From the 6-1-1997 Daily Sparks Tribune

Reprinted in the 2-18-2005 Comstock Chronicle

On the Comstock with Mark Twain, Ty Cobb & Norm Nielson

They added value to us because they valued what made us. They were our chroniclers, our historians, our memories. Their knowledge made them wise and their wisdom informed us.

Last week, we were informed of their deaths. And we live devalued without them.

I met Ty Cobb and Norm Nielson shortly after moving to these parts in 1971. By then, Ty had been a columnist and editor at the Nevada State Journal for many years. Norm was a young writer and account executive for the town's largest advertising agency, the storied Tyson-Curtis-Wilson.

I never could rightly call either man my close friend, but I knew both very well. We shared a compulsion, the need to reach others with our words. They served that urge until their deaths. Two great writers are now consigned to Nevada history, exactly where they'd want to be. Ty Cobb's decades of columns and stories will provide a treasure trove for future historians looking for even-tempered perspective on Reno's transition from small town to urban sprawl.

Ty carried himself with a forthcoming fairness you could easily sense. A greenhorn could approach him without fear. He was no imperious editor. You knew he was not judging you. That's what made him a good sportswriter, newsman and editor. That's why his work will make life easier for historians like Norm Nielson.

Tyrus Cobb was named after the baseball hall-of-famer and actually became friends with the irascible superstar during his twilight years at Lake Tahoe. Cobb the writer joined the elder Ty last week at 81.

Norm Nielson was only 52. Like Ty Cobb, he was a lifelong student of the high desert outback of the American dream. In the 1960s, he was a scriptwriter on the storied Bonanza television series. One day, he got a call from a member of the Fey family, descendants of the inventor of the slot machine and operators of the Liberty Belle restaurant in Reno. Fey thought that if they were going to write about Nevada, they should first learn something about it — such as the fact that Hoss and Little Joe could not possibly ride horses from Lake Tahoe to Virginia City in just 15 minutes. Norm took up the offer to visit Nevada and decided to stay.

Although his greatest claim to fame may have come as a TV writer, his words truly took wing when he himself read them aloud. Norm was born blessed with a cowboy storyteller's vocal chords, ideal for spinning Tales of Nevada. His programs by that name graced airwaves throughout the west for many years. He started producing them as a labor of love while keeping his day job at the likes of the Club Cal-Neva and Nevada Bell.

A few years back, Norm took me to lunch because he had a big decision to make. He had been approached by a broad base of people asking him to run for Reno mayor. His long involvement in just about every community event and organization over the years would have made him a strong contender. (Norm and I later worked side by side to save the Reno-Sparks community access television system from likely extinction by the Reno city council. SNCAT, the people's television station, stands today as one of many monuments to Norm Nielson.)

In the end, he decided not to run. Perhaps he thought there would be plenty of time for that later. Perhaps not. I do know that what Reno government may have lost was more than repaid by the enrichment of the historian's art. But Norm was with us three decades less than Ty. A lot of good writing will thus never find voice.

I don't mourn the passing of these two wise men. I rejoice in having had the honor of crossing their paths. We will meet again.

I can almost see them now, about 4:00 p.m. on a richly sunny Virginia City Sunday. Ty has just come down from the high school gym after watching his old coach, Jake Lawlor, put the team through a tough workout. Notebook still in hand, he walks through the creaky doors of the Silver Queen to meet Norm at the bar.

The flying fingers of Doug Davies play Dill Pickles at the piano. A huge rum sazerac sloshes along atop the baby grand, a Comstock candlebra keeping time for a ragtime Liberace.
"I don't know how such a big man can have such fast fingers," Cobb opines as Norm buys a round.

Over in the corner, moguls Sharon and Sutro cook up their latest financial scheme. It's hard to tell whose hand is in whom's pocket. Loud laughter comes from the back room where Gov. Grant Sawyer hoists a few with some rowdy muckers and their wenches.

The boys finish their drinks and head outside just in time catch the finale of Smiley Washburn playing Under the Double Eagle just up the street. It signals the end of the daily dueling keyboards competition on the eternal Comstock of the imagination.

Norm stops to snap a photo of Badwater Bill hoisting two youngsters onto the back of his donkey so that their parents can get a picture of the moppets with an honest-to-gosh prospector. The failing sun backlights the scene with St. Mary's of the Mountains majestically ruling the canyon below. John Huston never staged a prettier photo opportunity when he worked up here.

Ty detours to drop his story off with Sam Clemens at the Territorial Enterprise while Norm waits outside. Fact of the matter is, Norm has a hard time putting up with Sam's stinking cigars.

While pacing the newly-nailed boardwalk, Norm peruses the ongoing pasteup of an ornate (and historical fantasy of a) poster: "Enrico Caruso returns to Piper's Opera House. Tickets now on sale." The white-haired bill sticker slowly covers a lecture notice from the Gold Hill Hotel heralding "Ty Cobb: Memories of a Virginia City Native." And a "Norm Nielson for mayor" handbill.

"Sam gave me some Havanas. Want one?" asks Ty on his return, knowing that Norm will stick with what's in his own pocket. Up at the telegraph office, Norm picks up a fax bearing good news from Horace Greeley. The ghost town book deal is done, first printing 75,000. Ty winks congratulations from behind his thick glasses.

Cobb has an urgent message waiting from Julia Bulette. Seems as how some horse thieves from California have been robbing the ornamental iron and headstones from the cemetery. The handwriting of the legendary lady in red betrays an uncharacteristic anger. Defending the dignity of those she nursed during the big epidemic remains a responsibility she has never abandoned. Ty doesn't know if he'll handle the story, or just turn it over to Dan DeQuille.

"Dan's the best at handling Julia when she has her mind fixed on something," Norm agrees.

On the way down the slope of Main Street, Norm makes a quick visit to the radio station. Bob Stoddard informs him that Jack Costello is just about done editing this week's installment of Tales from the Comstock. A mild explosion interrupts the conversation between the old friends.

"Just Billy Varga, Jr., down by the park testing fireworks for Skyfire," Norm informs them.

The shadows are long and the sun long gone by the time the men reach the bottom of the hill. Almost on cue, each looks at his watch just as the 6:48 V&T announces her arrival.

Ty's expecting some new typewriter ribbons. Norm's awaiting fresh footage of newly booming Rhyolite from the lab in San Francisco.

Like two kids on Christmas morning, the athlete and the cowboy step briskly down the hill toward the sound of the train, alive in Nevada lore evermore.

Be well. Raise hell.


Copyright © 1997, 2005, 2011 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 36-year Nevadan.
Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Sparks Tribune since 1988.
Originally published 6-1-97 and reprinted in the 2-18-2005 Comstock Chronicle.

Reprints of the UNR financial scandal newsbreaks remain available for the cost of copying at
Nevada Instant Type in Sparks and both Office Depot Reno locations.
(UPDATE: These are no longer available thereat, but a perusal of the Barbwire Archive will suffice.)

Site composed and maintained by Deciding Factors
Write here for mailing list inclusion