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Wyoming's wide-open range of stories being captured on tape

The Wyoming Stories project records oral histories of diverse residents, including ranchers and a World War II internee.

September 05, 2013|By John M. Glionna
  • Shigeru Yabu of Camarillo spent his childhood years during World War II at a Japanese American internment camp in Wyoming, where he cared for a magpie. He told his bird tale to the Wyoming Stories oral-history project.
Shigeru Yabu of Camarillo spent his childhood years during World War II… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

CASPER, Wyo. — One man describes finding salvation by adopting a small bird during his years in a World War II internment camp. A former highway patrolman explains his friendship with the felon who shot and nearly killed him 30 years ago. And a veteran ranch couple discuss their early years on the American prairie.

The disparate stories share a single thread: They all take place in Wyoming.

An effort to collect the oral histories of ordinary residents — from longtime natives to unlikely foreign transplants — is being launched in this wide-open Western state, showing that although the landscape may be flat, the depth of life and experience here is decidedly multidimensional.

The Wyoming Stories project, organized by state public media and funded by a government grant, features recordings that will be preserved at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming.

They're poignant memories and homespun tales that often seem straight from the pages of an Annie Proulx western.

"We're looking for people to tell real stories of Wyoming life, what it's been like to live here, how things progressed or how they didn't," said Christina Kuzmych, general manager at Wyoming Public Media.

Promoters hope the project will revive the disappearing art of storytelling, the tales once passed by fathers to sons, by grandparents to granddaughters, by multi-generational families living under the same roof. "I think it's important for people to tell their own stories, in their own voices," said Rick Ewig, associate director of the American Heritage Center.

He said an early recording of Nellie Tayloe Ross, who in 1925 became Wyoming's governor — America's first female governor and the only one in state history — tells much just in the sound of her voice. "You hear it and you say, 'Oh, she had a Southern accent,'" Ewig said. "It gives you a better understanding of who she was."

Shigeru Yabu contributed to that storytelling tradition in July when he traveled from his Ventura County home to a Cody hotel room, where he created a four-minute recording of his boyhood years when he was confined with other Japanese Americans at Wyoming's Heart Mountain Relocation Center during World War II.

In a smooth regulated voice made for radio, the 81-year-old Yabu recalls how a friend fired a slingshot and hit a magpie's nest. Yabu found a chick that survived, and made a decision.

"That bird is going to live. It's going to be mine, like a brother," he says, recalling his thoughts at the time. "I don't know if it was male or female. I called it Maggie."

Eventually, he taught Maggie how to speak and even laugh, and the bird eased the pain of his harsh prison surroundings. In 1945, after the war ended, Yabu says, he planned to bring the bird back to San Francisco and donate it to a zoo so that he could visit when he wanted.

But before he left, he found Maggie at the bottom of her cage.

"I dug a hole, included her favorite toys and buried her," Yabu says. "I gave her my T-shirt. I made a cross."

He ends the session with a memory from long ago: "It was a sad moment. Maggie didn't want to leave Wyoming or Heart Mountain."

Yabu, who has written a self-published book called "Hello Maggie!" says people who heard his Wyoming Stories recording have reached out to him.

In another segment, former trooper Stephen Watt travels to a state prison to reminisce with inmate Mark Farnham, who 31 years ago shot him in the face and left him for dead.

At the time, Farnham was a bank robber and fugitive who emptied his gun into Watt's car after a vehicle stop. Farnham eventually went to prison. The injury cast Watt into a downward spiral. He lost his eye, lost his job and for years became a heavy drinker.

But in a gesture of forgiveness, Watt years later sent the convict a letter, which led to a valued friendship, the two say on the recording. The chemistry between them is obvious when Watt recalls Farnham's response to his letter. "His first letter back to me was 17 pages," he says.

"Eighteen," Farnham gently corrects him.

Farnham, his voice breaking with emotion, talks about the guilt he carries for shattering his friend's life. "Whenever Steve visits me, I get to see the socket where there's no eye," he says. "I see how he couldn't play football with his kids, because of the bullet next to his spine."

Watt adds: "I wouldn't trade places with Mark for anything. I can't believe how hard being my friend is for Mark. Every time he sees me, he has to think about what he did to me."

Ending the 15-minute session, Farnham describes the best gift Watt ever gave him. Farnham's father was a police officer and disowned him after the shooting. Then Watt sent the father a letter, lawman to lawman.

"My dad tore up my letters. I was a cop shooter," Farnham says. "But Steve wrote him and said, 'If I can forgive him, why can't you?' My dad forgave me after that."

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