Cab Calloway

Calloway, after all, was something of a local institution. Audiences here had seen him on his way up when he played Kansas City clubs and ballrooms in the late ’20s. His scat-singing, zoot suits and hair-whipping stage antics were documented in a string of hit 78s, Hollywood movies and even a series of Betty Boop cartoons. And his trademark scat refrain, hi-de-hi-de-hi and its infinite variations, provided irresistible fodder for newspaper writers. In entertainment columns and straight news stories alike, the Kansas City press routinely referred to Calloway as “The King of Hi-de-ho,” “Mister Hi-de-ho” or even “his hi-de highness of ho-de-ho.”

Calloway brought his Cotton Club Orchestra to Municipal Auditorium in mid-December for two shows — one for whites, one for blacks. Then he took a few days off to catch up with old friends.

One of Calloway’s Kansas City friends was Felix H. Payne Jr., a handsome man in his early 30s who had arrived back in town the day before Hampton’s show. Payne, the son of a Democratic ward heeler, had served in the American Red Cross during the war. On the overcast afternoon of Hampton’s performance, Payne and Calloway visited with Hampton at the Street Hotel near 18th and Vine. The Street was the place to stay for black bands. It even had a rehearsal room.

This was Payne’s first trip home in years. He had moved to Washington in 1938 to work for the Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia, his first in a series of government jobs. During the war he’d run service clubs in China and Burma.

Street+Hotel+circa+1930-1945His father, Felix H. Payne, ran clubs of a different sort in Kansas City — saloons and gambling halls. The elder Payne was a friend to black musicians, many of whom worked for him in the clubs and dance halls he ran, and he invited Calloway to stay in his two-story home on East 24th Street, just three blocks north of 27th, which marked the boundary between segregated white and black neighborhoods.

~ ~ ~

Light from the Pla-Mor’s vertical neon sign and pulsating marquee touched mounds of dirty snow that had been on the ground since Calloway hit town. A taxi, it’s exhaust pipe pumping vapor clouds into the 14-degree night air, pulled up in front of the ballroom between 10:30 and 10:45 and let Calloway and Payne out. Hampton was nearing the end of his first set

Calloway bought two tickets for $1.50 each at the box-office and he and Payne entered the lobby. As they started up the carpeted stairs to the ballroom, Will H. Wittig, the ballroom manager, stopped them. Now, Wittig was as familiar with the privileges of celebrity as anyone, and Hampton had already told him that Calloway and Payne were expected. But at that moment, Wittig wasn’t thinking about celebrities. He saw only nameless black men making a beeline for the ballroom.

For even though Calloway had played for thousands at Municipal Auditorium a week earlier and had been in movies and cartoons and had his face plastered on record jackets for 14 years, Wittig didn’t recognize him.

Entrance to the Pla-Mor Ballroom (UMKC Special Collections)

He took the tickets from Calloway and refunded the $3. The men would have to leave, he told them. The show was for whites only.

That’s when a suit full of bad attitude named William E. Todd walked out of the coat-check room and saw Wittig arguing with two black men. Todd was a husky little guy with heavy eyelids who moonlighted at the Pla-Mor as a security guard to supplement the $165 a month he made as a Kansas City police officer. His understanding of his responsibilities was uncomplicated: Protect the Pla-Mor’s property.

“Why, I was invited,” Calloway told Wittig. “I’m Cab Calloway. I came to see Lionel Hampton.”

Payne and Calloway, two sober and respectful citizens who had spent the day Christmas shopping and visiting with old friends, had bought the tickets as a professional courtesy to Hampton and expected to be treated as honored guests. The last thing Calloway anticipated was an excitable cop playing a drum solo on his head.

Calloway reached for his wallet to show his identification, but before he and Payne could explain who they were, Todd took charge. He grabbed their arms and shoved them toward the door.

“You heard what the man said,” Todd said. “Get the hell out of here.”

Payne resisted and then two men grabbed him and locked their arms around his head so he couldn’t see what was happening. Todd shoved Calloway off the steps to the floor. As Calloway tried to get up, Todd hit him with his fist. When Calloway got up again, Todd pulled a .45 semi-automatic and beat him on the head with the gun butt.

Calloway went down, blood streaming from his split scalp. The little finger on his left hand was broken, smashed by the gun as he tried to protect his head.

This was Calloway’s version of events, the one he and Payne swore to in court. But it wasn’t the only version.

Wittig and Todd said Calloway refused to identify himself. He and Payne smelled of alcohol and they were disrespectful, even sarcastic, Todd and Wittig said.

Calloway had told Wittig he was going up to the ballroom, no matter what kind of dance it was. Todd walked up to Calloway and told him again the dance was for whites. At the same time he pulled out his badge.

Calloway looked at it and then pulled out his own wallet. “I have one of those badges, too,” he said.

Todd told him he was under arrest. That’s when Payne drew his arm back to hit the cop. But before Todd had a chance to defend himself against Payne, Calloway jumped on his back, grabbed his throat and threw him to the floor.

When Calloway came at him again, Todd used his gun.

End of second version.

Soon on-duty patrol officers arrived and took Payne and Calloway into custody. They drove Calloway to General Hospital No. 2 — the one for blacks — and a doctor put eight stitches in his scalp and wrapped a white bandage around his head. Then he and Payne were booked for public intoxication and resisting arrest.

Back at the ballroom, Wittig was faced with a crowd of angry people. Hampton had refused to play a second set.

“The place was jam-packed and all at once someone came in and said they beat up Cab Calloway at the front door,” Hampton recalled. “So I went out front and got into an argument with the doorman. So I told the band, ‘That’s all, man. Let’s go.'”

The musicians packed up and left and the Pla-Mor paid out $2,000 in refunds. Hampton never played there again.

Calloway left for Chicago the next morning. On Christmas Day he celebrated his 38th birthday.

~ ~ ~

On the afternoon of Dec. 28, the King of Hi-De-Ho looked as if he’d felt better. The wrap-around bandage was gone, but small patches covered his head wounds and his finger was in a plaster cast.

When he arrived at Municipal Court on the top floor of Police Headquarters he was, as usual, fastidious. Every hair was in place and his handsome gray suit with shoulder pads struck just the like balance between flamboyance and respect for the court. Payne wore his Red Cross uniform and looked intense, even a little intimidating. His father was there, too.

In Municipal Court: from left, Cab Calloway, Felix H. Payne Jr. (in uniform), attorneys John G. Killiger and Maurice J. O’Sullivan, Kanss City police officer William E. Todd and Lucille Bluford, who covered the hearing for The Kansas City Call. (Black Archives of Mid-America)

Before the court proceeding began, Calloway was charged with a third misdemeanor  — creating a disturbance in a public place.

On a normal day, Judge Earl Frost never saw more than 50 people in court. Today he saw more than 700. Many of them were black. Reporters and photographers were on hand.

Calloway and Payne told Frost they had been sober that night. They hadn’t even had a drink that day. Payne said he hadn’t had a drink since Bombay.

Frost asked Payne if he had known the dance was for whites only.

“I knew what the score was,” Payne said. “I was born in Kansas City.”

Wittig told Assistant City Counselor Willis Z. Schad that, yes, he recognized the right of one creative artist to visit another.

“But he did not make himself known,” Wittig insisted. “I didn’t know who he was. Had he presented himself at the door and said, ‘I am Cab Calloway, I wish to see Lionel Hampton,’ he would have been escorted up on the stage and been allowed to sit on the band stage.”

When Todd said he didn’t recognize Calloway until after the beating, a wave of derisive laughter swept the courtroom. Frost called for order.

After two hours of testimony, Frost dismissed the charges. But he didn’t let Calloway and Payne go before lecturing them.

“If, when you went to the box-office to purchase tickets, you had asked for the manager and identified yourself, not only would you have avoided this incident, but also I am certain the manager would have given you an escort, as he states, and presented you as an honored guest,” Frost told them.

An editorialist for the Kansas City Star agreed with Frost’s sentiments.

“Race problems require unusually intelligent handling at all times . . . ” the opinion piece read. “The incident at the Pla-Mor is the opposite of what is required. Fortunately, Earl Frost handled the case judiciously.”

The Kansas City Call’s editorial was angry: “The beating of Cab Calloway by a policeman at at a Kansas City amusement spot is the type of incident that should set the people of this community to thinking. They should take notice of what happened .  . . because it is the customs and habits of the community which led to the fray.

“Such a thing could not have happened in New York, Chicago or Columbus, Ohio, or 300 miles away in Des Moines or Omaha . . . But in Kansas City and other cities with a ‘southern exposure’ there is a double standard for Negroes. In some phases of public life, like the payment of taxes, going to war and getting killed, Negroes operate on the same standard as other citizens. But when it comes to obtaining food, shelter and entertainment in public places, Negroes are ‘out of bounds’ if they seek the same rights and privileges of others — even Japs and Germans in our midst fare better than we.”

In a second editorial, the Call attacked Todd: “A man who assaults men with guns . . . does not belong on the police force, which sets such high standards for its officers that it says the score or more of Negro applicants who have sought appointment ‘do not meet the qualifications.’ If Todd is an example of the type of men that the Kansas City police department wants, thank God we have no Negro men who do qualify.”

Actually, there were black officers on the police force. But, true to the city’s rules of racial separation, they were relegated to patrolling black districts.

In February of 1946, six civil rights groups, including the Kansas City Urban League and the NAACP, demanded that Todd be fired — only to find out that he no longer was on the force. The Board of Police Commissioners had cut Todd’s salary from $165 to $120 a month and assigned me to jail duty. On Feb. 6, he had resigned.

But for Calloway, who claimed he now blacked out when he tried to sing high notes, vindication in Municipal Court wasn’t enough. He sued the Pla-Mor for $200,000.

~ ~ ~

In May of 1947, after the Pla-Mor counter-sued for $100,000 and many verbose legal documents were filed on each side, Calloway’s suit came to trial in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Judge James W. Broaddus, who looked and talked a little like Will Rogers, was presiding. Broaddus was a Civil War buff. One of his heroes was Robert E. Lee.

“I never realized until I got into that trial what a good Southern Democrat he was,” said John G. Killiger, who with Maurice J. O’Sullivan represented Calloway. “He wasn’t in favor of uppity blacks.”

Neither was the all-white jury. Paul Sprinkle, the Pla-Mor’s attorney, played his audience like a fiddle. Racial feeling permeated the trial, even though Killiger and O’Sullivan weren’t fighting a civil rights battle.

“That didn’t enter our thinking,” Killiger said. “Calloway wasn’t trying to open up the Pla-Mor. These people — particularly Calloway’s New York lawyer, and Calloway, too, I think — felt we were entitled to damages . . . Now these other things, of course, were in the background and that’s what beat us.”

After three days of conflicting testimony, the jury convened for 90 minutes. O’Sullivan’s impassioned invocation of the Constitution and his belief that “the citizens of Jackson County are above race prejudice” failed to move them. They returned to the jury box and called it a draw, awarding damages to neither side.

But Sprinkle’s fire-stoking courtroom rhetoric — delivered calmly but forcefully  — left an opening for an appeal. At one point Sprinkle said he had heard a lot of talk about Calloway as a great artist. And that reminded him of the divine right of kings and the excesses of movie stars.

“We have the divine right of artists or musicians,” Sprinkle said. “Therefore, they can do no wrong. Therefore, they are entitled to come into court and say, ‘We are musicians, we are artists, we have done many things, therefore we are entitled to recover.’

“Then I think back about some artists. I can remember Fatty Arbuckle. He was an artist and he dearly paid for the penalty of his crime . . . I can think about Charlie Chaplin. He is an artist.”

Sprinkle, his rhetoric rising to a dramatic peak, rolled on despite O’Sullivan’s exasperated objections.

“I can think about many artists,” Sprinkle said. “I can think about a little artist over in Germany who started the World War. He was an artist. He had a little mustache. He thought he could do no wrong . . .”

Later in the trial, Sprinkle got this jab into the record over O’Sullivan’s objections: “You know, as I listen to these witnesses testify, here is Cab Calloway, now 39, and Felix Payne, 34. And I wondered: Why wasn’t Calloway out doing his share when the war was being fought? . . . Why did he spend his time in this country and other countries playing for the public? Why is that all he has ever done?”

Finally, Sprinkle appealed to the jury by painting Calloway as an outsider.

“You know, in trying this lawsuit, I represent a lot more than the Pla-Mor . . .,” Sprinkle said. “I represent Kansas City. I represent this community. I represent the Kansas City way of life. I represent the way we live and the way we expect others to live. And members of the jury, when you go home tonight and look your families in the eye, I want you to be able to say, ‘Well, I represented Kansas City also, and we didn’t let New York come out and take a chunk out.”

Reflecting on the trial more than 40 years later, Killiger doubted Sprinkle actually held the prejudiced views his courtroom statements suggested. There were times when Sprinkle even represented black clients.

“He was just trying a lawsuit and doing a good job,” Killiger said.

~ ~ ~

The Pla-Mor never paid a dime to Cab Calloway. But the Missouri Supreme Court decided Sprinkle had been a bit overzealous. In 1948 it ruled that Calloway was entitled to a new trial.

There was no basis to compare Calloway to Adolf Hitler, the court ruled. Or to Fatty Arbuckle, a silent movie star who fell from grace after a lurid sex scandal. Or to Charlie Chaplin, another star, whose habit of marrying teenagers inspired the national press to cover every unseemly detail of a paternity suit brought against him in the early ’40s.

Neither was Sprinkle’s suggestion that Calloway was a slacker during the war relevant to the lawsuit, the court said.

And regarding Sprinkle’s claim that he represented the “Kansas City way of life,” the court wrote: “While [ Sprinkle ] disclaimed, elsewhere in argument, any intention to invoke ‘the racial angle,’ the implication in the argument is, we think, unmistakable. Even the wayfaring man would have got that.”

The court’s ruling, as it turned out, was the final episode. A second trial was never held.

“The thing was, it cost Calloway . . . a pile of money to come out here, because he had a whole band sitting idle,” Killiger said. “So it was just kind of dropped by mutual agreement.”

After the first trial, he said, they decided there was little chance that a Jackson County jury would find in favor of Calloway. Looking back, Killiger saw that he and O’Sullivan got an education in Kansas City racial attitudes.

“That was a damned abortion of an outcome,” Killiger said. “O’Sullivan, particularly, was a very liberal-minded guy and I think we were both shocked at the prejudice in the court. Maybe we were naive. We just didn’t anticipate the depth of racial feeling.”

Sample the music that made Kansas City famous.

To learn more about Kansas City’s jazz age and African-American history, visit the Marr Sound Archives, Black Archives of Mid-America, Kansas City Public Library Missouri Valley Room and the American Jazz Museum.

Keep up with arts news at kansascity.com.

© 1988 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Frank Stanford: A poet’s dreams, death and legacy

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

He lived a poet’s life and died a poet’s death.

Poets see the word in ways the rest of us do not. Within the mundane they find mystery. Within the grotesque they find beauty.

So it was with Frank Stanford, a Southern writer whose life ended abruptly in a small rental house in Fayetteville, Ark., one evening in 1978 — freezing him in time as a gifted, 29-year-old poet who lived and died on his own terms. He had cultivated the image of an outsider, an artist who never compromised, and that aura continues to this day.

Frank Stanford (photo by Ginny Stanford)

His work is highly respected, as it was in his lifetime. In the decades since Frank Stanford died by gunshot he has been the subject of poems, essays, pop songs and short stories. His out-of-print books are guarded jealously by his admirers. Some are circulated as fourth- and fifth-generation photocopies.

“We know Frank’s ghost is very strong out there,” poet Miller Williams, one of Stanford’s teachers at the University of Arkansas, said almost 20 years after Stanford’s death. “I probably get a call every six weeks about Frank.”

The interest in Stanford — his life, his death and his work — continues because his poetry, like the man himself, was unique.

“The thing that really sets him apart is his adventurousness with language,” said poet Robert Stewart, editor of New Letters, a literary journal published in Kansas City. “He really did have a gift. I don’t know how else you could explain someone writing that well and being that young.”

Stanford read voraciously, but his poetry imitated no one. He blended Southern vernacular and strong visual imagery and often he created startling similes — “the wind blows through the trees like a woman on a raft,” “the moon was a dead man floating down the river,” “death was like a man in a bowtie looking for a hubcap.”

“He creates images and leaps in his language that are almost always unanticipated,” Stewart said.

Stanford loved foreign movies and jazz and modern poets, but he remained an undiluted product of the Mississippi Delta. His poetry was vivid, romantic, sensual, mystical and organically rooted in the rivers and fields and small towns of the South. Some say his death two months shy of his 30th birthday was foretold in poems that reflected a sense of isolation, the threat of violence and a preoccupation with death.

He spoke slowly, with a deep, melodic Southern drawl. He was handsome and charismatic, but he found himself drawn to the company of rural and small-town folk, black and white, who saw the world in unique ways.

The events leading to his death were the stuff of melodrama, laced with a touch of farce. It was a tale of love and betrayal capped with a smoking .22 pistol. In the end he passed out of this world, perhaps to another realm that had always beckoned.

In his wake he left traumatized friends and lovers, the makings of a literary myth, and a body of poetry that will not be denied.

“No one else sounds like Frank,” Williams said. “I would know one of his poems if I stepped on it barefooted.”

~ ~ ~ ~

Today Frank Stanford exists as a semi-legendary character with a gift for the bold, dramatic gesture. And nothing was more dramatic than his grand exit. The story goes that Stanford shot himself three times in the heart while his wife and mistress were in the house. It is this version of events — simple and stark — that seems in keeping with Stanford’s fatalism.

But legends are meant to be, well, legendary. The underlying reality of Stanford’s life and death is not so neat. It’s messy, mysterious and complicated.

Stanford made a deep impression on virtually anyone he knew, but no two people remember him quite the same way. He presented different faces to different people. Often he exercised his gifts as a storyteller by exaggerating even the most trivial facts.

“He could tell a story and I swear to God you’d walk away and believe every word of it and none of it would be true,” said Ruth Rogers, Stanford’s younger sister.

Poet C.D. Wright, who founded the small publishing house Lost Roads with Stanford, put it another way.

“His imagination was more factual than his real life,” she said.

Ginny Stanford (stephendcrouch.com)

In a way there were many Frank Stanfords — poet, mystic and orphan; brother, husband and lover. He was shy but vain, humble but self-confident, social but reclusive.

His poetry mixed reality and fantasy so deftly that even those who knew him couldn’t be sure where one ended and the other began.

“He was purposely very mysterious about himself,” said poet Leon Stokesbury, who knew Stanford as a fellow student at the University of Arkansas and later edited a posthumous collection of his poetry. “He was kind of charismatic and I think physically attractive to women — and maybe men, too. I don’t know. But this didn’t hurt his ability to mythologize himself.”

Stanford was a seeker. And he made things happen.

Some recall a time in the early ’70s when Allen Ginsberg visited Fayetteville. At a party for the celebrated poet, Stanford decided at one point that it was time for the lightweights to leave.

“Frank had these double-barrelled Parker shotguns and he just came out into the living room and blew a hole in the ceiling,” said Bill Willett, who had remained friends with Stanford since junior high school. “The true partiers stayed and everyone else left.”

But Ginny Stanford, his second wife, never saw that hell-raising side. She remembers the first time she saw him with undiminished immediacy. It was March 3, 1973. Ginny, a self-taught visual artist, had returned from Europe to her hometown of Neosho, Mo., just a few months earlier.

She had a plane ticket to New Orleans in her purse when she dropped in to visit an old friend and met Stanford, who was staying the weekend.

“I first saw him descending the staircase,” Ginny Stanford wrote in an email response to questions. “He was dressed in a blue-and-white striped knit short-sleeved shirt, white cotton duck overalls, and lace-up boots with the laces untied. He smelled like Patchouli incense. He seemed shy and sweet and fragile. Very quiet.”

It was, Ginny said, literally love at first sight.

“It was enough to make me stop in my tracks, make me not go to New Orleans and totally do a one-eighty in the middle of the road,” she said in an interview from her home in Sebastopol, Calif. “It was more like getting hit on the head with a brick. I’ve never had anything like that happen to me before.”

Frank showed her some of his poems; she showed him slides of her paintings. They admired each other’s work and for the first time Ginny felt completely understood as an artist. She had found a soul mate.

“There was an aura of shyness and dignity and confidence about him,” Ginny Stanford recalled. “He was certainly nothing like anyone I would ever expect to run into in Neosho, Mo. Maybe in Amsterdam or New York City.”

Frank was very careful and quiet in the way he spoke to Ginny that first weekend. He would not reveal too much about himself. During their first few months together, Frank would show her only carefully selected poems.

“He could be very hyperbolic in describing things,” she said. “One of the things he told me was that his work was really dangerous. He’d have to make sure which poems were safe for me to read. And there were certain ones that he was afraid for me to read. I guess he thought I’d think he was crazy and leave him. So I passed the poetry test.”

In the weeks that followed, they grew close as lovers and as artists.

“I read his manuscripts and made drawings based on the poems,” she wrote in an essay years after his death. “He bought me notebooks and different kinds of pens to try. He said, ‘Paint an old man sitting by a coffin waving at the moon; a fat lady shelling peas and a centaur behind her; a blind Gypsy holding a conch shell. Paint a white horse breaking away from a funeral hearse; a scarecrow wearing a kimono. Paint smoke rings.’

“I’d never heard anything like it.”

A few months later they were married in a civil ceremony.

“The thing I remember about it is that . . . the judge, he was smoking a cigarette and he didn’t take the cigarette out of his mouth when he read the vows,” she said. “I thought it was very funny. It was like out of a western or something.”

After the ceremony they celebrated at Sherman’s Bar, a tavern in a predominantly black section of Fayetteville. It was one of Frank’s favorite hangouts. But Ginny remembered their first encounter in much greater detail than their wedding day.

“The date that was significant for me was the date we met,” she said.

~ ~ ~ ~

Stanford had already lived a strange life. Parts of his childhood were spent in Greenville, Miss.; Memphis, Tenn. and Mountain Home, Ark. He attended a high school run by Benedictine monks. His first marriage ended in less than a year and he had spent two weeks in the state mental hospital in Little Rock.

He was born Aug. 1, 1948, in a home for unwed mothers in Richton, Miss. When he was one day old, he was adopted by Dorothy Alter, who was single at the time. She named him Francis Gildart Alter.

Frank Stanford (photo by Ginny Stanford)

The following year, Dorothy adopted Ruth from the same home. They would be young adults before Frank and Ruth learned that they were not true siblings, that Dorothy was not their actual mother.

Ruth Rogers said Frank had striking looks, even in infancy.

“I’ve got some wonderful baby pictures of him,” she said. “He was the prettiest little old baby. He never had a problem with the ladies.”

The man they believed to be their father, Albert Franklin Stanford, formally adopted the children after marrying Dorothy in 1952 and moving them to Memphis.

Stanford, who was old enough to be the kids’ grandfather, built and maintained levees along the Mississippi River and often took the kids, especially little Frankie, with him to the levee camps. Most of the workers were African-American.

“There’s an awful lot of pictures we have of his birthday parties with all the little black kids,” Ruth Rogers recalled. “Everybody lived out there in tents . . . and we played with the colored children because that’s all there were out there, because most of the workers were black. We grew up like that. I think Frankie had more of a feeling for the black people.”

Much of Frank Stanford’s poetry directly reflected those childhood experiences. In his first book many of the characters — with names like Baby Gauge, Ray Baby, Charlie D. Lemon and BoBo Washington — were based on people he had known. Some poems were written from the point of view of black workers in the levee camps, and he maintained what appeared to be a unique rapport with some African Americans.

One of his best friends in Fayetteville was the much older Jimbo Reynolds, whom Ginny Stanford said “had the soul of a poet but who was an uneducated black man.”

Ginny and others said Frank sometimes wondered if might have been mixed race or African American himself, but he never found out who his real parents were.

In 1963 the elder Frank Stanford retired and moved the family to Mountain Home, Ark. That’s where young Frank Stanford met his friend Bill Willett. His adoptive father died not long after that and Dorothy converted to Catholicism. Frank was sent to Subiaco Academy, a college prep school run by Benedictine monks in central Arkansas.

Stanford graduated in 1966 and, according to Willett, avoided military service when he was called up by his draft board by intentionally flunking his hearing test and refusing to answer test questions.

“He had no interest in going to the Vietnam War,” Willett said.

In 1967 Frank entered the University of Arkansas. He and Willett roomed together and even then Stanford seemed more interested in dreams than day-to-day reality.

“He and I were both dreamers,” Willett said. “In our sophomore year . . . (we) essentially didn’t have any afternoon classes and we’d both take naps. And Frank would take a nap every afternoon essentially so he could dream.”

But there other times when Stanford might go for days without really sleeping.

“He would go for three or four days in a row and live on nothing but bourbon and coffee and write,” Willett said. “And I would tell him it seemed like he was drinking a lot of booze and it didn’t seem to make much difference. It took him a whole lot of booze to get drunk. He and I together one day drank a gallon-and-a-half of whiskey. We were still talking. We were talking about poetry, politics, whatever, and both of us were coherent and not too thick-tongued but by that time feeling very tired.”

Frank Stanford filming  (photo by Ginny Stanford)

When Frank was 20 his mother told him he and Ruth were adopted. Why Dorothy chose to reveal the truth is unknown, but Frank seemed to take it hard. He spent hours walking along the lakeshore in Mountain Home. Ruth Rogers thought that moment changed him.

“Frankie was always very outgoing,” she said. “The girls loved him. Adults loved him. And from the time he found out he was adopted he just withdrew . . .  He wasn’t the bubbly, outgoing person he had been growing up. He was more intellectual and deep in his own thoughts.”

Stanford would never earn a degree. But at the University of Arkansas, Stanford’s poetry so impressed the faculty that he was allowed to take classes alongside graduate students.

James Whitehead, a novelist and poet who helped start the university’s writing program, recalled meeting Stanford when he was a freshman or sophomore.

“He showed me some poems, a poem called ‘The Pump,’ and I said, ‘This is strange and wonderful; why don’t you take the graduate workshop?'” Whitehead recalled.

Said Williams: “Even then, as an undergraduate, he wrote with a confidence I rarely saw among the student poets.”

But Stanford, according to some who knew him, followed a pattern of dropping out and back into school, taking courses he wanted to take and skipping those that didn’t interest him. And after a certain point he kept his distance from academia.

The Singing Knives

His first book, The Singing Knives, was published in 1971 by a young publisher and film maker, Irv Broughton. They had met at a writer’s conference in Virginia.  Broughton liked Stanford’s poetry and found him funny and unpretentious.

Broughton had a small press and he and Stanford quickly agreed that Broughton would publish his first book. The work was done quickly and Broughton had most of it typeset, but because Stanford had to return to Fayetteville, he dictated the long title poem full of violent imagery by telephone.

“He’s reading it to me and he’s just breaking up laughing and I am too,” Broughton recalled. The hysterical laughter reached its peak as Stanford come to a passage in which a gypsy’s knife-throwing hand floats to the surface of a lake. Broughton, meanwhile, was running out of paper because of the poem’s length.

“It’s that gothic, strange kind of humor,” Broughton said. “Now I don’t know why it’s so funny. I sort of do, but I don’t know why we laughed so much.”

Later Stanford and Broughton traveled across the country filming and interviewing famous poets, including Richard Eberhart, Richard Wilbur and John Crowe Ransom. The idea was to make a documentary but the film was never finished.

Broughton and Stanford did make a 26-minute art film about Stanford called “It Wasn’t a Dream: It Was a Flood.”In it Stanford muses on poetry and the importance of dreams. It was shown at festivals but never released, although a handful of bootleg copies on video eventually began to surface.

In a moment that later seemed weirdly portentous, the film shows a shirtless Stanford, asleep on a river bank, so still that he could be dead. On the soundtrack we hear his voice contemplating the nature of fate: “When a man shoots somebody over here, or when this man marries this woman, or when someone has an affair . . . it’s all gonna have to take its toll, from high and low.”

~ ~ ~ ~

After Frank and Ginny married they lived for a few months in a cabin on the White River. They moved several times and lived for awhile in Eureka Springs, where Frank would rent foreign movies and show them for anyone who wanted to come. He charged admission but Ginny said he usually lost money.

He screened movies by Cocteau, Bunuel, Bergman and Kurosawa and would play Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” at intermission.

“He would look at these films over and over and over again until it was time to send them back,” Ginny recalled.

Eventually Frank and Ginny moved to the family farm where she had spent her early childhood near Lamar, Mo. They gardened and put up preserves. They seemed to feed each other as artists.

She produced drawings and paintings based on his poems or inspired by his ideas. One of her paintings would later appear on the cover of The Light the Dead See, the collection edited by Stokesbury and published in 1991.

“I believed Frank and I would always be together and that time would only bring us more of what we wanted,” Ginny wrote.

The Light the Dead See

In reality, Frank had a history of maintaining relationships with more than one woman, starting in high school. “Usually one didn’t know about the other one,” Ruth Rogers recalled.

In 1974 or ’75 following a reading Stanford went to a party at James Whitehead’s house in Fayetteville. There he met Carolyn Wright, a student in the graduate writing program.

“I had already read one of his books and that night I learned that he had written a number of other books, so that the was the next thing on my mind — getting hold of those books and reading those,” Wright said.

Wright, who publishes as C.D. Wright, said it didn’t take long for a romantic relationship to develop.

“It happened pretty fast,” she said. “And you know, it was uncomfortable and it was complicated.”

Stanford, who was supporting himself as a land surveyor, began dividing his time between Ginny on the farm and Carolyn in Fayetteville. Stanford and C.D. Wright eventually moved into a rental house and founded Lost Roads Press to publish books by each of them and other young poets.

“He had a few books printed and he didn’t like the way they looked,” Wright said. “And so he started over.”

Together, Stanford and Wright got a loan, filled up the little house with printing equipment and began publishing books.

“We bought a press and we bought a camera and a plate-burner and a light table and we borrowed an old typesetting machine called a Verityper,” she said. The equipment was “in every room of the little house — in the laundry room and the study and the garage and the room behind the garage. So it was pretty much the furnishing of the house.”

When Wright finished school she decided to stay in Fayetteville.

“There were a lot of artists there in a lot of different media,” she said. “None of us were ready to go anywhere. We didn’t have jobs and we didn’t have prospects but we liked what we were doing and we were learning and so we stayed — stayed too long, most of  us . . . There were quite a few of us in our 20s making a catch-as-catch-can living. I taught poetry in the schools and waited tables and sometimes I worked for Frank on the surveying line.”

Stanford apparently told Ginny and Carolyn that his relationship with the other was platonic. He divided his time between them for three years.

“He made up elaborate excuses for his absences from home, which I convinced myself to believe,” Ginny Stanford said. “He continually denied he was having an affair. He continually told me he loved me and he was loving when he was with me. So I ignored what my gut was telling me.”

One day in later winter of 1978 she had a premonition. Frank was at the farm, and as he and Ginny walked in the pasture she suddenly made him promise not to kill himself.

“He had this thing he would do,” she said. “He would always swear on his honor as a poet. It was his version of putting his hand on the bible. So I made him swear on his honor as a poet that he wouldn’t kill himself. And he did.”

~ ~ ~ ~

In May of ’78 Stanford decided to visit friends in New Orleans. The day he left, Ginny went through a file of his poems and, she said, found love letters.

“I thought I was going to puke,” she said. “I thought I was going to faint. I went downstairs and sat on this ottoman. It felt like the end of the world.”

Wright thought it was unlikely she had written any love letters since she and Frank were living together, but she and Ginny did agree that they talked by phone and that Ginny drove to Fayetteville.

“So I went down there and we proceeded to slice and dice him,” Ginny said. The more they compared notes, the more they examined the lies he had told each of them, the angrier they got.

“We talked for the next two weeks and there was a lot of driving back and forth,” Wright said.

They called Stanford in New Orleans to tell him the jig was up. Wright remembered his reaction was one of “relief, because he’d been keeping . . . these double lies going for three years, so it was quite an exhausting emotional journey for him — and everyone else.”

But Stanford didn’t seem anxious to return to Fayetteville. According to his friend, poet Ralph Adamo, Stanford kept putting off his departure. In New Orleans he spent time with Adamo and novelist Ellen Gilchrist, neither of whom remembered Stanton seeming depressed. But Stanford wrote letters in New Orleans explaining how he wanted his funeral to be handled and how he thought his literary estate should be divided.

Gilchrist remembered having lunch with Stanford before he left and how he said goodbye with an eerie finality.

“He embraced me the way a father embraces a child,” Gilchrist said. “He held me and said ‘goodbye’ two or three times.”

Stanford spent his  last night in New Orleans with Adamo. One June 3, 1978, he went home.

“He borrowed my suitcase and $10 off my dresser for gas that have never been paid back, by the way,” Adamo said.

~ ~ ~ ~

C.D. Wright called Ginny Stanford and told her Frank was on his way. Ginny drove to Fayetteville.

“Part of it was I just wanted to see him,” Ginny said. “I hadn’t had a chance to talk to him at all . . . except for one or two really one-sided phone conversations where I was reading him the riot act.”

When Stanford arrived at the house had had shared with Wright, he found all his belongings packed up. It had all the signs of an eviction.

“We had this verbal showdown, the three of us, for hours,” Wright said. “We were all exhausted. I had thrown up and Ginny was crying.”

C.D. Wright (photo by Forrest Gander)

According to Wright, Frank at one point wanted to go to his surveying partner’s office. The women rode with him and both Wright and Ginny Stanford remembered Frank coming out of his partner’s office wearing a red pull-over sweatshirt with a hand-warmer pocket in front. It struck Ginny was odd because it was a warm day. Later they assumed he was hiding the gun inside the sweatshirt.

Back at the house the conversation ground on for awhile. Eventually there was a lull.

“I was in the front room,” Wright said. “Ginny was in another room. He said he wanted to lie down, went into a bedroom and that was it.”

“In the span of the longest five or six seconds I have ever lived through, Frank fired three shots into his chest,” Ginny Stanford wrote in her essay, “Death in the Cool Evening.” “Three pops, three cries . . . After the third cry I knew he was dead.”

Later Ginny Stanford recalled hearing C.D. Wright screaming to her from the bedroom: “Get in here!”

In her essay, Ginny described straddling Frank’s body, putting her hands on his chest and being “amazed at the sight of three small holes ringing his heart.”

“Death had changed his eyes from hazel to pale porcelain green . . .” she wrote. “While I waited for the police I tried to memorize every detail of his face before I never saw it again. He looked through me to a distant place, and I tried wishing myself there.”

Despite Ginny’s vivid recollection, Lt. Ken Martin of the Fayetteville Police Department, recalling the events 20 years later, said Stanford had not shot himself three times.

Martin said Stanford was shot twice with a single-action .22 pistol that had to be cocked each time it was fired. The body was sprawled on a bed when the police arrived.

Martin said the police theorized that Stanford held the muzzle against his chest and pulled the trigger with his left thumb and that the recoil somehow caused the gun to be cocked and fired a second time.

The women were sitting on the front porch when Martin and a second officer, Mary Mueller, arrived.

“In all honesty, when I got there, they were like sisters,” Martin said. “They were upset, but not hysterically so. And they were trying to comfort each other.”

Later that night, Officer Mueller typed a memo to the police chief as a sort of addendum to the incident report.

“The two females got together today and compared notes and confronted him with the fact that he wasn’t treating them right,” Mueller wrote. “There was no loud fight or anything, but at the time, Stanford became withdrawn and depressed about his fouled up love affair. He had stated to his wife in the past ‘If you ever leave me, I’ll kill myself.’  The Wright female stated to us shortly after we got to the scene that ‘we were looking at all three corners of a triangle.'”

In her short story, “The Raintree Street Bar and Washeteria,” Ellen Gilchrist describes the shock felt by a barroom full of sodden New Orleans writers when they received news that the great poet Francis Alter had killed himself.

“It was unbelievable,” she wrote. “Francis had just been in New Orleans visiting all of them, charming them to death with his beauty and his poetry . . . Then he had gone home to his meager poet’s cottage and lain down upon a bed and shot himself through the heart. He had gone into a bedroom and lain down upon a bed and blown his heart to smithereens. He had decided to put an end to all his poetry and pain and the hard work it is to be alive. Besides, he believed that if he killed himself everyone would be sorry and not be able to forget him. He was right about that.”

Ginny Stanford and Carolyn Wright planned Stanford’s funeral together. He was buried on the grounds of the Subiaco Academy in a kimono and without shoes, Ginny wrote.

For several months the two women, having bonded in a curious way, lived together in Fayetteville.

“It was a mistake,” Wright said. “Too weird. Gothic. I did think we would eventually make a peace but we didn’t. That’s not the way it worked out.”

Ginny Stanford recalled what she believed was pressure from people who knew Stanford for the women to be friends. She, too, thought living together was a mistake.

“It was very unnatural,” she said.

Eventually they both moved away. So did a lot of people.

“It was the end,” Wright said. “Of course, for me it was a very definite end. But for a lot of us it was sort of like we had done everything we could do there and everybody had ruined everybody else’s life as much as they could there and assimilated each other as much as they could. So as artists it was time for us to go to the city. So there was a diaspora.”

~ ~ ~ ~

Stanford continues to exert his personal mythology on people who read his poetry. His work is continually being discovered by writers who are swept away by his singular voice.

And although much of Stanford’s published work remains unavailable, his stature continues to grow. Young writers, when exposed to Stanford’s poetry, are immediately impressed by the unique combination of Southern vernacular and surrealistic imagery.

“It happens all the time,” Adamo said. “I don’t think I’ve ever presented Frank’s work to anybody who wasn’t struck by it and moved in some way.”

C.D. Wright said that once she introduced Stanford’s epic-length poem, “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You,” to her students at Brown University, and they immediately organized a 16-hour public reading.

“Almost everyone who contacts me about Frank – and over the years hundreds have – think they are the only ones who have ever read him or heard of him,” Wright said. “But in fact his reputation is rather large, considering that almost none of his work is in print, that he rarely left Arkansas, that he only published with teeny-tiny presses . . . You are dealing with a young poet who’s dead, whose work is not in print. Now, in our country that’s tantamount to never having existed.”

But in a way Stanford remains unknowable. Nobody really knows why he killed himself. But he talked of death often and had told more than one person he wouldn’t live to see 30.

Other than his brief stay in the state hospital, Frank apparently never sought professional counseling.

“God help the psychiatrist that took on Frank,” Whitehead said. “He was smarter than any psychiatrist would have been. Frank wasn’t crazy. He just killed himself because it was part of his destiny.”

Stanford, in the way he wrote and the way he lived, was deeply romantic, Whitehead said. Whitehead and others said Stanford had talked about killing himself many times.

“He was brooding, he was mysterious, he was glamorous, he was complicated and he was romance incarnate,” Whitehead said. “And he worked on that image, while being a very serious artist.”

The result was a prolific output and an early death, not unlike poets of the 18th and 19th centuries.

“It’s a terrible thing that he killed himself,” Whitehead said. “It was a stupid thing that he killed himself. But he was a pure, pure, bloody romantic. That’s what he thought he was supposed to do.”

Ginny Stanford thought Frank might have been manic-depressive. She said the state hospital records indicated that he’d gone through a period of heavy drinking before they met.

“He would go on a writing bender and be up for days practically without sleep, go through really high creative times and then crash,” Ginny said.

But Ginny also said Frank was very good at hiding his feelings. He was, after all, an accomplished liar.

By the time he was 29, Stanford had written several volumes of poetry, including one book-length poem of more than 500 pages, as well as fiction and essays. And he had told many, many lies.

“I think anyone who’s living a lie suffers from depression,” Wright said. “I think he was hurting. He felt very estranged. I miss Frank. He was a great love for me, but it was a dreadful ordeal almost from the beginning.”

Willett said death had been Stanford’s companion his entire life.

“Frank related to death like death was his brother . . . and it wasn’t anything you needed to fear,” Willett said. “It was just there. You accepted it. . . I think Frank was under the impression that when he killed himself that was not the end of the story.”

Stanford’s fixed idea that he wouldn’t live to be 30 was part of who he was an artist. It might be why he wrote the way he did.

“Part of what caused him to have the power he did as a poet was this mind that conceived of itself as working on a 29-year schedule,” said Stokesbury. “His familiarity with death came from the fact that he really was planning to become quite familiar with death very soon. He really did feel it. If he didn’t feel it he might not have been able to write the poems he did.”

The early poems, Stokesbury said, are about people dying. The best later poems were about trying to understand death as an idea. Stokesbury said it was as if Stanford viewed death not as an end, but as a doorway to another plane of existence, “like there was some light that the dead see that the others don’t and he wanted to find out what it was.”

Ultimately, nobody knows why Stanford pulled the trigger. What matters is his legacy — the extraordinary poetry.

“Whether you’re a writer or not, there’s something to be gained from the beauty he was able to pull out of the mud on the levees of the Mississippi River,” Willett said.

Said Stokesbury: “He was a true poet, that’s for sure. Maybe a little too true, as it turned out.”

Note: This article was researched and written in 1998. A much shorter version appeared in the Kansas City Star to mark the 20th anniversary of Frank Stanford’s death. Poet and novelist James Whitehead, who was kind enough to grant an interview, died in 2003. Poet Miller Williams passed away in 2015. Poet and editor CD Wright, who was generous with her time in more than one interview, died in 2016. 

The Sightings

Note: This article was published Feb . 17, 1985 in the Kansas City Star Sunday magazine.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

“The planet Venus, which is now 26 million miles from the earth . . . has been taken by credulous correspondents in various parts of Kansas for a fully equipped airship cruising among the clouds within a mile of the earth’s surface. These correspondents, with more imagination than astronomy, have telegraphed stories to various Kansas City and St. Louis newspapers describing the monster . . . Some of the correspondents say that this harmless planet, which is the nearest neighbor of earth, is an airship for the British War Department, spying through the country for fortifications. Friday night members of one family in Kansas City, Kan. declared that they saw the strange craft of the air with the blazing beacon light. The story passed from mouth to mouth and last night hundreds of people of the city viewed the planet with awe, and the question on every lip was: ‘Have you seen the airship?’ Many of the people actually believed that it was an airship. It disappeared from view about 9:30 o’clock.”from the Kansas City Star, March 28, 1897.

A source of eternal frustration in my life is that I never have seen an unidentified flying obect.

My father-in-law, a sober-minded designer of oil field equipment, once saw a group of them from an airplane — three little white objects that hovered at a lower altitude and then shot out of sight. One of my cousins, a serious girl brought up in a no-nonsense Protestant ranching family, was chased down a dirt road by shining disc as she returned from organ practice at the Methodist church. A Kansas City acquaintance, who operates his own business and has never been accused of having spontaneous hallucinations, once observed a multi-colored globe hovering high above his parents’ house.

So why not me? I grew up on a farm in Texas, where the eternally flat horizons and huge skies are perfect for celestial observations, and even though UFOs love to visit farms and scare the livestock, we never had a single extraterrestrial visitor when I was growing up.

Our farm was near a Navy base where jet pilots were trained, and even though UFOs like to hang out near airports and military bases and give traffic controllers a hard time, the most aerial excitement I can remember came from periodic visits by the Blue Angels and the occasional luckless pilot trainee who crashed his jet in an open field.

You might think a childhood appetite for the science fiction of H.G. Wells and the fantasy novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs would have qualified me for at least a perfunctory visit by friendly aliens — a symbolic nod of appreciation from fellow creatures of the universe.

But no.

Now I find myself in Missouri, smack dab in the heart, it turns out, of UFO country. Missouri and Kansas have long histories of UFO sightings. Just ask Ted Phillips.

Ted Phillips runs a photography studio in Reeds Spring, Mo., and has spent much of his time as a researcher for the Center for UFO Studies. Ted has scanned more newspaper microfilm in this state than have some historians. He has compiled reported sightings from as long ago as 1857.

His catalog of 1,619 Missouri sightings includes the case of a Bates County duck hunter who saw an airborne circular object in 1875; that of two young women who saw and heard an airborne, oval, humming, metallic object east of Warsaw, Mo., in 1902; and 30 reported “airship” sightings in 1896-97 (a very good year for UFOs, incidentally).

Drawing of an 1896 airship

A wave of airship sightings swept the country in 1896-97, well before Kittyhawk, and many of the reports came from this region. One of the most notable came from Leroy, Kan., where a rancher and retired member of the Kansas House named Alexander Hamilton claimed that an airship operated by six “jabbering” and strange looking occupants descended into his cow lot, abducted a calf and left the animal’s head, legs and hide to be discovered the next day. (Sadly, The Encyclopedia of UFOs has declared the incident a hoax.)

The “modern” age of UFO sightings began in World War II, when some pilots reported seeing tiny balls of light called “foo fighters” flying singly and in groups. Since the late ’40s there have been periodic national waves of sightings, the most recent in 1973 — the year of numerous reported sightings in southeast Missouri and the year law enforcement agencies in Missouri, Kansas and other Midwestern states began reporting a rash of unexplained cattle mutilations.

Phillips says Missouri has had more UFO sightings that have left physical trances than any state in the union and he estimated Kansas would hold an honorable position somewhere in the Top 10.

Assuming I might never see a UFO, I decided to do the next best thing. Talk to those who had.

“There’s a million, million planets up there and there’s gotta be one like earth somewhere,” said Ronald Johnson. “We can go up there. Why can’t they come down here?”

Ronald Johnson and his sheep dog

Johnson, 29, has done a lot of thinking about this since that night in 1971 when he walked out to the sheep pen behind his parents’ house at Delphos, Kan., to feed the lambs. From behind a shed he heard a noise he described as a rumble or the high-pitched whine of  tires on the highway.

He saw an airborne object emanating a “white light like a sun.” Johnson’s white sheep dog was with him, and he said they both seemed immobilized by the object.

“It looked just like a toadstool, so bright it could blind you,” Johnson recalled. “It hovered there and then took off.”

The object left behind a ring of dehydrated soil that reportedly glowed after the object’s departure and caused his mother’s hand to go numb when she touched it. UFO researchers, including Ted Phillips, visited the farm. Air Force officers did too. Philip Klass, a career UFO debunker, went to Delphos and discounted photographs that allegedly captured the ring’s glow because the glow looked like light from a flash bulb. A reporter from the National Enquirer came out and, according to Johnson, his parents were paid $5,000 by the grocery store tabloid because of the allegedly persuasive nature of the sighting. (The Enquirer once maintained a reward fund for supposedly convincing UFO reports.)

The Delphos ring

In the following years Johnson said he was plagued by nightmares and was given nerve medication. Curiosity seekers flocked to the farm and made nuisances of themselves. The object returned two more times, he said, once burning out the electrical wiring in the farm house. Not long after the first sighting, the young lambs gave virgin births, he said.

Phillps determined that the dehydrated soil was inexplicably moisture-resistant, but Johnson has stranger stories about the ring — if you carried a transistor radio inside the circle, it would stop playing; for a few years after the incident, nothing grew inside the circle except hard toadstools.

Like other UFO observers, Johnson has had to put up with his share of ridicule and criticism, but he is convinced of what he saw: Extraterrestrial intelligence.

“The ones who refuse to believe it . . . are scared,” he said. “They’re just scared. Before that happened I never did believe in saucers. That changed my mind so fast it wasn’t even funny.”

In 1978 six members of the Sturgill family near Jenkins, Mo., were witnesses to an unexplained daylight farm sighting that left enough convincing evidence for Phillips to put it in his High Strangeness File.

Family members first observed a white object about 200 feet from the house one morning. After breakfast, farmer Marlett Sturgill, thinking the object was some sort of debris, prepared to take the tractor out to haul it away. Suddenly the object — which appeared to be a disc without wings or visible engines — rose from the ground, rapidly ascended at a steep angle and joined a larger cylindrical object with a black stripe down its side that seemed to hover in the sky. Just as suddenly, the objects disappeared from view. Today, Sturgill declines to speculate on the nature of the objects he and his family saw.

“I never gave it no thought, but it makes you wonder how it could go up without any sound,” he said. “I don’t know what it was, but it was something.”

The object had left a circular dehydrated area and three smaller circular areas where the soil was compressed and dry. When the grass grew back it was a darker color than the surrounding grass. As usual, the curious sought out the farm.

“They were here by the hundreds,” Sturgill said. “They just dogged us to death.”

Through the years UFO phenomena have produced a steady source of headlines for grocery store tabloids, “contactees” who discovered there was money to be made publishing books and giving lectures about their alleged meetings with friendly aliens, several government investigations that have failed to provide a convincing explanation for sightings of UFOs and a host of theories — everything from a conspiracy theory that says UFOs are actually government vehicles emanating from secret underground installations to one that contends that UFOs are demonic in nature.

“It gets totally ridiculous when you study the whole phenomenon,” said Harley Rutledge, a physics professor at Southeast Missouri State University who became a believer in UFO phenomena when he did research on the outbreak of sightings in southeast Missouri in 1973.

“The skeptics, I don’t really care what they think,” Rutledge said. “I know what I experienced.”

But what he saw encourages skepticism from even the most open-minded UFO researchers. He claims to have made 149 personal sightings — including many from his yard in Cape Girardeau.

“The UFOligists didn’t believe you were supposed to have more than one or two in a lifetime,” he said. “That has to sound like a ridiculous claim, but I won’t back down from it. But then again, I haven’t seen anything for years and I don’t know if I ever will again.”

Rutledge’s observations were made at night and in daylight and included discs, unexplained lights, a bullet-shaped craft that changed colors and what appeared to be a huge craft passing over the airport in Farmington, Mo.

Rutledge no longer does UFO research, but his belief in extraordinary airborne objects is firm. He compared any attempted study of UFO phenomena to quicksand. “You go deeper and deeper, you know these things, but nothing ever comes of it.”

Phillips puts it another way: “It’s like the murder mystery that has no ending . . . I don’t want to sound too skeptical because I believe something real is going on. I just don’t know what. I am as put off by the skeptics as the true believers.”

I guess all of this leaves me somewhere between the skeptics and the believers. Some students of UFOs have devoted lifetimes to their study but the unanswered questions merely grow in number. As Lucius Farish, who publishes the UFO News-clipping Service in Plumerville, Ark., said: “I’ve been studying them for 28 years and the more I learn the less I know.”

Now, as I periodically scan the Midwestern skies and ponder the conviction with which people have told me of their brushes with the paranormal, I think of something Ronald Johnson said in describing the lingering effects of his own experience: “Sometimes I catch myself look up in the air.”