Today's Reading

Prologue

HER NICKNAME WAS JACKASS ANNIE. No matter what else they said about her, everyone agreed on this. She got her nickname when she worked as a stitcher in a shoe factory and was so poor she had to ride a donkey to work. In a 1958 history of her hometown of Minot, Maine, she was described as "one of the so-called characters that provide the humor that makes towns of this type interesting." Some said she had run off as a teenager and joined the circus, become a bareback rider, only returning home when she heard that her mother was sick. Others swore she'd lived in and around Minot all her life, a life that hadn't amounted to much. She'd been married once, at least, and people said she'd sent the man packing when he'd tried to get the title to her farm. Her given name was Annie. Around Minot, Maine, it was Jackass Annie that stuck.

In November 1954, Annie took her dog and got on a horse and started riding. Destination: California. From a modern perspective, her journey seems almost bewildering—imagine trying to navigate without the benefit of GPS, to travel with no cellphone, no credit or debit card, not even a bank account to draw from. In fact, when she first set off, Annie didn't even have the kinds of tools that were available in 1954: road maps, a flashlight and batteries, a waterproof raincoat. Annie headed south, a Quixote in the company of her Rocinante, a run-down ex-racehorse, and her Sancho Panza, a little mutt. Society has called these people by different names: vagabonds and drifters, pilgrims, hoboes, and hippies. She called herself a tramp.

Had she been a man, perhaps her independence, her eccentricities, her free spirit would have won her admirers, but the citizens of Minot, like much of small-town America in that era, valued outward conformity. In the postwar years, women's roles were tightly circumscribed and largely defined by their relation to others—wife, mother, widow. The cult of domesticity was in full swing. A single older woman didn't have much leeway if she wanted to be seen as respectable. The ideal unmarried older woman was devout, docile, and a bit dull. Annie was none of these.

Her real personality—funny, quirky, and bold—had been buffed and sanded in memory to make her appear more conventional, more palatable to those who would judge a woman for any deviation from the straitlaced norm. Forgotten was her fondness for a good party, her two divorces, her stint as a vaudeville performer, the fact that she never set foot in a church. In its place was the respectable Widow Wilkins—folksy, kindhearted, and maybe a bit simpleminded. When I traveled to Minot and met people who had known her, that was how her former neighbors described her. They were proud of their famous citizen. They hesitated to tell me how poor she was, how mean her circumstances, how she'd never been considered part of polite society. They didn't want to say a word against her. What struck me, though, was that in spite of their pride in her grand adventure, folks still remembered her as Jackass Annie. The pejorative had stuck like a burr on a shaggy dog's coat. Annie deserved better.

So this is her true story, and in this story I call her by the name she was born with—just plain Annie.


Winter is not a season...it's an industry.
—Sinclair Lewis


1954

CHAPTER 1

Living Color

THE SUN ROSE BRIGHT over Pasadena, California, on January 1, 1954. All along Colorado Boulevard, people had lined up early, five or six deep, in preparation for the sixty-fifth annual Tournament of Roses Parade. Pasadena's Rose Parade had originally sprung from the flowery imaginations of a committee of boosters who wanted to show off the beauty of California in midwinter, when most of the rest of the country was covered in snow. Now parade floats festooned with thousands of fragrant, bright-hued roses rolled past mop-top palm trees in the sparkly morning sun. But this Rose Parade was like no other. As the debut event of 1954, it was a fitting launch to a year that would mark many important transitions. This year, in addition to the palomino horses ridden by the Long Beach Mounted Police, the display of the crisp crimson-and-white uniforms of the Bellflower High School Marching Band, and the brilliant floats—Gulliver's Travels, Cinderella sponsored by Minute Maid Orange Juice, flamenco dancers in sequined costumes whirling on the Mexican entry—each festooned with thousands of individual fresh flowers, there was an important new addition. Two state-of-the-art NBC television cameras scanned the procession, broadcasting the first live TV colorcast to twenty-one NBC affiliates.

To show this first ever coast-to-coast color broadcast, the Radio Corporation of America had sent out a preproduction run of two hundred of their brand-new color receivers to RCA Victor distributors across the continental United States. A few of the receivers were put into strategic central locations, such as hotel lobbies in major cities, situated so as to attract the most attention for this newfangled invention. On New Year's Day, a few thousand people in selected cities scattered across the country—Omaha, Nebraska, and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, St. Louis and Toledo, Baltimore and New Haven—were able to see the golden shine of the palominos, the vivid reds and yellows of the roses, the crimson and white of the drum majorettes. Southern California, America's land of perpetual sunshine, a mild and sunny sixty-two degrees that New Year's morning, would never again seem quite so far away. It was a fitting start to 1954—the year the world suddenly accelerated.


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