Call it cowboy convergence. It was bound to happen. My life trail just had to wander across the one left by William Frederick Cody. Yes, Buffalo Bill…a larger-than-life American original. Pony Express rider, war hero, buffalo hunter, and showman extraordinaire. I especially like the last part. Buffalo Bill was an Old West Evel Knievel, on a horse instead of a Harley (horses are far more reliable, by the way. Horses and Harleys both tend to leak. Horses do so naturally). Everybody knows Evel would have been much better off jumping buses, Mack trucks, and canyons on a Honda like his son Kaptain Robbie Knievel. If I hadn’t shared that, you wouldn’t have known I know it. That’s how things become important. Or something. Anyway.
Buffalo Bill is an MFA of mine. Oh. Right. MFA. I created this little construct in my life I call M.F.A. That’s Mentors From Afar, people I haven’t met personally whose lives and character I want to emulate. Buffalo Bill is definitely one of my MFAs. Who are yours?
I’m writing part of this today at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Le Claire, Iowa, the birthplace and childhood home of Buffalo Bill. I’ve seen a pair of his riding gloves, his Bible, many photographs, actual film footage of his “Wild West” show, one of his rifles, and a number of important letters. I confess I’m now somewhat in awe of the man. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been riveted by the legends of the Old West. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and yes, Buffalo Bill were all heroes of mine. As a child, I only knew the myths, the “tall tales.” Like “Davy, Davy Crockett is King of the Wild Frontier” and “D. Boone kilt a bar when he was only three.” Everyone knows you can’t actually kill a bear until you’re 5-1/2 and both Dan’l and Davy got the credit for that one bar.
As an adult, my interest continues, and I’ve discovered without fail that the truth about these men is far richer and even more compelling than the myths. These were real people. Flawed, yes, but genuine, very colorful, intriguing characters across many areas of life.
That is certainly true of one Buffalo Bill, 1846-1917.Coming face to face with this man-myth began many years ago, as early as I could remember seeing the comic books and realizing his name was “Bill” like mine. There was a connection early on with the buffalo, too, as I admired this animal’s strength and ability to survive amid overpopulation and heinous exploitation that nearly led to extinction (no, not at the hands of Buffalo Bill!). I remember creating a sculpture of a pink and purple buffalo back in high school. I even rooted for the Buffalo Sabres hockey team. I knew little about the real Buffalo Bill.
Cowboy Convergence Stage One happened a few months ago. That’s when Elvis joined my household. No, not me once again donning that white leather sequined jumpsuit, scarves, and sunglasses, letting fly “All Shook Up,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” I certainly wouldn’t rule out a command performance for the future, especially after my hip replacement, but that’s another story. Elvis is my buffalo. I didn’t stutter…Elvis is my buffalo. And I named him Elvis partly due to his imagined proclivity to peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Elvis is now proudly displayed on my family room wall. Hang on now (pun unintentional but always more than welcome). I didn’t shoot Elvis. I don’t hunt and kill animals though I confess to once trapping a pesky mole wreaking havoc in my front yard and then dancing on his grave. Forgive me, PETM.
I do like buffalo meat…as tasty as beef but much leaner. And Elvis has given me tacit permission to consume his lesser evolved brethren. So let me conjure up a delicious buffalo roast for you in my crock pot. I’m serious. I’ll add some taters and carrots…good eatin’. Don’t worry…it’s hormone-free, grass-fed, free range, never had a Twinkie, and votes liberal.
By the way, it’s perfectly fine that I talk to Elvis. So far, he hasn’t talked back. When that happens, well, they have medicine for that. And he does make me smile every time I pass him. That phenomenon happens to be priceless. And all silliness aside, well, as close as I can ever get to that elusive state especially here on April Fool’s Day, I believe I did give Elvis the Buffalo as much respect and honor possible for an animal that was hunted down and turned into a forgotten, broken trophy by someone.
It happened like this. It was a dark and stormy night. I found myself alone and in need of a wall decoration. What? That hasn’t happened to you?
And there was Elvis on posted sadly on eBay. He caught my eye partly because he was damaged. Yes, I’m always drawn to things I can fix, improve, and/or restore. I look and see what can be, not what is, and I get excited. I do so love to make things happen. Elvis was located in nearby Portage, Indiana. I contacted the seller who explained his buffalo was not welcome in his house since his wedding four years ago and was consequently relegated to being thoroughly covered up on the utility room floor. Call me crazy if you must, but I saw what was once a noble animal now in need of rescue. I offered the owner a few bucks and drove Elvis home in the passenger seat of my Mustang. Great fun at the McDonald’s drive thru! “No, he is not a moose!” Sheesh, kid…it’s basic zoology! I ordered Elvis a vanilla shake and some McDonaldland cookies. We were rolling again. What…I’m hospitable!
Elvis had cracked, loosened horns and a split nose. One of the horns actually had pieces missing. He looked like he had tangled with the wrong bad bull. Yet I saw his potential. I found Mr. George Swiderski, a world-class hunter/taxidermist nearby in Palatine, Illinois. Again, this is another story. I’ll say now that I was in the presence of artistic greatness and I felt incredibly honored to have this man, (personal hunting companion to President George H.W. Bush, Charlton Heston, General Norman Swarzkopf, and another of my all-time heroes, test pilot Chuck Yeager) repair my buffalo. He did so expertly.
With Elvis again in my possession, I became Bill with a buffalo. Aw, heck with it! I was now Buffalo Bill in a real way. There was more.
Cowboy Convergence Stage Two did indeed involve a stage. In my performance as Tony Broadstreet, American movie producer in the dinner theater murder mystery “Doubtful Abbey” I had to let my hair grow long and I had to waltz. These two things led me to a dance studio for several waltz lessons and a few jitterbug ones just to give me some versatility. My dance instructor’s husband greeted me and immediately said (with no knowledge of my Elvis), “You look just like Buffalo Bill!”
Well. That was that. Looking like Buffalo Bill and having Elvis the buffalo brought William Frederick Cody and me together for a power pow wow. Still thinking of him as nothing more than a caricature, I ordered a biography, his autobiography, and a PBS documentary. Those resources plus what I learned here at the Buffalo Bill Museum gave me the facts I present today. I was in tears by the end of the PBS film, as I learned about a man who was many things I admire, a man who was misunderstood and falsely accused at times, but his kindness and decency was undeterred. May that always be so of me.
A remarkable story. Young Bill became fatherless by age 12, his dad apparently murdered for his then-unpopular abolitionist views. Bill assumed responsibility for his mother and sisters, and at 12, became a wagon train driver, then an army scout, a role he would play more than once. He also served as a Pony Express rider, setting a long-ride record, responding to this ad,
“Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
Of course Bill earned his reputation and name by going to work for the railroad’s western expansion. He was hired to provide meat for the railroad workers. An expert shot, taught most believe by good friend Wild Bill Hickok, Bill Cody killed more than 4,000 buffalo in an eight-month period. Though some believe Buffalo Bill was somehow single-handedly responsible for the near-extinction of the buffalo, he killed just 4,000 of the millions of animals roaming the plains. Scientists today say the problem was caused by the sheer numbers of the largest of North American animals out-eating the land’s ability to sustain them.
Though often thought of as an Indian killer, Buffalo Bill did work as a scout against the Indians for the Army and likely did kill some. But he actually was respected by the American Indians and became a spokesman for Indian rights and spoke against the government’s poor record at keeping treaties. Upon Bill’s death, the Oglala Sioux Indians issued this statement,
“The Oglala Sioux Indians of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in council assembled, resolve that expression of deepest sympathy be extended by their committee in behalf of all the Oglalas, to the wife, relatives, and friends of the late William F. Cody for the loss they have suffered; that these people who have endured may know that the Oglalas found in Buffalo Bill a warm and lasting friend; that our hearts are sad from the heavy burden of his passing, lightening only in the belief of our meeting before the presence of our Wakan Tanka in the great hunting ground.”
Buffalo Bill was way ahead of his time in another critical area, too. He was an advocate of women’s rights, insisting that Annie Oakley and other women in his employ receive equal pay to the men. Indeed, crack shot Annie Oakley said of her employer and friend, “He was the kindest, simplest, most loyal man I ever knew.” In another very bold move, Buffalo Bill also hired the Osama Bin Laden of the day…Chief Sitting Bull, man who led the attack killing General George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn. Cody and Sitting Bull became friends, and Sitting Bull joined the Wild West show for one year. Making friends of enemies is another quality I really admire.
Bill was known for his bravery, winning a Congressional Medal of Honor for his Army service, technically not even possible for a civilian scout. The medal was revoked because of that, and then restored to his family in 1989. He was an entrepreneur, stage actor, and master showman, called the “father of the rodeo” and the “first international star.” He insisted his “Wild West” shows be real, authentic representations of what life was like in the diminishing Old West. Real and authentic — powerful, resonating words for me.
All that led to my desire to actually be part of all this. To be Buffalo Bill. Crazy, a bit, yes, but that’s how I roll…an actual experience trumps book-learnin’ every time! It’s in my blood, too. Knowing a haircut was imminent, I called a local photographer and explained my own vision hours before losing my Buffalo Bill locks. “Make me Buffalo Bill, 1902?” I asked. The photographer was genuinely excited about the project. For an hour and half, I was Buffalo Bill in dozens of poses. Some results are shared here. I’m proud of my few moments as this man.
The real Buffalo Bill Cody was brave, kind, fair, humane, free-spirited, loyal, rough-riding, creative, entrepreneurial, flashy, and insisted on authenticity. He was also human and flawed, struggling some with alcohol and having marriage problems. Cody was a man who had the creativity and skill to earn large amounts of money but died penniless; he was generous but also hurt by lack of business acumen, absentee management, and unscrupulous business partners. I have come to like and respect him. There are many things about him I want to emulate.
In one word, I will describe Buffalo Bill as “showman.” He was far more, but in this attribute he and I come together beyond the hair, the name, and Elvis on my wall. Buffalo Bill, Showman, cared deeply about his product…his show. He stopped at nothing to make it the best, most excellent and authentic it could be. His showmanship was the perfection of his other traits, as it prompted him to advocate for women and Indians as they worked closely with him in his vision. As showman, William Frederick Cody was driven to do far more than to provide a diversion, like I do as Dr. William Chumley in the current “Harvey” play. Bill Cody had a far grander vision…to educate those who knew little of the Old West, to illuminate history in a striking, most memorable way. By so doing, Cody provided a place for his performers in this case to simply be themselves and experience love, understanding, and acceptance from their audience in return.
I am a showman, too, whether I am teaching COM students at Purdue how to present a speech, performing on-stage as Tony Broadstreet, American Movie Producer 1940, creating my surf bathroom theme park, or entertaining my grandkids with my juggling gear. I too insist on authenticity. Yes, that is a real surfboard on my bathroom wall and no, Elvis the Buffalo is not just a big stuffed animal from a Brookfield Zoo Gift Shop. And yes, for the play, “Doubtful Abbey,” I mentioned my waltzing lessons in order to waltz believably across the floor and I also visited a karate dojo for tips on safe falling during a fight scene in the play (from a former actor/stuntman on “Walker- Texas Ranger”). Real. If I’m doing it, I want real.
So come on over. I’ll be my brand of showman. I will make you laugh by our conversation and a walk around the examples of full-contact “real” in my home. I’ll take time to listen to you…to hear your heart. As I do, I will put my Buffalo Bill brand on it, giving you back warmth and acceptance and a sense that we have just celebrated our own unique humanness. Then we’ll eat some buffalo, you can meet Elvis in person, and I’ll tell you all about Buffalo Bill. After that, I’ll teach you to waltz or fall like Chuck Norris just decked you. And ask me about the night I took Elvis the Buffalo to play rehearsal.
Special thanks to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Le Claire, Iowa and Bob Schiffke, Executive Director.