The Easily-Missed Stories of Annie Oakley and the Ugly Dragon
I was taking a tour of Over The Rhine when the guide stopped us in front of a nondescript building. And when I say “nondescript,” I mean I can’t even remember what it looked like. It was just another neglected relic in that sadly forgotten part of our city. What I remember was what he said.
He told us that the Buffalo Bill Show had performed right at this spot. My mouth dropped open. I just stared and couldn’t believe my luck. NO WAY. I shoved my sister and said something like “I bet you don’t even know how awesome that is! ” She may have shoved me back and even if she did, I wouldn’t have noticed. I was lost in delighted reverie. I didn’t want to move.
To think that this decrepit fossil of a structure was on the site of the greatest Wild West Show in the world was nothing less than shocking and delightful at the exact same time. I imagined Annie Oakley herself, beautiful, petite, and dignified as she always was, gracefully nodding to her husband Frank as he set up her target. She would bring the gun to her shoulder, hardly even take a moment to aim, then BANG!! She never missed.
For those of you who, like my sister, have no idea how awesome Annie Oakley was, a bit of history:
Annie was 5 years old when her father got caught in a blizzard and died. Her mother couldn’t feed all of the children after that, so Annie had to go live with a family who abused her. Eventually she ran away from them by hopping on a train and found her way back home. But her mother still couldn’t feed her. So Annie took her father’s gun, went into the woods and taught herself to shoot. Bullets were too expensive to waste, so she never missed. She not only fed her family, she sold the game she shot and paid off the family farm. Her prowess earned her a reputation as the best shot in the county.
One day, a famous traveling marksman was in Cincinnati and heard about this shooter from Darke county. He decided to challenge this person to a contest, not knowing that he had just challenged a 15 year old girl. When she beat him, he fell in love with her. The make-believe Catniss Everdean has nothing on the real-life Annie Oakley.
If that tour guide hadn’t told me about what had happened in that place 130 years ago, I would have just walked on by. I wouldn’t have even looked twice. It’s practically tragic. And it happens all the time. But not on the Antiques Roadshow.
One time this lady brought in this statue to the Roadshow. It was her Grandma’s, I think. It was about 2 feet tall and halfway between a lion and a dragon. It’s mouth was wide open, showing all of it’s teeth, like it was saying “Ahhh” because it had a sore throat or was at the dentist. If my grandma had ever given me a statue like that, I would have shipped it off to Goodwill as soon as I had room in my car. I would have dropped it off and thanked that guy so many times for taking it off of my hands.
So the lady puts Ugly Dragon Guy up on the table, so Expert Man can tell her what he thinks of it. I’m at home mumbling, “I bet there’s a Goodwill dropoff center on the way home, lady,” into my ice cream. And then the Expert Man starts to talk. And he can barely get the words out because he is about to cry. And here’s the thing that just about knocked me and my ice cream off the couch: he didn’t start to cry because he thought it was so awful . He thought it was beautiful. He had never seen one as beautiful as this.
He turned it around gently, pointing out the inconspicuous details that revealed the remarkable skill of the artist. He knew when, where and why it had been sculpted. He understood what the image meant , both to the person who had created it, and the people for whom it was created. He was an Expert because he knew the story. And he cried because he loved the story.
And then he tells her it’s worth 250 thousand dollars. And I just dropped it off at Goodwill. Dangit.
I love the idea that we are surrounded by stories. A lot of them are bad. We don’t need to hear those. And we shouldn’t tell them. But the ones that are good – the ones that make you stop on the sidewalk and punch your sister – you should tell. And if an ugly dragon statue makes you cry, you should tell somebody why.