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Singer Vernel Bagneris

Singer Vernel Bagneris wrote, directed and starred in the 1979 hit show, One Mo' Time. It's being revived and opens on Broadway this week at the Longacre Theater. The setting is a hot, sultry night at New Orleans' Lyric Theatre in the 1920s. Bagneris performs Charlestons, rags, cakewalks, and other songs of the Vaudeville age, including "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "Down in Honky Tonk Town" and "Everybody Loves My Baby." This interview first aired June 21, 2000.

21:05

Other segments from the episode on March 8, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 8, 2002: Interview with Vernel Bagneris; Review of the film "We were soldiers;" Interview with Gary Paulsen; Review of CBS documentary "9/11."

Transcript

DATE March 8, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Vernel Bagneris talks about the musical "Saint Louis
Woman" and his personal history
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Vernel Bagneris opened on Broadway this week in a revival of "One Mo'
Time," which he also created and directed. It's a revue that pays tribute to
black vaudeville of the 1920s. It's set in 1927 at the Lyric Theater in New
Orleans. Bagneris first staged "One Mo' Time" in 1979 in Manhattan. It ran
for three and a half years and toured the country. It was followed by the
sequel, "Further Mo'." Bagneris also appeared in the films "Down by Law" and
"Pennies from Heaven." We were proud to feature him in two of the programs in
our series on American popular song.

I spoke with Vernel Bagneris in 2000, when he was starring in the Prince Music
Theater production of the Harold Arlen musical "Saint Louis Woman." Before we
hear that interview, let's hear an excerpt of his 1992 FRESH AIR appearance,
in which he performed excerpts of "Jelly Roll," his tribute to Jelly Roll
Morton, the composer, pianist and singer who was one of the key figures in
early jazz. "Jelly Roll" won an Obie Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award.
We'll hear Morton Gunnar Larson at the piano.

Mr. VERNEL BAGNERIS: Any time you hear anybody playing jazz, what they
playing is "Jelly Roll."

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. BAGNERIS: Now he never got the credit for it or the cash, for that
matter, but believe me, it's "Jelly Roll."

(Singing) In foreign lands across the sea, they knight a man for bravery.
Make him a duke or a count, you see. Must be a member of the royalty. Mr.
Jelly played a jazzy thing in the temple by the queen and king. All at once
he struck upon a harmonic chord. The king said, `Make Mr. Jelly a lord.'
He's Mr. Jelly Lord, simply royal at the old keyboard. You should see him
strollin' down the street. The man's an angel with great big feet. With his
melodies, they've made him lord of the ivories. Now at home, as well as
abroad, they call him Mr. Jelly Lord.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. BAGNERIS: Now you may be thinking that it might be a bit egotistical of
me naming a song after myself. But really now, anybody who was anybody in
the city of New Orleans at that time, they had song named after them, usually
for heroic reasons, people held high in the minds of their fellow citizens.
Not all the time, though. Some people had songs named after them for quite a
different reason.

A perfect example is a guy I used to play pool with. I couldn't have been no
more than 16, 17 years old at the time. Now he had a song named after him
because he was, no doubt, one of the most heartless men I have ever met. I
didn't know it at the time, 'cause I never would have been playing pool with
him, and I certainly would have never beat him at it. But he used to like to
play pool with me because he knew that all the piano players at the different
bordellos always had plenty of cash money, and I was no exception. I'd walk
up to the table, throw down my wad and say, `OK, stand back with your little
fives and tens, and give my fifties here a chance to breathe.' That's what I
would say, sure enough, in front of him. But little did I know that the man I
was talking to was Aaron Harris. The man already had 11 killings to his name.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. BAGNERIS: (Singing) Aaron Harris is a bad, bad man. Aaron Harris is a
bad, bad man. Now he's the baddest man ever was on this land.

I tell you, between people like Aaron Harris and hoodoo and the racial
prejudice that existed in New Orleans at that time, I found that I had to
leave the city where I was born and raised, and had truly come to love in my
heart.

GROSS: Vernel Bagneris with Morton Gunnar Larson at the piano performing an
excerpt of the revue "Jelly Roll," a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton. That
excerpt was recorded on FRESH AIR in 1992. Bagneris is now on Broadway
starring in a revival of his revue "One Mo' Time." Here's the interview we
recorded in 2000.

Now, Vernel, your own productions have focused on early jazz and vaudeville,
music from the earlier part of the 20th century. Why do you gravitate to that
era? Is it music that you heard a lot when you were growing up or something
you developed a taste for later?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, I think that it's sort of the richest soup that--it's
where everything sort of grew from, the fertile soil. And for me, I just find
a great respect for the composers, for the performers at that time. I mean,
they were really breaking ground and it was an exciting moment. And people
always refer to the Harlem Renaissance in the '20s and know about the
literature of it, but there was a renaissance period at that point because
there was so much defiance and self-respect being built and pride. And I can
feel all of that in the music, and the music was a popular music of that time.
So they were really in the swing. It wasn't about nostalgia or whatever. And
I think, also coming from New Orleans, which is the hotbed of jazz and the
birthplace, you just go to the real source.

GROSS: What did you hear growing up in New Orleans?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Oh, from a child, I heard the real bottom-line traditional New
Orleans music, the brass bands in the streets for funerals, and then we had
the party bands for christenings and birthday parties. And people who are now
thought of as the legendary founders of the music were people who were playing
at that time. And they were older men at that point when I was kid, but they
were still there.

GROSS: I've never been any place where there's been, like, a funeral brass
band.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Uh-huh.

GROSS: So, to me, you know, when there's a funeral, it's a hearse or, you
know, a lot of cars going by with their lights on, and it's a really somber
occasion.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Oh. Somber, yeah.

GROSS: And when you see the funeral procession going by, you just kind of
stop and get this chill for a few seconds, even when you don't know the people
at all. What was it like for you growing up when a brass band would march by
playing this great music because there was a funeral?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, you realize that it's a celebration of the release of the
person from the miseries that life can present if you're African-American
living in a segregated Southern city, and so it's a party. They've graduated
and they're brought to all places that they helped to make a happy spot,
corner bars and different friends' houses. They passed in front of it in sort
of a last goodbye and a congratulations that you graduated.

GROSS: Now one of the musicals you are well-known for is "One Mo' Time,"
which was meant to be like a revival of a night at the Lyric Theater in 1926.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this is what you might have seen on stage there.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So you do a lot of songs from the '20s, songs I think, perhaps, that
are even earlier than...

Mr. BAGNERIS: No, they're all...

GROSS: All from the '20s?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Pretty much the '20s.

GROSS: OK. And what are some of the periods issues that you had to deal with
in doing that show?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, I did interviews with people who were still around and
had been to that very theater, to the Lyric Theater, and people who had
experienced the TOBA circuit.

GROSS: That's the Theater Owners Brokering Association...

Mr. BAGNERIS: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: ...which was alternately known as Tough On Black Asses.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yes. And...

GROSS: It was like the vaudeville circuit for African-Americans.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah, definitely. Some of the issues that I dealt with was the
idea of somebody coming in on a--in the colored section of the train, which
had to be second only to the cows and the mules, and then getting off the
train and not being able to find a hotel because blacks weren't allowed in
hotels. And so they had to get to a guesthouse or something across the tracks
where they could stay. And then they'd come in with this beat-up suitcase,
and out of it comes a gown or a suit, and then they hit center stage and
become a star.

And I think that that's incredible, because part of the whole pumping up of
getting to that stage and being there is the treatment that you can receive at
the hotel, in the restaurant, whatever. And they got nothing of it and they
were still able to get out there in a center--on center stage in a
(unintelligible) spot and hit it and give everything they had. And Bessie
Smith could not get into a restaurant and eat afterwards--after a show. And
yet that didn't stop them because they knew they had something to offer. They
had talent, they had spirit.

They used the performances to say things that were not--that they couldn't say
because there were laws that no more than six blacks could gather in one place
at one time without being considered a mob. And so they were able--and in
church, they couldn't say certain things as a community. So they used this
space to have social messages, to communicate respect to each other as a unit,
to build each other's self-respect. And all those things I try to add in
through the structure of vaudeville jokes: `How come we always got to stay at
a place where hot and cold water means hot in the summer and cold in the
winter?' You know, they're complaining, but it's not the black defiance, as
much as through the structure of the black vaudeville joke, the way
vaudevillians would treat material.

GROSS: Well, I happen to have the original cast recording cued up.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Oh, OK.

GROSS: Why don't we hear you singing "Cake Walking Babies"...

Mr. BAGNERIS: OK.

GROSS: ...from the original cast recording of "One Mo' Time"?

Mr. BAGNERIS: OK.

GROSS: Introduce the song for us.

Mr. BAGNERIS: "Cake Walking Babies," it goes back--"Cake Walking Babies" goes
back actually to an earlier period of the cakewalk being a number that slaves
would use to make fun of the manners of the white owners. And then it became
a vaudeville number. This one--by the time it hit the '20s, this is actually
just a number.

GROSS: OK. So here's the number.

Mr. BAGNERIS: OK.

GROSS: "Cake Walking Babies" sung by my guest, Vernel Bagneris.

(Soundbite of "Cake Walking Babies" from the cast recording of "One Mo' Time")

Mr. BAGNERIS: (Singing) Cakewalkers may come, cakewalkers may go, but I want
to tell you about this couple I know. They're high-stepping gals and
debonair. When it comes to business, not a soul can compare.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Here they come.

Mr. BAGNERIS: (Singing) Well, here they come.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Look at them ...(unintelligible) go in song.

Mr. BAGNERIS: (Singing) They go in song.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Look at them syncopated talk of the town,
easing around, screeching amongst them and a-laying them down. Dancing fools.

Mr. BAGNERIS: They dancing fools.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) That's what they like to call them.

Mr. BAGNERIS and Unidentified Woman: (Singing) They're in a class of their
own. The only way for them to lose is to cheat them. You may try, but you
never beat 'em.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Strut your stuff.

Mr. BAGNERIS: (Singing) I'll strut the stuff.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) They don't do nothing.

Mr. BAGNERIS and Female Chorus: (Singing) They're the cakewalking babies from
home.

GROSS: That's "Cake Walking Babies" from the original cast recording of "One
Mo' Time," which was written, directed and starred my guest Vernel Bagneris.
And sorry for the couple of scratches you heard there. In my defense, I'll
say this has not been reissued on CD. So--and it's from--the recording's from
the early '80s.

Mr. BAGNERIS: I must tell you, Terry, that "One Mo' Time," in its glory,
right now--you know, it's a hit musical and blah, blah. But we started it on
$500 in my living room.

GROSS: Performing in your living room?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah, we were rehearsing it in the living room...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. BAGNERIS: ...and the band was in the kitchen. And we opened for one
night only in New Orleans on 500 bucks to get together the set and the
costumes. And to see that growth is just amazing. We wound up with seven
touring companies of it and a royal command performance for the queen in
London and the West End run and--yeah, it's just amazing what a dream can
become.

GROSS: We're listening to an interview with Vernel Bagneris. He's now
starring on Broadway in a revival of his revue "One Mo' Time." We'll hear
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Vernel Bagneris recorded in 2000.
He's now on Broadway starring in a revival of his revue "One Mo' Time," a
tribute to black vaudeville of the 1920s.

I want to hear a little bit about your life, Vernel. Tell me a little bit
about your family. You're from a Creole family?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah, a Creole family in New Orleans.

GROSS: What does that mean exactly?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Creole--in New Orleans, it means part black, French, Spanish
and American Indian. It's sort of a four-part thing. And we had our own
culture in a sense. There was a lot of literary people that came out of it.
They had their own language, Creole French.

GROSS: Do you speak it?

Mr. BAGNERIS: No. My father did, but they used it as an adult language.

GROSS: Oh, kind of like Yiddish in Jewish houses...

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...so the kids don't hear.

Mr. BAGNERIS: So the kids don't hear you, right. And that's unfortunate.
But certainly people know the food which, to me, was sort of everyday cooking.

GROSS: Tell us something more about your parents and their parents.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, my mother's name is Gloria Maria Diaz, and so obviously
her side is Spanish-oriented. My father was, until last year...

GROSS: Oh, sorry.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah. Lawrence Bagneris from the French side of it. And they
were very, very--I mean, the values are extremely based in Roman Catholic
tradition. And it's an extremely family-oriented society--your uncles and
your aunts and the idea that everybody sort of pitched together. There was no
such thing as you could have and the person down the block didn't. It was a
very open, giving sort of environment that I grew up in.

GROSS: What was your attitude toward different ethnic groups, considering how
many ethnic groups were in your family alone?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, that was the thing. There were so many ethnic groups
that you couldn't have a prejudice. My grandmother, for example, my father's
mother, was literally from Toulon, France. She spoke only French. She was
white. And my father's father was from Haiti, and so he was part black and
part--and he also spoke French. So they moved into this Creole area and they
felt comfortable there.

Everybody--I mean, there was no--Creoles were not--they were light-skinned for
the most part, but they were not forgiven, as far as racial prejudice was
concerned. I remember as a child drinking from a colored water fountain, and
we always understood that our black blood was first. We were completely open
to white, black. It just didn't matter because they may be your cousin.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BAGNERIS: And people chose sometimes strictly for financial reasons. I
remember my aunt, who's still alive in California, she and her sisters would
go to work every morning--there was four of them. And three of them would go
across the street to a colored cigar-rolling factory, where they rolled
cigars, and she would go across the street to the white one because she made
$2 more an hour. And she thought, `Well, you know, I'm going to go for the
money.' But on the way home, they'd all get on the same streetcar and get
back home.

GROSS: Hm.

Mr. BAGNERIS: And it was a choice you made. If you wanted to have that
pressure in your life of trying to pass, you went on and did that, and if it
made more financial sense for you. Or if you didn't, you didn't.

GROSS: Did you have people in your family who passed?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah. And some actually went to the point of sort of
distancing themselves from the family. I remember at my grandmother's funeral
my father was furious because his two older brothers came to the funeral, and
he'd always thought that they had passed for white and left and never really
communicated with the family. But actually, they were products of her first
marriage to a white guy, and they were white.

GROSS: It's confusing, isn't it?

Mr. BAGNERIS: So he had to refigure, once they told him the real story of it,
because he just thought that they were brothers who had passed.

GROSS: Vernel Bagneris recorded in 2000. He's currently on Broadway starring
in a revival of his revue "One Mo' Time." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of "Sweet Substitute")

Mr. BAGNERIS: (Singing) Sweet substitute. Sweet substitute. She tells me
that she's mine, all mine. Does anything I tell her. Love is blind. She's
got such loving ways always...

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New film "We Were Soldiers"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Several wars are currently being dramatized at the movies. The film "We Were
Soldiers" is based on a 1992 best-seller about Ia Drang, the first major land
battle the Americans fought in Vietnam. It was written by Lieutenant General
Harold Moore, who led the battle, and journalist Joseph Galloway, who
chronicled it. Mel Gibson stars at the then Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore.
Film critic John Powers thinks "We Were Soldiers" fits interestingly into the
history of movies about the Vietnam War and coverage of the current war in
Afghanistan.

JOHN POWERS reporting:

Back in 1968, John Wayne made, paid for and starred in "The Green Berets," a
pro-Vietnam War movie so cliche-riddled and deliriously hyperbolic that it
instantly became a camp classic. The movie ended with the sun setting in the
East. Hollywood learned its lesson, and over the next three decades, all the
memorable Vietnam War movies--"Apocalypse Now," "The Deer Hunter,"
"Platoon"--were clearly critical of what came to be known as the rock 'n' roll
war.

Well, there's no rock 'n' roll in "We Were Soldiers," a movie so devoutly
square that you keep expecting John Wayne to turn up in a cameo. The year is
1965 and Mel Gibson is Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, a good Christian, a good
family man and a heck of a good leader of men. Moore's battalion is part of
the 7th Cavalry, which, he uneasily points out, is General Custer's old
outfit, and fittingly, after they reach Vietnam, they're choppered off to
chase some enemy soldiers. Turns out it's a trap, and Moore's 400 men are
caught in what came to be known as the Valley of Death.

Suddenly we're plunged into the kind of ultramodern war movie pioneered by
"Saving Private Ryan" and ratcheted up by "Black Hawk Down." The picture
turns into one long protracted battle sequence, with Americans and Vietnamese
being torched, blown up and blasted by bullets. Gory red dots keep landing on
the camera lens. But if the movie's taste for explicit violence is thoroughly
up to the minute, its storytelling and sentiments are so corny that they would
have had audiences rolling their eyes half a century ago. Here, for instance,
Hal Moore talks to his little daughter.

(Soundbite from "We Were Soldiers")

Unidentified Child: Daddy...

Mr. MEL GIBSON: (As Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore) Yes.

Unidentified Child: ...what is a war?

Mr. GIBSON: War is--well, it's something that shouldn't happen, but it does.
And it's when some people in another country or any country try to take the
lives of other people, and then soldiers like your daddy have to--you know,
it's my job to go over there and stop them.

Unidentified Child: But they can try to take your life away, Daddy?

Mr. GIBSON: Well, yes. See, they're going to try, but I'm not going to let
them.

(End of soundbite)

POWERS: As one who grew up during the Vietnam War, I must admit that "We Were
Soldiers" moved me more than it deserved to. I found myself being filled with
sympathy for both the naive teens who got sent off to Vietnam and for the
honorable professional soldiers who got caught in that quagmire, to use a word
that's again in fashion.

In fact, Hal Moore is a very seductive figure, the honest, gutsy father we'd
all love to have. Gibson works hard to make him come alive, but he's not
altogether convincing. Over the years, Gibson's looks have thickened and
coarsened. He now resembles a muscled-up Soupy Sales, but his Moore has none
of the dark obsessive undertones that he brought to, say, Mad Max. Here he's
100 percent hero. Then, again, so is everyone else.

Although it was shot before September 11th, the movie feels if it had been
made to promote our current war effort. All the American soldiers are shown
to be honorable and grave. There's no racial tension and no discord between
officers and men, no drugs, no sex, not even much cursing. There's also no
political consciousness.

Although 37 years have passed since the events depicted in the film,
writer/director Randall Wallace has no historical point of view on what he's
showing. Was the war a good thing? Were the soldiers betrayed by the
politicians? Was the small bit of land Moore's men fought for worth claiming?
Moore knows his men are being set up to die, and still, as a good soldier, he
follows orders and leads them into battle. How are we supposed to feel about
that?

Wallace doesn't duck these issues, he doesn't even notice them, all of which
makes "We Were Soldiers'" celebration of heroism feel deliberately clueless.
After all, we've seen "Platoon" and "Apocalypse Now." We've heard a US
senator admit his involvement in the massacre of Vietnamese civilians and
heard other US senators defend his actions as being perfectly reasonable in
the context.

We've even seen TV footage of American politicians shaking hands with the
leaders in Hanoi. And still the movie portrays the Vietnam War as if nobody
learned anything since 1965. Well, actually, we have learned one thing.
Wallace gives the Vietnamese soldiers their dignity.

Where the Green Berets dished up the same racist stereotypes used against the
Japanese in World War II, and other Vietnam movies largely tended to treat the
Vietnamese as hookers or cannon fodder, "We Were Soldiers" goes out of its way
to depict them as human beings, just like our heroes. That still doesn't make
this movie any good. But it's nice to know that the world occasionally does
inch forward.

GROSS: John Powers is executive editor and media columnist for The LA Weekly.

Coming up: Running the grueling, long-distance sled dog race, the Iditarod.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Gary Paulsen discusses his writing and his racing the
Iditarod
TERRY GROSS, host:

The grueling long-distance sled dog race known as the Iditarod, is currently
under way in Alaska. It spans more than 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome.
Writer Gary Paulsen wrote a book based on his experience in the race. That
book, "Winterdance," was adapted into the film "Snow Dogs," which opened
earlier this year. Paulsen writes books for young adults as well as books for
adults. He's won several Newbery Awards.

Much of his writing is based on his own life, which has been filled with
adversity and adventure. He's worked as a teacher, soldier, actor, trapper
and migrant farm worker. He's been a drunk, and at one time, lived in
incredible poverty. Right now he's speaking at schools in Naperville,
Illinois, where his books have been selected for their citywide reading
program. In 1992, after the publication of his novel "Clabbered Dirt, Sweet
Grass," I asked him to describe the Iditarod.

Mr. GARY PAULSEN (Author): Yeah, you go from Anchorage to Nome, right across
the middle, kind of--you go across a few mountain ranges and up the Yukon
River and then out to the Bering Sea and then you run across part of the
Bering Sea, too.

GROSS: Now my favorite part, if I have the rules right, is that if you're
collapsing or near death, no one is supposed to come to your aid.

Mr. PAULSEN: They won't help you. They'll step over you. They won't--if
anybody helps you, you're disqualified and they know that, so if you say, `I
scratch,' or if you say, `I need help,' then you're out of the race. And then
they'll help you. And they'll do anything. I mean, people will, you
know--but another musher can help you without being disqualified.

So other mushers, they help each other across. I mean, even the really
competitive front-end people do. If somebody's in trouble, they'll stop and
help. And I know people who are very dedicated to winning, who have stopped
and lost positions because they've stopped to help somebody build a fire
'cause they went through the ice or, you know, they're wet or something,
things like that.

GROSS: Now you can explain to me a non-adventurer, what is so thrilling about
the Iditarod?

Mr. PAULSEN: Christ, I don't know. It's insane to do it. My wife says
you've got to kind of crank your IQ down to about 13.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. PAULSEN: But I think there's also cliche that says, `No marriage
survives three Iditarods.' And it's maybe not accurate in my case, but it
does put a strain on your life. What happens is you become a cave painting.
You go back thousands and thousands of years. The dogs don't know that it's
high-tech. They don't understand technology, and so to run those dogs, to
bond with them the right way, you have to become very primitive in your mind.
I'm not talking about macho crap here, now, but I'm talking about becoming
purely human, truly human, without the modern trappings, and that is--becomes
a very desirable state. It still is. I miss it terribly.

GROSS: What does that mean? What kind of state is this?

Mr. PAULSEN: A kind of a primitive exultation. You begin to realize what's
very important in your life, and it isn't how you look, and it's not money and
it's not--you just understand the basics of what you're doing, of breathing,
of living, of thinking, of reacting to the nature. I think part of it is we
have lost the bond with the Earth that we need, and farming and the race are
similar in that they re-establish that bond. It has to be there. When you
run dogs, you cannot run them like a snow machine, you know. You have to
understand that they are dogs, they're very primitive, and you have to go back
to that earlier bond, and farming is the same, I think.

GROSS: What kind of relationship do you have to the dogs who pull your sled?
I mean, how do you build a relationship with them differently than you'd build
a relationship with a pet dog?

Mr. PAULSEN: Well, you're just with them more. And what happens is they
learn to read your shoulder motions and the way you think and the way your
voice sounds. In fact, you growl after a while. You growl at them a lot.
Not--I mean you talk that way. You just, `huh,' you know, and they understand
what you mean. And they become closer than other people. I mean, lead dogs
knew me better than my wife knows me. I mean, really--seriously, not--and I'm
very close to my wife. I mean, it's just--the bond that happens is extremely
close. It just--well, they--you live because they make the right
decisions--lead dogs, for instance.

GROSS: So...

Mr. PAULSEN: You can die if they make the wrong de--if they take you on bad
ice or if...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. PAULSEN: ...they don't want to do something that's safe, you can really
get messed up.

GROSS: I find it interesting that somebody as verbal as you, both as a
speaker and as a writer, would spend this time in a completely non-verbal
situation.

Mr. PAULSEN: What is it--I got over 20,000, maybe 22,000 miles on sleds, and
most of that time you're silent. You don't say anything, 'cause the dogs
don't need you to talk much. And it's interesting because I became--I lusted
after it, the solitude. I just loved it. I wrote all the time I ran dogs.
When you train dogs you run, say, four hours on and four off. And you just
stop wherever you are and build a fire or sit down in a snowbank. But I had
notebooks with me and I would write. I tried a laptop for a while, but the
batteries got cold and they don't work when they're cold. I really did. I
tried--about 10 below, you're done with a laptop. It won't work after that.
And close to 0, even, is kind of rough. They don't like it much.

GROSS: What's the most awful or frightening part of running the Iditarod?

Mr. PAULSEN: The hallucinations become really mean about the third night, and
deciding what's real and what isn't real becomes kind of a nightmare, in some
cases. I mean, I had--at one time I thought my whole team was on fire, and I
was out throwing snow on them trying to put them out. They thought I went
nuts. God, they just--they couldn't understand what I was doing, you know?
But I'd seen light flicking from the snow from their feet in the light from my
headlamp and I focused on it and it got more and more, and then it started to
look like little fires on their feet, and then `foof,' the whole team went up,
and I stopped and ran up and I was screaming. You know, `God,' I said,
`you're on fire.' And I was throwing snow on them, trying to put them out.

GROSS: When did you figure out it was just a hallucination?

Mr. PAULSEN: It just lasted like, I don't know, a minute, something like
that.

GROSS: Where do the hallucinations come from?

Mr. PAULSEN: From sleep deprivation. You simply don't sleep for the race.
And the--you kind of catch dozes here and there, but you really don't sleep.
And by the third night everybody's wonky. I mean it's really--from about
midnight till about six in the morning is just a fright. It's just
incredible. You--that's the best time to run. `Cause the dogs--it's cooler,
and they like to run at night, and so you run during that time, but your brain
is just fried, you know, and you--I had this guy with a trench coat sitting
on my sled for hour after hour and he had a clipboard. He was wearing
horn-rimmed glasses and he talked about government educational grants. He was
the most boring human being in the world, and I had this bastard on my sled
night after night. God--I was ready to kill him. And he would sulk--I would
yell at him. I'd say, `Shut up, for God's sake!' And he'd sulk for about a
mile. It's the most incredible thing.

GROSS: So do you still do dogsleds?

Mr. PAULSEN: No. I had a little heart problem a couple of years ago. I had
to get rid of my dogs. I miss them, though.

GROSS: Do you have any pet dogs?

Mr. PAULSEN: Oh, yeah. We always got four or five dogs. What we do is we
go to the pound, and we try to keep, like, a core level of about five dogs.
So we go to the pound and we say, `Give us the next one you're going to kill.'
And we don't look at it, we don't find out what the breed is. We take it,
whatever it is. So I got a border collie and I got a little terrier, and I
got a half Lab and I got a Chihuahua right now.

GROSS: Would you ever keep a husky as a pet?

Mr. PAULSEN: Sure. The problem with them is that they blow hair all the
time.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

Mr. PAULSEN: Oh, God, they--just gouts of hair. In fact, we used to have to
rake the kennel in the spring. We'd--I had one--we got up to where we had 90
dogs, 91 dogs.

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

Mr. PAULSEN: Yeah. And you could rake--you would rake mountains of hair.

GROSS: You strike me as kind of obsessive guy, somebody who does something to
real extremes once you decide to do it, whether it's drinking or sledding or
writing.

Mr. PAULSEN: That's absolutely true. I have no problem with that. I did
with drinking. That was a terrible problem. The worst thing about drinking,
and it's disgusting, is that it destroys clarity. Jesus, I can't--I've said
this before some places, but I can't believe that I would do that, that I
would try and damage that clarity, the way you see things. It's just insane.
To use any kind of mind-altering chemical to me is just completely insane.
Why would anybody want to do it? You know, to not see things as they really
are, but some fuzzed up piece of crap that has nothing to do with reality.

GROSS: Yeah. You even did poverty to the extreme.

Mr. PAULSEN: I still do.

GROSS: But you have money now.

Mr. PAULSEN: I don't, actually. I don't keep it. I give it to Ruth.

GROSS: Your wife.

Mr. PAULSEN: Yeah. I don't do anything with it. I have three pair of
Levi's and I replace a new pair every year. I probably get one pair a year
when they wear. And I don't buy Mercedes and things. I don't do any of that.

GROSS: Does it mean a lot to you to have written for young people because
books changed your life so much when you were 15?

Mr. PAULSEN: Yeah, it does. And I'm going to continue writing for young
people.

GROSS: Even as you write for adults?

Mr. PAULSEN: Yeah. I'm just--all I'm doing is I'm just saying, `No more
walls.' I'm going--"The Clabbered Dirt Sweet Grass" could be read by young
people, too. It's not necessarily just an adult book. But it also has some
complex things in it that, I think younger people might have--maybe
would--well, many of them are smart enough to know it, but you know what I
mean, that maybe it would be difficult for some. But I think it would work
well for either one. And that's what I'm going to do from now on. I'm just
going to write.

GROSS: When you were doing the Iditarod, would you take a book with you?

Mr. PAULSEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What would you take?

Mr. PAULSEN: I worked every day, too. I really did. I had a notebook, I
wrote. And...

GROSS: What would you read?

Mr. PAULSEN: I took--I know you want me to say Jack London. I don't think
people like Jack London ever ran dogs. He didn't know what he was talking
about, mostly, but, which is kind of sad, 'cause he was a good writer. But I
took philosophy. I would take, oh, historical works, like study the first
century, that kind of thing. And read--sometimes when the dogs were resting
and you couldn't sleep--and you get to where you don't sleep very well. You
can't sleep. You sit with your eyes open. I would read something, you know,
just short pieces, a half a page or a page. And then I wrote, too. A lot of
the writing was incoherent, though. I would look at it later and think, `My
God.' You know, just scrawled across the paper.

GROSS: This is the same time that you were hallucinating through all this.
Yeah.

Mr. PAULSEN: Exactly, exactly, exact--God, once I came into a village at
night and I could see people all over on snow machines; they were waving at me
and yelling at me, and I was trying to turn my dogs up to--in between these
two cabins. There were lights in the windows and I could see people inside,
eating at their ho--at their table in the windows, and I blinked, and it was
all gone. It was all a hallucination, the whole thing. And it was really
complex. I mean, God, I could--you know, snow machines were going by me, guys
offered me a beer. You know, it was just incredible.

GROSS: Is this at useful to you as a writer, to hallucinate?

Mr. PAULSEN: I don't think so, no. I don't think--it was an interesting
study in, maybe, a kind of temporary madness. But, in fac--maybe that's what
the Iditarod is. And what's really sick is I'd be doing it still. I'd go...

GROSS: If not for...

Mr. PAULSEN: My heart.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. PAULSEN: I would have gone again. I'd have gone last year and the year
before, and I'd be going this year. It's just--it just grips you, it just
does. And nobody who runs that is ever the same again.

GROSS: Well, Gary Paulsen, I thank you a lot for talking with us.

Mr. PAULSEN: Thank you.

GROSS: Writer Gary Paulsen, recorded in 1992. The Iditarod is currently
under way in Alaska.

Coming up, David Bianculli reviews "9/11," the CBS special featuring
documentary footage shot in and around the World Trade Center on the day of
the attacks.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: CBS special documentary "9/11"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Sunday night at 9, CBS is presenting a two-hour account of the terrorist
attacks on the World Trade Center, captured by two filmmaking brothers who
were witnesses to that day's events. Although many people are anxious to see
images from inside the burning World Trade Center, some people are protesting
this broadcast, accusing it of being inappropriate and insensitive. TV critic
David Bianculli has a review of this special, which is called "9/11."

DAVID BIANCULLI:

The usual way for a network to expose an upcoming program to TV critics is to
send a tape. With a two-hour special called "9/11" it was handled very
differently. The documentary was screened once this past Monday night at the
Museum of Television and Radio. Only critics in New York, for the most part,
were invited. I was one of them, and I went, to be honest, with a little bit
of dread.

This was two hours of footage from the Naudet brothers, Gedeon and Jules, who
happened to be filming a documentary on firefighters on the morning of
September 11th. One image the NYU Film School graduates captured that day was
shared by all the networks in the immediate aftermath of the attacks: that
ground-level shot of the first hijacked plane smashing into tower one of the
World Trade Center. That was 10 seconds. What would the rest of the two
hours be like? And did I want to see it? Projected on a big screen, larger
than life, larger than death, could I even handle it?

The reactions to Sunday night's two-hour special are bound to be as varied
and personal as the events of that horrible day itself. I'm very respectful
of those who don't want to revisit that disaster, and especially of those who
lost loved ones that day in New York, in Washington or aboard that plane in
Pennsylvania. All I can do here is offer my own opinion as a barometer.

The first thing you should know in deciding whether to watch the CBS program
called "9/11" is that it's almost totally bloodless. It's not graphic, and
it's not exploitive. Even though one of the brothers was among the first to
arrive at ground zero with his team of firefighters, there are no shots of
body parts or people jumping from the towers or other things I feared seeing.

Jules Naudet, the younger of the brothers at age 28, says on the narrative
soundtrack that the first thing he saw when he entered the lobby of tower one
with the rescue workers was two people who were on fire. He didn't film them,
he said, because he didn't think it proper.

For months, since June of last year, Jules and his brother Gedeon, 31, had
been filming a rookie firefighter in the lower Manhattan company of Engine 7,
Ladder 1. The idea for their documentary was to follow this young wanna-be
fireman, called a probie in firehouse lingo, for the nine months it would take
him to prove he had the right stuff.

"9/11" the documentary begins in June and ends long after September. Rather
than abandon their original documentary concept, the Naudet brothers stayed
true to it. As a result, we get to know the firefighters and even the
filmmakers long before the planes arrive.

On the morning of the attacks, firemen were dispatched to investigate a
reported possible gas leak 14 blocks from the World Trade Center. The rookie
fireman was assigned to stay and answer phones at the station house, so
filmmaker Gedeon stayed with him. Younger brother Jules, eager to get any
practice with his camera, accompanied battalion Chief Joseph Pfeifer and his
men to check out the gas main.

While they were on the street that morning, they heard a roaring sound in the
sky. The firemen looked up and Jules swung his camera in that direction just
in time to film the plane smashing into tower one. `You stay with me,' the
chief told the cameraman. And the fire truck headed straight to tower one.
They went inside and set up rescue operations, and Jules never stopped
filming.

Gedeon eventually hit the streets, too, and headed towards ground zero. Both
of them captured spectacular footage, and each of them thought the other was
dead. "9/11" the documentary captures for posterity one inspirational act of
quiet bravery after another. Robert De Niro hosts the program and frames it
in what, I think, is the proper reverential context. Even CBS is being
reverential. The documentary is interrupted only a few times, and by public
service announcements by Nextel, not commercials.

Dramatically, the most intense parts of "9/11" are not the sights, but the
sounds. We don't see any of the falling bodies, but we hear their impact, and
that's haunting enough. And when the debris cloud descends upon one of the
brothers as he's filming, we hear that, too.

I would urge, though, that you don't avoid "9/11" this Sunday on CBS because
you're afraid of what you'll hear or see. What you'll see, if you decide to
tune in, is humanity at its best and a story, that in the midst of all that
horrifying devastation, is a tale of honor, duty, resilience and love.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: Abbey Lincoln performs "I Sing a Song"
TERRY GROSS, host:

We'll close with a song written and performed by Abbey Lincoln. She's
performing a three-day retrospective of her original songs, presented by "Jazz
at Lincoln Center." This is "I Sing a Song."

(Soundbite of "I Sing a Song")

Ms. ABBEY LINCOLN (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) I sing a song of winter. I
sing a song of spring. I sing a song of new love, songs that the seasons
bring. I awaken with a feeling sometimes weary at a glance, looking at my
life's condition in the mirror of my chance. Sometimes demons come to visit.
I can hear them in the trees, or an elephant with thunder, riding gently
through the breeze. Sometimes thoughts of love come sailing and I see you,
see your face, and I hear a voice that whispers, that calls to bring me grace,
one that bids me sing another word and helps me when I dance to gather in the
darkness golden leaves for my hair. So the morning brings the sunshine,
sometimes they bring the rain, and when a feeling comes to me, I sing a song
again.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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