Mike Wright rounds up and rounds out the Wild West “I sometimes find myself,” Mike Wright says over the phone from his home in Chicago, “writing for the ear instead of the eye.” After a lifetime in radio and television, Wright talks with the precise enunciation and measured tone of a professional speaker, and he writes with the voice of the teacher you wish you’d had in school knowledgeable, enthusiastic, full of wonderful stories about the real people behind the dates. This is one reason why Wright’s “What They Didn’t Teach You” series is proving so popular. Since the first one appeared only a few years ago, the books have explored the lives and times of those who lived through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II. The latest book in the series is What They Didn’t Teach You About the Wild West. Many of the characters are familiar to us, but Wright gives them a new slant, a witty, level-headed shakedown that reveals the individual behind the persona. He focuses his searchlight on Lewis and Clark, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickock, and Doc Holliday. Wright documents the still often overlooked contributions of women women of all sorts, from farmers to prostitutes to mothers (sometimes, of course, one and the same). He devotes a fascinating chapter to the roles of blacks in the Old West, including the surprising tidbit that perhaps as many as 25 percent of the cowboys were of African descent. One of Wright’s most fascinating stories is a reconstruction of Santa Anna’s attack on the Alamo, and the wildly differing accounts of Davy Crockett’s death which may have been an execution following a last-minute surrender.
Mike Wright was born in 1938 and grew up in Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia. During World War II, at the tender age of five, he began a public career as a singer, performing at nearby military bases. Frequently he was dressed in an Uncle Sam suit, complete with pasted-on cotton goatee. “Regretfully,” he sighs, “I have no pictures of that. Now, of course, I’m a little older. I don’t have the Uncle Sam suit, but I still have a white goatee.” Young Mike’s singing had its career pitfalls. “It’s hard to be a boy soprano when your voice changes to a bass or baritone. I did some acting stage, a couple of very minor movies.” Wright began working in radio while enrolled at William and Mary in Virginia, where he found the classes less than entrancing. While working as a disc jockey, he began to write. In time he moved into television news, from which he finally retired in 1991. “I was a reporter, anchor, producer from small cities to large. I spent the last 17 years as a producer with NBC in Chicago.” When Wright left TV news, he wrote a documentary on Route 66 for a Chicago station. “Then I got into writing full-time, and I haven’t looked back.” Wright’s first book, What They Didn’t Teach You About the Civil War, was published in the 1996. He has been zooming along ever since. “From my days in radio and television,” he admits, “I can write pretty fast. I can sometimes churn out 20 pages a day. I get it all in mind; I get my notes; I get the books I work from and I just start writing from there. Of course, these 20 pages or sometimes it’s only two or whatever aren’t the final version.
“I write on the computer,” he adds. “At the end of the day I print everything out in hard copy, and after dinner I read it to my wife, every night. She reads she hears everything I’ve written in that one day. She says she enjoys it.” He laughs. “When I read it aloud, I get a feeling for it myself. I make corrections, she makes corrections, I rewrite. And she gets to listen to my rewrite as well.” Understandably, Wright’s wife seldom gets around to reading his finished books.
Wright attributes his writing speed to his days in television news. “I remember when Elvis Presley died. I was writing copy for NBC. This was back in the days of typewriters, and they wouldn’t let me finish a piece of paper, of copy. It was going directly from my typewriter to on the air. I would type about half a page and they would pull it out and I would finish the sentence and keep on going for another half page and they would pull it out. I kept that up for several hours.” Wright’s account of the first book’s genesis explains the appeal of the series an individual slant on history told with infectious enthusiasm. “I had done an earlier book on the Civil War, about Richmond, City Under Siege. I had done some work for a television producer on a Civil War documentary. And I had a lot of material that I had gathered over the years. I don’t throw away anything, as my wife says.
“So I started putting it together and then realized that I didn’t want to tell a story from point A to point B, from one year to the next. I wanted to tell it so that people can pick up one chapter, read it, put it down, pick up another chapter, and they aren’t really losing the train of thought.” Presidio is primarily known as a military publisher, but Wright points out that his books “aren’t really that war-based. There are other books devoted to the battles or whatever. I try to tell readers what the guy was doing at home. There was so much more going on during World War II, for instance, than just the fighting. There was a lot going on in the East when people were going out West.” Obviously Wright loves history. However, like most of us he has complaints about how it’s usually taught. “You know, in History 101 in college, we all get the same things thrown at us. We get dates, names. We may get facts, but we don’t get the why. This is what I’m more interested in: What makes people do this?” What Wright manages to do is place the so-called Wild West in the context of the history before and after it. We learn a good bit about the history of North and Central America that determined the nature of the immigrant European culture that would soon be imposed on so many areas. For example, Wright explains the role smallpox played in the Spanish overthrow of the Aztecs. He examines the ways in which inflated and outright false stories of the land of milk and honey out west drew innocent settlers who were unprepared to find life so dreary and difficult. He looks at the result of a million or so cattle wandering untended in Texas after so many farmers turned soldier during the Civil War.
Wright is telling us the stories no one bothered to mention in school, and he’s also reminding us of the characters that never make it into the TV movies. How did the Chinese happen to become the primary workers who were laying the new railroad tracks? How did the whites celebrate their attacks against Indians? What did Jesse James like to do in his spare time? Wright knows the answers. This isn’t just the history we’ve not been told. It’s history about real people living real lives lives full of pain and humor and joy and disappointment and grief, just like all our lives today.