Brent Ashabranner (1921–) Biography
Autobiography Featurebrent Ashabrenner
Brent Ashabranner contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
It is possible for a person to have more than one life as he makes his way through this world. At least I have found that to be true, and I am sure it is true for many people. I have had three lives in my seventy years, and I will not be in the least astonished if there should be a fourth.
My first life lasted thirty-five years, and all of it—except for three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II—was spent in Oklahoma. I was born there, went to school and college there, became a husband, parent, and teacher there. I was a happy, provincial Midwesterner.
My second life spanned twenty-five years during which I lived and worked in many African and Asian countries: Ethiopia, Libya, Nigeria, India, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Nine of those years were spent with the Peace Corps, one of the best and most imaginative international programs our country has ever had.
My third life—which I am still enjoying immensely—has been in progress for over ten years. After the years in Africa and Asia, my wife Martha and I settled in Williamsburg, Virginia; I have used this quiet and wonderfully rich cradle of American democracy as a base for writing about and interpreting the American experience for young readers. I have left my comfortable Williamsburg home to travel with migrant farm workers throughout the country and have told their story in Dark Harvest. I have recorded the experiences of young Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who have come to America in Into a Strange Land. I have driven our frontier with Mexico from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, in order to explore the melding of U.S. and Mexican cultures; I wrote about that journey in The Vanishing Border. These are but a few of the books I have written about life in America today since returning to live in the United States. I think my years of living in other cultures around the world have helped me to be a better writer about my own country.
It all started for me in Shawnee, Oklahoma, where I was born in 1921 and where my father was a pharmacist. Shawnee was named for the Shawnee Indian tribe, one of the many tribes moved west by the government over the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory during the early part of the nineteenth century. President Andrew Jackson promised the Indians that the land would be theirs "as long as the grass grows or the water runs," but it didn't work out that way. Land-hungry white settlers wanted the good Indian land and got it; the result was Oklahoma, which became the forty-sixth state in 1907. I never learned the tragic story of Indian removal and broken treaties until I studied Oklahoma history in high school. It was history told from the white man's point of view, but I could read between the lines and understand something of the shameful treatment of the Indians and their struggle against hopeless odds.
My family moved from Shawnee when I was five years old, but I have always felt that the early glimpses I had of Indians in and around Shawnee worked their way into my unconscious memory and were the start of my lifelong interest in Native Americans.
Our new home was in El Reno, a town of about twelve thousand in central Oklahoma, where my father and mother bought a drugstore. The purchase had been made possible by oil royalties my mother received from family land. There was lots of oil money in Oklahoma and Texas in the 1920s. Throughout most of America, the twenties—until the very end of the decade—were years of prosperity, optimism, and unbounded confidence in the financial future of the country.
We were a small family, just my father, mother, brother Gerard—four years my senior—and I, and our life in El Reno was good. We lived in a spacious white house on a quiet, tree-lined street with other nice houses and lots of kids my age. My parents rented the house instead of buying it because they had put all their money into buying the drugstore, but we were well off. Our family car was a good, dependable Nash. We had a large console radio when many homes in the mid-'Twenties had no radio at all. Home television, of course, was still in the realm of fantasy.
Books were a part of our home. I learned to read early, but before that my mother read fairy tales and other classic stories to me. Ruskin's King of the Golden River was my favorite. We had a full set of the Book of Knowledge, and I spent many rainy-day hours browsing through them. Every time my mother visited friends in Oklahoma City, she brought me back a book in a long series about a boy named Jerry Todd and his pal Poppy Ott. The books had such intriguing titles as Jerry Todd and Purring Egg and Poppy Ott and the Stuttering Parrot. Even today I have fond memories of the adventures of Jerry, Poppy, and their friends in an Illinois town called Tutter.
My town, El Reno, was an interesting place. It had grown up in Indian Territory days near Fort Reno, one of a string of U.S. Army forts that extended from Texas to Montana. The purpose of these frontier forts had been to provide protection for white settlers by containing Plains Indian tribes on their newly assigned reservations; in theory at least, the forts were also to protect the Indians from land-hungry ranchers, farmers, and frontier adventurers selling whisky, guns, and other forbidden goods.
Fort Reno was located on land that had been assigned by the government to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in 1867. All Indian reservations in Oklahoma were abolished by the Dawes Act of 1887, but many Cheyenne and Arapaho still lived around El Reno.
Fort Reno was still an active U.S. Army post, a cavalry remount station, when I lived in El Reno. A school friend of mine lived at the fort, and sometimes I would spend Friday or Saturday night at his house. His father, a captain with a finely waxed mustache, was a history buff and had turned their house into a virtual Indian wars museum. He had collected carbines, bows and arrows, lances, old maps and photographs, medicine pipes, buffalo robes, early uniforms, and scores of hooks on the Indian campaigns.
The captain loved to talk about Western history, and it was from him that I first heard about Chief Little Wolf and the Northern Cheyenne Indians, who lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In 1877 this branch of the Cheyenne tribe was forced by the army to move to the Darlington Agency near Fort Reno. From the beginning their life there was a disaster. There were too many people, no game to hunt, and nothing for the young men and women to do. The tribe lived on food handed out to them by the government.
One night, after a year of misery, Little Wolf led his people—over a thousand in number—out of the Darlington Agency. Ten thousand soldiers were stationed in forts along their escape route, but so skillful was Little Wolf in moving his people that the federal troops never caught them. After a homeward trek of fifteen hundred miles, they at last reached their beloved Black Hills. Once there, they were able to resist efforts to make them return to the Darlington Agency, and in 1884 the government finally gave the Northern Cheyenne a reservation on their traditional hunting grounds along the Tongue River in southeastern Montana.
I never forgot the story of Little Wolf that the captain at Fort Reno told me. It was one of the reasons, more than fifty years later, that I decided to write Morning Star, Black Sun, which is about the fight of the Northern Cheyenne tribe today to protect the sacred land of their reservation from big power companies that covet the immense quantities of coal that lie beneath the reservation.
My father was a quiet man who listened much more than he talked. I think that is why many Cheyenne and Arapaho came to his drugstore in El Reno to buy medicine. He would listen to their problems and offer his best advice, which was usually that they should go to a doctor. Whether they did or not, they still bought their medicine from him. One reason was that he would sell to them on credit if they didn't have cash. Not many stores would do that.
As a result of my father's rapport with the Indians, the Ashabranner family was sometimes invited to Cheyenne and Arapaho powwows and stomp dances. I was a fascinated onlooker, and I learned to like Indian food, especially fry bread, wild rice, and roasted beef with blackberry sauce. Sometimes they had venison, and that was a special treat.
During my six years of elementary school in El Reno, I had only one Indian friend. Indians were not barred from white public schools as blacks were in those days of segregation, but not many Indian children attended public schools. Indians were well aware of white prejudice, and they preferred to send their children to the few Indian schools still run by the government or not to send them to school at all. The Indian concept that education took place in the home and in nature was still very much alive in those days.
My friend was a Cheyenne boy whose name was Jimmy Red Fox. Some kids in school made fun of his name, but I thought it was great. I can't remember exactly how we became friends, but I do recall that one day I offered to trade him a banana for a piece of fry bread during our lunch break, and that broke the ice. We played together during recess, and sometimes I talked him into joining my dare base team. Dare base was a game where two members of opposing teams tried to grab a handkerchief and get back to their side without being touched by the other. Jimmy Red Fox was the fastest kid I ever saw, and we never lost when I could get him to play. Then one day his desk was empty, and he never came back to school. I don't know why. I looked for him at powwows and dances but never saw him again.
A few years ago—in my third life—I wrote a book called To Live in Two Worlds, which is about the desire of young American Indians today to retain their tribal heritage while at the same time succeeding in the dominant culture of the country. I don't know that my friendship with Jimmy Red Fox was part of the motivation for my writing the book, but it probably was. I remember being bothered as a boy that he was a friend I knew so little about.
By the time I was in third grade, Americans were no longer feeling optimistic about their financial future; the whole country was moving toward a frightening and demoralizing economic collapse that lasted more than ten years and became known as the Great Depression. It began with the Wall Street crash of 1929 when tens of thousands of investors were wiped out almost overnight; in the space of a few days millionaires became paupers, and small investors lost their life savings. A wave of suicides swept from coast to coast.
Before the economic disaster would run its course, sixty thousand businesses would fail; five thousand banks would close their doors permanently, causing ten million account holders to lose their money; hundreds of thousands of farms would be lost because farmers could not pay their bank loans or taxes. At the Depression's height, as many as twelve million job-seekers could find no work.
I did not know those grim statistics as I was growing up; but as the twenties turned into the thirties, I knew that something was wrong. We lived only a few blocks from the Rock Island Railroad tracks; several times a week shabbily dressed men, most of them young, would knock at our back door asking for food. These were the tramps of the Depression, unemployed men who rode in empty boxcars from town to town across the country looking for work that was seldom to be found. I don't remember my mother ever refusing a sandwich and coffee to these unfortunate men, even though she believed that they left some kind of mark on or near our house to let other tramps know that they had received food there.
There were other signs of evil times. When I listened to the radio, I tuned in mainly to my favorite programs such as "Little Orphan Annie" and "Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy," but I couldn't help hearing an often-played song which asked the sad question, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" And when I went to the movies, the weekly newsreel always showed long lines of men and sometimes women at big-city soup kitchens.
The Depression hit home in a very real and personal way in 1932 when my father lost the drugstore. Business dropped off to the point that he couldn't make enough money to replenish stock, and he couldn't get another bank loan. One of his problems had been that he gave credit to people who simply couldn't pay their bills. That wasn't good business, but in those grim days he found it hard to say no to a person who needed medicine.
After the drugstore's debts were paid, only a few hundred dollars were left. My parents put that little bit of money in the bank, and a month later the bank closed its doors. They joined the ten million others who lost everything they had during the Depression.
But our family was more fortunate than many. My father's skill as a pharmacist was well known, and he was never out of work during the Depression years. He was hired to run the store he had once owned; his salary was a hundred dollars a month. A year later he was offered a job in a drugstore in Bristow, a small oil and agricultural town near Tulsa. We didn't want to leave El Reno, but there was no question that Dad had to take the job. He had been offered $125 a month, and he couldn't pass up the chance to increase the family income by 25 percent.
I began this essay by talking about the two lives I have lived and the third I am living now. One thread of continuity has run through all of these lives, and it is this: no matter where I was in the world, no matter what I was doing, I have always been a writer. Often the time I could give to writing was small, perhaps no more than five or six hours a week, but I always found some time.
I tried to write my first story in El Reno when I was eleven years old. Under the spell of an exciting book called Bomba the Jungle Boy, I began writing a story which I called "Barbara the Jungle Girl." That wasn't very original, I admit, but at least, like Robert Louis Stevenson, I "played the sedulous ape" to a writer I admired. I had yet to learn that a fresh idea, fresh material, or a different approach are what, in part, distinguish a good writer from a poor or mediocre one. In any case, by page three I was hopelessly bogged down in the plot, and "Barbara the Jungle Girl" was never finished. The only other story I remember trying to write in El Reno was about an Indian boy on his first buffalo hunt. That might have been a good idea, but I didn't finish that story either. I quickly discovered that I didn't know anything about buffalo, and I hadn't yet been introduced to something called research.
But the writing bug had somehow got in my blood, and I really never stopped writing after the beginning in El Reno. In the diary I began to keep when I was twelve years old there was a line asking what I wanted to be when I grew up. I recall very clearly that I wrote "Fiction Writer."
Both my reading and my writing continued unabated during my junior high school years in Bristow, and a small public library had enough fuel to stoke the fires of my imagination. More and more I became fascinated by books about foreign countries. I devoured Kipling, practically memorized Beau Geste and other French Foreign Legion books by P.C. Wren, and lived every moment with Richard Halliburton as he swam the Dardanelles in Turkey and cut through Guatemalan jungles in search of ancient Mayan treasures. A nonfiction book about the search for archeological treasures in Greece and Crete was a particular favorite. I read other things, of course. The wonderful dog stories of Albert Payson Terhune made me long for a collie; the library had a generous selection of Zane Grey's Western novels, and I read all of them.
My writing continued to be a mirror of my reading. I wrote stories about jewel smugglers in Bangkok, scientists hunting rare orchids in the Amazon jungles, British soldiers in India fighting rebellious Sikhs. No matter that I knew nothing about these subjects except what I read; my imagination was getting a terrific workout. I wrote the stories laboriously in longhand on yellow tablet paper and put them in a box under my bed. It would be fun for me to read some of those stories today, but someplace through the years the box was lost or thrown away.
In high school I had the great good fortune of having English teachers who took a genuine interest in me and my writing. Mrs. Arthurs stretched the limits in writing assignments to let me write on subjects I was interested in and even to let me write stories when a theme was called for. She made me pay attention to grammar and punctuation, and her red pencil always showed me where I was awkward or unclear. But a "Good!" beside a passage she liked and a thoughtful comment about my story as a whole always inspired me to do better next time.
Mrs. Arthurs did something else: she introduced me to American writers who wrote about the world around them. One of the books she gave me was McKinley Kantor's The Voice of Bugle Ann, the story of a hunting dog in the Missouri hill country. Another was Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's The Yearling, about a rural family in Florida. She thought I was ready for some John Steinbeck, and I was. I thoroughly enjoyed everything she recommended, and I think Mrs. Arthurs was subtly suggesting that I might want to look around my own world and try writing about what I saw.
When I was a junior, the Bristow High School English teachers persuaded the principal to let them set up a creative-writing course. The course consisted of just four students, me and three of my friends who were also interested in writing. Creative-writing courses are commonplace today, but in 1938 such a course in high school—with only four students!—was rare indeed. The four of us sat in a classroom by ourselves for a semester just writing. There was no formal instruction, though Mrs. Covey, who was our supervising teacher, read everything we wrote and went over every story, poem, or essay with us.
It was Mrs. Covey who encouraged me to begin to write about things that I knew something about. After the reading direction that Mrs. Arthurs had given me, that did not seem to be such a strange idea. One of the stories I wrote during the creative-writing class was about a boxer whose fighting name was Samson, and that was the name of the story. My brother, Gerard, was a skillful amateur boxer, a district Golden Gloves lightweight champion. After high school he had begun to fight professional bouts in a little Depression-era, small-town boxing circuit that included Bristow. I went to all of Gerard's fights and sometimes reported on the whole fight card for our local newspaper, the Bristow Daily Record.
Mrs. Covey liked "Samson" and had me work on it and rewrite it until we were both sure I couldn't make it any better. Then she entered it in a national short-story competition sponsored by Scholastic Magazine. "Samson" won fourth prize and was later printed along with other prize winners in a book called Saplings. "Samson" was my first published story; seeing it in the book confirmed what I had known for a long time—that I truly wanted to be a writer.
I have never forgotten Mrs. Arthurs, Mrs. Covey, and Mrs. Shaw, who taught me journalism and introduced me to research in writing. I have never forgotten the difference they made in my life.
Perhaps I sound as if I spent all my time in Bristow reading and writing. Hardly. I had some good friends, and we filled many long summer days and nights fishing and camping along the Little Deep Fork of the Canadian River. I loved sports. I went out for track and was pretty good in the 100-yard dash and the 220. I made the tennis team when I was a senior and earned my high school athletic letter. I went with girls, not many, but they were on my mind a lot.
I grew up in the heart of the Depression years, and I know that the Depression left its lasting imprint on me—in my sympathy for people fighting poverty both in the United States and overseas, in my lifelong support of social programs designed to help people in difficult times and to prevent another Depression: Social Security, unemployment insurance, national health insurance, banking controls, and others.
It wasn't that my family or I suffered. We rarely had an extra dollar, but Dad was never out of work. We always had food, clothes, and a decent roof over us. I was well aware, however, that the blight of Depression lay on the land. I saw hitchhikers on the highways, moving from town to town, looking for work. I sometimes helped in our church's busy welfare program of food boxes and used clothing for the poor.
In addition to all the other economic ills, Oklahoma was now in the grip of a terrible drought, the Dust Bowl era. Many times I saw farmers, their land lost, heading down the highway in dilapidated trucks filled with family and a few household goods; usually they were moving west in the false hope that California was the promised land. In 1939, the year I graduated from high school, John Steinbeck told the story of these unfortunate but tough-spirited migrants in The Grapes of Wrath. They were often in my mind when I wrote Dark Harvest in 1984.
In those hard Depression times in Bristow I hated to ask my father for money, especially money for dates. I did have to ask him sometimes, and he always gave it; but I tried to keep a little money in my pocket through my own efforts. I delivered newspapers; I did janitorial work at our church; I worked for a year as delivery boy at the drugstore where Dad worked. I cleared land of brush and trees one summer and the next year did manual work at the natural gas plant. It took the influence of friends even to get low-paying, short-term jobs like these.
Somehow, though, Dad could find a way to do something special for us. I had learned to type in high school, and I yearned for a typewriter for writing stories. One night after work Dad came home with a secondhand, reconditioned Underwood standard typewriter and gave it to me. I was overjoyed. Now I was a real writer! I knew the typewriter had cost Dad thirty-five dollars because I had looked at it in the business-machine store on Main Street. He would be a long time paying for it at a few dollars a month, but he couldn't have bought me anything that would have meant more to me. He knew that, and I am sure that seeing my happiness made him feel good.
When my brother graduated from high school in Bristow, he had no prospects of a job and no way to go to college. There was no money to help him even if he could find a job in a college town to pay part of his expenses. What he did instead was decide to read law in a lawyer's office and then take the state bar examination to try to get a license to practice law. In Oklahoma in the 1930s a person could become a lawyer that way, though hardly anyone ever tried to do it. It was just too lonely and uncertain a way to spend your time.
With Dad's help Gerard found a lawyer who agreed to let him read his law books. In return Gerard would answer the telephone and be receptionist; that would give him a desk and a reason for being in the office. The lawyer was Herbert Arthurs, the husband of my English teacher. With Mr. Arthurs's help, Gerard made out a plan of study and submitted it to the Oklahoma State Bar Association; it was approved.
Gerard read Herb Arthurs's law books for three years, going in every morning two hours before the office opened so he could get a good start on his study. I couldn't understand then and I never have really been able to understand how my brother did it. I can scarcely imagine the will power that must have been required for him to sit there day after day, month after month, year after year reading those law books without any guidance from a professor, without any tests to tell him whether he was learning what he had to know to pass the bar. He would be taking an examination made to test the graduates of the best law schools in the country, and he had never set foot in a college classroom.
When the time came, he went to Oklahoma City for the three-day examination and passed it with flying colors on his first try. My brother gave me the only lesson I ever needed about what sheer guts and determination can accomplish.
In my reading I traveled all over the globe, but curiously Bristow was where I had my first look at the real world beyond Oklahoma. As soon as I started seventh grade, I discovered that several of my classmates had surnames that sounded strange to my Midwestern ear—names such as Khoury, Dajani, and Naifeh. Other last names had a biblical sound to them: Abraham and Joseph. Most of these boys and girls had light brown skin that reminded me of the few Mexicans I had seen in my life.
But they weren't Mexicans, I soon learned. Their parents or grandparents had come from a country named Syria. I had never heard of Syria; but when I looked it up on a map, I saw some names that I did know: Palestine, which bordered on Syria, and Jerusalem and Bethlehem, cities in Palestine. My new classmates were Arabs—or, more properly since they lived in the United States, Arab Americans.
Little by little I pieced together the story of how they happened to be living in a small Oklahoma town. An Arab peddler named Joseph Abraham had come through Bristow in 1899 when it was still in Indian Territory. Bristow was thriving because of oil activity, and Abraham decided to settle there and become a merchant. In time he became wealthy by branching into real estate. He brought over his relatives and friends from Syria, who brought over their relatives and friends. By the time my family moved to Bristow in 1933 at least five hundred Arab Americans lived there, a substantial and prosperous part of the community.
Several of the Arab-American kids quickly became my friends; and if they were different from my Anglo friends, I never noticed. Some of their grandparents and occasionally their parents had accents, but my friends didn't. We talked the same, did the same things, even had the same religion. I knew something about Islam and Muslims because of my reading, but all the Arab Americans in Bristow were Christians, mostly Catholic but some Protestants.
I went to Boy Scout camp with Malik Khoury, played golf with Ed Naifeh, had fun on cookouts with Paul Joseph and his friends, wrote about the football heroics of Warren Shibley when I was editor of the school newspaper. My friends came out of an Arab background, but they were as American as anyone I ever knew.
One difference I did notice was that the Arab-American families tended to be larger and somehow closer together than Anglo families. A difference that meant more to me, however, was their food. When I ate at my Arab-American friends' houses, I might get meat loaf and hot dogs just as I would at home; but if I was lucky, I would be there on a day when they were having Syrian food. Then I would eat kibbeh—a tasty meat patty with bulgur and pine nuts—a delicious stuffed chicken called djaaj mahshi, grape leaf rolls, and hummus, a wonderful chick-pea dish. And we might have baklava or ma'amoul, a cookie they baked mostly at Easter, for dessert. In a small town in Oklahoma I acquired a love of Arabic food that has only grown through the years.
I have written here about the Arab-American community in Bristow for two reasons. One reason is that I am sure getting to know a different ethnic group early in life, and seeing how much we were the same made my own entry into foreign work and living easier.
The second reason is that in the late 1980s I wrote a book titled An Ancient Heritage: The Arab-American Minority. In my "second life" I lived and worked for several years in Arab North Africa and the Middle East. I learned a great deal about Arabs from those experiences, and my desire to write An Ancient Heritage stemmed partly from what I learned. But the seeds of that book, I have no doubt, were planted in my head fifty years earlier when I was growing up in Oklahoma with my Arab-American friends like Ed Naifeh and Malik Khoury.
After I graduated from high school, I enrolled at Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College in Stillwater. The Depression was still very much with us; but my brother was now supporting himself, so Dad had a few extra dollars. I found a job waiting tables at a restaurant called the College Shop in Stillwater; for this work I received my meals. My parents were able to pay for my room and my enrollment fees, which by today's standards were absurdly small.
So I was in college but on the flimsiest of shoestrings; I sometimes had loose change in my pocket but rarely a dollar bill. I signed up as an English major, though my freshman courses were standard first-year fare: English composition, American history, mathematics, college orientation. The good stuff—the American novel, the English novel, Chaucer, Shakespeare, professional writing—would come later.
I really remember almost nothing about my freshman courses; they seemed in some ways to be a retread of high school. What I do remember is the library at Oklahoma A&M. It contained all the latest novels and nonfiction by the best and most successful writers of the time. I spent more hours with those books than I did with my textbooks. I discovered Hemingway, Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Somerset Maugham, and others I was to read with pleasure for years to come. I did all right in my courses, but my heart was in the library.
Something much more important than the library happened to me the very first day of the fall semester—the most important thing that has ever happened in my life. Waiting in the long line to sign up for my first semester courses, I began a casual conversation with the slender, brown-haired girl standing in front of me. I learned that her name was Martha White, that she came from Roswell, New Mexico, and was at Oklahoma A&M because her sister, a junior, was studying in the college's highly regarded School of Home Economics.
After about an hour an announcement came over the public-address system that all persons whose last name began with N through Z should leave and come back the next day. Those with A through M names were to stay and enroll. I don't know why, but something told me I wanted to know this girl from Roswell better. Although I was supposed to stay, I stepped out of line when she started to leave.
"I'm tired of standing here," I said. "Why don't we go get a Coke?"
She agreed, and afterward I walked her back to Murray Hall, the girls' dormitory where she lived. Before I left, I asked her to go to a movie with me the next night, and again she said yes. Fortunately, that was one of the few times I had an extra dollar in my pocket. From that moment on I never went with any girl but Martha, and she never went with any boy but me.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, a well-known teacher of professional writing, Thomas H. Uzzell, joined the Oklahoma A&M English faculty. I desperately wanted to get into his course, called Fundamentals of Fiction, but it was open only to se-niors and graduate students. I went to see him, pled my case, and left him some of my stories, including "Samson." He read them and let me in; I was dizzy with excitement.
Except for meeting Martha, becoming a student of Tom Uzzell was the most important thing that happened to me in all my college years. He was a successful short-story writer and a great teacher. I learned about character development, plotting, conflict, atmosphere, unified emotional effect, and other elements of story writing that I had never dreamed of. I wrote my heart out for Mr. Uzzell, and he read everything I wrote carefully, giving me his patient, wise analysis of what I was doing wrong and what I was doing right.
I quit my job at the College Shop so that I could have more time for writing and was trying to live on the $25 a month that my parents sent me. Martha worked at a college cafeteria and sometimes brought me food after the evening meal. That helped but it wasn't enough. I told Mr. Uzzell I had to sell some stories because I was starving.
"Write pulp," he said.
At that time, before television took their place, many magazines printed a particular kind of story: detective stories, Western stories, sports stories, science fiction stories, and others. These magazines were called "pulps" because they were printed on inexpensive, coarse paper. Such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post and Good Housekeeping were printed on costly coated paper and were called "slicks." There were many more pulp magazines than slicks, and they used many more stories. They were easier to sell to than the slicks but paid much less.
I chose the Western pulps because I was, after all, an Oklahoman and knew something about the West; also the Oklahoma A&M library had a fine section of Western Americana where I could do research. After a number of stories that brought printed rejection slips, I began to sell. The pulps paid only a penny a word, but a five-thousand-word story would bring a check for $50. In those days $50 seemed like a small fortune to me.
And then at the end of my sophomore year came another bombshell. Mr. Uzzell offered me a part-time job in his office doing routine tasks. I could still take courses on a reduced schedule, and I would earn $100 a month. With my story checks, my income would be at least $150 a month. I was rich!
Martha and I decided to get married and we did, just three months after I began working for Mr. Uzzell. Perhaps that was hurrying things, but we knew we were in love; and now that I was making enough money to support us, we saw no reason to wait. We were young and, despite the Depression, had the confidence of youth.
We got off to a great start. We had a nice little apartment, my work for Tom Uzzell was going well, my story sales were outnumbering rejections by a comfortable margin. What could stop us now? we asked. That question was soon answered. On December 7, 1941—five months after our marriage—the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Within a week we were at war with both Japan and Germany.
The Depression disappeared overnight. Suddenly America was bursting with energy, and there were more jobs than workers to fill them. Everybody had money to spend. Did it really take a war to put the country back to work? I am sure it did not, but during the Depression the enemy had been vague and shapeless: lack of confidence, demoralization, uncertainty, fear. Now the enemy was very clear and had a huge headstart that we had to overcome.
I enlisted in the U.S. Navy, opting for a newly established unit called the Seabees, which stood for Construction Battalions (the initials CB being the basis for the nickname). The Seabees would operate in the Pacific, and their job would be to build airstrips, docks, fuel tanks, barracks, hospitals, and other necessities for holding onto islands that we would win back from the Japanese. I liked the idea of being in this new unit with such a specific purpose, and—always thinking about writing—I imagined the great story material my experiences would yield.
I reported to Camp Peary in Virginia for training, and Martha took a job with the Douglas Aircraft factory in Tulsa. Parting was hard. We had seldom been away from each other since we had met in line at Oklahoma A&M. Now we had no way of knowing when we would see each other again; it might be years.
As I was soon to learn, war takes strange twists for the individuals involved in it. After only a few days at Camp Peary, I was called into the personnel office. Someone there, examining the records of new recruits, discovered that I had over two years of college, was an English major, and had published stories. The personnel officer decided that I could be useful drafting letters, reports, and doing other paper work required by the camp's personnel office.
That was the end of my idea of serving in the Pacific with a Seabee battalion. I was assigned to Camp Peary's "ship's company," the men selected to run the camp, and I was there for two years. I would be untruthful if I said that I was unhappy at being assigned to Camp Peary, but it was a shock. I was doing useful war work but certainly not the kind I had expected to do.
After it became clear that I would be at Camp Peary for some time, Martha quit her job at Douglas Aircraft and came to live in Williamsburg, the town nearest the camp. Housing was very tight, but she was able to find a room in the home of an old Virginia family. I couldn't always get away from camp, but I was able to spend quite a bit of time with her, and on short leaves and weekends we explored Richmond, Washington, DC, and other nearby cities. On a trip to New York, I was able to visit some of my editors whom I had known only from their letters.
After two years Camp Peary's ship's company was cut down, and I was transferred out. To my considerable disappointment I was not assigned to a Seabee battalion but rather to the naval amphibious forces, where I suppose the need for men was greater. The war was moving inexorably toward an invasion of Japan itself, and massive amphibious forces would be needed to establish beachheads. I was assigned to an LST, which stood for Landing Ship (Tank). It was the largest and slowest of all the navy's amphibious vessels, but it could carry large amounts of war equipment in its huge hold. Battle-hardened oldtimers said that LST actually stood for Large Slow Target, but in months in the Pacific my ship never came under fire. We made one beachhead landing on the island of Borneo, but the Japanese had already been beaten back by aerial attacks and the guns of our big ships that prepared the way for us.
My LST covered much of the Pacific: the Philippines, New Guinea, and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). We were moving material and sometimes men, and the rumors grew ever stronger that the invasion of Japan would come soon. Projections—these were not rumors—were that a million U.S. soldiers, Marines, and sailors might be casualties in this invasion. But there was no invasion. In early August 1945, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a few days later the Japanese surrendered. The war was over.
In my memoir The Times of My Life, published in 1990, I have written more fully of my World War II experiences. But if I had to boil down to the barest essentials what I learned from those years, this is what I would say:
Our nation working together can accomplish almost anything.
The world is a big, exciting place.
Martha worked at the post office in Roswell while I was in the Pacific. After I was discharged from the navy, we returned to Stillwater in 1946 and easily picked up the threads of our former life. We enrolled once more at Oklahoma A&M, and a benign government's GI Bill of Rights for veterans helped with educational expenses. I had not published during the war; but I had kept a journal, so my writing was not too rusty. I began to sell stories again with little difficulty.
I had learned a great deal from writing for the pulp magazines: the importance of a fresh idea, putting my characters in lots of conflict, catching the reader's interest early, keeping the story moving. I continued to sell some Western stories, but my old mentor, Tom Uzzell, told me not to stay in the pulps too long. "You've learned all you can there," he said. "Branch out." So I graduated from the pulps and found that I could sell stories to other kinds of magazines. But my interest in the West persisted, and I even placed one scholarly article with the University of California's Western Folklore.
We finished our undergraduate degrees—Martha taking hers in home economics—and I went on to take a master's degree in English. I was offered an appointment as instructor in the Oklahoma A&M English department and took it. As an instructor a large part of my teaching duties was freshman composition, but occasionally I was given a plum such as creative writing or the survey course in American literature. I liked teaching from the beginning, but I quickly saw how much I had to learn to be a good teacher. And I wanted to be good. Like the teacher in Chaucer's tale, I would gladly "lerne and gladly teche."
Life in Stillwater moved crisply and happily for Martha and me; ten years went by in a hurry. We built a small but pleasant house with redwood siding, a fireplace, and a big picture window. Our two daughters were born in the hospital just a block from our house, Melissa in 1950, Jennifer in 1952—two lovely redheads who brightened our days from the moments of their arrivals. It seemed that we were settling down to comfortable lives in an Oklahoma college town and that I was settling into a career as a teacher and writer.
Then in 1955, completely out of the blue, I had a chance to go to Africa as a worker in the United States' new program of technical assistance to developing countries. The United States had emerged from World War II as the richest and most powerful country in the world. Instead of sinking back into the isolationism, the fear of foreign entanglements, that had prevailed throughout most of the nation's history, America now took a leading role on the world stage.
The U.S. Marshall Plan helped the war-ravaged countries of Europe back to economic health. President Harry Truman started a Technical Cooperation Administration through which American technicians would help the poor countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America improve their standards of agriculture, education, and health. This type of foreign aid quickly became known as the Point Four Program simply because President Truman had proposed it in the fourth point of his inaugural address.
Because of its fine agricultural department, Oklahoma A&M was asked by Point Four officials in Washington to help the African country of Ethiopia build an agricultural college and train its faculty. A&M agreed and had been sending agricultural experts to Ethiopia for several years. Now the Ethiopian Ministry of Education wanted Point Four advisors to help in the creation of books and other reading material for their elementary, middle, and secondary schools. Oklahoma A&M was asked to recruit the education advisors.
Because of my writing experience, I was offered one of the jobs. I could scarcely believe it. A chance to go to Africa! Ethiopia, the country of towering mountains and "valleys of dreadful depth" that I had read about years ago. Until then I don't believe I had ever thought about the great importance of the reading we do when we are young. All those books, fiction and nonfiction, that I had read about Africa and Asia as a boy were still in my conscious and unconscious memory. I could practically hear some inner voice whispering, "Come on! Now's your chance. Don't pass it up."
The decision to take the job was easy to make. Martha and our daughters would go with me, of course. The assignment was for two years, after which time we would return to Stillwater, and I would rejoin the A&M English department. Martha was as eager as I was to take advantage of this opportunity to see some more of the world; Melissa was five and Jennifer was three, both young enough to adapt easily to the change. As described to me, the work in Ethiopia sounded worthwhile and interesting; but in truth I'm sure I was thinking more about the rich lode of story material this remote African country would yield.
So we leased our house, packed our bags, and set out for a two-year adventure. We thought. What we were really doing was beginning our second life which would last twenty-five years and take us over much of Africa and Asia.
Ethiopia, located in the horn of Africa, was a strange new world, beautiful in some ways, far from beautiful in others. We lived in Addis Ababa, the capital city of the country. Addis sits almost on the equator, but at an elevation of eight thousand feet, the climate is splendid most of the time. The beauty was in the encircling mountains, the tall eucalyptus trees growing everywhere, the people in their shammas—long white wraparound clothes with colorful edgings worn by both men and women. The ugliness was in the open sewers, the poverty, the sight of too many thin, sickly children.
We had a nice house in a fenced-in compound, and before long the girls had acquired a black goat and a little brown monkey whom they named Chip; he was gentle, smart, and loved everyone in our family. Melissa went to first grade in a primary school organized by wives of American embassy and foreign aid workers. The only nursery school in Addis was run by the small French community, and we enrolled Jennifer in it even though she didn't know a word of French. But she learned, soon had a French friend named Monique she traded home visits with, and before long started dropping French words and phrases around the house, to Melissa's considerable annoyance. Martha enjoyed learning to shop in the big open-air vegetable market. Vegetables, fruits, and melons were plentiful and delicious; but any meat besides tough, stringy beef and small, tough chickens was not to be found—unless we acquired a taste for goat.
From the first day I found my work in Ethiopia absorbing. I met Russell Davis, who would be my Point Four partner for the next two years, and our tasks were explained to us by the head of the Point Four education program and the director-general of the Ethiopian Ministry of Education. Ethiopian schools, we were told, were desperate for teaching materials, particularly materials in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, and materials which would teach Ethiopian students about their own country and its history.
In order to get reading materials into the schools quickly, my job was to start two magazines along the lines of the American school magazines, My Weekly Reader and Junior Scholastic. One of the magazines, for elementary grades, would be published in Amharic; the other, for middle and secondary schools, would be in English, the language of education after the elementary level. Russ Davis was to work on a series of readers and math books in Amharic. We would have young Ethiopian counterparts working with us to learn and carry on the work after we were gone.
Russ and I said that was fine. We thought we could do what the director-general wanted, but first we would have to learn something about Ethiopia, its people, its languages. Russ was a gifted language learner; by the time he had been in Ethiopia for a few weeks, he was speaking Amharic, as well as writing it. I struggled with the language the whole time I was in Ethiopia; I never got really good with it, but I never gave up.
After our talk with the director-general, Russ and I loaded a Land Rover with sleeping bags and extra gas cans and, with our Ethiopian counterparts, Amara Worku and Million Neqneq, traveled Ethiopia's sometimes almost-nonexistent roads for a month. We slept on the ground, on classroom floors, and occasionally in a lumpy hotel bed. We learned to eat and enjoy wat, the Ethiopian national dish, and to soak up the fiery red sauce with a slightly sour gray bread called injera that we also grew to like.
We talked with headmasters and teachers and saw that the need for teaching materials really was desperate. In one school we visited, the students were struggling with a few copies of The Vicar of Wakefield that had been donated by a British publisher. I had read Oliver Goldsmith's novel in a graduate course in English literature and had found it hard going. It must have been almost meaningless to ninth-grade students in Ethiopia.
We visited Aksum, the holy city, where the kingdom of Ethiopia had its beginnings almost three thousand years ago. It is called Ethiopia's holy city because in the fourth century one of the Aksumite kings became a believer in the teachings of Jesus and spread Christianity throughout the area. Thus Ethiopia was one of the first Christian countries in Africa.
We became acquainted with the many different culture groups of Ethiopia: the Amharas, Gallas, Guragies, and others. We stayed for a few days with the Falasha people, who are often called the "black Jews" of Ethiopia because they practice the Judaic religion. The Falasha believe they came to Ethiopia in the time of King Solomon. They say they came with the Queen of Sheba when she returned to Ethiopia from a trip to Israel. In fact, some biblical scholars believe that Ethiopia may have been the home of the Queen of Sheba. The legend of Sheba and Solomon is one of the most ancient and best-loved stories in Ethiopia.
Russ and I discovered that every Ethiopian culture group had its own rich store of legends and folk stories. As we traveled throughout the country during our two-year assignment, we recorded many of them for use in the books and magazines we published for Ethiopian schools. The greatest storyteller we met in all our months in Ethiopia was an old Somali man named Zor who lived in the ancient town of Harar. We had heard that many people considered Zor a wizard because he could do a strange, inexplicable thing: he could charm the wildest and most untamable of all African animals, the hyena, and make them take food from his hand.
Zor's home was a one-room mud hut called a tukal near the Budaber (Gate of the Evil-eyed People), and we went there one night and asked him if he would show us how he charmed wild hyenas. If Zor was surprised to see two Americans appear at his door, he did not show it. He invited us into his grassroofed tukal, which was partially lighted by a feebly flickering kerosene lantern. Zor asked us to sit in the shadows; he then took some bloody sheep bones from a basket and sat down cross-legged in the middle of the dirt floor.
We expected him to chant or beat a drum or use some other magic device, but instead he began to talk just as if he were speaking to people outside. "Abdullah," he called, "are you out there? Maymoonah, I have a nice bone for you. Zachariah, are you hungry tonight?"
He called other names, and in less than a minute we began to hear the soft padding of feet and low, deep-throated growls from the darkness outside. And then we saw them—more than a dozen huge, shaggy-coated hyenas moving restlessly back and forth in front of the tukal door. Occasionally, one would stop and peer inside, then suddenly jump back into the darkness.
"Maymoonah," the old man called, "I know you are there. Come in or I will give this bone to another."
That seemed to do the trick. One of the hyenas, a big, buff-colored beast, halted in the doorway and fi-nally put her head into the hut. Zor held a meaty bone out to her and coaxed her softly. The hyena's eyes blazed toward the shadows where we sat, and she backed up a step. But her hunger seemed to conquer her fear; she slunk into the room, snatched the bone from Zor's hand, and bolted through the door. We could hear her crunching the bone in her powerful jaws, and the growls of the other hyenas grew louder.
Maymoonah's bravery seemed to give courage to the rest of the pack. The giant called Abdullah came in at once when his name was called. After that they came in eagerly, and sometimes there were three hyenas in the room at once; but as soon as they had their bone, they scrambled frantically through the door.
When the last bone was gone, Zor called out, "Enough. Be gone." Instantly the sounds of growling and of padding feet were gone from the yard outside. The night was eerily quiet.
Russ and I told Zor that we were amazed at what we had seen. Zor waved his hand and said it hadn't been good because the hyenas were frightened by our presence. Usually, he said, he made the hyenas sit down in front of him, take the bone from his hand, and eat it in the hut. We asked Zor if he could tell us how he came to have this strange power over hyenas.
Instead of answering us directly, Zor told us a story. There was a woman named Bizunesh who was newly married to a man with a young son named Segab. Bizunesh loved Segab, but he seemed to hate his new stepmother. She tried every way she could to please him, but nothing worked. Finally, Bizunesh went to a wizard and asked him to make her a love potion to put in Segab's food so that he would love her. The wizard said he could make a love potion, but in order to make it he would have to have three whiskers from a fierce lion that lived in the nearby black-rock desert. How she got the whiskers, the wizard said, was her problem, not his.
The heart of the story tells how Bizunesh slowly wins the lion's confidence by bringing him food, each day getting a little closer until the lion comes close enough for her to clip some whiskers from his face. When Bizunesh runs to the wizard with the whiskers, he tells her that she doesn't need a love potion. "You learned how to approach the lion—slowly, a little at a time. Do the same with your stepson, and he will surely love you."
The best folk stories from all countries have a meaning or point, and that is the kind of Ethiopian stories that Russ and I used in our books and magazines for the country's schools. My counterpart, Amara Worku, and I started two magazines, one in English for middle schools and high schools called Time to Read and one in Amharic for the elementary grades called Yemambeb Gize, which means "time to read." Both magazines contained folktales, history, and current events—all Ethiopian. Sometimes we used easy-to-understand articles on health, nutrition, and other useful subjects. We printed twenty-five thousand copies of Yemambeb Gize and ten thousand copies of Time to Read. Those numbers couldn't begin to meet the need for the whole country, but it was a start. After a few trial issues paid for by Point Four, the cost of publication was built into the Ministry of Education budget.
Some of my warmest memories from years of working in developing countries are those of being at an Ethiopian school on a day when Yemambeb Gize or Time to Read was being passed out to the students. That truly was "time to read," and read the students did, quietly and with complete concentration on stories they could understand and that had been written just for them. A few days later, after they had been over everything with the teacher, they would take their copy home. More than once I saw a student reading his magazine to his parents or grandparents.
Martha, Melissa, and Jennifer traveled with me a number of times on my trips around Ethiopia and got a real feeling for the beauty and variety of the country. Martha herself became involved in Ethiopian education in a special way. When the headmistress of Empress Menen School for Girls in Addis discovered that Martha had a degree in home economics, she asked her to teach machine sewing, cooking, and nutrition. Martha had never taught school, even practice teaching, but she felt she should try. I am sure Martha worked far harder on her lesson preparations than any of her students worked, but her hard work had its reward. I heard from many Empress Menen staff members that Martha was a good and well-liked teacher.
Two years passed with unbelievable swiftness; suddenly the time had come for us to return to Stillwater and resume our life in Oklahoma. The head of the English department wrote me that I would be promoted to assistant professor. But Point Four asked me to stay in overseas work; the agency wanted me to go to the newly independent North African country of Libya where a large Point Four program was taking shape.
This time Martha and I pondered our decision long and hard. We knew we were at a crossroads. Going to Libya with Point Four would mean severing our ties with Oklahoma A&M (which had recently been renamed Oklahoma State University). More important, if we stayed overseas, Jennifer and Melissa would miss all that American schools had to offer, at least in the early years of their education.
On the other hand, they were having rare and valuable experiences in seeing other parts of the world, getting to know other peoples, hearing other languages and experimenting with using them. We decided those were good educational trade-offs for our daughters; and after our two years in Ethiopia, Martha and I were sure we wanted to stay in foreign life and work. I resigned from Oklahoma State University, and we went to Libya.
Ethiopia was immensely important to me as a writer. I had never written for children or young adults; but I felt the things I had learned in Ethiopia about understanding other cultures and about people of different cultures understanding each other seemed worth sharing with young readers. My Point Four buddy, Russ Davis, felt the same way, so we decided to write our first children's book together. We called it The Lion's Whiskers, and in it we looked at the people of Ethiopia through their folk stories. We began our book with our visit to Zor, the hyena man, and his story about Bizunesh and what she learned from getting the lion's whiskers. The Lion's Whiskers is out of print now, but in its day it went through several printings and had an edition in Great Britain.
After The Lion's Whiskers the greatest part of my writing time overseas was devoted to books for young readers. My experiences in Libya and later in Nigeria and India were yielding material that I thought would be of interest to children and young adults. And I found that I enjoyed writing for a younger audience. Perhaps the reason was that I still remembered the pleasure I received as a boy from the books I read. I know that I enjoyed taking a subject and shaping it in a way that would make it most enjoyable and most meaningful to young readers.
Russ Davis and I discovered that we liked writing together just as we had liked working together in Ethiopia. Although he returned to America and became a teacher and then a professor at Harvard University and I continued overseas, we found that we could write together. We worked in a variety of ways. Sometimes I would write the entire first draft of a book, and he would edit and revise; sometimes it was the other way around. Sometimes a subject called for library research, which from his Harvard base Russ could do better. Often I collected material for our books in the country I was in. In some cases Russ wrote part of a book and I wrote part. The subject dictated the way we divided the tasks. But the collaboration worked. In all, we wrote seven books together while I was overseas, and we learned a lot from each other.
Libya gave the Ashabranner family a chance to experience an Arab culture. In our two years there, I pieced together the legend of an ancient bedouin tribe called the Bani Hilal, which means the sons of Hilal. In its time the tribe roamed over much of the Middle East and North Africa; literally hundreds of stories had been told about the Bani Hilal. Russ and I retold the best of them in a book we called Ten Thousand Desert Swords.
Our next assignment was in the West African country of Nigeria. Melissa and Jennifer had gone to an American school at Wheelus Air Base, a U.S. installation in Libya, and they would go to a small private British school in Lagos, the city in which we would live in Nigeria. We knew they would get good instruction in the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The year was 1960, and I was excited about going to Nigeria. For more than a century a colony of Great Britain, Nigeria was about to receive its independence. The most populous country in Africa, rich in oil and other resources, it was certain to become a leader on the African continent. For me, the time to be working with the Ministry of Education couldn't be better.
Two things of great importance in my life and career happened during our two years in Nigeria. The first was that John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961 as one of his first acts as president. Sargent Shriver, the first Peace Corps director, came to Nigeria to see if that country might be interested in receiving Peace Corps volunteers; although I was with the Agency for International Development (the new name for the U.S. foreign aid program), I was assigned to be Shriver's escort officer while he was in Nigeria. I liked everything I heard about the Peace Corps, and apparently Shriver liked me. Nigeria wanted the Peace Corps, and Shriver appointed me to set up the country's first program. That was the beginning of my nine years as a Peace Corps staff member in Nigeria, India, and Washington.
The second important thing that happened to me in Nigeria was that I became a nonfiction writer. Although I had written a few nonfiction pieces over the years, I had always thought of myself as a fiction writer. During my first year in Nigeria, I wrote a young adult novel entitled Strangers in Africa. Helen Jones, a wonderful editor at the publishing firm of Little, Brown in Boston, was my first children's book editor. She coaxed me into nonfiction. The year was 1962, and she said the time was right for an up-to-date book about West Africa because black Americans were becoming increasingly interested in their historic roots. I was a storyteller, I reminded Helen, not a geographer.
"Tell the story of West Africa," Helen said.
I tried. I really tried. I had a good title, Land in the Sun, but I hated that manuscript from the beginning. It seemed plodding and dull, and I couldn't get over the idea that I was writing nonfiction. I had to be able to document everything I wrote. What fiction writer could tolerate such a restriction?
I was setting up the first Peace Corps program for Nigeria while I was trying to write Land in the Sun. I dragged that wretched manuscript all over the country, writing in the back of Jeeps and at night in government rest houses. No matter where I was, it didn't sound any better.
Sargent Shriver called me to Washington for consultation. I put what I had written of Land in the Sun in my briefcase, thinking of the long in-flight hours and nights in hotel rooms. When I returned to Lagos and unpacked my briefcase, the manuscript was missing. I had left it on a plane or in a hotel room, and there was no copy. Strangely, I felt relieved.
After a few days, I wrote Helen and told her there would be no Land in the Sun. On the way to post the letter, I stopped at my office. A large brown manila envelope was on my desk; the return address was the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where I had last stayed. Inside was my manuscript and a letter from the hotel's assistant manager saying a maid had found it in the desk of the room I had occupied. He said he was sure I would be happy to get it back.
I wasn't happy. I had decided that I just wasn't a nonfiction writer and that I now could go happily back to writing fiction. But I sat down and read the pages again. In the days I had been separated from the manuscript something had happened; I seemed to be reading it for the first time. The opening chapter about Nigeria's independence celebrations at the end of British rule—which I had witnessed personally—was interesting and full of colorful detail. So were the chapters on the Yoruba, Fulani, and Ibo people—people I had come to know at firsthand.
I was cautiously optimistic. I added two more chapters, gave the manuscript a subtitle, The Story of West Africa, and sent it to Russ Davis. He liked it, did some editing, and sent the manuscript to Helen Jones. She liked it and didn't ask for any changes. I must have done something right. Land in the Sun stayed in print for years and was the best-selling book that Russ and I had as a writing team.
Our collaboration came to an end with Land in the Sun. Russ became so involved with his Harvard teaching and I with the Peace Corps that we couldn't stay in the close touch needed for successful collaborative work. But we had fun writing together and learning together; we remain close friends to this day.
I have written very little fiction since Land in the Sun was published. While I was working on A Moment in History, my book about the Peace Corps, I became increasingly comfortable with the nonfiction form. And I felt that the experiences my family and I had had and were still having in Africa and Asia could be written about particularly well as nonfiction.
After I got the Peace Corps program in Nigeria underway, Sargent Shriver asked me to move to India to help with the program there. I am often asked which foreign country, of all I have lived in, is my favorite. I always hedge my answer. Because it was our first foreign assignment, Ethiopia perhaps seemed most exciting and exotic. But in Libya we experienced the vast Sahara Desert and lived beside the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. Nigeria gave us the opportunity to learn about and develop a deep appreciation for African art, which at its best has an emotional power that can scarcely be equaled. In every country we had good friends.
So I have no favorite country; at the same time I know that India made the deepest impression on me and left me with the warmest memories. We lived there nearly four years. We formed deep friendships; after thirty years, some of our Indian friends still visit us in the United States. Martha became an excellent cook of Indian food, learning from her many friends. Melissa and Jennifer were older and could experience the culture more fully; India is the country they have chosen to return to for visits.
India was most special to me because of the Peace Corps volunteers. The Peace Corps program in India became the largest in the world in 1965 while I was director, with over seven hundred volunteers serving all over the country. I had transferred to India before I had a chance to get to know the Nigeria Peace Corps volunteers well. India was different; I traveled the country for four years visiting volunteers at their work. Not all were successful; a few quit before their assignments were finished. But most stayed, did valuable work, and made a real contribution in their two years of service.
Their lives were not easy. Without exception they faced times of frustration and loneliness; but, also without exception, every volunteer I talked with at the end of his or her tour was glad to have been in India. Some were teachers in isolated schools; others worked in villages helping poor farmers raise better poultry and crops; volunteer nurses trained young Indian student nurses in poorly equipped hospitals; volunteers taught health and nutrition to villagers. These young Americans worked closely with the people in dozens of useful activities, and in doing so came to know India in a deep and personal way.
I have written about my Peace Corps experiences—rich beyond measure—in A Moment in History, out of print for some years, and more recently in The Times of My Life.
In 1966, I was called back to Washington by Jack Vaughn, who replaced Shriver as director of the Peace Corps. Vaughn asked me to be director of training and then deputy director of the Peace Corps. As far as Martha and I were concerned, the timing was perfect for returning to America. Our daughters could finish high school in their own country; and we could help them get started on their lives beyond high school before we returned overseas, which we were sure we wanted to do.
Things do not always turn out as planned or hoped for, but for us this time they did. We bought a house in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, and Melissa and Jennifer graduated from Walter Johnson High School there. Melissa went on to take a bachelor's degree in anthropology at Temple University and a master's degree in public and private management at Yale University. Today she is executive editor and part owner of a very good community newspaper on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Jennifer took some college courses but decided that her interests lay elsewhere. She had always loved pets and had for years been interested in photography. She took professional training in small pet grooming and studied photography in special programs at Northern Virginia Community College and at the Smithsonian Institution. Today she grooms dogs and cats (and occasionally a guinea pig and rabbit!), takes pet photographs for doting owners, and has other professional photography assignments. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, less than half an hour from Melissa's home in Washington.
After our daughters were well started on the tracks I have just described, Martha and I returned overseas. I joined the Ford Foundation and became officer-in-charge of their Philippine program. The Ford Foundation is one of the largest private philanthropic foundations in the world, with many programs in the United States and developing countries. Essentially, its work is to give financial assistance to organizations that are carrying out innovative programs in education, agriculture, health, and other fields concerned with the quality of life.
My work with the Ford Foundation was a continuation of foreign assistance activity I had begun with Point Four and carried on with the Peace Corps. Giving financial assistance to worthy organizations may sound like an ideal job, and in many ways it is. But it is harder than it might seem to choose between many applications, to research the soundness of the organization to which you may give money, and to monitor its use of the money.
In 1976 I was transferred from the Philippines to the Ford Foundation's program in Indonesia, and Martha and I lived in Jakarta, the capital city, for four years. We found our lives in the island nations of Southeast Asia fascinating and sailing "the shallow seas" between the islands reminded me of all the Joseph Conrad novels I had read.
Both the Philippines and Indonesia have a rich heritage of traditional arts—textiles, basketry, brass casting, figure carving—the arts of the people. My work called for me to travel a great deal in both countries, and Martha and I had ample opportunity to study the village arts, an interest of ours since our days in Africa and India. While we were in the Philippines and Indonesia, we published a series of articles about the arts of the Southeast Asian islands in the magazine Arts of Asia. Martha did much of the research and took the photo-graphs, and I supplied the words. Working together this way gave our stay in the Philippines and Indonesia an added dimension and, besides, was just plain fun.
In 1980 Martha and I began our third life; we decided the time had come to conclude our overseas work and return to America to stay. We wanted to be nearer Jennifer and Melissa, and I wanted at last to devote all of my working time to writing. This I have done except for occasionally making room in my schedule to talk with students, teachers, and librarians.
I have concentrated on nonfiction for upper elementary, middle school, and high school students; and about half of my books have dealt with immigrants and growing ethnic groups in America, including Native Americans. I think that years of living in other cultures have made me better able to write about the hopes, fears, frustrations and achievements of immigrants and ethnic minorities.
Although I now write only nonfiction, I have not forgotten the tools of the fiction writer, which took me so long to learn. I will always be a storyteller. But per-haps the hardest task of the nonfiction writer is to find the story and its proper form in his material. Speaking of his work, the great English sculptor Henry Moore wrote, "You begin with a block and you have to find the sculpture that's inside it. You have to overcome the resistance of the material by sheer determination and hard work."
Moore might have been talking about the nonfiction writer's task. You have collected a tremendous amount of material on your subject: stacks of interview and field notes, books, reports, newspaper and periodical clippings. They are stacked on your desk, your worktable, the shelves around you. That is your block, and you must find the story that is somewhere inside. You have to keep searching no matter how long it takes.
I wanted to write a book about refugees and asked Melissa to work on it with me. We interviewed refugees and collected refugee material for two years before we found the way to tell our story through the voices of refugee children from Vietnam, Cambodia, and other countries, children who had been set adrift in the world alone, without parents, family, or loved ones. Here was the story inside the great amount of material we had collected, the story that would touch young readers and make them think deeply and feel deeply about the plight of refugees. We called our book Into a Strange Land.
Many of my books deal with serious social issues and problems. I think I can make these issues and problems interesting to readers of all ages by keeping the focus on the people who are caught up in them. In Gavriel and Jemal: Two Boys of Jerusalem I explored the gulf separating Arabs and Jews in the Middle East by comparing and contrasting the lives of an Israeli Jewish boy and a Palestinian Arab boy who live almost side by side in the Old City of Jerusalem. In Born to the Land: An American Portrait I examined the great environmental and economic problems of farmers and ranchers in America today by telling the stories of people in one Southwestern community who are determined that the way of life they know and love will endure.
No matter what social issues or problems my books may deal with, I have one overriding hope for each of them: that the people I write about will emerge as human beings whose lives are real and valuable and who have a right to strive for decent lives. If I can get that truth across, young readers will hear it and know what I am talking about.
Paul Conklin's photographs illustrate most of my recent books. Good illustrations are essential to young readers' nonfiction today. Properly done, they expand the text and contribute to a more interesting, more readable, more informative book. In Paul I have a master who sets the highest standards for himself. We first met in Nigeria when I was starting the Peace Corps program, and Paul was an adventurous young freelance photographer learning to make a living with his camera. Later he joined the Peace Corps as a staff photographer and visited me in India.
I can't imagine writing a book and then hiring a photographer to take some pictures for it. Paul and I care about the same things, and we usually develop a book idea together; as often as possible we travel together, sharing the experiences of talking to people and taking pictures. When the time comes for me to lock myself in my study and write, I have Paul's pictures to help keep mood and memory alive.
Nothing pleases me more, though, than the fact that Jennifer has become the photographer for several of my books. Our first book together was Always to Remember, which is the story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and I think no book has meant more to me. In it I tried to tell the human story of the memorial. Always to Remember is the story of Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran determined that every American man and woman who died in the Vietnam War would have his or her name on a national memorial. It is the story of Maya Ying Lin, an architectural student at Yale, who in a magic half hour at the memorial site envisioned a design that would be chosen over designs by some of America's best-known architects and artists. But more than anything I wanted the book to be the story of millions of Americans who have found in the memorial an emotional meeting ground that has helped to bring a divided nation together.
Jennifer's photographs complemented my text perfectly and helped to convey the powerful emotional quality of the memorial. Some of her photographs from the book have been reprinted in the New York Times, USA Today, Parenting, and in several textbooks. Always to Remember was selected as both an American Library Association Notable Children's Book and a Best Book for Young Adults. What a start for Jennifer as a book photographer! I cautioned her not to expect that kind of reception for every book.
Our next book together was Crazy about German Shepherds, something very different for me and a book that used Jennifer's expertise with dogs. It is the story of a friend of Jennifer's, Peggy O'Callaghan, who has made a career for herself raising and caring for dogs. Working on this book was fun for both of us, and we want to do another dog book sometime.
Our third book was A Grateful Nation: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery, which I think contains some of Jennifer's best photography; several reviewers complimented her work. We are now finishing a book about the Lincoln Memorial.
Into a Strange Land, my first collaboration with Melissa, was also selected as an American Library Association Notable Children's Book and in addition received a Christopher Award. We wrote another book, Counting America, about the United States census, and we would like to collaborate on more books. Perhaps we will, but Melissa is very busy now with the newspaper, a husband, and two energetic young children.
And what of a fourth life? Martha says that we should stay with this one for a while longer, and I am sure she is right. Williamsburg is a wonderful place to live; there are many more books I want to write; and Martha is busy with our house and with community projects such as recycling waste materials.
But, still, thinking ahead is fun.
Brent Ashabranner contributed the following update to SATA in 2006:
In my 1992 autobiographical essay for SATA, I wrote about the "three lives" that I had enjoyed to that point in the twentieth century. My first life covered thirty-five years of growing up in Oklahoma and becoming a husband, father, writer, and teacher there—a happy, provincial midwesterner. My second life spanned twenty-five years of living and working in Ethiopia, Libya, Nigeria, India, the Philippines, and Indonesia. My third life began in 1980 when my wife Martha and I returned to the United States, settled in Williamsburg, Virginia, and I devoted full time to writing. I remember that in 1992, after twelve years in Williamsburg, I was beginning to wonder what my fourth life would be and when it would begin.
Well, I am still wondering. I knew after years of living in Africa and Asia and writing about those parts of the world that I wanted to write about my own country. What I did not know was how much there would be to say! With one deeply sad exception, the years since my autobiography in 1992 have been rich and rewarding. Our grandson, Giancarlo, now a high school senior, is pondering his college choice. Our fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Olivia-Jené, is a star on her soccer league team. Our daughter, Melissa, and her husband, Jean-Keith, now publish three community newspapers that have important places in Washington, DC. Our daughter, Jennifer, is thriving as a photographer and pet-care specialist. I have written sixteen more books, mostly about America and American life.
The one exception to this happy flow of life was the death from cancer of my longtime friend and photographer colleague Paul Conklin in 2003. Altogether, Paul and I collaborated on fourteen books. Four of them were American Library Association notables, one was an ALA best book for young adults, and three received the Carter G. Woodson Book Award.
Two of our last books had a special meaning for us. One was Our Beckoning Borders: Illegal Immigration in America. In a sense it was the capstone of our series of books about immigrants and immigration because it took a close and hard look at what a great many Americans consider one of our most serious national problems: the almost one million people who come into the country illegally every year, most with the intention of staying permanently.
The other book with special meaning for us was A New Frontier: The Peace Corps in Eastern Europe. Both Paul and I served on the Peace Corps staff during the 1960s, Paul as a photographer, I as country director in India and administrator elsewhere. The Peace Corps had been important in our lives and was still very much in our blood. When the Peace Corps made a major decision in the early 1990s to accept an invitation to work in Eastern European countries that had thrown off the yoke of communism, Paul and I wanted to tell that story. We told it by following the adventures of Peace Corps volunteers in Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Romania.
Paul was so unassuming that it was easy to forget how good a photographer he was. But when he died, Time, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other prominent news media carried his obituary detailing the importance of his work: the New York Times mentioned one of his most famous photographs showing a young woman, protesting the Vietnam War, placing a flower in the barrel of a National Guardsman's rifle during an anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon. One of his most dramatic pictures of a terrible earthquake in Mexico City appeared on the cover of Time.
After Paul became ill, Sargent Shriver, first director of the Peace Corps, wrote him a letter that said: "You were the one who gave the world a look at the Peace Corps in action. Your sensitivity, compassion, intelligence, and humanity came through with every photograph you took."
My good friend was a quiet man who let his camera speak for him. It spoke beautifully.
Even while I was working with Paul, my collaboration with my photographer daughter Jennifer began and continued crisply. Our first book together, Always to Remember: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was published in 1988. A committee organized by the American Library Association in 2000 selected it as one of the one hundred best nonfiction books for young adults published between 1966 and 1999.
In the late 1990s, I was approached by Twenty-first Century Books about doing a book for them. Jennifer and I ended up doing seven!
Partly because of the success of Always to Remember we had been thinking of writing about some of our country's other national memorials. In fact, our next book after Always to Remember was A Memorial for Mr. Lincoln. It was inevitable that, while working on Always to Remember, we would fall under the spell of the beautiful Lincoln Memorial that seems to hover protectively over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial only a few hundred feet away.
The other reason I wanted to write about our national memorials was that each one tells a story about some great American or group of Americans and about some period of American history that has shaped the kind of nation we are today. I have always thought of myself as a storyteller, and each of our national memorials contains two important stories—the story of the building of the memorial itself and the story of what it stands for.
Six of our books for Twenty-first Century became the "Great American Memorials" series. For a long time I had wanted to write a second book about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, this time putting more emphasis on the names on the great black granite wall. The first book in our series became Their Names to Live: What the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Means to America, and I found the perfect title for the book in Ecclesiasticus XLIV 14: "Their bodies are buried in peace, but their names liveth for evermore."
I am particularly pleased that we were able to include two impressive new memorials in our series. Badge of Valor tells of the creation of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, located in downtown Washington, DC, and dedicated in 1991. A Date with Destiny is about the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, dedicated in 1997, which stands at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. Both of these memorials, in their own special way, tell the story of the many thousands of courageous men and women who have served our nation since its very beginning and who continue to do so.
I think that for us the most challenging book in our "Great American Memorials" series was Remembering Korea: The Korean War Veterans Memorial. Together with the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial forms a triangle of historic beauty at the western end of the National Mall in our nation's capital. The Lincoln Memo-rial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are well known to almost all Americans. The Korean War Veterans Memorial, however, is still relatively unknown. And the Korean War itself has often been called the Forgotten War.
In words and pictures, we tried to convey the message of the memorial that "freedom is not free" and that the sacrifice of the thirty-five-thousand American servicemen and women who fought and died in the war should not be forgotten.
President Bill Clinton spoke at a ceremony at the memorial commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the war. "Korea was war at its worst," he said, "but it was America at its best. I submit to you today that looking back through the long lens of history, it is clear that the stand America took in Korea was indispensable to our ultimate victory in the cold war."
The president's words were with us every day as we wrote and photographed Remembering Korea.
Of all the books I have written since my 1992 autobiography, I am sure that the one most closely connected to a part of my life is A Strange and Distant Shore: Indians of the Great Plains in Exile. Curiously, my writing it came as a complete surprise to me. In 1995 I had gone to visit a relative in Florida. I had never been to the nearby small historic city of St. Augustine and spent an extra day to enjoy it.
One of the main city attractions is the massive old Spanish stone fort Castillo de San Marcos, which over-looks Matanzas Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. When I went inside the fort and saw the grim old rooms, called casemates, I was suddenly taken back to my days as a boy in central Oklahoma. I had grown up hearing stories of how, in the late nineteenth century, some of the leading chiefs and warriors of defeated Indian tribes—Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa—had been locked up in Fort Reno, near where we lived, and then as punishment and to weaken the tribes had been exiled to Castillo de San Marcos in Florida. It was a cruel, tragic chapter in American history.
As I looked at those dark, stifling stone-walled rooms, I thought about the Indians crowded in there and how they must have dreamed of the wind-swept plains where they had once roamed freely. They were kept in those casemates, in leg irons, for months. Finally a courageous army officer, Captain Richard Henry Pratt, was able to make their life in the fort more livable and even arranged for them to sometimes leave the fort in work or exercise groups, but they were still held in exile.
Out of their longing for their life on the Great Plains, some of the exiled Indians began to draw and paint pictures of their lost life—hunting scenes, fighting or playing games on horseback, details of camp life, religious ceremonies, much more. Captain Pratt supplied materials for their art. Some of the more accomplished artists were Boy Hunting, Bear's Heart, Koba, Little Chief, Zotom, and Soaring Eagle. Their pictures became famous and much sought after. They were in fact the beginning of modern Native American art.
That day—that moment—when I stood inside the fort and saw where they had lived as exiles, I knew I had to tell their story for young readers today. I told it in A Strange and Distant Shore and brought my theme into focus with a line from the Greek tragedy Agamemnon: "I know how men in exile feed on dreams."
In addition to the sixteen books I have written since 1992, I have had the great satisfaction of editing a new edition of The Lion's Whiskers. Written in collaboration with my old friend and colleague Russell Davis, The Lion's Whiskers, published in 1959, was my first book for young readers and had been out of print for many years. For the new edition, published by Linnet Books in 1997 under the title The Lion's Whiskers and Other Ethiopian Tales, I selected the sixteen most popular stories from the original edition. I added a new introduction explaining how we collected the stories and an afterword describing Ethiopia today. The new edition was very well received and rated a star School Library Journal. I can say with no sense of bragging that a few of the stories in the book are among Africa's great folk tales. They are, after all, not really my stories; they belong to the first storytellers who told them around Ethio-pian campfires centuries ago. And what of the future? There may be another immigration book. Jennifer and I certainly had something worth saying in our book about recent African immigrants in The New African Americans, published in 1999. We are still a nation of immigrants with a new opportunity to be taken advantage of or a new problem to be solved every day. And in this age of terrorist threats and impending bird flu and other pandemics, I am sure we need a book about the work of our most important public health agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Jennifer wants us to do a book about the cats and dogs she has come to know so well as a pet-care specialist over the past twenty years. She would like to call it My One Thousand Best Friends.
Recently I went for my regular six-month checkup by my primary-health-care physician. During the exam my doctor asked casually, "Are you still writing?" And I asked him, "Am I still breathing?"
My doctor smiled. "I see," he said. "As long as you are breathing, you'll be writing."
"Doctor, you got that right,"I said.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: (Hugo) Alvar (Henrik) Aalto (1898–1976) Biography to Miguel Angel Asturias (1899–1974) BiographyBrent Ashabranner (1921–) - Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights, Autobiography FeatureBrent Ashabrenner