Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Transcript: Ripley's Believe It or Not! tells America's most amazing military stories

Last week we posted our podcast interview with Edward Meyer, Vice President of Exhibits and Archives for Ripley's Believe It or Not!. If you prefer reading over listening though, here's the transcript.

We had the opportunity to interview Edward about Ripley's extensive archive of military stories that it has collected for more than 90 years. As we honor the nation's independence this Fourth of July, I hope you enjoy these unbelievable tales of military heroism and courage.



Janelle: Hi, everyone. I'm Janelle Kozyra for Post University. Many of you know Ripley's Believe It or Not!. You have probably been to one of Ripley's museums, seen the wild artifacts or read or heard the unbelievable stories of the shrunken heads or the outfits made entirely from human bones.

But beyond these weird and sometimes frightening artifacts, Ripley's Believe It or Not! has recognized the amazing stories from our military over the past 90 years. Stories of soldiers who have survived shots in the head and the chest, how Slinky toys were used as radio antennas in Vietnam. They're all testaments to the amazing sacrifices our military has made for our country, and they live on today thanks to Robert Ripley and the entire Ripley's organization.

And so I'm excited to introduce to you today a man who has played a significant role in continuing to collect these stories and recognize our military. His name is Edward Meyer and he is the VP of Exhibits and Archives for Ripley's Believe It or Not! Welcome to our podcast, Edward. Pleasure to have you with us.

Edward: Well, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Janelle: So, Edward, I have to admit that you probably have one of the most interesting jobs in the world, and I'm sure I'm not the only person who has ever said that to you.

Edward: Well, you're certainly not. I get told that a lot and I wish the people were here on the bad days. But it is true that I have a pretty good job.

Janelle: So you've been with Ripley's, I understand, since 1978, and you've been its primary buyer since 1984. So can you just tell us a little bit more about what you do at Ripley's.

Edward: Sure. It sounds like you know more about me than I thought you did. But my title is Vice President of Exhibits and Archives and that really means I'm involved in just about everything here at Ripley's but in charge of nothing. That's how I boil it down. But one of the editors of our book program, so I'm always doing a lot of research for interesting stories, but my main function is buying actual artifacts for display in our museums.

And we've been in the museum business since 1933. We currently have 32 in 10 different countries around the world and are hoping to build at least one new one a year. So Robert Ripley has been dead for quite a while now, 1949. But we continue to buy exhibits with growth in mind, and a typical Ripley's museum will have about 500 items. So I have to be buying at least 500 to 1,000 items every year, so it adds up over that 34-year career that I'm heading into.

Janelle: So do you also share a personal allure to some of the weird unusual things of the world?

Edward: Well, I have in my own words literally a childhood fascination with lots of things. I claim to know something about everything but not an expert in anything. But I have a real sense of curiosity and wonder that has helped me here at Ripley's and really, I think, that's what Ripley's is all about. It's human curiosity. Our goal is to show and tell the odd and the unusual things that you may not have ever seen or heard of anywhere else.

Janelle: And you're continuing a legacy of Robert Ripley who was an artist, an explorer, a lover of the odd and unusual.

Edward: A real guy, born in California in 1890. Died in New York in 1949. In that short time he was the world's most traveled man, 201 countries. And in 1936 he was actually voted the most popular man in America. So a younger audience today may not even have heard of him, but at his peak he was a pretty impressive guy.

He did movies, did a daily newspaper cartoon feature, had a weekly radio show. At the end of his career he had a weekly television show and during his lifetime he had what were traveling museums. They'd set up for only a couple months at a time, but he was involved in all forms of media and was a top-grade celebrity.

Janelle: And, of course, he started Ripley's as a cartoon in 1918 and then it grew into the books, the radio show, the TV show like you mentioned. So how much did he feature military stories and all of those media?

Edward: Well, I'll back up just a little bit before I directly answer your question, but he actually started drawing cartoons in 1909 with the first one titled Believe It or Not is in 1918. And all of the rest of the stuff you mentioned, radio, TV, movies, museums all came out of people not believing what he drew in the cartoons.

So he starts to travel and starts to collect in order to bring the hard artifacts to the fore. Somebody says I don't believe that cartoon you drew about shrunken heads in South America. Well now he says, 'here's the actual shrunken head.' You can see I didn't make this up. So a big, big part of his -- the cartoon is what he really did. He was an artist. The rest of it all happened as a way of promoting the cartoon.

Now, as he starts to travel, he relies more and more on his readership to provide him with stories for the cartoon. He's out there having a good time in the jungles of South America or on the beach of Hawaii. So what he does is he runs contests. And the first big, big international contest is in 1932 and he had over 1,200,000 submissions for the contest -- more than 1 million to choose from. The winner was a World War I story.

And his involvement in the war up to that point, he personally didn't fight in World War I. He claimed his mother and his brother as dependents and was able to get a pass. He had done some posters like the famous Uncle Sam I Want You for World War I, that sort of style, not that particular one. But he'd right from the start been involved in helping any way he could for military without actually fighting.

The 1932 cartoon was about a gentleman named Clinton Bloom who was torpedoed by a U-boat in the North Atlantic in 1917 and 15 years later in 1932, on a beach outside of him hometown in New Jersey, he found his military brush that went down with that ship 15 years ago. So bizarre enough that he survived the torpedoing, but 15 years later actually comes face-to-face with something based on that torpedoing.

So that won over 1.2 million entries, Ripley gave away an airplane. You know, everybody always gives away a car for a prize in a contest but Ripley, being that showman supreme, and airplane as first prize with instructions, some flying lessons. So from that point on he really has the military as a category, you know, something he goes back to time and time again knowing that there's always going to be some unbelievable but true military stories.

In 1945 with World War II, he really becomes totally enmeshed in the war from a viewpoint in New York City. He runs his second biggest contest of all time, but this time all of the stories have to be related to the military. It's his way of bringing attention to the American soldiers in World War II and most of the ones that he paid attention to were strange coincidences. Somebody surviving when they should have been dead, somebody meeting up with somebody from their home town, that sort of thing.

And he gave a weekly cash prize as well as autographed Ripley books for several entries, so there's several prizes per week and a big grand prize at the end of it of $1,000. In total in 1945, he ran over 300 military stories, almost one every single day for that whole year. And they are some of the greatest stories that he ever did, some of his best drawings.

The one that won the contest, 1943 Master Sergeant John Hassebrock of Buffalo Center, Iowa, received a three-day pass to marry a WAC corporal before he was sent overseas. The couple lost track of each other until one night in France when he made a convoy to the front lines and ended up spending the night in a farmhouse. There he unexpectedly ran into his wife on the exact day and hour of their wedding one year earlier. So wonderful, romantic, happy-ending, strange, strange, coincidence story.

Janelle: So how does Robert Ripley learn about all these stories? Do people come to him? Does he do some research? How did he find all of these crazy stories?

Edward: Well, it was a combination of both. But particularly for this World War II, 1945, it's a contest. People are writing to him the stories and then he's doing fact checking to make sure they're accurate before he gives away the prizes. But he's getting more mail than anybody in the country averaging one million pieces of mail a year. And so when he starts offering prize money, again, specifically, hey, the story has to be about something about World War II, people are just sending everything they can.

He is inundated with stories that get him through the whole year without him doing really any homework other than reading the letters. In general, I'd say we're probably about, at this point in our careers, 50/50. We research and find 50 percent of the stories. Our audience gives us 50 percent of the stories. But during Ripley's time, it's heavily audience participation. I'd say it's as much as 80/20, you know? People wanted to be in the cartoon. That was their moment of fame if they could say, hey, I was in Ripley's last week, believe it or not.

Janelle: What's your favorite military story from the Ripley's archives?

Edward: Well, probably one of the two I just said. I mean, the fact that Ripley gave them the big prizes suggested that he thought they were the best and they're both pretty incredible. But updating it a little bit, as we said, Ripley died in 1949 and we still continue to publish stories on the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.

Well, Bob Weiland in 1969 in Vietnam lost both his legs to a land mine trying to save his fellow soldier. In 1986, that's 17 years later, he "walked" 2,000 miles from California to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, propelling himself on his padded knuckles. So he crossed the country to bring awareness to Vietnam vets, a magnificent single human accomplishment. Obviously very sad that he lost his legs, but here is a man that has contributed greatly and is a model soldier that reflects on all of us.

Janelle: Yeah, Vietnam actually brings us a lot, I thought, of really interesting stories of heroism and courage. And looking over some of the ones that I've read about, there's the story of Private William Parker who survived a shot in his head. It was deflected by a Bible he kept under his helmet. I mean, it's just a very interesting, interesting story there.

Edward: Yeah. And that kind of thing, you know, I don't think we have Private Parker's actual Bible, but Ripley and Ripley's as it's still today, when we see that kind of story, we try to buy the Bible and display that in our museum so that you've got the cartoon, maybe you've got a photo. But then we bring it right into your face, bring it to life by here's the actual Bible involved in this story.

And that kind of one, I mean, that's amazing because it was shot in the head, but we have other ones with people that were saved by tobacco that was in their pocket or a necklace that they were wearing. And those kind of feel-good coincidence stories are at the heart of Ripley's military stories. We don't like to talk too much about the people that actually died.

There is a book, it's quite old now, actually, but back in the '70s we produced a paperback Ripley's Believe It or Not! book of the military. And it's a little out of date. It doesn't have a whole lot of Vietnam or since then, obviously, but it's the one-stop shopping place for anybody that's really interested in Ripley's military stories, a really nice book. I believe it was 1976, maybe '77.

Janelle: Where can listeners get that if they're interested?

Edward: Well, that's going to be a little bit of on the tough side, but a letter directly to me, Meyer@Ripleys.com, I can provide information on any book that we've ever done and we keep a selection here and a warehouse in Orlando that, if anybody is interested, we can always find a couple odd copies of everything we've ever published. But for something that old, it's probably looking on eBay and keeping your eye open.

Janelle: So going back to Vietnam, there's a story I mentioned at the beginning of our podcast where soldiers were using Slinky toys as radio antennas. So do you have some of those Slinky toys in your archives?

Edward: We do have a couple and I can vouch for how this works because we've tested it out on a camping trip. We went back into the woods and we threw a bunch of wire up into the trees and it works. It's an instant antenna, highly recommended for the bush-type people.

One of my other favorite stories regarding toys -- Silly String. Currently in the Afghan confrontation, children's Silly String is used to detect/activate traps. So they're spraying the ground to find wires, coating them with some purples and greens so they know where they're going.

It's one of those amazing little things that a side product can end up saving somebody's life. And Silly String is just a complete nonsensical thing that somebody in some warehouse, factory said we've got all those leftovers. Surely there's something we can do with it rather than throw it away.

Janelle: Well, isn't that the story of Silly Putty, too? You know? You never knew that was going to become a widely popular toy. What about from the Iraq War? Any interesting stories there?

Edward: I like that Staff Sergeant Dale Horn, because he did some very charitable friendly things to the local residents of Iraq, [they] made him an honorary sheikh. Kind of cool. Jim Dillinger, 45-year-old retired soldier from Mount Orab, Ohio, spent a year-long duty in Iraq as a combat engineer due to a clerical error. You know, nobody should be fighting on the front line at age 45.

And then more recently, Private Channing Moss -- and this is an amazing story -- driving in a Jeep. The Jeep was hit by a vehicular rocket -- I have trouble saying that word. The head of the rocket exploded on the Jeep, but the actual shaft of the rocket went through the windshield and impaled him to the front seat, survived. Obviously got a big wound in his belly, but miraculously survived and literally one second before, if that rocket head was still attached, everybody would have been gone. It's a miracle survival.

Janelle: Wow. Yeah. Another miracle survival that brings, comes to mind was another one from World War II, a man by the name of Joe Frank Jones of the 8th Army Air Force who fell 13,000 feet and suffered no broken bones. What happened there?

Edward: Well, he's in Germany, flying over Germany in a flying fortress, one of those big bomber airplanes. And his plane had a collision mid-air 13,000 feet out. He bails out still inside the tail of his airplane. So he's got some protection inside a broken-up plane. But 13,000 feet is a long way down. And miraculously he hits the ground without any injury whatsoever. Walks away from the event.

Janelle: Wow. So he must have fallen just perfectly so that the --

Edward: Absolutely perfectly and the airplane held together long enough to protect him. And that was one of the winning stories back there in 1945 and this young man got -- at the time he won the weekly prize of $100 and an autographed book by Ripley and a free pass the Ripley museum. So that was the typical sort of prize that he was giving out every week.

Janelle: So what's the reaction from all these soldiers and military personnel when they find out that you want to feature them in the Ripley's collection?

Edward: Well, there's some sense of pride, obviously, and it's not just the military. It's anybody that we approach that the thought of being famous, their 15 minutes of fame and having something in a museum that they can take their family to see and say, hey, that's my shirt or that's the bullet that was in my helmet or that's my helmet even, it's something that they hold for the rest of their life as a thing of pride.

They're happy to help us and we're happy to help them. We've missed Memorial Day here, but part of our interest here in Memorial Day, part of the promotion I guess is the right word is that for Memorial Day we always let the military veterans in for free to our museums. And year-round we always have military discounts and we're proud of our soldiers and I think they're proud of us, too.

Janelle: So how should listeners learn more about Ripley's military stories and all the artifacts that you've collected?

Edward: Well, the best place to learn all things Ripley's is our website, Ripleys.com. That's an easy one and there is a section on there that's always about what is current. Anybody can enlist or enroll for it, but we will send the Weekly Weird News to anybody that emails the site. All you have to do is click a button and say you want it and for the rest of your life until you say you don't want it, we'll send you the best Ripley's stories every week direct to your email.

In terms of specifically military, I mentioned the book of military. It might be a little tough to find 30 years later, but it's a good read if you can. And, you know, all the information about our museums, addresses, admission prices, etc., can be found on the website.

There is a section called Inside the Vault that is me, if anybody wants to learn a little bit more about myself. And what we do there is we feature more or less the best exhibit of the week and the new exhibits. We're constantly changing that so that you can learn a little bit about our collection. But, of course, the best way to learn about our collection is to visit one of our museums.

Janelle: And what if one of our listeners has a story or an artifact that they think belongs in the Ripley's collection, how should they contact you?

Edward: Well, again, they can go get to me through our website or they can come straight to me at Meyer@Ripleys.com. Our phone number in Orlando is 407-345-8010. We get some of the best mails, some great e-mails, some great phone calls every single day from around the world, so we're constantly looking and we're always willing to listen, you know?

Janelle: Great. Thank you, Edward. It was a pleasure having you with us today.

Edward: Well, my pleasure. Thank you. And, again, thank you for our veterans that serve and protect and make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom.

Janelle: Yep, you said it. All right, everyone. That was Edward Meyer, the VP of Exhibits and Archives for Ripley's Believe It or Not. Thanks, Edward.

Edward: All right. Thank you.