The True Story of a Blind Electrician: “Born a Man” as a Document of Disability Rights

This week we’re happy to welcome guest blogger Brian Real to The Unwritten RecordBrian recently received his PhD in Information Studies from the University of Maryland. Brian regularly visits the research room in College Park so we’re used to seeing his name on order sheets for reference requests. We asked him to tell us more about some of the USIA films we’ve been transferring, and in honor of White Cane Safety Day, Brian has written this essay about Born a Man.

In 1964, the United States Information Agency (USIA) hired educational filmmaker Gary Goldsmith to make a documentary about how blind persons were treated within the United States. The Soviets portrayed Americans as uncaring when it came to disabled individuals, so a simple, straightforward film showing American organizations caring for the blind would counteract this negative messaging. The film would be made for and distributed to foreign audiences through the USIA’s information centers in more than a hundred nations.

The project changed as Goldsmith conducted research. Instead of providing a broad look at the treatment of the blind in the United States, the resulting product, Born a Man, told the remarkable story of Jack Polston. Polston had recovered from an accident that blinded him and resumed his previous career as an electrician. Despite seemingly focusing on one person, Polston’s rehabilitation and life is representative of a larger movement supported by the National Federation of the Blind to promote legislative actions, training programs, and other efforts that would give blind persons greater mobility and more socioeconomic opportunities. I met with Gary Goldsmith in his Los Angeles home in May 2014 to discuss Born a Man. What follows is a brief history of the creation of this remarkable motion picture.

The Motion Picture Service of the USIA

During World War II, the United States government founded several programs to disseminate pro-American information and counter enemy propaganda abroad, such as the Office of War Information and the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. These programs were dissolved after the war, but the Cold War made it necessary for the government to continue coordinated foreign messaging and counter communist propaganda. These public diplomacy activities were overseen by the Department of State until they were spun off and put under the purview of the newly created USIA in 1952.

The USIA countered foreign propaganda by making its own messaging seem trustworthy by showing both sides of the story, including clear flaws in the American system. An example of this is the well-respected reporting of the Voice of America Radio Network, which was one of the USIA’s flagship efforts. The Agency’s early motion picture efforts were often artistically uneven, but this output improved after George Stevens Jr. took over the Motion Picture Service in 1963. His tenure is marked by his recruitment of talented filmmakers to produce short documentaries under contract. The attempts at truthful reporting remained, with films like the 1964 classic The March optimistically showing Civil Rights activists’ efforts to better the nation, while not obscuring the reasons why such change was necessary.

The Motion Picture Service also purchased copies of many existing educational, government, and other nontheatrical films that fit their mission for foreign distribution. The USIA found filmmakers through these acquisitions, as was the case with Born a Man director Gary Goldsmith.

A straight-forward shot of Larry providing orientation and mobility instruction to Jack cuts to a blurred shot with the white cane in slightly better focus, representing Polston’s disorientation. Further shots reinforce this difficulty. Blurry, quick moving close-ups of the tip of the cane show that while Jack can gain some information from it, the cane cannot yet substitute for his sight when travelling.

Gary Goldsmith: Educational Filmmaker

Gary Goldsmith began his career as an educational filmmaker in 1956, after finishing a degree in film production from UCLA. After making several films for companies such as Churchill/Wexler and Film Associates, he and fellow filmmaker Ed Schuman started their own company, Dimension Films, in 1962.

Most educational films at that time were short, ten-to-fifteen minute works created by teachers rather than filmmakers. Goldsmith believed there was a market for longer form, more artistic works. The first project he wrote, directed, and edited as his own executive producer was True Story of an Election. The film followed two candidates, Democrat Richard T. Hanna and Republican Bob Geier, as they challenged each other for control of California’s newly created 34th Congressional district. Goldsmith had a high level of access, as the only campaign activities the candidates barred Goldsmith from filming were meetings with donors. Activities filmed included moments when former Vice President Nixon and former President Truman made campaign appearances for their respective party candidates. The result was a little known, forty-eight minute masterpiece of educational cinema, which provided secondary school students with an intimate look at the campaign process.

As Jack tries to think through what went wrong when crossing the street, a shot of the previous scene shows it from a high angle that shows the entire intersection and possible hazards. For Jack to be able to orient himself and travel alone, he will need to mentally construct spaces in a similar manner.

As Jack tries to think through what went wrong when crossing the street, a shot of the previous scene shows it from a high angle that shows the entire intersection and possible hazards. For Jack to be able to orient himself and travel alone, he will need to mentally construct spaces in a similar manner.

Recruitment by USIA

True Story of an Election was one of many films the USIA purchased for distribution to its cultural centers, since it could show foreign audiences the benefits of democracy without shying away from some of the less pleasant aspects of the campaign process. Goldsmith recalls that when he was recruited, a USIA employee called, explained what the Agency did, and stated, “We’ve seen your film about the election, and we have a project to do a film about rehabilitation of the blind. If you’d like to do that film, we’ll go ahead, and if you don’t want to do it, we won’t call you again.” Goldsmith accepted the commission.

The USIA recruiter explained they wanted a film about the treatment of the blind “to counteract Soviet propaganda portraying the United States as a heartless society that exploited the weak and had no support for people in need. They wanted to show that people with disabilities had government support.” The contract was for a ten minute documentary on American organizations that helped blind persons. As Goldsmith conducted research into this area, though, the project became far more interesting.

As Jack waits for Larry to arrive and assist him, a woman approaches him and forces a coin into his hand before he has time to react. In anger over the assumption that he must be needy and dependent on others, he throws the coin in the direction the woman went. This action motivates him to defy expectations and rely on himself.

Jack Polston, Jacobus tenBroek, and Born a Man

Goldsmith met Jack Polston in 1964 during his pre-filming research. Polston had been an electrician before he was blinded in an accident years before. After completing training at the State of California Department of Rehabilitation Orientation Center for the Blind in Oakland, he resumed his former trade. He criticized most other available rehabilitation programs because the organizations running them, whether they were nonprofits or run by state and local governments, were led by sighted individuals who gave blind persons little input into their own assistance. The end result was limited mobility training and the placement of blind persons in “sheltered” workshops, where they performed simple tasks in protected environments in exchange for remuneration that was usually below the minimum wage. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) was the leading advocacy organization against such treatment and for greater independence, with affiliated institutions like the Oakland Orientation Center providing training needed to enable blind Americans.

Polston suggested that Goldsmith speak to NFB founder Jacobus tenBroek, a Professor of Speech and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley who, like most of the leadership of the NFB, was blind himself. He was also an influential advocate for civil rights. Thurgood Marshall used tenBroek’s writings on the fourteenth amendment when crafting his successful arguments in Brown v. Board, and other research argued against the constitutionality of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In a minor coincidence, Goldsmith had taken a course that tenBroek taught on Constitutional Law when he was a sophomore.

tenBroek discussed the needs of blind Americans and flaws with what he saw as paternalistic, oppressive rehabilitation systems in his 1959 book Hope Deferred: Public Welfare and the Blind. He instead advocated for greater federal support for sight impaired individuals that would protect them from the risk of poverty, coupled with employment protections and government funding for training programs to enable them to achieve greater personal and financial independence. Federal legislation based on these ideals failed to pass Congress in 1959, despite Senator John F. Kennedy sponsoring his chamber’s version of the bill and Jack Polston testifying before Congress as an exemplar of what a blind individual could achieve with proper orientation and mobility training. However, this laid the groundwork for similar laws in numerous states and future Civil Rights efforts led by disabled Americans.

Learning of the NFB and tenBroek’s positions, combined with witnessing his and Polston’s own autonomy and high level of personal and professional success, led Goldsmith to shift the focus of his film from traditional organizations that took a paternalistic stance with the blind to instead reflect the NFB’s philosophy. To tell this story, Jack Polston agreed to reenact his own rehabilitation. Goldsmith also received the USIA’s approval to make this change with no resistance whatsoever. It is because of this shift that the resulting film, Born a Man, is a stirring document of the early stages of the drive for civil rights for disabled persons, showing their desire for independence and societal value.

Realizing that Larry isn’t coming and he must depend on himself, Jack begins to cross the street alone. A low-angle shot of the tip of the cane shows nearby traffic clearly, with the lack of blurring from previous cane shots demonstrating the Jack can now use the instrument to adequately perceive his surroundings. After an edit to another angle, Jack is wearing a different shirt. This is not a continuity error, but instead it is a different day and travelling alone has become routine. Jack smiles as his self-confidence returns and continues to grow.

Some Notes on the Film

Goldsmith used fictional elements in Born a Man, but the end result is a film that is emotionally truthful. Polston was not married at the time of his accident. Instead, he met his wife, who was also blind, after he lost his sight. The couple made national news when his wife gave birth to twins in 1964, the same year Born a Man was produced. Knowing this does not make the casting of an actress to play a fictional, sighted wife who is pregnant feel manipulative. Instead, seeing her care for and guide Polston demonstrates his initial sense of helplessness, while his concerns about how he will provide for her and his impending first child emphasizes his fears about how he will be able to fulfill traditional masculine roles and maintain a sense of purpose. Externalizing these fears through his relationships with family allows Polston’s reenactment to efficiently convey emotional truths he internalized after his accident.

Other details are true to the events Polston had experienced years before, including having the social worker and the orientation and mobility instructor who assisted him play themselves. Likewise, the two street crossing scenes – the dramatic highlights of the film – accurately show how the Oakland Orientation Center operated. When Goldsmith visited the Center on a research trip before shooting, a representative told him trainees were not informed upon entering that, once they reached a certain level of ability and confidence, they would be left alone in a public place to fend for themselves. Polstron’s anger and sense of betrayal at being forced to put his new abilities to use without supervision were accurate representations of his experiences, as was the satisfaction that came with reclaiming his autonomy and ability to resume his former trade.

Completion and Subsequent Work

When Goldsmith completed a rough cut of the film, he flew to Washington, DC to show it to George Stevens Jr. and other USIA staffers. He had been told to expect suggestions for how to cut it from twenty minutes to the ten minutes stipulated in the contract. Knowing this, Goldsmith screened the film and read narration aloud himself, since this had not yet been recorded. When the lights went up he was informed the film merited its length. No cuts were requested. To further lift the prestige of an excellent work, the USIA sought out Edward G. Robinson as the narrator for prints distributed in English language territories.

After his rehabilitation training, Jack Polston returned to his job as an electrician.

Following Stevens’ departure and due to the fact that he was better able to earn a living from making his own educational films, Goldsmith ceased contract work with the USIA. He continued his educational film work work into the 1990s, when he shifted to multimedia projects. From 1997 through 2009 he worked with the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, teaching filmmaking, coordinating the beginning production courses, and contributing to the program curriculum. He still lives in Los Angeles where he continues to work on various interactive media projects.

Brian Real completed his PhD in Information Studies from the University of Maryland in summer 2015. His dissertation focused on the historical intersection of film preservation and public policy from the 1960s to the present. He is working on several academic journal articles on the United States Information Agency film program, one of which will be an extended version of this blog post.

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The Aviator, the Explorer, and the Radio Man: The 1925 MacMillan Arctic Expedition

A Little-Known Expedition

If you know anything about Admiral Richard E. Byrd, you probably know that he was the first to fly over the North and South Poles, and that he led several expeditions in Antarctica. However, you probably don’t know the story of his first Arctic expedition. In fact, most accounts muddy the details and depend solely on Byrd’s account, which leaves out the best part: the story of how three men, one Navy pilot (Byrd), one experienced Arctic explorer (Donald B. MacMillan), and one the founder of Zenith Radio (Eugene MacDonald), ushered in a modern era of polar exploration that included airplanes and successful radio communication.

Clips of six reels of footage from the 1925 expedition. Donated by Richard E. Byrd in 1938, along with films of his other polar expeditions. You can see the complete reels on our YouTube channel.

Before we can talk about Byrd’s 1925 expedition, we have to talk a little about Donald B. MacMillan. Accounts of the expedition frequently cast MacMillan as a rival of sorts who stole Byrd’s plan to take fixed-wing aircraft (basically an airplane rather than a gas-filled dirigible) to the Arctic and then wouldn’t let Byrd do his aviation work once they arrived in the Arctic. The glaring error in that narrative is, of course, that it’s not totally true. Letters and other textual evidence show that MacMillan’s plans to use planes for the 1925 expedition pre-date Byrd’s by months; Byrd seems to have changed his story when funding for his dirigible plan fell through (all of this is detailed in John H. Bryant and Harold N Cones’ book Dangerous Crossings). MacMillan probably did keep Byrd from making an attempt on the pole, but the weather had a lot to do with that, too.

The Explorer and the Aviator

So who was Donald MacMillan? In 1925, MacMillan was a somewhat famous Arctic explorer. With several Arctic expeditions to his name, MacMillan had spent more time in the region than any other living non-native. MacMillan accompanied Robert Peary on his 1908-09 (possibly) successful North Pole expedition, and spent four years stranded in Northwest Greenland while searching for an Arctic land mass called Crocker Land. It turned out Crocker Land didn’t exist, but MacMillan had other achievements on the expedition, including gathering scientific data about the region, shooting the first film in Greenland and compiling a dictionary of the native language of the Inuit. Since commissioning the schooner Bowdoin in 1921, MacMillan had also completed other journeys to the Arctic, always with scientists on board conducting experiments and collecting flora and fauna to advance knowledge of the region. In short, Donald MacMillan was someone the United States Navy could trust to safely lead an Arctic expedition.

The Schooner Bowdoin was built in 1921 and designed for navigating Arctic waters. She has journeyed north of the Arctic Circle 28 times and currently serves as the official sailing vessel of the state of Maine. Still from BYRD-BYRD-84.

The Schooner Bowdoin was built in 1921 and designed for navigating Arctic waters. She has journeyed north of the Arctic Circle 28 times and currently serves as the official sailing vessel of the state of Maine. Still from BYRD-BYRD-84.

Richard Byrd may have the more recognizable name today, but in 1925, Byrd was an underdog of sorts. Certainly, he came from a prominent and influential Virginia family (one of the First Families of Virginia, in fact), had a solid naval career, and had invented some important tools for aerial navigation. The problem was he had yet to make a major mark on the world. Being the first to fly over the North Pole would bring acclaim to the Navy, and it would also put Byrd’s name in history books. Byrd was up against some stiff competition for the title, though, with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen also planning an attempt in the summer of 1925.

Dashed Hopes and Dangerous Waters

In the months leading up to the summer of 1925, Byrd pursued a plan to acquire a dirigible and fly it over the North Pole. MacMillan, along with Eugene MacDonald, founder of Zenith Radio, planned to take the Bowdoin to Northwest Greenland and test radio communications. The two also held meetings with Navy officials to ask about acquiring an amphibious plane to look for land in the ice-covered Polar Sea. Any land discovered could be claimed for the United States, which would be a strategic coup for national defense. Clearly, the two men had very different goals; conflict was probably inevitable.

The 1925 MacMillan Arctic Expedition left Wiscasset, Maine on July 20. MacMillan was reactivated as a naval officer and put in command of the expedition while Byrd took charge of the aviation unit. MacDonald was given command of a ship that he had purchased for the expedition and renamed the Peary. The party traveled north through unseasonably icy waters, eventually arriving in Etah, the community in Northwest Greenland where Donald MacMillan had previously been stranded for four years.

Travel was slower than Byrd would have liked, and he saw precious time slipping away. In his diary, Byrd griped that MacMillan was overcautious and unwilling to move forward; he even seemed to ascribe an ulterior motive to MacMillan’s decisions, as if MacMillan were intentionally trying to thwart Byrd. The loss of time and unexpected environmental conditions were fatal to Byrd’s plans. With no place to land, the aviation unit had difficulty establishing a base camp from which to launch exploratory flights over the Polar Sea. By the time conditions improved, it was time to start back home. There was certainly no extra time to attempt a flight over the North Pole.

Stills from Richard Byrd’s unedited footage of the 1925 expedition (BYRD-BYRD-84)

MacMillan’s caution was not unwarranted, however–the summer was the coldest in living memory and ice clogging the waterways could have crushed the Peary or the Bowdoin. Other ships were destroyed that summer in those waters. In fact, there were many times that members of the expedition escaped death through a combination of luck and extreme skill. With no open water to land the amphibious planes, pilots that ran into engine trouble either had to climb out while in flight and hope they could fix it quickly, or anticipate a crash landing on the pressure ridges of the Arctic ice. Because of extreme cold, engine trouble was not uncommon. Even the journey home was complicated by the remnants of an active hurricane season, but the Peary and the Bowdoin made it to safe harbor and every man made it home alive.

Talking to the North Pole

Right now you might be asking yourself if anything was actually accomplished by the time the expedition’s crew returned in October. It’s true–Richard Byrd was not able to make an attempt to fly over the North Pole, and the naval aviation unit never explored the Polar Sea, but the flights were valuable in the experimental sense. Future aviation efforts built on the experiences of the 1925 expedition. Further, making a flight over the North Pole may have been Byrd’s personal goal, but it was not actually a primary concern of the expedition.

In addition, really important advances were made in radio communications, the kind that are so fundamental that we just take them for granted today. Today we just assume that with the right technology we can talk to anyone anywhere, but even as recently as the 1920s, this was not the case. Donald MacMillan began his working relationship with Eugene MacDonald after he stated that the worst thing about being in the Arctic was not the cold or darkness, but the isolation. MacMillan knew about isolation: when a ship finally came to take MacMillan home after his four year Crocker Land expedition, he did not even know that the First World War was happening. He tried taking a radio on a later expedition, but discovered that it was useless in the Arctic. Eugene MacDonald stepped in and provided shortwave radios (medium wave by today’s classification) for MacMillan’s 1924 expedition, and the Arctic silence was broken.

For the 1925 expedition, Eugene MacDonald further tested the usefulness of shortwave radios in the Arctic, sending out messages to and from the States, and holding a concert of Inuit music that was received as far as New Zealand. MacDonald even conducted business with his Chicago office while on the Peary, possibly making him the first long-distance telecommuter.

The 1925 expedition, while not a source of glory for Richard Byrd, was by no means a failure.

About the records and sources:

The National Archives holds a large amount of motion picture material relating to the career of Admiral Richard E. Byrd. The films are found mainly in the Navy’s records, but are also in other military record groups, various newsreel series, in the Ford Motor Company collection, and, of course, in the films that Byrd gave to the Archives in 1938. MacMillan’s films of the 1925 expedition are held at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I was once a staff member).

Most of the information about the 1925 expedition came from John H. Bryant and Harold N. Cones deeply researched book Dangerous Crossings: The First Modern Polar Expedition, 1925. In addition to the papers of Byrd, MacMillan, and MacDonald, Bryant and Cones consulted textual records held at NARA to complete the picture of the 1925 expedition.

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Colorful Chemistry and a Visit to Your National Parks

This gallery contains 3 photos.

If I asked you to tell me what you think of when you think of silent films, one characteristic you may mention is that silent films are black and white. While it is true that most silent films were shot … Continue reading

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From Mariel Harbor to Eglin Air Force Base: Cuban Refugees and the Mariel Boatlift

This post was written by Beth Fortson.  Beth is an Archives Technician with the Still Photos Branch in College Park, MD. 

In April 1980, after desperate attempts by Cubans to gain asylum at the gates of the Peruvian Embassy, Fidel Castro was pressured to ease restrictions on emigration and granted those wishing to immigrate to the United States the chance to do so. This mass exodus of Cubans, leaving from Mariel Harbor and braving the 90 mile journey between the two countries, became known as the Mariel Boatlift.

Local ID: 342-CR-21

These photos were recently received and processed by the Still Photos Branch and are part of the series, Photographs of Cuban Refugee Support Operations at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.  Local ID: 342-CR-21

On April 22 1980, an official announcement was published in a Cuban newspaper notifying those wishing to emigrate of the ability to be picked up by private boats at Mariel Harbor. Many living in the United States with ties to Cuba rushed to the port of Key West, Florida to obtain boats and set out towards the port of Mariel. The United States Coast Guard noted that the size of the refugee flotilla, dubbed “Freedom Flotilla” by the U.S. media, was staggering with the first wave of boats leaving for Cuba numbering 1,000 to 1,200. This high volume was due in part to a large number of Cuban-Americans who owned boats. Facing poor weather, overcrowded boats, and anti-refugee sentiment in the United States, the refugees were processed out of Cuba, and after reaching the port of Key West were temporarily placed in resettlement camps before sponsorship and processing was complete.

Eglin Air Force Base, Florida was just one of four additional resettlement camps established by an Executive Order. Today, more than 35 years later, The National Archives holds photographs depicting the first refugees to arrive at Eglin Air Force Base and life in the camp while awaiting resettlement.

Members of Eglin’s Civil Engineering are shown working late into the night frantically building facilities. Construction continued 24-hours a day for the first 11 days. Local ID: 342-CR-2.

Members of Eglin’s Civil Engineering are shown working late into the night frantically building facilities. Construction continued 24-hours a day for the first 11 days. Local ID: 342-CR-2.

The preparations for the refugees began frantically; for the first eleven days construction continued 24 hours a day in order to build the first of over 450 tents that would eventually become Campo Libertad, or Camp Liberty. Prefabricated materials allowed the tents to be constructed in a modular fashion in an average of 30 minutes. The camp also contained mobile field kitchens, immigration and processing stations, and mobile field hospitals.


The first 125 of what would eventually total 10,025 Cuban refugees arrived at Eglin on 3 May, 1980. They were greeted on arrival by Maj. Gen. Robert Bond, Armament Division Commander, Jeanne Luciana of the FWB Press Club, Mayor Irene Balsley, and many other local citizens. Local ID: 342-CR-5

The first 125 refugees arrived on May 3, 1980 on a flight from Key West, but that number would soon become 10,025. At the height of operations, airmen served nearly 30,000 meals per day. The arrival of the Cubans attracted so much information that more than 300 newspapers, magazines, radio, and television stations sent reporters and photographers to the camp.

A reporter from WEAR-TV interviews one of the first Cubans to arrive at the camp. The refugees attracted much attention. So much in fact, that more than 300 newspapers, magazines and radio and television stations sent reporters and photographers to the camp. Local ID: 342-CR-9.

A reporter from WEAR-TV interviews one of the first Cubans to arrive at the camp. The refugees attracted much attention. So much in fact, that more than 300 newspapers, magazines and radio and television stations sent reporters and photographers to the camp. Local ID: 342-CR-9.

In the first several days of Camp Liberty the number of refugees outnumbered the amount of available beds and the refugees were temporarily housed in hangars and gyms. Upon arrival, the refugees often received a meal or were able to pick out a change of clothes from clothing and shoes donated by local residents, churches, and the Red Cross.

Donations of clothing came in through the Red Cross, Eglin Base Chapels, and local citizens. One of the first things many Cubans did upon arriving at the camp was to pick out a change of clothes, though sometimes it was hard to find the right size. Local ID: 342-CR-25

Donations of clothing came in through the Red Cross, Eglin Base Chapels, and local citizens. One of the first things many Cubans did upon arriving at the camp was to pick out a change of clothes, though sometimes it was hard to find the right size. Local ID: 342-CR-25

Air Force documentation states that immigration and naturalization processing continued 24 hours a day until the last Cuban completed the tedious and hours-long process. The exodus of immigrants ended with a mutual agreement between the Cuban and American governments in October of 1980 after approximately 125,000 refugees emigrated from Cuba.

Immigration and naturalization processing 24 hours a day until the last Cuban had completed the hours-long process. The waiting was often tedious, but nobody would say it was not worth the trouble to live in America. Local ID: 342-CR-27.

These images are found in RG 342-CR with Records of United States Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations. Additional research can be completed at the National Archives at College Park with textual records entry UD-WW 1281, Historian Background File Concerning Refugee Resettlement, 1975-1980.

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The Tale of the Forgotten Films: An Archival Rescue

This gallery contains 4 photos.

Donna Anoskey and Dan Rooney contributed to this post. Years ago many government agencies, along with Hollywood and independent film makers, stored film productions with the private laboratories that provided their duplication services. In 2001, one of the premier film facilities on … Continue reading

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In Search of…Leonard Nimoy

A few months ago, I spent more time than usual with a film reference request. The film copy that came down for Clear Skies, Clean Air (1971) was 35/32mm, which meant that I had to make a print before I could run it on the film scanner. I listened to the soundtrack several times while I was prepping, performing quality control, and eventually transferring the film on our HD scanner. It was while I was scanning the film that I got the idea that Leonard Nimoy might be the uncredited narrator.

But why, you ask, would Leonard Nimoy narrate a GSA film about converting cars to liquid natural gas? That I don’t exactly know, but I’ll lay out the evidence as I see it.

When I first listened, while prepping the film, I thought it sounded like “Standard 1970s Narrator Guy.” You may know him—he narrated educational films that were in use for decades. Upon a second listen, during the quality control process, I thought that, more specifically, the voiceover sounded like the narrator from In Search of…, that fantastic 1970s television program about mysteries like the possible existence of Big Foot and the lost Roanoke colony. Only while I was scanning the film did I remember that In Search of… was narrated by Leonard Nimoy. At that point, my colleague Heidi Holmstrom walked in and said “Is this Leonard Nimoy?”


Leonard Nimoy narrates Tuesday, May 19, 1981, a 1970s training film that warns against improper handling of chemicals.

Right there, that was enough for me. I did, however, look for production files (there are none), and asked the researcher, who works at the GSA, if he knew anything about the film. No leads. I admit I became a little obsessed with proving that Clear Skies, Clean Air was narrated by an uncredited Leonard Nimoy, asking colleagues and friends to chime in. I made the case to a few folks, but no one guessed Leonard Nimoy without my prompting.

So, I turn to you. Do you think Clear Skies, Clean Air is Leonard Nimoy? For comparison, I’m including a clip from a Union Carbide training film Nimoy narrated in the late 1970s detailing events of a “future” day when carelessness in chemical handling led to multiple disasters. (The disasters were hypothetical, but the date became so ingrained in the minds of viewers that, when an actual chemical accident occurred in New Jersey on May 19, 1981, it appeared the film had prophesied it.)

For your consideration, here is a comparison of the conclusions of both films:

As a final piece of evidence, before you vote, I will remind you that Leonard Nimoy was not only known for his voiceover skill, he was also a clean air advocate! Turn your attention to the 1962 telegram that Leonard Nimoy sent to President John F. Kennedy, in which he pleaded: “In [the] name of decency, don’t pollute air with bomb. Preserve children’s right [to] breathe clean air.”

Please vote in our completely non-scientific poll:

And here’s the complete, Nimoy-guaranteed Tuesday, May 19, 1981:

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A Bike Like No Other

How do you get around when you live on a 1.2 square-mile island with no privately owned vehicles? If you live on Kwajalein Island, bicycles are the answer. But these aren’t just any bicycles.

Kwaj Bike

A cyclist on Kwajalein Island rides a modified “Kwaj bike” in a 1972 film

Kwajalein Island is a part of the United States’ Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site (formerly Kwajalein Missile Range). The Range encompasses a number of islands that are part of Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Bicycles are the main mode of transportation, but these aren’t the 10-speed road bikes or mountain bikes common in the United States. Due to the salty air and humid climate, any bike but the most sturdy will quickly rust away. The “Kwaj bike” is usually a single-speed bike with coaster brakes. Some of them have been modified to elevate the handlebars to chin level, or above.

The film these images were taken from was shot in 1972, but similar bicycles can still be found today on Kwajalein Island.

This film (111-LC-57627) also includes footage of recreational activities on Kwajalein Island and images of an interview with base commander Colonel Jesse L. Fishback (no audio).

If you can’t get enough archival film featuring bicycles, here’s another treat for you. The Open Road, presented by the United States Information Service, follows a group of young people as they bike through Southeastern Pennsylvania, staying at a youth hostel in rural Lancaster County and visiting Valley Forge National Historical Park.

We wish you well in your own summer bicycle adventures!

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Remembering Hurricane Katrina (Photos)

Many Americans living along the Gulf Coast do not need an anniversary to reflect upon Hurricane Katrina.  The natural disaster caused overwhelming hardship for thousands, irreparably damaging houses, businesses and entire cities.  Katrina left a legacy that they will never forget.


New Orleans, LA-September 8, 2005- Neighborhoods and roadways throughout the area remain flooded as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Local ID: 311-MAD-192002. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

Yet for some, the ten years since the hurricane has blunted Katrina’s gravity.  While we may know that the hurricane was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, it is hard to put that into perspective.  Memories of the event are largely a blurred hodgepodge of political criticism, stories of survival, and the ever-ongoing recovery effort.

The images of Katrina reflect the power of photography.  A camera, whether manned by a government photographer or casual bystander, captures a moment in time.  At the National Archives, our goal is to preserve these moments.  We preserve photos so generations to come will be able to look back on events like Hurricane Katrina and understand its impact on American lives.

New Orleans, LA, August 30, 2005--Resuce operations continue at a staging area set up for local, state and federal operations. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

New Orleans, LA, August 30, 2005–Resuce operations continue at a staging area set up for local, state and federal operations.
Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

Ten years removed, the photos remind us of two things. First, is the unprecedented impact of the hurricane.  Images of overturned boats, demolished houses, and shattered windows remind us (for those that need reminding) of the magnitude of the storm.  Yet also, and perhaps more importantly, we are reminded of the way our nation came together in the aftermath of Katrina.  In these photos, the bravery of rescue workers, volunteers, fire fighters, and ordinary people shines through.  Faced with crisis, Americans united to help one another.

The photos below come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  In the weeks following the hurricane, FEMA photographers documented the physical and social impact of the storm.  These photos, and others related to Hurricane Katrina, can be found on our online catalog.

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For more historical background on the levee system and flood control along the Gulf of Mexico check out our recent blog post, Taming the Mississippi.

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Taming the Mississippi

This post was written in collaboration with Ellen Mulligan.

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the worst flood in U.S. history.

RG 23 Mississippi Flood Map 1927 NAID 2436794

RG 23 Mississippi Flood Map 1927 NAID 2436794

Following the mass destruction caused by the flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expanded the existing levee system to more than 3,500 miles, making it the longest in the world. Plans and progress from 1938 are illustrated below.

RG 77 Flood Control Maps NAID 1078584, Mississippi River Basin 1938

RG 77 Flood Control Maps NAID 1078584, Mississippi River Basin 1938

The levees were meant to decrease flooding along the river, but after subsequent major floods some believe that this altering of the course of the Mississippi has increased flood damage during storms. The films below show construction of levees along the Mississippi.

Levee Construction, Mississippi River, Vicinity Arkansas City, NAID 21331650, Local ID: 77-GENERAL-119*

This film includes intertitles describing the project, including levee specifications. I found it interesting that in addition to providing information regarding the height of the tower and the generator used, at 2:28 they also tell the cost of running the levee. I was pretty amazed at the cost to operate one levee, which is listed as $20,000/month. In today’s dollars that is $274,000.

Methods of Levee Construction on the Mississippi River, NAID 22377367, Local ID: 77-GENERAL-120*

Levees also attempt to control the river’s ever-changing course. Channels change course due to the constant movement of sediment and erosion of banks. Compiling survey information from 1765 to the 1930’s, this map shows changes in the river channel in the Arkansas City area featured in the film above.

Click on the images above for a slide show at full size.

Levees are also intended to prevent flooding from storm surges like the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. A follow-up post will feature records related to that storm. More records relating to levees on the Mississippi River can be found by searching our catalog.

*The links to these catalog entries are currently broken. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Posted in Cartographic Records, Films, Motion Pictures | Tagged , | 1 Comment

NARA Holdings Well-Represented at Archival Film Symposium


The Alamo Theatre in Bucksport, Maine is the home of Northeast Historic Film and the site of their Summer Symposium.

In late July, Audrey and I traveled to Bucksport, Maine, to attend the Northeast Historic Film (NHF) Wunderkino 5 symposium. The theme for the annual event was “Images of War and Peace,” which aligns perfectly with the types of films preserved at the National Archives (NARA).  We were delighted to see several presentations that highlighted NARA films.

The symposium kicked off with a service project during which we tested a portion of NHF’s collection of donated 16mm projectors. Although the first projector tested threatened to burst into flames, we accomplished a lot. At the end of four hours, participants had identified a number of working projectors, set aside those that needed repair or could be salvaged for parts, and collected and organized working projector bulbs and lamps.

The first presentation we encountered featuring NARA films came from Christine Gorby, a professor of architecture at The Pennsylvania State University. Her presentation “Preserved Food, Identity, and Experience in Post-WWI” was built around an analysis of how material culture and space were used in American Home Canning in France (1919) to shape cultural food practices during French postwar reconstruction. Gorby has done extensive research on films of the United States Department of Agriculture. Other NARA films referenced in her presentation include Cured by Canning and How to Eat Cottage Cheese.

The subsequent presentations also touched on films preserved at NARA. Timothy Wisniewski of the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives at Johns Hopkins University used an Army Film Bulletin titled The General Hospital to introduce his presentation on films shot by physicians stationed at Army general hospitals during World War II. Devin Orgeron, film studies professor at North Carolina State University, gave a presentation titled “P is for Patriot: The Manufacturing of Americans from WWII-Vietnam” and showed a film from NARA’s United States Information Agency record group titled 200, which was made by animator Vincent Collins as part of the USIA’s Young Filmmaker Bicentennial Grant program. Sharon Thompson, founder of the Lesbian Home Movie Project, presented on lost WWII women directors and showed Elizabeth Wheeler’s 1943 film It’s Up to You!, available here on the NARA YouTube channel:

Fred Pond, Reference and Instruction Librarian at the University of Vermont’s Bailey/Howe Library, spoke about the local WWII home front as captured in different types of films, such as an amateur film showing the activities of the Vermont State Guard. Pond was working with films held at the Vermont Historical Society, but two of the titles also have a home at NARA. A Town Solves a Problem and Dorothy Thompson’s 1941 Farm Work is War Work both featured Vermont communities as their setting. The first demonstrates democracy in action through the small-town meeting process and the second promoted a program for young people who wanted to support the war effort by providing labor assistance to farmers.

NHF’s Wunderkino 5 demonstrated how researchers from diverse backgrounds draw on the motion picture holdings of the National Archives in their work. We take pride in our work preserving these films and making them accessible, and always appreciate seeing the research and productions that they inform.

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