An Amarillo photographer's personal journey through the Dust Bowl- with past and present eyes.

Monday, May 28, 2012

KVII: Ken Burns previews The Dust Bowl in Amarillo

The kidnaping of Ken Burns - Part 2 - a different perspective.

Brush With Greatness
By Ken Hanson

Okay Steve, since you spilled the beans and told everyone about “The Kidnapping of Ken Burns”, I feel the need to tell my side of the story!

When Steve called and told me about the invitation to “An Evening With Ken Burns”, and invited me to accompany him to the reception, I immediately thought about taking the Model T. What could be better than showing up in an actual survivor of the Dust Bowl.

I have often wondered where this car was on Black Sunday.

Did it get caught in the infamous duster, or was it in some other part of the country. Since it came from an estate auction in Lincoln Kansas when I acquired it, most likely it did breathe the dust running from the storm that day.

Steve told you, in another story, about recreating the image of a Dustbowl survivor by taking it to a rural road in Armstrong County. He photographed it in various settings, and using Photoshop, combined it with photos of supercell thunderstorms to simulate what it might have looked like that day.

He posted those images on this blog, so I’m sure that Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan have probably seen them. Wouldn’t it be cool to show up in the same car, and hopefully, give them a ride in it? Steve was thinking the same thing. We hatched our plan to show up early and park it out front where everyone could see it as they entered.

Kathy Jones from KACV was already out front to welcome everyone and show where the reception would be.   When she spotted our car in the lot, she said, “You should park that right here in front of the entrance so everyone can see it”.

Great idea, we thought, but there’s a catering van parked there. “Oh, I can get that moved!”, she said.

For the next hour, she enthusiastically greeted everyone and told them about the Model T and the history it had in common with the Dust Bowl. The guests were an impressive list of who’s who in Amarillo, from city and state government officials, to the President and Board of Regents of Amarillo College, supporters of KACV, center city supporters, the founding families of our city, far too many to list them all.

After awhile, we saw Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan and their entourage approaching across the parking lot. We believed they would enter the side door, but instead followed Ken when he spotted the old Ford and diverted course.

My wildest dreams were about to come true. The car was parked by the curb with the passenger door open so everyone could see inside. Ken approached with a big smile and said something like, “Now there’s a Dust Bowl car!”

I said, “It’s a 1927 Model T Ford Coupe, wanna’ go for a ride?”

He answered, “Sure!”

I slid across the seat and he followed me in. Less than a minute after arriving, we were pulling away from the curb.

Steve later told me that someone in his entourage looked around and said, “Where did Ken go?”

Dayton Duncan said, “I think that guy in the Model T just kidnapped him!”

Laughing, Steve reassured them, “That’s a friend of mine, they’ll be right back - I think.

We drove down the block and stopped at a stop sign to let quite a few cars go by. I figured we would circle the small lake and head back to the event, since it was time for the reception to begin.

While stopped, I explained the operation of the controls to Ken. One reason I like the Model T so much is because it is so different from a modern car. There’s no clutch, no gear shift, and no gas pedal.

The throttle is a lever on the steering column, along with the spark control which no modern car has. The transmission is a manually operated two speed planetary transmission with three pedals on the floor.

The left pedal is like a clutch and gearshift in one. When pushed down, it constricts a band in the transmission which engages the low speed planetary gear set. When released, it compresses the clutch pack which engages the clutch discs for a one to one direct drive high gear. Halfway depressed in neither low nor high, kind of like neutral.

The transmission planetary gear set is always in mesh, there is no true neutral position like a normal transmission. The middle pedal is reverse. Hold down the left pedal half way and depress the reverse pedal to back up.

The right pedal is the service brakes which are in the transmission instead of on the wheels. The transmission brake stops the drive shaft, and if one rear wheel is on ice or gravel, it could turn backwards due to the differential action and you can find yourself unable to stop.

Model T brakes are nothing but a strip of oil soaked cloth band around the drive shaft hub inside the transmission, about the poorest brakes of any vehicle since the stage coach, but they were adequate for their time since speeds were so low on the dirt roads of the day.

To the left of the floor pedals is a lever. Pull it halfway back and it forces the left pedal into the neutral half way position for starting the car, Pull it all the way back and it also engages the rear wheel brakes, there are no brakes on the front axel. The rear wheel brakes are used to hold the car still for starting, and can be used to stop the car in an emergency.

The 1927 Model T was the first to have an electric starter standard. This car also has the hand crank, but on a cold day when the transmission has a lot of drag due to the thick oil, the electric starter is nice to have.

It also has one windshield wiper in front of the driver which is operated by hand with a lever inside the car. This car also has an air conditioner! Loosen the screws and tip the bottom of the windshield out, very nice on a warm day.

I explained all of this to Ken while we were riding around the lake. I know what a history buff he is from all of his excellent documentaries, but I didn’t know he was such a car enthusiast until Steve showed me Horatio’s Drive, a documentary by Ken and Dayton produced 20 years ago about the first coast to coast trip in an automobile.

The staggering amount of research that went into that production proves that he is indeed a car guy.

It was my intention to stop and convince Ken to drive the Model T, and then do the same for Dayton, but everyone was waiting and we just didn’t have the time. Maybe some other day.

I heard later that someone was a little ticked off at me for stealing the man of the hour and holding up the reception. It was worth it.

After an excellent meal and an hour long sneak peek of Dust Bowl previews, it was one of the most enjoyable evenings I can remember.

Thank you Steve for including me in this brush with greatness I will remember for the rest of my life.    
                                                             - Ken Hanson

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The kidnapping of Ken Burns - Part One

The plot to" kidnap" documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (Baseball, Jazz, The War, The Dust Bowl) was hatched more than a  month ago when I received an invite in the mail. It read "You are cordially invited to an Evening with Ken Burns."

Needless to say - I was excited.

As you may have read in this blog, I enjoyed a very small part of the production of The Dust Bowl - as a scout - prowling along the back roads of the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles and northeastern New Mexico, looking for dust-bowl era scenes, windmills, vistas, abandoned homes and other assorted locations for Florentine Films renowned cinematographer Buddy Squires & award winning producer Dayton Duncan to film.

It was a great gig for a free-lance Amarillo-based photographer and a once in a lifetime chance to work with Academy award winning documentary film makers - whom I greatly admire. To be even peripherally associated with a production as historically significant as The Dust Bowl is an honor in itself - but to be invited to an exclusive dinner with Ken Burns & Dayton Duncan was a creme on the cherry on the cream pie itself.

The invite was for me and a guest. Because he had helped me so much during the production scout and I had commandeered him and his vintage 1927 Ford as my model & muse in re-creating photo representations of Black Sunday (link to the Black Sunday Photo Project) my plus one would be good friend and collaborator Ken Hanson.

Not only does Ken have the same first name as Mr. Burns - Ken Hanson also shares  a love of American history and in particular that of antique vehicles. The Ford we used for our artist recreations was perfect for our photo project and not to mention Ken helped tote me around the northern Texas Panhandle looking for locations (when my car was having mechanical issues) plus  he was also with me during the shoot near Clayton, New Mexico, and as a result  was the only one I even considered as my plus one for this special dinner.

So - we got to talking. Although I was thinking it - Ken mentioned it first.

"You know what would be cool?" he said.

"If we showed up at the dinner in the Model T?" I asked, already knowing where he was going.

"Yes- exactly." he replied. "It needs a little mechanical work but I'm sure I can get it done in time." he added.

I imagined pulling up in front of the gala in his forest green Ford - it chug-chug-chugging in that distinctive way a Model T sounds.

"You know what would be cooler?" I said.

Ken smiled. he also knew where I was going with my next thought.

"That we could take Ken Burns for a ride in it?" he answered quickly.

"Yes, that would be awesome. Imagine getting a photo of you and Ken Burns in your Ford - a historical documentary film maker in a iconic example of automobile history - a 1927 Ford Model T - still working  - still running well beyond the Dust Bowl."

The symbolism was not lost on either of us. Much like the hardy Dust Bowl refugees - Ken's Ford had survived to see better times and actually thrived well into this modern age.  Like Ken Burn's documentaries - it was an important living example of how far we had come, how hard times could be overcome and how we must remember the hard lessons of the past to prevent us repeating them in the present.

And then reality set in - Ken said - "Ken Burns is an important man. I'm sure everyone from the Mayor on down will be vying for his attention at this event. I'll doubt we'll get a chance."

I was more optimistic. I replied, "I'll bet you once he sees that glorious example of a Model T parked out front he'll make a bee-line for it."

Ken was  not convinced."Maybe he's not a car guy." he said.

I replied "You are kidding me right? He's an historian. Your car is a piece of history - directly tied to the Dust Bowl - besides - have you ever seen Horatios Drive - America's First Road Trip?

"Nope what's that?" he asked.

"Only one of the best documentaries of the coming of age of the automobile." I replied. "It's about Horatio Nelson Jackson - the first person to drive across the country - spurred on by a fifty dollar bet."

A week or so later, Ken & I sat down and watched Horatio's Drive on Netflix. Although I had seen it many times - it's a favorite and looked forward to seeing it again.

After it was over Ken looked at me and said, "Yep - he's definitely a car guy."


The Dust Bowl - trailer released.

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