It was five years ago this month (actually, the end of the month) that I retired from The Star.
In honor of that occasion, I’d like to give you excerpts and recollections of a few of my earliest, more memorable stories.
Before the advent of The Star’s electronic library, which got going in the early 1990s, The Star librarians maintained our by-line files in gold, business-sized envelopes. The files were kept in dark green, metal file cases by year — 1969, 1970, etc. — and the stories inside were meticulously folded so that they opened up easily and collapsed almost naturally into their folded form.
At some point — after the files had been put onto microfiche — the decision was made to return the by-line files to the reporters. For a while, I kept almost all of them, but, as time went by, I discarded them. All but one, that is, where I put my favorite early stories.
Those stories, yellowed and dated with a blue-green stamp, reflect the broad range of my early work at the paper, when I was a general assignment reporter and before I moved into political and government reporting.
Come along now, as I relive two of those early stories.
“Riding Horse to Canada”
For some reason, this story isn’t dated. But I’m pretty sure it was from February 1970 or 1971. One night, a guy named Orville L. Fleshman called the metro desk and said he was attempting to break the record for an endurance horseback ride. He called from Greenwood, Mo., where he had stabled his horse for the night. The city editor told me to take the call and write a story.
Back then, we didn’t verify things as carefully as we do now, so I did a telephone interview with Fleshman, who was 32, and essentially wrote what he told me.
Fleshman, a truck driver from Cuba, Mo., said he had ridden 240 miles from his hometown and that his ultimate destination was Calgary, Canada. He was allowing himself five months so he could arrive in time for a rodeo, called the Calgary Stampede, which started in July.
(MapQuest has it as 230 miles from Cuba to Greenwood, so he had his distance figured pretty accurately.)
Fleshman was exceedingly ambitious: He said that the longest horseback ride up to that time had been 809 miles and that his goal was 2,400. Where he got his information about the 809-mile record I have no idea, but I give him credit for making it specific — 809, rather than 800 or 850 — lending it more credibility.
“I’m gettin’ tired of him holding that record,” Fleshman told me. “When I get to Denver, he’ll no longer hold the record, I’ll carry that horse into Denver if I have to.”
Here are a few more quotes from the intrepid traveler:
“I rode through sleet storms and snowstorms, and I don’t know how much worse it could get. I rode 43 miles in a sleet storm near Freeburg, Mo., a week ago last Tuesday. People couldn’t believe I did it, but I did…
“The wind, the way it’s blowing now, will get you so dumbfounded that when you get off your horse you have to stand still for a few minutes just to get your wits about you to even walk or get coffee.
“The wind has blown so much that once I woke up in the morning and my eyes were swollen closed.”
As a young man who had ventured West from Louisville, Ky., I was mighty impressed — maybe too impressed — with this courageous frontiersman and his story.
He left me with this: “It’ll either be the biggest ride in history, or it’ll be a small funeral. I’ll freeze in the saddle before I back out. There’s been too much publicity.”
Orville, wherever you are now, I hope you made it to Calgary.
“Rock Group Is on the Way Up” — Feb. 28, 1971
By February 1971, I had become a big fan of a local band called the Stoned Circus, headed by a fellow named John Isom. I pitched a story line to the editor of the TV Scene magazine, and she took me up on it. (Why, I don’t know because this had absolutely nothing to do with TV.)
One of my most vivid memories of this story is that the night that a Star photographer was supposed to shoot photos of the band at the old Inferno Show Lounge on Troost, the photographer was too drunk to function. That he was drinking on the job was nothing new at all, but he usually was able to carry on. This time, however, the photo session had to be postponed a day.
The Stoned Circus tilted decidedly toward the Hippie style — long hair, fringed vests — and played hard rock, a relatively new genre at the time.
Isom was — and is — quite a character.
I opened the story with him introducing a song to a nightclub audience like this:
“Here’s one of our own songs. You can buy the record at my house or behind the bar. It’s on the pizza label…If you don’t like it, you can eat it.”
The band played at such places as the Peppermint Barn in Johnson County, Marge’s Disc A-Go-Go in Midtown and the End Zone on the west edge of the Plaza.
Recalling the night the band debuted at the Peppermint Barn, Isom said: “When I showed up, I was wearing brown corduroy bells and a yellow shirt, and my hair was down in my eyes. It blew some minds is what it did.”
Isom, a Johnson County resident, still has a band. It’s called Johnny I and the Receders. You can check them out here.
John’s long hair is long gone, though, replaced by a thin coating of gray.
(Next: My interview with Janis Joplin in June 1970, four months before she died of a heroin overdose.)