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  • ChatGPT Reads 'Eisenhower Babies' and Has Some Thoughts

    By Ronnie Blair Artificial intelligence has been in the news a lot over the last couple of years, especially the AI known as ChatGPT. Recently, I had the questionable (some would say “quite foolish”) idea of asking ChatGPT to read my memoir, Eisenhower Babies, and offer feedback. So, I fed the book into ChatGPT and then asked a series of questions. The answers were, uh, enlightening – or something. To start, I kept it simple. The first question was: What is the book Eisenhower Babies by Ronnie Blair about? ChatGPT, which reads a book faster than I can open one, swiftly penned a three-paragraph answer that was a basic but accurate summation, calling Eisenhower Babies a “nostalgic and evocative memoir” with “tales of humorous and unusual family adventures.” In this short book report, ChatGPT correctly described the setting (a Kentucky coal-mining community) and the time period (the late 1950s to the early 1970s), and understood that the book’s title referred to children born when Dwight Eisenhower was president. ChatGPT concluded by describing the book as “a celebration of the spirit and resilience of a community navigating the complexities of mid-20th-century America​.” We were off to a promising start – until I discovered that ChatGPT can sometimes get things puzzlingly wrong, which happened when I directed the AI to choose the funniest anecdote from the book. I expected the reply to be that "funniest" is subjective and outside ChatGPT's domain. But ChatGPT, a valiant AI, threw caution to the algorithm. One of the funniest anecdotes in "Eisenhower Babies" is the Halloween trick involving the author's prank during a musical performance for his mother. Ronnie Blair and his older brother, Junior, arrange a deceptive musical performance where Ronnie pretends to play the trumpet. Junior, hidden and actually playing the trumpet, impresses their mother enough to make her consider contacting a variety show host. The joke concludes with Ronnie's mother laughing heartily when the truth is revealed, showcasing a moment filled with humor and family bonding​​. OK. This is wrong on so many levels that it's tough to know where to begin, but let's first dispense with the part that is correct. There really was a trumpet prank in which Junior and I tricked my mother into thinking my musical abilities were far beyond what they were. Nearly every other detail is inaccurate. The prank had nothing to do with Halloween. Junior was not my older brother; he was a neighbor. The variety show host ChatGPT refers to was Ed Sullivan, but to my knowledge, my mother never considered contacting him. I did write, jokingly, that perhaps she considered trying to book me on his show when she heard my faked trumpet brilliance, but literal-minded ChatGPT’s humor radar was faulty. (Or maybe I need to work on my delivery.) I will give ChatGPT a grade of D here, sparing it a failing grade only by giving points for effort. Next, I asked ChatGPT what readers can learn from Eisenhower Babies. Since Eisenhower Babies is neither a textbook nor a self-help book, the correct answer is "not much." But ChatGPT does not take "not much" for an answer and responded with this: Readers of "Eisenhower Babies" can learn about the societal changes and cultural dynamics of America during the mid-20th century through the lens of a childhood memoir. The book offers insights into the influence of significant historical events, such as World War II and the space race, on everyday American life, especially in a Kentucky coal-mining community. It explores themes like the impact of technological innovations on families, the sense of community in small towns, and the nostalgia associated with growing up during this era. Additionally, the memoir provides a vivid depiction of the quirks and charms of rural American life in the 1950s and 1960s, reflecting on how these experiences shaped the author's personality and values. Through humorous and poignant anecdotes, it celebrates the resilience and eccentricities of families navigating the complexities of that time, offering readers a chance to reflect on how past experiences shape collective and individual identities. OK. That one is impressive. It's accurate, thoughtful, insightful, and better than I could have come up with. Maybe there are lessons that discerning readers can take away from Eisenhower Babies after all. ChatGPT gets an A this time. I may even hire ChatGPT as my PR manager. Finally, I asked ChatGPT this: What is the dumbest thing author Ronnie Blair does in Eisenhower Babies? Now ChatGPT could have been polite and diplomatic and assured me that "author Ronnie Blair" did absolutely nothing dumb in Eisenhower Babies, but was at every turn the embodiment of wisdom and sound judgment. And I would have been satisfied and happily awarded another grade of A. It turns out, though, that ChatGPT is a blunt and insensitive AI. In the book "Eisenhower Babies," Ronnie Blair recounts an incident from his childhood that could be considered quite foolish. As a child, Ronnie decided to "borrow" a pony without permission. He managed to get the pony to a pasture but had significant trouble trying to mount it. After failing to ride the pony and needing help to even get on it, he ended up being thrown off as the pony sped up. To make matters worse, when his father returned home, he found the pony not in the pasture where Ronnie left it but unexpectedly in their backyard. This misadventure led to a stern lecture from his father about responsibility, highlighting Ronnie's lack of foresight and preparation for handling the pony​​. I asked for "dumb" and ChatGPT upped the ante to "quite foolish." Quite foolish, ChatGPT? Quite foolish? In what universe is it considered "quite foolish" for an equestrian-challenged 8-year-old to borrow a pony? Yes, I put that exact question to ChatGPT and I am pleased to report that the tactless AI backed down. You're right to point out that from the perspective of a child, the idea of "borrowing" a pony might seem more adventurous than foolish. The innocence and curiosity of children often lead them into situations that, from an adult perspective, might be considered unwise or risky. Ronnie Blair's decision to try and ride a pony, despite not knowing how, reflects the kind of whimsical and bold thinking typical of children exploring their boundaries and the world around them. It's these kinds of stories that add charm and humor to childhood memoirs like "Eisenhower Babies," offering a nostalgic look at the sometimes reckless, yet bold and explorative nature of youth. Ah. "Whimsical and bold." That's more like it. You get an A, ChatGPT. Ronnie Blair is author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up On Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.

  • Obscure Authors, Personal Connections, and the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair

    By Ronnie Blair The Florida Antiquarian Book Fair always holds treasures, and a year ago on my annual pilgrimage there I uncovered one, a book of questionable literary value but of personal interest that made up for any artistic failings. The book was The Silent Alarm by Roy J. Snell, an adventure novel for girls originally published in 1926. Perhaps you have heard of it. Likely you have not. Snell was once a popular author of many such adventure stories for both girls and boys, although these days he hardly registers as a footnote in children’s literature. It wasn’t always so. A 1938 newspaper article claimed at that point in time, total sales of Snell’s 60 books had reached 800,000 volumes, or roughly an average of 13,000 sales per title. (For perspective, this line from a 2022 New York Times article illustrates how difficult it is these days to sell that many books: “Of the 3.2 million titles that BookScan tracked in 2021, fewer than one percent of them sold more than 5,000 copies.”) Eventually, Snell would write 82 books with over 2 million copies sold. It was not Snell’s prominence as the R.L. Stine of his day, though, that attracted me to The Silent Alarm. Instead, it was the book’s setting, Harlan County, Kentucky, the place where I was born and raised. The book resonated on a personal level. Snell, who was not from Harlan County, had something of a Jack London-like literary career. He was born in Missouri and grew up in Illinois, but as an adult he traveled to or lived in what were considered exotic or remote places at the time. Like London, Snell turned his experiences and the people he encountered into fiction. Harlan County, a coal-mining area in the Appalachian Mountains, is one such place where Snell ended up for a brief time as a school teacher, and so it became the setting for a few of his novels. Others were set in such places as Alaska, where, according to that 1938 article originally published in the Chicago Tribune, Snell had been sent by a missionary group and “found himself in charge of 350 Eskimos and 1,500 reindeer.” “He crossed the Bering straits in a skin boat, and life in the Eskimo village had its tribulations,” the article said, “but out of the experience in 1916 came the first of Mr. Snell’s 60 books, ‘Little White Fox and His Arctic Friends.’ ” Snell was writing at a time when the powerful Stratemeyer Syndicate had a strong hold on the juvenile series market and provided stiff competition with its seemingly endless inventory of series, such as Tom Swift, Ruth Fielding, the Motor Boys, and the Rover Boys. The 1926 publication of Snell’s The Silent Alarm just slightly predated the creation of the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s two most enduring series: the Hardy Boys, created in 1927, and Nancy Drew, who debuted in 1930. The 1938 Chicago Tribune article describes my home county as one of the “feud counties of the Kentucky Cumberlands,” which is likely how Snell portrayed it to the reporter. At the time, this may not have been that far off the mark because in the first half of the 20th century Harlan County did have a violent reputation that drew national attention. Snell included quite a few threatening characters in The Silent Alarm, though the opening is a placid prelude to the tension-filled moments to come. Here is how the novel begins: “In a cabin far up the side of Pine Mountain, within ten paces of the murmuring waters of Ages Creek, there stood an old, two roomed log cabin. In one room of that cabin sat a girl. She was a large, strong girl, with the glow of ruddy health on her cheeks. “Her dress, though simple, displayed a taste too often missing in the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky, and one might have guessed she was from outside the mountains.” Let’s ignore the poor editing of the first sentence that seems to place a cabin inside another cabin. We also will ignore Snell’s casual insult of the fashion senses of 1920s Harlan County girls and women, and simply note that the novel comes with plenty of plot twists to keep girls in 1926 reading, including hidden treasure, a kidnapping, a small child with a mysterious background, election intrigue, and an effort to save a financially failing school that is providing mountain children their best chance at an education. “Almost all successful children’s books are a series of adventures tied together with one or more threads of mystery,” Snell told the Chicago Tribune. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew would have agreed. The Florida Antiquarian Book Fair may or may not have some of Snell’s books this year, but it certainly will have thousands of other old books to draw in bibliophiles. The fair is March 1-3 and, as always, is held at The Coliseum, 535 Fourth Avenue North, St. Petersburg, FL. Here are the hours: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. March 1; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 2; and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 3. Admission on the evening of March 1 is $10 and that is good for all three days. Admission March 2 is $6 for the day or $10 for the weekend. Admission March 3 is $6. The box office is cash only. Ronnie Blair is author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up On Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.

  • My Mother, One Century Later

    By Ronnie Blair Each morning in the 1960s my mother prepared Hershey’s cocoa for my sister, brother, and me, a ritual she religiously engaged in just before awakening us, so that clear glasses filled with the chocolate concoction greeted us as we wiped sleep from our eyes. This guaranteed that every day started well, even the ones that weren’t destined to end that way. On winter mornings when our coal stove valiantly but ineffectively warmed the house, we huddled near a small electric space heater, sipping the cocoa and wondering if those flurries visible through the window meant a snow day and freedom from the rigors of school. My mother perhaps wondered if those same flurries heralded a stressful day of finding ways to entertain three youngsters whose time would be better spent taking spelling tests and puzzling their way through math problems. But if she ever harbored such thoughts, she concealed them, perhaps under the philosophy that children shouldn’t be made overly aware of the strains of parenthood. We took the cocoa, the space heater, and any snow-day interruptions to her plans as simply the way life and mothers were meant to be. In other words, while we weren’t ungrateful children, we likely were too absorbed in our childhood itineraries (coloring, playing, watching cartoons) to be properly appreciative of the sacrifices she made. I suspect she forgives us. Church, TV, and Proper Attire Oct. 20, 2023, marks 100 years since my mother, Jeanette Scott Blair, was born, arriving on a fall day in Harlan County, Kentucky, as one of the youngest siblings in a family with eight or nine children. She would live 77 years, long enough to see all seven of her grandchildren, as well as the Great Depression, a world war, television, moon landings, and the internet. Two months before her birth, President Warren G. Harding died and Vice President Calvin Coolidge was sworn in to succeed him. Two months after her death, terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Both events give evidence that the world carries on before we arrive and after we are gone without taking much note of us. But my mother’s life serves similarly as evidence that we can be towering figures within our own small spheres, and for my sister, brother, and me she was such a towering figure. To visualize that figure’s image, know this: She always wore a dress or skirt; never slacks and certainly never undignified shorts. When we visited a Florida beach in 1965, she stood on the sand in a dress watching the three of us cavort in the water, waves crashing into us. She abstained from drinking alcoholic beverages and preferred to keep her distance when anyone else drank them. Once while visiting relatives in Tennessee, she balked at going to a restaurant when she learned that the restaurant served alcohol. A niece playfully gibed her about this, saying that if she lived in their community, she would have a hard time dining out because nearly all the restaurants served alcohol. My mother just shrugged. If she lived in their community she would never dine out. It would be as simple as that. This distaste for the very existence of beer and other such beverages sprang from her Primitive Baptist beliefs. She insisted on our regular attendance at church where Sunday school teachers regaled us with tales about Noah, Jonah, and Moses, and the preacher baffled us with stream-of-consciousness sermons. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, my mother’s strong religious beliefs never interfered in any significant way with her children’s popular-culture interests. If we wanted to read novels about zombies, buy comic books about Norse gods turned into superheroes, listen to the Beatles and other “hippie” music, and spend 35 cents at the movie theater to see Bonnie and Clyde’s bloody demise, she wasn’t one to object. At least not vociferously. She had her own pop-culture interests anyway. The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Outer Limits regularly appeared on our black-and-white TV screen as much because of her viewing interests as ours, although she did fret about the nightmares these shows might give us. She also loved scary movies, but watched them only on television, never accompanying us on our trips to our hometown’s one-screen theater. Her tastes weren’t limited to the frightening fare, though. In the early 1960s she was devoted to the television series Wagon Train, which to my childhood mind was the most boring of the TV Westerns, except for that one episode in 1964 when guest star Barbara Stanwyck showed up with a bullwhip and an attitude, refusing to take any guff from the cowboys. At the time I did not know who Barbara Stanwyck was, but a year later she was starring in her own Western series, The Big Valley, and I recognized her as the no-nonsense whip wielder from my mother’s precious Wagon Train. Quilts, Fudge, and 13 Cents One of my mother’s favorite pastimes was quilting, sometimes engaging in this hobby solo on our living room sofa as she watched TV, and at other times gathering with quilting buddies, making it a social activity. Over the years, she created personal masterpieces that her children and grandchildren used to keep themselves toasty when winter nights turned harsh. She had an old Singer sewing machine, possibly from the 1930s, that was powered by a foot pedal. When I was small, I amused myself by sitting on the floor beside it and pushing the pedal up and down, an activity my mother tolerated except when she needed to spring into action with the sewing machine herself. By the 1960s, Singer no longer manufactured such treadle sewing machines, and before my childhood ended my mother moved into modern times with the purchase of an electric-powered version. After we three children all reached elementary school age, my mother took on part-time jobs as a store clerk and waitress, bringing in extra money to supplement my father’s coal-miner salary. She carefully set out 13 cents for each of us every school day so that we could buy three-cent cartons of chocolate milk during the elementary school’s morning break and a dime soft drink during the afternoon break. On what seemed like special occasions, but were just random Saturday nights, she revved up her mixer and soon fudge and divinity appeared on the dining room table, testing our resolve to wait until it had properly cooled. After my mother died in 2001 and we sorted through her belongings, someone discovered a cardboard box filled with newspaper clippings. They were articles I had written when I was starting out as a journalist. Most of them were two decades old, and the subject matter in nearly every case was, I am certain, of no interest to her. It was the byline that mattered, and clipping the articles and adding them to the box was perhaps a variation of taping your child’s crude drawings to the refrigerator door. Crude drawings. Crude articles. In her mind, if it was the work of her child or grandchild, it was worth treasuring. Not all of us leave a significant stamp on history, but we do make a difference in our own small ways. Sometimes that way is cocoa, quilts, and memories that linger for decades. Ronnie Blair is author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up On Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.

  • 'Eisenhower Babies' Receives National Recognition

    Lake Buena Vista, FL—The 2023 Annual Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Book Awards recognized Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV by Ronnie Blair, in the category of Autobiography/Biography/Memoir, as a silver medal winner. Hosted by the Florida Authors and Publishers Association, this prestigious national award was open to books published between 2021 and 2023. The judges for this national competition are librarians, educators, and publishing professionals. The FAPA President’s Book Awards recognizes book publishing excellence and creativity in design, content, and production for authors, illustrators, cover designers, and publishers. This contest isn’t limited to Florida; it is open to anyone worldwide, as long as the book is written in English. We hope to encourage entries from all who share our complex and wonderful language. Eisenhower Babies is a memoir, published by Advantage Media, about growing up in a Kentucky coal-mining community from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. It weaves history, popular culture, and geography into a nostalgic journey interspersed with tales of coal-strike tensions and humorous family adventures. “I wish to congratulate all of our winners," said FAPA’s President, Robert Jacob. "Our book awards program is vital to the publishing industry because it serves to recognize excellence and creativity not just for authors, but for publishers and everyone involved in creating the book. It also serves as a tremendous boost of confidence for beginning authors who win. This year, we had the finest quality books in recent memory. The competition was exceptionally close and scores were unusually high. Our judges had a difficult time narrowing down the finalists. Earning a medal is a remarkable accomplishment and a testament to each winner’s skill and talent.” The Florida Authors and Publishers Association is an organization for authors, publishers, illustrators, editors, printers, and other professionals involved in the publishing industry. Its mission is to provide information, resources, professional development, and networking opportunities to the writing and publishing community throughout Florida, the United States, and the world.

  • How a Hardy Boys Mystery Changed My Life

    By Ronnie Blair Authority Magazine recently interviewed me about the book that changed my life and other topics. Below is an excerpt from that interview in which I discuss that book and the impact it had on me. Read the full interview here. For many people, the book that changed their life could be a literary classic like Moby-Dick or a bestselling self-help book like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Mine is a little different; OK, quite a bit different. It is The Secret of the Caves, part of the Hardy Boys series by Franklin W. Dixon. An aunt gave me that book for Christmas when I was about 7, and although it took a while for me to finally read it, when I did, I was captivated and couldn’t wait to read every Hardy Boys book listed on the back cover. I imagined Franklin W. Dixon as a literary genius, but it turned out he didn’t even exist. That was a pen name for a stable of ghostwriters for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which churned out all kinds of series books for children. And in truth, they weren’t particularly great books. But The Secret of the Caves, even if it was poor literature, and author Franklin W. Dixon, even though he wasn’t a real person, launched my interest in writing. As a child I tried to duplicate what I read in the Hardy Boys. Over time, my writing interest led to my career in journalism and later in public relations, all because of a rather pedestrian but somehow inspiring book like The Secret of the Caves. When I was in sixth-grade, my interest in writing went into overdrive. Instead of just writing stories in a notebook, I began to create my own “books.” I put the word “book” in quotation marks for a reason. Here’s how I did it: I would take several sheets of paper and fold them. Then I would staple the fold (much the way comic books are stapled) and voila! I had a small book with blank pages. Within those pages, using a handy No. 2 pencil, I crafted stories that were modeled after The Secret of the Caves and the other Stratemeyer Syndicate series books that I read, such as Tom Swift Jr. and Nancy Drew. I even copied the syndicate’s gimmick of mentioning previous books in the series early in the tale, and promoting the next title in the series at the end. For the syndicate this was clearly a marketing ploy, but to me it was just part of the story, so in it went. My books had titles such as The Mystery of the Whistling Coffin and Scott Jacobs and the Ghost of Long Ridge Mountain. They were heavy on dialogue, occasionally punctuated with action, such as: “Neil grabbed a crowbar and handed it to Dan. Dan soon had the coffin opened. The boys looked in but there was no one inside.” As the school year wore on and I yearned to write more and more, a friend and I approached our teacher about creating a weekly newspaper using the school’s ditto machine down the hall. She agreed and throughout the rest of the year the two of us, with help from a few other students, produced a newspaper we called The Weekly Star, which we sold for five cents to other sixth-graders. My journalism career was launched right there in my sixth-grade classroom. Ronnie Blair is author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up On Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.

  • Fury, Wild Horse Annie, and a Delayed History Lesson

    By Ronnie Blair TV watching can be educational––even 60 years after the fact. My habit of watching the television show Fury on Saturday mornings in the 1960s led to my discovery six decades later of a minor, though fascinating, chapter in American history. This particular chapter involved polio, wild mustangs, government bureaucracy, greed, dog food, and a woman nicknamed Wild Horse Annie. Without Fury, I might never have known about any of it. You might have known, though, especially if you enjoyed the books of Marguerite Henry as a kid. But, for the moment, let’s get back to Fury. For the uninitiated, Fury was a Western TV series about a boy and a horse living on a ranch in modern-day California. The live-action Saturday morning show began in 1955 and ended its original run in 1960, but continued in reruns through September 1966. At that point, wall-to-wall cartoons began to take over Saturday mornings, replacing not only Fury, but also reruns of other 1950s TV series such as The Roy Rogers Show and Sky King. The Fury cast included Peter Graves, whose hair was not yet white and who was a few years away from landing his more famous role as Jim Phelps on Mission: Impossible. On Fury, Graves played ranch owner Jim Newton, the adoptive father of Joey (played by Bobby Diamond), the boy who was the only person who could tame the wild horse named Fury. Fury, an equine version of Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, was a brilliant animal who aided the human stars in solving, in 30 minutes or less, whatever problem the scriptwriters set before them. For a few years, he was a staple of my early childhood TV-watching habit. Then he disappeared from my tiny screen and, as the years passed, faded more and more from memory. Then one day a year or so ago I was in an antiquarian book store and came across a book by Albert G. Miller titled Fury and the Mustangs. Intrigued, I pulled it from the shelf, examined it, and paid the $4 required to make it mine. This Fury title was the second in a three-book series based on the TV show and published by Grosset and Dunlap. The book’s copyright was 1960, the final year of the TV series. If you thought that 60 years ago children’s literature was all positive thoughts and rainbows, think again. Right away in chapter one the book reveals its grim plot––cruel men are chasing down wild mustangs, killing them, and selling them for pet food. Sometimes the men used an airplane to flush the horses into the open where they shot the animals from the air. At other times the men would lasso a horse from a moving jeep, tie a heavy tire to the end of the rope, and let the terrified animal drag the tire until the mustang exhausted itself and collapsed to the ground. These horrible events are all perfectly legal and the remorseless villain of the story expresses doubt that any lawmaker would dare change that. Heroic rancher Jim Newton disagrees. “Legislators in some states have already awakened to the plight of the mustangs,” he tells the villain. “A number of laws affording partial protection have been passed. There’s a wonderful woman in Nevada––the wife of a ranch owner––who’s been working for several years in the interest of mustang conservation. So far she’s achieved both county and state protection, and now she’s working for legislation on a national basis. In fact, this lady’s congressman has agreed to introduce a protective bill into the House of Representatives in Washington, DC.” That’s quite a bit of bureaucratic detail for this fictional tale aimed at children, but that part of the novel is not fictional at all. There was such a woman doing what Jim said, and at the end of the book the author adds a note bringing good news to the young readers of 1960, who by now had no doubt come to care as much about the mustangs as Jim Newton. Federal protection was passed thanks to that Nevada woman, Velma B. Johnston, whose efforts to save the mustangs earned her the nickname Wild Horse Annie. I had never heard of Wild Horse Annie or her crusade on behalf of the mustangs, but Google searches help with anything these days and it was simple to learn more. Then, sometime later, I discovered in my local library a 2010 book titled Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, which told Johnston’s life story in detail, including a childhood battle with polio that left her face disfigured for life. It was clear that author Albert Miller had followed the news closely because his descriptions of the mustang slaughter in Fury and the Mustangs matched exactly the way things played out in real life. Cruise and Griffiths even include in their book a series of photos, taken at a 1951 mustang hunt by photographer Gus Bundy, showing men lassoing a mustang using a rope with a tire tied to the end. As in the Fury book, the exhausted horse collapses and is loaded onto a truck. As Velma Johnston lobbied on behalf of the mustangs, their plight became widely known and even schoolchildren became involved in a letter-writing campaign. By the 1960s, Johnston’s success had drawn the attention of children’s book author Marguerite Henry, who specialized in books about horses, including the 1949 Newbery Medal winner King of the Wind. Henry approached Johnston about telling her story and the result was the 1966 book Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West. As it turned out, fighting on behalf of the mustangs was a never-ending battle for Johnston because people were always looking for loopholes in the laws that were passed, or were trying to amend those laws for questionable reasons. Even in the early 1970s she was helping get legislation passed, by then under the signature of President Richard Nixon. Johnston died in 1977 at age 65. Hers was quite the story, but I never would have sought out and read Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs if I hadn’t learned about her in that old children’s book Fury and the Mustangs. And I would not have bought Fury and the Mustangs if not for my memories of Saturday mornings watching that wonderful steed come to the rescue again and again on my black-and-white TV. Fury and Peter Graves were still influencing and educating me 63 years after they filmed their show’s final episode. Ronnie Blair is author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up On Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.

  • I (Fail To) Capture the Chickens

    By Ronnie Blair My family kept chickens in the mid-1960s. They laid eggs in a chicken coop in the barn behind our rental house in Kentucky, but spent much of the day clucking and strutting around our yard, easily avoiding me whenever I approached. One day when I was 6 or 7, I decided for unclear reasons that I simply must capture one of them, using a method I likely copied from a Hanna-Barbera or Warner Brothers cartoon. I found a cardboard box in the house and I propped up one end of the box with a stick. I tied a piece of kite string to the stick and stretched it out so that I could situate myself far enough away to avoid alarming any unsuspecting chicken that approached. I took slices of Sunbeam bread and broke them into tiny pieces, creating a trail of crumbs that would lead my unwary prey inside the box. At that point I would jerk the string, the box would fall, the chicken would squawk, and I could boast triumphantly that I had captured a furious and flapping hen or rooster. I did not have a plan beyond that. Once I laid my trap my excitement grew as, sure enough, one hen became intrigued by the bread and pecked at it, perhaps not believing her good fortune in discovering this delicious and easily accessible snack that had manifested itself long past breakfast time. She gulped down bits of bread one by one, and with each succeeding gulp drew closer to my ingeniously constructed contraption. She arrived next to the stick and her head bobbed in and out beneath the box. I waited. Another step or two and she would stand completely underneath the box and I would execute my plan, exulting in my triumph over my less-than-wily opponent. Suspicion grew in the hen’s lima-bean-sized brain, though, and she refused to cooperate further. She hovered tantalizingly close to where I calculated she needed to be for my mission to succeed, but some force stopped her from taking that final step beneath the box to finish off the last bread crumbs. Had she, despite my cunning, figured out the trap? Did my strange apparatus send some alert through the hen’s version of a cerebral cortex? Did her brain house more sagacity than I had anticipated? What a shrewd creature. By this point my little-boy patience, limited even under the most agreeable circumstances, dissipated and I made a fatal error. The hen poked her head beneath the box one last time. Crucially, most of her body remained outside the box’s shadow. Still, judging that this might be the best chance I would get, I yanked the string, setting the physics of my trap into motion. The stick was dislodged, the box dropped, and the startled hen frantically pulled back her head with a panicky squawk, escaping my clutches. The agitated creature raced away, putting distance between herself and my trap, which seemed less elaborate with each passing moment. Perhaps as I watched her retreat, I recalled that Wile E. Coyote always failed as well. At least, in my miscalculation, I had not plunged in panic from a cliff after momentarily defying gravity. Dejected but not defeated, I propped up the box, scattered another trail of Sunbeam bread, and waited, determined to do it right this time and not get trigger-happy––or kite-string happy, as it were. Lesson learned, I no doubt thought. The hen, wise to my treachery, ignored the bread this time. The other chickens also steered clear of the trap, either because they had witnessed and learned from her flirtation with captivity, or because they were innately more prudent than she. No amount of waiting mattered. The box, the stick, the kite string, the Sunbeam bread, and I were soundly defeated, outwitted by a cautious hen who now understood the risks inherent when scheming boys appear bearing cardboard boxes. Ronnie Blair is author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.

  • Discovering 'The Harlan Renaissance' and a Different Take on Appalachian Coal Towns

    By Ronnie Blair When I began writing my memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV, one of my goals was to include elements that made my story universal for others who grew up during the same time period in the 1960s and 1970s. A number of readers assured me I succeeded at this. But a couple of people, including one reviewer, noted that my story was universal not necessarily to what children experienced at that time, but to what white children experienced. This was a fair point. The area of Harlan County, Kentucky, I grew up in had a decent-sized Black population, but my book largely ignored this. The one significant mention of race in Eisenhower Babies is in the chapter that describes my first day of school in 1964, when there were two Black girls in my classroom. I wrote that, though this was a decade after the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that integrated schools, much of the South was still segregated even in 1964. Kentucky was different, and I quoted from a book on the subject that said by the time I started school more than 90 percent of Kentucky school districts were desegregated, compared to 20 percent in the rest of the South. Even this mention of racial dynamics might not have made its way into my memoir if not for my experiences later in life after I moved to Florida. As a 6-year-old I had been unaware that Blacks and whites attending the same school had a controversial past, so the presence of those two girls did not seem extraordinary to me at the time. Even when I grew older and learned some of the history, I assumed that anyone my age had the same experience I did––going to school with African-American classmates from day one. Then in the early 1990s I was in a diversity seminar sponsored by the newspaper where I worked. Several of my white co-workers who were roughly my age said they had never gone to school with a Black person, that separate schools for Blacks and whites existed in their communities into the early to mid-1970s. Not only was I surprised to learn this, but when I mentioned I had gone to school with Black children in 1964, the consultant running the seminar seemed skeptical. So, when I wrote about my school days in Eisenhower Babies, it was natural to mention the significance of Black children in my classroom, even though in 1964 it had seemed inconsequential to me. Beyond that, my memoir did not delve into the experiences of Black children of our Appalachian coal-mining community, which is probably just as well since I almost certainly would have messed up the telling. Fortunately, someone else, William H. Turner, had already taken care of my omission. Turner’s book, which I recently discovered, is The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns, published in 2021. Turner grew up in Lynch, Kentucky, the Harlan County town where I was born, which is just a few miles from Cumberland, the town where I grew up. Turner dashes the stereotype of Appalachians as exclusively white with his reminisces about a vibrant Black community of coal miners in a town built by a coal company, U.S. Steel. "In the mid-1960s, the central Appalachian coalfields were popularized as a ‘White’ space in the United States,” Turner writes in his book’s introduction. “Although many parts of the geographic area known as Appalachia were and are predominantly White, the region, like most of the United States, has never been entirely White. The inhabitants of the central Appalachian coalfields have always represented racial and ethnic diversity.” That might be especially surprising to readers of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, published in 2016. Turner addresses Vance’s book in The Harlan Renaissance, referring to it as “the latest in a long line of writing that advanced extremely negative and damaging stereotypes about White Appalachian people.” This wasn’t the first time Turner commented on Vance’s work. Turner’s essay "Black Hillbillies Have No Time for Elegies" was included in a 2019 book titled Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy. Even with his fond memories of the area, Turner does not ignore the racism African-Americans experienced in Appalachia, noting that "Jim Crow-like segregation ... prevailed in the coalfields of central Appalachia up to the mid-1960s with no more, or less, effect than was the case throughout the American South." “I well remember … when the city council of Cumberland, four miles from my home, chose to fill in the area’s only public swimming pool with concrete rather than to allow Blacks to swim in it,” Turner writes. Yet around the same time, he writes, a community college opened in Cumberland and Blacks were allowed to attend. He would enroll in that college in 1964, the same year I started elementary school. Turner was born in 1946, 12 years before me, so our years of growing up in Harlan County weren't exactly in sync. But we do have shared memories and experiences, including the sorrowful yet inspiring story of Sanctified Hill. Sanctified Hill was a ridge in Cumberland that was home to a number of African-American families. One night in 1972, after heavy rains, a sudden mudslide caused the houses on the hill to break loose from their foundations and to slide down the hill toward a white neighborhood below. Insurance companies refused to pay for the disaster, claiming it was an “act of God,” and local, state, and federal government agencies backed up that determination. The residents, though, claimed the mudslide was the result of neglect; that the tunnels of an abandoned coal mine beneath the houses had collapsed. The homeowners, led by a woman named Mattye Knight, who had been one of Turner’s high school teachers, fought the decision. Eventually, they took their case to Washington, DC, and won federal funding to build a new community called Pride Terrace on a hill behind the Cumberland High School football field, in view of the house where I grew up. Turner writes that the Sanctified Hill saga was “an example of a group of Black Appalachians valuing social justice, resilience, dignity, and self-respect” in much the same way as a mainly white group of Harlan County coal miners who took on Duke Power Company around the same time and whose story was told in the Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County, USA. Turner’s book is a wonderful history of a people, a time, and a place, and I highly recommend it, regardless of when and where you grew up. Ronnie Blair is the author of Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.

  • Peter Pan, Queen Elizabeth, and Other Book Fair Encounters

    By Ronnie Blair Step into the annual Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in St. Petersburg and you enter a time portal for bibliophiles. On this shelf is a first edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. On that shelf is a 1922 biography of World War I hero Alvin York. Around the next corner is a 1930s volume of a Nancy Drew mystery, still in its aging dust jacket, having somehow survived 90 years of potential childhood book-desecration mischief. Antiquarian book dealers from across the country travel to the fair each spring to display their treasures for people seeking military books or poetry collections or children’s chapter books or whatever other type of vintage book someone might deem worthy of collecting. This year’s fair is March 10-12 and, as always, is at The Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N., St. Petersburg. Well, nearly always. In 2020 and 2021 the fair went on hiatus because of the pandemic, but returned in all its splendor in 2022. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 dealers are expected for this year’s fair, which is the 40th. They will bring with them books on architecture, hunting, travel, history and geography. Some dealers are chatty, some businesslike. Some display books on a variety of topics, others are more specialized. All are fascinating depending on where your interests lie. Love books about dogs? About Florida? About Arctic exploration? You will find them. One year I came across a 1937 book titled The Princess Elizabeth: Probable Future Ruler of the Greatest Empire in the World by Eric Acland. This book came out soon after Elizabeth’s father became king and the world was charmed by the little girl princess. Another year I found a photoplay edition of Peter Pan by James M. Barrie, illustrated with black-and-white scenes from a 1924 silent movie starring Betty Bronson as Peter Pan. Sometimes you come across unexpected and unusual finds, such as Noah’s Ark, a photoplay edition for a 1928 movie that was part talkie, part silent movie. The book and the movie are about the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. Sort of. The characters in this strange tale go back and forth between Noah’s day and World War I, which was just 10 years in the past at the time. The Great Flood is juxtaposed against the Great War, an interesting approach and a fascinating addition to my collection. My first visit to the fair happened in 1998 and the first book I purchased was a biography of Daniel Boone published in the 1800s. Boone is quite the hero in my home state of Kentucky so it was an appropriate find and still holds a cherished spot on my book shelf with other Kentucky-themed books. My copy of the Boone biography is not a stunning achievement in the care of antiquarian volumes, though. Over the decades, the text had begun to break loose from the cover, so someone made a repair job. The end papers are no longer original end papers, which may explain why this extraordinary find cost a mere $40. Which brings us to the price of books at the fair. They vary – a lot. You may pull a volume from a shelf and, if you are like me, hastily but gingerly return it to its place after you spy the four-figure price lightly penciled in on the first page. Some dealers keep their more desirable and expensive books behind glass, requiring you to request they bring them out for examination. Don’t despair if you lack Warren Buffett’s bank account. I’ve paid as little as $3 for a book at the fair. This is because the pricing of collectible books is based on any number of factors, and age alone does not result in a fatal blow to your wallet. Is the book a first edition? How rare is it? What condition is it in? Is the original dust jacket still intact? How desirable is the book among collectors? As you peruse the shelves, you will encounter books priced for thousands of dollars. You also will encounter plenty priced at $20 or less. Your wallet. Your choice. Here are the hours for this year’s fair: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. March 10; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 11; and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 12. Admission on the evening of March 10 is $10 and that is good for all three days. Admission for the other two days is $6 each day. The box office is cash only. Ronnie Blair is lead writer for Advantage Media and the author of Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.

  • The Scar, the Barn Loft, and the Batman

    By Ronnie Blair On my left knee is a faint scar, put there nearly 60 years ago by Adam West – sort of. He was responsible indirectly anyway. Anyone who was around in the 1960s remembers the extraordinary impact Batmania had on the nation when the TV series Batman debuted on ABC on Jan. 12, 1966. West, in full Batman regalia, even made the cover of Life magazine, which more typically featured luminaries such as Robert Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, or Sophia Loren. I was enthralled the moment I saw the first commercial previewing the upcoming show. Among other things, that commercial featured Batman and Robin bursting from a hollow statue of a mammoth to finally put a halt to one of the Riddler’s nefarious schemes. Soon my friends and I were riveted to our black-and-white TV screens each Wednesday and Thursday nights as we joined the Caped Crusaders on their adventures, trying hard to ignore ABC’s cruel reminders that the show was “in color” on more fortunate children’s TV sets. Like many youngsters, I was an imaginative boy who turned many of the things I saw on my TV into backyard adventures. I could be Roy Rogers, galloping across the lawn on a battered broom that doubled as a horse, or Tarzan, climbing a handy apple tree not far from the back door. In the spring of 1966, when I was eight, it was time to add Batman to my repertoire. As a millionaire with elaborate gadgets at the ready, Batman was more of a challenge than cowboys or jungle lords, but my imagination was up to the task. At the time, my family rented a two-story house that stood on a hillside in our small southeastern Kentucky community. Behind the house was a pasture and at one end of that pasture was a barn. At least, that’s what dull-minded adults saw. Eight-year-old me saw something more majestic: a millionaire’s mansion (the barn loft) and a fully equipped Batcave (the barn’s dirt floor). I raced down the hill to the barn, wasting no time. Who knew? Commissioner Gordon might be calling at that very moment, in dire need of my assistance. I easily climbed to the loft, something I had accomplished before without any Bat Plans brewing. But, like any millionaire playboy with loftier missions in mind, I did not plan to stay there. I needed to get down to the Batcave posthaste. Here was the first obstacle in my elaborately crafted scenario. On the TV show, Batman and Robin used Bat Poles hidden behind a book shelf to slide from Wayne Manor down to the Batcave, somehow changing into their costumes along the way. Unsurprisingly, the barn loft had no Bat Pole – or anything that could even vaguely mimic a Bat Pole. I was a determined young Batman impersonator, though, and so I improvised. I decided I would simply hang from the loft and drop to the barn floor. This could have been a brilliant solution except for one thing. I lost my grip on the loft before I was ready. My body plummeted to the ground and a sharp pain shot through my left knee the moment I landed. I’m not sure exactly what I landed on, but that jarring end to my fall ripped a deep gash in my knee that would require nine stitches. Just like that, Wayne Manor and the Bat Cave reverted to a rather dismal-looking barn. I was a forgiving child, though, so I never held it against Adam West that his TV exploits had led to the unfortunate scar on my knee. To this day, I am ready with an answer when people pose the question about which actor made the best Batman. Michael Keaton? Christian Bale? Ben Affleck? Nope. Adam West. Knee scars and all. Ronnie Blair is lead writer for Advantage Media and the author of Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.

  • Official Release Day and a Glimpse Inside 'Eisenhower Babies'

    With Eisenhower Babies enjoying its official release date on Jan. 3, I thought it appropriate to provide a glimpse inside to give potential readers a taste of what they will find between those covers. What better way to do that than using this blog to share the book's preface, which lays out in detail what Eisenhower Babies attempts to accomplish? Many childhood memoirs revolve around trauma: alcoholic fathers, clinically depressed mothers, a life-changing tragedy that must be overcome despite extraordinary odds. I do not have that to offer. Many tales set in Appalachia, as this one is, play on stereotypes: hillbillies with guns, hillbillies with moonshine stills, hillbillies baffled by the simplest of modern technology. I do not have that to offer either. Sure, in these pages you will detect an occasional hint of Kentucky’s hillbilly history, but even in the 1960s it was difficult to maintain much L’il Abner ignorance about the world when you were watching Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea on TV, following the exploits of Apollo astronauts, and reading 12-cent Spider-Man comic books. Yes, pretty much what every other kid across America was doing at the same time. Adults, of course, were appalled at us, especially with our TV-watching habits, which they worried would stunt our intellectual and physical growth, not to mention destroy our eyesight if we sat too close to the screen. It was as if adults of the era saw TV as a strange malevolent beast invading their homes, even though it was they who opened the front door and gave the beast a grand welcome. In 1968, a Time magazine article explored the TV addiction of 10-year-old youngsters like me and quoted one education expert who predicted doom for our entire generation: "Kids come into school today and they wait for people to tell them things. Without handling frogs or flying a kite, they lead less of a life. We're moving along in a mold that will produce people I can't even imagine." His words could have proved soul crushing, but we were too busy handling frogs and flying kites to take notice. Of course, that educator was part of a proud apocalyptic tradition among adults fretting about the habits of wayward youth. A little over a decade earlier, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham wrote a book titled Seduction of the Innocent in which he swore it was villainous comic books that would lead to an entire generation’s demise. Around the same time, Rudolf Flesch wrote the bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read in which he led the entire nation in mourning what a sad lot of illiterates schools were producing by teaching children to read through the “look say” method popular in Dick and Jane books. Adults hyperventilated. We kids marched confidently into the future, which one of our TV shows, The Jetsons, promised would involve flying cars and robot maids. Adults really just needed to calm down. So, if not family trauma or hillbilly burlesque that could have erupted from a Ma and Pa Kettle movie, what do these pages offer? You will find various pinches and dashes of nostalgia, history, geography, popular culture, and everyday human foibles and heartaches. Perhaps you also will be reminded that the past does not represent more innocent times, as we so often hear, but instead that most of us were more innocent during those times. Adults bore the burden of worrying about assassinations, wars and labor disputes. We kids built forts, fielded fly balls with a Willie Mays signature glove, and pedaled furiously down neighborhood roads on psychedelically painted, banana-seat bicycles. That some of us did this in California or Maine, while others did it in the back hills of Kentucky seemed to make minimal difference. This does not mean that all of our experiences were the same. I didn’t ride the subway and New York City kids didn’t watch mules plow fields. But in post-World War II America, and definitely by the 1960s, geography had lost some of its power to isolate us. Those who lived in tiny southeastern Kentucky communities like mine were no longer “marooned on an island of mountains,” which is the way author James Watt Raine put it in his 1924 book The Land of Saddle-Bags: A Study of the Mountain People of Appalachia. In Raine’s view, “passable roads” were our ticket to sociological progress, but the introduction of radio and especially television also played a pivotal role. Raine was just writing too early to know that. At its essence, Eisenhower Babies is about a time and a place that are no more but that also never went away as long as any child can daydream about heroic exploits on horseback, scan Christmas Eve skies for evidence of flying reindeer, explore libraries for vicarious adventures, and wonder what new magic lies a day or two away.

  • To the Moon Again

    For a moment this past week the 1960s were resurrected as NASA’s Artemis rocket lifted into the Florida skies and headed for the moon. This rocket carried mannequins rather than astronauts, as the Apollo missions did half a century ago, but humans will eventually replace those mannequins and the plan is to put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon by 2025. Can lunar excursions regain the attention they drew for a brief time back in the late 1960s and early 1970s? I always considered it fortunate that my childhood coincided with one of the most daring exploration periods in history as the United States and the Soviet Union competed to become the first country to land people on the moon. Space travel and speculation about what the future would be like played a significant role in our lives in the 1960s, and it went beyond real astronauts courageously boarding those rockets. On TV we watched Star Trek and Lost in Space. Commercials promoted Tang, the official drink of the astronauts, or so we were told. Our toys included Matt Mason, a 6-inch-tall bendable-figure astronaut who came with space-exploration accessories and bendable-figure astronaut pals. On the night of July 20, 1969, my family gathered in front of our TV to watch the faint, somewhat eerie image of Neil Armstrong descending the lunar-module ladder to set foot on the moon. “It’s like watching a movie,” my mother said, perhaps in awe of how in her mere 45 years on the planet the nation had advanced from trying to survive a Depression to spending a fortune to land these men on Earth’s only natural satellite. I was 11 at the time and remember thinking that we would soon head for Mars, which in my mind was just a sort hop away from the moon. Clearly, I had no concept of planetary distances and the additional time, effort, and technology a journey to Mars required. What’s just as surprising is how quickly the excitement of that July night faded away. Soon after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin completed their historic walk, many of my friends and I grew indifferent to the Apollo missions. Going to the moon remained cool – just not “oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this is happening” cool. In April of 1972, when I was in eighth-grade, teachers pulled us from our normal classroom work to watch Apollo 16 astronauts John Young and Charles Duke explore the lunar surface. By now the astronauts had an electric-powered lunar-roving vehicle – essentially a moon buggy – that allowed them to drive several miles from their landing site. We jaded 13 and 14-year-olds, raised on rocket launches and lunar excursions, remained unimpressed. One exasperated teacher turned to another. “How can they be so bored by this?” she asked. “They take it for granted.” We could not argue. We did at least appreciate that Young and Duke gave us a momentary reprieve from memorizing historic dates, calculating square roots, and enduring another lecture about the placement of commas.

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