When people ask what I do for a living they’re always surprised at my answer. I tell them I’m an author, speaker and the director of equestrian theatrical productions. It’s that last one that gets them.
“Author,” they understand that; it’s mainstream. Their next question is usually, “Oh, what did you write about?” To which I reply, “My mother’s experiences during World War II, when she ran social clubs for enlisted men in North Africa and Italy.” Quizzical looks prompt me to say that it’s a book based on her letters from 1943 – 1945, in which she told of incredible experiences overseas. Including having cut a deal with Pope Pius XI. Eulogizing my mother, the Episcopal priest said that he had loved getting to know her at the nursing home where she ended her days. He said, “Before I met LeOna, I had never met anyone, even those dressed as I am, who ever cut a deal with a Pope.
People also understand the word, “speaker.” Mainstream again: It makes sense to them that I speak about the courage it took for my mother to leave her secure teaching position and march into war. They also warm to the colorful, entertaining stories of this most exotic adventure.
Riata Ranch Cowboy Girl
But, “Director of equestrian theatrical productions?” No one gets that. At least no one who isn’t someone I already know. So I explain by saying, “I create entertainment shows with people who call themselves wonderful names such as Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, Escaramuza Charra and Pistol-Packin’ Paula.”
“Where do you do these things,” is usually the next question. Most assume the shows are “out west” (which one is) but they’re never prepared to hear Madison Square Garden, Belmont Park, Rockefeller Center, and the Today show plaza. “Actually,” I tell them, “the production at Belmont Park for the New York Racing Association was written up in the New York Times, you can read about it.” I do that just to get their goats when I sense a dismissive attitude toward work, and people, who are waaaay beyond the norm. Naughty me, but it is fun.
But, here’s the catch. When I start telling about girls hanging over the rear ends of galloping horses, dragging their fingers on the ground; a man who puts buffalo on top of a stock trailer and dogs that, on que, get the requested cold drink (cola or ginger ale) out of a cooler and deliver it to a guy on horseback, I see a different look on most faces. Is it curiosity? Or is it disbelief? Your guess is as good as mine.
Desperation Makes a Person Pretty Creative
I admit this is an unlikely combination of careers and I understand why it’s curious to many. But there’s a story. With an outdated degree in political science, work experience as a Pan Am stewardess in the ‘60’s, subsequent years as a wife and mother, it’s a challenge to reinvent yourself when you’re suddenly alone with two little kids and too little money. You know that saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention?” Well, I’m here to tell you desperation makes a person pretty creative too! Along with feeding and caring for two children there were three horses, five cats, two dogs and a billy goat named “Daddy.”
My ever-inventive mother suggested that I write something and sell it. “You were always a good writer,” she said, “don’t you remember winning the creative writing contest in the fourth grade?” Without any other good options I did as told and wrote something. It was a story about trying to break into the elite world of Arabian horse breeding when all the odds were stacked against you. Evidenced by the name of my “farm,” Frog Hollow Arabians; apropos for a farm longer in frogs than Arabians.
At the time Classic was the most prestigious of all horse publications. Why not write something and send it to Classic? The admonition in Writer’s Market made it clear that freelancers need not submit but what was the worst that could happen? The editor would throw my manuscript into the trash can. How bad could that be?
If you don’t venture out of the comfort zone and try to do things you’d like to do, one thing is for certain: you’ll never do them. Why do we let ourselves believe that other people know more than we do? Or that other people might just think what we did, said, asked for, was okay.
No one believed Pope Pius would even hear of my mother’s request to share his electricity with her. And if he did, certainly he wouldn’t even entertain the thought; but that’s not what happened. The last thing I expected from Classic was a job offer but that’s what I got. The offer was for me to become a “stringer.” What did that mean? The editor explained that I could write anything I wanted about the horse industry and send it to him. In the unlikely event Classic published what I wrote I would be paid. If not, perhaps bits and pieces could be given to one of their “real” writers for use in something they were doing. No payment for that, already paying one writer.
What I did get were press credentials from a magazine that had no limit of people who wanted a mention, or have their picture in it. For me this was a gigantic door opener into a world I was desperately trying to court. With Classic credentials hanging from my neck I could meet and talk to everyone and anyone I wanted to meet.
Now that I had become someone worth acknowledging in the Arabian industry I thought perhaps Classic should have a special advertising section just for Arabian horse breeders; and that I should write it. When I proposed my idea to the editor he said no, it had been tried before and didn’t work. The cost of advertising in Classic was so much more expensive than any other equine publication that “normal” people wouldn’t go for it. “I think I can do it,” I said, actually believing what I was saying. “Okay,” he countered, “but I’m not paying you to try.” We finished by agreeing that if I sold 17 full-page, four-color ads, I could have page 18 for Frog Hollow. That was fine with me!
(Photo of Frog Hollow sign)
The first person I approached was a famous movie producer/director whom I had met because his Connecticut farm was close enough from my New York home for me to become a frequent, and probably pesky, visitor. When I told him about the special advertising section I was planning for Classic I threw in a bonus: “If you buy a page, I’ll write your ad for free,” said I who had never written a word of advertising in my life. I had my first sale; could it have been the “freebie?”
With that famous name already engaged I went straight for the biggest star in Las Vegas, gave him the same pitch and made the same offer to write his ad. “Okay,” said Mr. Las Vegas. This was getting to be easy…and it was. With those fellows having taken page one and two it was pretty easy to sell the remaining 15 pages. Everyone thought a free copywriter was fine too. Especially if the two Mr. Biggs were having me write their ads.
In the 1978, October/November issue of Classic magazine, beginning on page 123, 17 pages of beautiful, four-color photographs showcased some of the most important Arabian breeders in the United States. On page 18, there I was, a very small-time, backyard breeder with two beautiful Frog Hollow Arabians.
So taking that chance, sending something I had written to someone everyone expected to reject it, launched not only my writing career but transformed me into a publicist! For many years I had the privilege of launching new farms and new Arabian breeders, campaigning national champion horses and riders, staging exciting events, writing about the breed and business I loved, and, I even produced a film at the famed Russian Stud Farm in Tersk, U.S.S.R., deep within the Caucasus Mountains. That last one can be another blog. As you might imagine, it’s a good story! (lots of Vodka!)
Remember I told you about a guy who puts buffalo on top of his stock trailer? That’s John Payne, The One-Armed Bandit.
John Payne “The One Armed Bandit” keeps the sleeve of his missing arm tucked into a special belt.
If John can do what he does with just one arm, what’s holding you back?
Optimists, Realists, Problem Solvers and Risk Takers
I love people with pizzazz; I love their stories and I love sharing them with others. Everyone I’ll be telling about in the upcoming posts are friends who inspire me. They’re people who define the word pizzazz, people of uncommon style.
To me, people with style are those with the confidence, courage and carriage that trumpets, “I can do this!” They’re the optimists, realists, problem solvers and risk takers. The ones who’ve cried, cringed, changed course as many times as they had to; summoned the courage and bucked up, over and over again.
In the days to come I’ll share the stories of a most interesting group of people. People with pizzazz to spare; hopefully they’ll inspire you. Here’s a snapshot of them:
- Some struck it rich because they had good ideas and were willing to do the hard work and overcome the self-doubt and disappointment;
- Others created the lives they wanted because they had the courage to recognize and admit when things weren’t on the right track. They took corrective action, often many times over, and turned the tide;
- War survivors have stories unique not only to themselves but to their places in time. Witness the mother who walked more than 300 miles to safety with her two young daughters. Scant food, fierce winter storms, bombers flying overhead, people who turned their backs. But they made it;
- Two refused death despite clinical diagnoses that declared them so. They lived to reinvent themselves and capture their most unique dreams;
- Sometimes people with pizzazz are those who fight their way through physical and/or psychological illness. For them style can mean simply getting out of bed each morning;
- Plus, those who stand in the shadows. Those who truly are the wind beneath the wings of others.
Travel their journeys with me as we begin: Once upon a time there were people just like you and me who did the most amazing things.
Kathie (middle top row) with some of the people who have inspired her for this new series.
As friends do when they haven’t seen each other for a long time, Kerston Schmidt and I couldn’t stop talking. We were in the garden of Kerston’s beautiful new home, just south of Hamburg, Germany, hashing over everything that had happened over the last four years. Kerston had a new home, new horse, new pony, and a new career. I was writing a book.
“A book about what,” Kerston asked? “My mother’s World War II experiences as a Red Cross girl in North Africa and Italy,” I explained. “It was the most intensely meaningful time in her life.”
“I think it was that way for everyone who lived through World War II,” Kerston said. “When we’re in Hannover with my parents I’ll ask my mum to tell you what happened to her family during the war.”
True to her word, over after-dinner brandies, Kerston told her parents about my book and asked if her mother would tell me her story. With Kerston translating from German into English, Barbara told the following story of unimaginable courage. Truly, a testimony to the human spirit.
Mielke home, Forst, Germany
Barbara Krauss Schmidt began her story with, “My mother, Gerda Mielke, was born to privilege in 1909. Her family lived in Forst, Germany, and owned a textile mill there. When my mother was 19, she was introduced to a young man named Heinrich Krauss, whom she eventually married.”
Heinrich and Gerda made their home in Forst, and Heinrich went to work for his father-in-law’s textile business. Their first child, Barbara, was born in 1938; her sister, Annette, followed in 1941.
When World War II began Heinrich was found medically unfit for service. However his car was suitable and the army requisitioned it for their use. That was the extent of the family’s involvement in the war until 1944, when Heinrich received a letter telling him to report for work at an aircraft company in Sorau, Germany, 40 miles from Forst.
Krauss home, Forst
Without a car to make the daily commute, Heinrich lived in Sorau during the week and came home on weekends. In the fall of 1944, news of the war became ominous for the people of Forst. Radio reports warned the front line was advancing faster than anticipated and troops were heading in Forst’s direction. Fearing that something may happen when Heinrich was away in Sorau, he and Gerda made contingency plans. Should the family have to flee Forst, they would reunite in a northern Germany village where they had friends, or south, in the Bavarian town of Oberkotzau, where Heinrich’s cousin lived.
By February, 1945, things had gotten very bad. When the town next to Forst was burned; Gerda knew she and the girls had to get out, and get out fast! Barbara explained, “When my mother learned that friends in Forst were forming a ‘trek’ bound for Bavaria, she immediately went to their home and begged them to take us along. The friends agreed but said we could bring nothing more than a handcart with our belongings. I was seven-years-old, Annette was three-and-a-half.”
“We ran home, “ Barbara continued, “put on all the warm clothes we had, loaded the handcart with bedding, pots, food, photographs, some jewelry and money, and joined the 334-mile trek to Bavaria. It took us three weeks to walk from Forst to Bavaria. The winter weather was fearsome; we were all freezing, hungry, exhausted and beginning to lose hope.”
Barbara talked of bombers flying overhead; of having to jump into ditches and lie face down in the freezing dirt, hoping they wouldn’t be killed. Every night the group struggled to find shelter; they considered themselves lucky to find places where they could sleep on cold, bare floors. One night a barn was found; with straw covering the floor. This would be the first night there was something soft to sleep on. Seeing it, three-year-old Annette said, “Look mummy, we’ll be like the baby Jesus, bedded down in straw.’” Everyone began to cry. The hopeful innocence of a small child amidst the frightening realities shook the adults to their core.
When Gerda and the girls arrived in Oberkotzau, Heinrich’s cousin agreed to take them in but offered only an unheated attic, nothing more. No money, no food, no clothes…nothing. “It was early March and terrible snowstorms raged,” Barbara remembered. “We were cold, hungry and without hope. Three days after we arrived my mother miscarried a baby.”
Just before the escape. Kerston’s grandma, mum, aunt and doll
Every day Gerda and the girls went to the forest looking for anything they could eat. They dug for forgotten potatoes and gathered the few frozen berries clinging to their stems. They foraged for mushrooms and leaves they could boil for tea. They collected firewood and made outdoor fires to warm themselves and cook what they had found. All alone, they were foreigners in their own country.
Several months after they arrived in Oberkotzau, Heinrich, a skeleton covered with the ulcerous skin of starvation, appeared at the attic door. Not finding his family in northern Germany, he then walked to Oberkotzau. He was without food, money and proper clothing to brave the winter storms. Barbara remembered seeing her father at the door as one of the happiest days in their lives.
Life remained incredibly difficult, as Gerda explained in a letter to a friend that Barbara shared. Gerda wrote, “This area is called Germany’s Siberia, not only because of the freezing weather but also the cold character of the people who live here. People’s attitudes toward us is hostile; we have made a few friends but we will never feel at home. We live only for ourselves. Every time we think God has forgotten us there comes a little hope; maybe it’s a care package from friends or a little work for my husband. Then we think if the Lord hasn’t left us yet He will continue to look after us. The most important thing is that we are together.”
In April, 1945, the United States Army arrived in Oberkotzau. The war was over. Barbara remembers the American soldiers as good looking men with proper haircuts and neat uniforms. But most of all she spoke of their kindness. She said the soldiers were polite and helpful to the German people, and always had candy and bubble gum for the children.
I had heard these compliments about American soldiers before, from my mother. In her letters from North Africa and Italy, where she served as a Red Cross girl, she wrote about people always telling her how kind and generous the American soldiers were. Even when they, “borrowed,” children right out of their carriages and brought them to the Red Cross club for ice cream and cookies. Frantic mothers close behind!
As Barbara drew her story to a close she said life had continued to be difficult for the family. Their money was outdated and worthless, their home in Forst was gone. With a stipend from the German government Gerda and Heinrich built a new home and the family began a new life in Oberkotzau.
I love the courage of this family. Despite all odds they never gave up. Even when they thought the worst was behind them but found themselves unwelcome in a relative’s home. Strangers in their own country, with no one to help. But they did it! They survived, began again, and didn’t look back to a privileged life. Being together, alive, with a roof over their heads and food on the table was what mattered. The sun comes up tomorrow.