the 6-1-1997 Daily Sparks
in the 2-18-2005 Comstock Chronicle
the Comstock with Mark Twain, Ty Cobb & Norm Nielson
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.
week, we were informed of their deaths. And we live devalued without
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
1997, 2005, 2011 Andrew Barbano
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
Reprints of the UNR financial scandal
newsbreaks remain available for the cost of copying at
Nevada Instant Type in Sparks and both Office Depot
(UPDATE: These are no longer available thereat, but
a perusal of the Barbwire
Archive will suffice.)