Back to Nebraska, a Place I Couldn't Wait to Leave

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Prairie Fire received this piece right on our deadline for the June issue, and we were unable to publish it last month. It is an important (and compellingly funny) story written by someone whose work you likely know—Marilyn Monroe singing happy birthday to JFK, Private Elvis Presley, the Beatles landing in America. Bill Ray attended the opening of his photography exhibition at the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney on June 1, and while you may have missed him, the exhibition, “Bill Ray: A LIFEtime of Photographs,” runs through Sept. 9.

By Bill Ray

I am going back to Nebraska, a place where I was born and raised, and a place I couldn’t wait to leave, on June 2, and the funny thing is, I am looking forward to it.

It’s not that I ever held a grudge against the place, where “The girls are the fairest and the boys are the squarest, … and we will all stick together, in all kinds of weather,” it’s just that I had to see the world and meet the interesting people of my day.

As I look back, 57 years later, I’m wondering what the hell the rush was. I was reading a book recently and came across a quote that might explain the mood change. “It is one of the paradoxes of American literature that our writers are forever looking back with love and nostalgia at lives they couldn’t wait to leave,” wrote Anatole Broyard. If you substitute photographer for writer, you might have part of the puzzle. My burning desire to leave Shelby on the same day I graduated from high school in May 1953 and, for that matter, Nebraska as soon as possible was not because I was an orphan living in a Dickensian hellhole. My childhood was perfect!

If destiny determined that you were to be born in 1936 and you were to grow up just before, during and after World War II, you couldn’t find a better place than a small town in Nebraska; and with probably the world’s greatest parents. I mean that. If you imagine a Frank Capra movie, and an angel played by Jimmy Stewart says to me, “Well, Bill, we are about to send you down to earth. Who do you want for your parents?” Jimmy and I are floating in a balloon over a tiny village of 613 people. The only tall structures are a standpipe and three grain elevators. “I like the smart, good-looking guy who owns the lumberyard smack in the middle of town. Looks like there is room for a couple of horses, and he has a big Ford truck I can drive. And his wife is an artist and seems very interesting in a crazy sort of way,” I tell my guardian angel. “Bill, she is 40 years old and has had three kids. You will sure come as a hell of a surprise to these people… Well, if you insist.”

No one today can believe any of this, of course, having been brought up on TV featuring “Mom was a crack whore and dad ran off with Fred” or “I’m a 400-pound gay drug addict with HIV. Do I have a problem?” But that’s the way it was back then. Huck Finn would have been jealous. Norman Rockwell would have thought he died and gone to heaven.

My folks encouraged and supported me in every way they possibly could. I walked to school and came home for lunch. When I was big enough for a bike, I got a red Schwinn with whitewall tires. The dream of owning horses came true. The lumberyard provided beautiful box stalls and a large pasture. I learned to double clutch and drive the truck. At 10 I became interested in photography and made a darkroom in the basement. My mom enrolled me in classes at the Joslyn Museum, and I joined the Omaha Camera Club. Omaha was a 180-mile round trip. A top Omaha photographer, Walter Griffith Jr., became my mentor. He assigned me the Ansel Adams books on photography and taught me technique. He told me what cameras were professional quality. Mom helped me buy them. I loved the photos in “Life” and “National Geographic.” The “Life” photographers traveled the world, making iconic images of presidents, artists, heroes and movie stars. This was what I wanted to do. Every photographer in the world was trying to beat down “Life”’s door. To a spoiled brat like me, this didn’t seem like a problem.

Knowing I had to start somewhere, I drove to Lincoln and went in to the Miller and Paine department store. My mom had an account there. I was wearing Levis and Tony Lama boots from a morning ride. I bought a Glen Plaid double-breasted suit, white shirt and a wide hand-painted tie with a palomino horse’s head on it. I looked like I was going to the racetrack. Instead, I walked over to the Lincoln Journal Star and asked a lady behind the want ad window where I could apply for a job on the newspaper. I was 17, with little education and wearing a ridiculous suit, with an unmistakable Shelby haircut.

“Go up to the 2nd floor and ask for Joe R.,” said the want ad lady. What was she thinking?

The City Room was on the second floor, and the last edition of the Journal was going to press. You could feel the vibrations from the pressroom. I felt like Humphrey Bogart in “Deadline-USA.” Joe R. had a glassed-in office in the middle of the City Room. It was clear he was a big shot. He also was very funny looking and talked through his beak-like nose.

He was happy to hear I was a photographer. He needed a summer vacation fill-in. If things worked out, I could have a job there while I went to the U of Nebraska. When could I start?

Wow! I couldn’t believe it!

He didn’t say anything about the suit or the haircut. I found out later that J. R.’s dad owned the paper.

On the drive back to Shelby I thought about one of my favorite movies. Fred Astaire, an Omaha boy, dances with Cyd Charisse in Central Park. It’s nighttime, and all of Manhattan is lit up behind them. Fred is in a white tie, and Cyd is dripping in jewels. If I can just get to New York and work for “Life,” maybe I will get to dance in Central Park.

Well, my dream did come true, and that’s the reason I am coming back to Nebraska on June 2, to see a show of my photographs at the Museum of Nebraska Art. The MONA curators made brilliant choices, and some of them date back to my time on the Lincoln Journal Star. Many of them date from my days as a “Life” photographer based in New York, Hollywood and Paris from 1957 to December ’72. One recent photo is of a bridge in Central Park after a snow storm. I am looking at Central Park from my window as I write this, but I still haven’t learned to dance.

As I was working on the prints for the exhibit, here in New York, they seemed to come alive. I hadn’t thought of the little girl with her 4-H Champion Hereford, or the little boy holding an ax next to a Thanksgiving turkey, in a long time. They looked to me like they could talk.

There is Ike when he stopped off in North Platte. His reputation as president grows with every year; and the forever glamorous and tragic Kennedys. I love the one of Jack and Jackie in front of their plane. It’s Grant Wood updated to upper-class 1960.

Marilyn Monroe will be there too, as she sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” She is almost life-size, and I can hear her voice.

Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Ray Charles and the Hell’s Angels put in an appearance. Let’s not forget Elvis and Frank Lloyd Wright. These memories are making me dizzy. So that’s why I’m coming back to Nebraska on the 2nd of June, straight away to the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. I am bringing the love of my life, Marlys (we were married 54 years ago), and my brilliant and beautiful daughter, Ashley.

By the way, the little boy with the turkey will be there too. Mark Westphalen is now a successful financial adviser living in Lincoln.

I can hardly wait. Hope to see you there. I’ll be the old guy with a smile on his face and a tear in his eye.

 

More information on the MONA exhibit can be found at monet.unk.edu/mona/.

 

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