Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody

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9780312422851: Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody

Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody is a collection of five extended essays that appeared in The New Yorker from 1978 to 1986. In the tradition of A. J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, Ian Frazier raises journalism to high literary art. His vivid stories showcase a strange and wonderful parade of American life, from portraits of Heloise, the syndicated household-hints columnist, and Jim Deren, the urban fly-fisher's guru, to small-town residents in western Kansas preparing to celebrate a historic, mutual massacre, to which they invite the Cheyenne Indians' descendants with the promise of free bowling.

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About the Author:

Ian Frazier is the author of Great Plains, The Fish's Eye, On the Rez, Family, and Travels in Siberia, as well as Dating Your Mom, Lamentations of the Father, and The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days. A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, he lives in Montclair, New Jersey.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

NOBODY BETTER, BETTER THAN NOBODY
Authentic Accounts of Massacres The town of Oberlin, Kansas, is in the northwest corner of the state, eighty-three miles east of the Kansas-Colorado state line and a hundred and seven miles west of the geographical center of the continental United States. Oberlin has a population of twenty-five hundred and a town whistle that blows five times a day--at seven in the morning, at noon, at one in the afternoon, at six in the evening, and at ten at night--and it is the county seat of Decatur County. It was named after the town of Oberlin, Ohio. In 1878, it changed its name from its original one--Westfield--because a man named John Rodehaver gave the town some land on the condition that the name be changed to that of the town he and his family had come from in Ohio. I myself am from Ohio, and so this fact, likethe fact that for many years the World's Largest Vase made its home in Zanesville, Ohio, or the fact that the first concrete pavement in America was laid in Bellefontaine, Ohio, or the fact that the comedian Bob Hope owns a share in the Cleveland Indians baseball team, is probably more interesting to me than it would be to somebody from another state. Many cities and towns in Ohio are named after places in other states or other countries (Norwalk, New Philadelphia, Versailles), but it is rare to find a place named after a place in Ohio. The reason for this is probably that people who leave Ohio do not like to be reminded of their native state, but I am sure that if there were a town anywhere named New Akron or New Lorain I would not be the only Ohioan eager to visit it. The Ohio town from which Oberlin, Kansas, gets its name has a strong humanistic tradition: it was a station on the Underground Railroad, and it is well known as the home of Oberlin College, the first coeducational college in America and a college that over the years has won many international friends as a result of its participation in the Congregational missions overseas, particularly in China. The town of Oberlin, Kansas, has a strong tradition, too, but "humanistic" is not the first word I would think of to describe it. It is as if the traditions of the Ohio Oberlin were so jolted and banged up by the thousand-mile journey across the prairie that they just didn't work the same as they had before. In the second half of the nineteenth century, many Ohioanswent West and, by exaggerating certain of their personality traits, found violence and fame (among them the border raider William Quantrill, scourge of Lawrence, Kansas; the abolitionist John Brown, scourge of Pottawatomie, Kansas Territory; and George Custer). Oberlin, Kansas, reminds me of a whole town that did that. From the beginning, Oberlin, Kansas, has had about it something daring, something careening, something here-goes-hope-I-don't-get-shot, to a degree that is rare even for Western towns. Big, exciting, calamitous events have come snapping down on the prairie around Oberlin like the bars of giant mousetraps, especially during the town's early years. My favorite of all the Western museums I have ever been to is in Oberlin, and it is called the Last Indian Raid in Kansas Museum. It commemorates the biggest thing ever to happen in or near the town --a raid by a group of Cheyennes that took place on September 30 and October 1, 1878, in which about forty settlers and at least two Indians died. The museum has exhibits, paintings, and books about the Indian raid and manuscripts of firsthand accounts of the Indian raid. It also has other exhibits about the history of the area, and it occupies five buildings, one of which is a sod house. The first time I visited the museum, in 1975, I asked the curator, Mrs. Kathleen Claar, about some of the recent photographs in the Indian-raid exhibit. One of the photographs was of a survivor of the raid, Charles Janousek, who as a baby was wounded in the head, and later cared for, bythe Indians, and who then was almost a hundred years old. Another was a picture of a big Indian in a T-shirt and a cowboy hat, standing with his wife and his grandson, a little boy wearing a headdress with buffalo horns. Mrs. Claar said that since about 1956 there had been a celebration at the museum on the anniversary of the Indian raid; that every year for many years a number of the survivors had come to the celebration; and that Charles Janousek was the only one left. She said that the Indian was named Little Wolf and his grandson was also named Little Wolf; that they were the grandson and the great-great-grandson of the famous Cheyenne chief who was the leader of the Indians in the raid; that they had come to the museum when they were in the area on their way to join the rodeo circuit; that descendants of the Cheyennes had come to the museum several times in the past; and that several times Cheyennes had been invited to the celebration on the anniversary of the raid. Late in the summer of 1978, remembering that the centennial of the Last Indian Raid in Kansas was approaching, I called Mrs. Claar and asked her if they were planning a big celebration and if the Indians were coming, and she said yes, they were planning a big celebration, and forty or fifty Northern Cheyennes were going to attend. Since the idea of descendants of the Indians and descendants of the settlers sitting around and talking seemed to me like a mirror image of heaven, I made a rental-car reservation, took moneyout of the bank, flew to Chicago, changed planes, flew to Omaha (I had a long layover in Omaha, so I walked to the city from the airport and had a few beers at the bar of the Omaha Hilton, where a real-estate salesmen's convention was taking place, and then I decided that I wanted to take a close look at the Missouri River, so I got a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the best place to look at the river, and he said he would, and he started telling me that he was separated from his wife and was from New York City, and then he dropped me off at the airport and said that the airport observation deck was the best place to see the river, but that wasn't what I had in mind at all, so I walked along the fence around the runway, scared up a covey of quail, climbed a levee, walked through a field, scared up a couple rabbits, walked through some woods, and finally got to the black-mud, smelly banks of the Missouri--the river that drains a vast area of the West, the river that the Niobrara, the Yellowstone, the Big Sioux, the Knife, the Milk, the Heart, the Bad, the Cannonball, and the Teton all run into eventually, the river that was the main way West when the first white men came, the river that many trappers went up to be killed by Blackfoot Indians, the river that sometimes used to be full of drowned buffalo, the river on which the steamboat Far West brought the news on July 4, 1876, of Custer's defeat--and then I walked back to the airport), took a plane to McCook, Nebraska, reached McCook after stops inColumbus, Lincoln, Grand Island, Hastings, and Kearney, picked up my rental car, drove to Oberlin, and checked in at a motel. The whole time I was in Kansas, I never heard an adult use a swearword. A lot of people asked me if I was married, and one man asked me if I was a Christian. In the evenings, I had either pork-tenderloin sandwiches and French fries at Lindy's, a café a block up from the Indian Raid museum, or ham with mashed potatoes, gravy, noodles, rolls, string beans, three-bean salad, pickled beets, corn relish, apple pie, ice cream, and milk at the 5th Wheel, a restaurant outside of Oberlin, on Highway 36. One evening at sunset, I went for a drive in my rented Volaré and listened to the million radio stations you can get on the Great Plains. I came over a ridge and saw the red sun sitting on the lip of the prairie and the aerodynamically shaped shadows in the washes and gullies just as a really good song ("Rocky Top") came on the radio. I passed the feedlot north of Oberlin, with its many thousands of cattle. One of every nine cows sold for beef in America in 1977 was sold to McDonald's Restaurants. One night, I watched TV in my motel room and after all the stations signed off I went for a drive. There were few cars on the road and no lights on in town and no people anywhere except for a man at a gas station who was ignoring a man with no teeth who was telling about a sow and her piglets he had seen walking down the highway some distance to the west.I drove on dirt roads until I couldn't see any lights, and then I got out of the car. The prairie just kept on going and going in the night, under the faraway, random stars. I felt like a drop of water on a hot plate. I did not get so far from the car, with its engine running and its headlights on, that I could not hear the radio through the closed door. I had been in Kansas only a short time when I found out the Indians were not going to show up at the centennial celebration.  
 
Mrs. Kathleen Claar, curator for the past twenty years of the Last Indian Raid in Kansas Museum, in her museum two days before the centennial weekend: "The Northern Cheyennes are coming. They have made a commitment to attend, and they have chartered a bus that seats forty-nine, so that will be quite a group. It will be senior citizens and junior-and senior-high students. The older Indians will stay at the Frontier Motel, and the younger ones will camp on the museum grounds. And I just had the best news! I went out and bowled this afternoon to try and get away from all these preparations, and Rick Salem, who owns the bowling alley, told me that if the Indians want to they can bowl for free. Wasn't that nice of him? "We're going to have all kinds of demonstrations here at the museum on Saturday, September 30. We're going to have wood carving, spinning, graingrinding, soapmaking, butter churning, glass staining, wheat weaving, bulletmaking, needlepoint, china painting, tatting--that's like macramé, only you use fine thread--and crewelwork. We're going to have a quilt that was made a hundred years ago by a ten-year-old girl, and the biggest piece of cloth in that quilt is no more than one inch square. At the highschool cafeteria, the Oberlin Music Club is sponsoring a fashion show and salad luncheon, with new fashions and also 'Fashions from the Good Ole Days,' dating back to the turn of the century. There's going to be a horse show at the Saddle Club arena, at the fairgrounds, both Saturday and Sunday. The Oberlin Commercial Club is having a mini-tractor pull at the corner of Commercial Street and Penn Avenue on Saturday afternoon (those are the little fuel-powered toy tractors, you know), and then that night the bunch from Topeka--oh, they're wild, the Starlighters Chorus--are going to put on a medicine show here at the museum. It's called Dr. Femur's La-Ka-Ha-NaKlee and I'm in it--I play a madam. It's so bad it's funny. Then after that there's going to be a street dance in front of the museum, and right before the dance we're going to judge the winners in the beard-and-mustache contest. Then on Sunday there's the memorial service at the Oberlin Cemetery at one o'clock, and then Fred and Wilma Wallsmith, of the High Plains Preservation of History Commission, are going to lead a fifty-mile tour of the massacre sites along the Beaver and Sappa Creeks. "I really don't know what the Indians are going to do. They say they want to do their dances. I guess they'll just provide music and dancing and be up and down the street here to answer questions and talk to people. I've tried to take everything out of the museum that might offend the Indians. This exhibit here used to be the bones of an Indian woman who lived supposedly about twelve hundred to two thousand years ago. I've covered that up, but I'm scared to death that some little kid is going to say, when the Indians can hear him, 'Oh, Miz Claar, where's the bones of that Indian woman that used to be here?' And I've taken the word 'ravished' out of all the descriptions of the massacre, even though the Indians did ravish at least nine women, and some of the babies that were born later were brought up in the community and you can still see the Indian blood in the families to this day. And I've kind of pushed this exhibit about Sol Rees out of the way--he was quite an Indian fighter, and he lived with the Delawares for a while, and he had a wife who was a Delaware. I don't know whether they were legally married or not. The story goes that he finally traded his Indian wife for a pony. I did an article for the Oberlin Herald about him once, and I had to watch what I said, because his daughter was a friend of mine. I said, 'He was as cruel and hard as the times in which he lived'--that was how I got around most of it." A dark-skinned young man with dark hair and eyes and an embroidered white shirtfront came in. "Hello,Mrs. Claar, my name is Jesus Epimito, and I am staying with Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Larson. I am an International Foreign Youth Exchange student from the Philippines, and I was wondering if you have anything in your museum from the Philippines." Mrs. Claar produced some beads that she thought were from the Philippines but that turned out to be from Puerto Rico. "Some people think this museum is only about the Indian raid, but we have things here from every period in the history of this area. I shouldn't brag on myself, but I have one of the best collections of bob wire in the state of Kansas. This is the exhibit--'The History of the Plains Told in Bob Wire.' This wire here is called Glidden's Twisted Oval. It's from the early eighteen-seventies. This piece is called Harbaugh Torn Ribbon--it's just like a ribbon of metal with little tears in it. This wire with the big square pieces of tin on it is called Briggs Obvious. It came out in 1882. It's called 'obvious' because the cattle were supposed to see it and it wouldn't cut them up." "Oh, what funny names these Indians have. Little ... Wolf. Dull ... Knife," said the Filipino student, who was looking at one of the Indian-raid exhibits. "This wire here is a get-well gift sent to me when I was in the hospital from the isle of Tahiti by a friend of mine who got it from a Dutch artist. This wire here is handmade bob wire from the white cliffs of Dover. This wire here is from Jerusalem." Dr. R. G. Young, a chiropractor whose office is next door to the museum, came in. He was wearing a terry-cloth shirt that zipped to the throat, and had his hands in the pockets of his blue pants. "Hey, Kathleen, when're the Indians coming? Remember the time the Indians came--oh, ten years ago--and set up their tepees in the yard and wouldn't stay at the motel? They wouldn't eat at the restaurant! They brought their own food and cooked it right out there!" "This bob wire was on the Johnny Carson show. Not this exact wire--wire like this. It's called Tyler G. Lord. It was strung on a fence and Johnny had to put a splice in it in a certain amount of time, and he was pretty good at it, too." A farmer came in. His lips were spotted and turned back into his mouth from chewing tobacco. "We've only had sixteen-hundredths of an inch of rain in this county since the beginning of September," he said. "We had a downpour a couple of weeks ago, but then the sun came out and the wind started to blow and it evaporated quicker than it come. I hope it rains for this centennial. That would do more good than anything." "This wire is called Hodges Parallel Rowel. See the rowel in there, like the rowel in a spur, between the two strands? This wire is called Stover Corsicana Clip. This wire is called Kennedy Barb. You can put the barbs on this wire wherever you want." Glenn Gavin, of the Kansas...

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