Emancipation Day

Posted June 4th, 2010 at 6:15 pm (UTC-4)
7 comments

What would you call May 8th if you wanted to make it a holiday? Mayth? Would September 1st be Septemberst?

No such holidays exist. But there is a similar one — in June, on the 19th. It’s a day of great significance to all Americans and African Americans in particular.

It’s called “Juneteenth,” and a lot Americans, blacks included, have never heard of it.

June 19th is sometimes called “Emancipation Day” or “African-American Independence Day.” Here’s how it came about:

In 1863, two years into the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in the rebellious southern Confederacy free.

Lincoln’s proclamation was mostly a symbolic gesture, designed to unsettle the enemy and instill hope in the oppressed. It had little practical effect, since the Union was not yet in a position to enforce it. Slavery had to be wrenched from wealthy white southerners at the point of a bayonet. Months after the rebel army surrendered in April 1865, defiant slaveowners continued to hold human chattel in Texas, the most remote of the Confederate states.

In June of that year Union general Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, the island city that was then the most prosperous place in Texas. Much of the populace there — slaves in particular — had no idea that the U.S. Civil War had ended 2½ months earlier or that the era of slavery was over.

There was much speculation as to why Granger took his sweet time getting to Texas. Galveston Island was, admittedly, a “haul” from New Orleans, the nearest big southern city in Union hands. But conspiracy theorists speculate that Granger and his men wanted to give plantation owners time to harvest one last cotton crop before halting their inhumane enterprises.

Granger’s order freeing America’s last known slaves and read in Galveston’s town square on June 19th, 1865, took note of fears that freed slaves who had relied upon their overseers for sustenance would be set loose on towns and military camps:


“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Up in Washington, the U.S. Congress was of a mind to punish the defeated South and codify the rights of freed slaves. It quickly passed the 14th Amendment to the national constitution, granting slaves — who had been little more than property under the law — full citizenship and all the benefits that came with it.

When most southern states refused to ratify the amendment, Congress declared martial law, dividing the region into five military districts and dispatching troops to enforce what was called the “reconstruction” of the South.

In 1870, five years after the war’s end during the term of President Ulysses S. Grant — the former supreme commander of the Union Army that had swept to victory in the South — Congress passed the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing all citizens full voting rights as well.

But Reconstruction could not, and did not, last. Although blacks temporarily rose to power in many of the places where they had recently been enslaved, whites scorned them at every turn and maneuvered for a quick return to power.

President Grant’s successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, gained office in 1877 after an election that he actually lost. U.S. presidents are chosen, not in the popular vote, but by a few electors selected by the winning political party in each state. Deals can be made, and Hayes made one. He got the presidency after agreeing to pull federal troops from the South.

The soldiers’ departure brought a quick end to any illusions that blacks would share power. Reigns of terror and repressive state laws ushered in almost a century of systematic racial segregation.

Nevertheless, blacks throughout the South came together whenever they could on June 19th for home-cooked meals, prayer, fervent singing, Juneteenth stories, and re-enactments of General Granger’s proclamation.

According to the Juneteenth.com Web site, which describes efforts by American expatriates to spread the celebration around the globe, “Dress was an important element in early Juneteenth customs and is often still taken seriously. . . . During slavery there were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the [Juneteenth] emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers to adorn clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former ‘masters.’”

At Juneteenth’s height in 1930, 75 years after General Granger’s proclamation, an estimated 200,000 people attended an Emancipation Day celebration at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. But slowly — especially following the passage of civil-rights legislation in the 1960s — the informal holiday lost its luster as blacks began to feel more a part of the American mainstream. They switched to much more lavish American Independence Day festivities on July fourth.

Juneteenth slid nearly out of sight and mind, and even history textbooks failed to give June 19th any special meaning. This disappointed acclaimed concert pianist and composer Robert Pritchard of the historically black Lincoln University in Philadelphia. He had led the push to expand “Negro History Week,” begun in the 1920s, into a full Black History Month.

“The rights and freedoms of the Declaration of Independence referred to Euro-Americans only, because my ancestors were slaves,” Pritchard said. “But by 19 June, 1865, every word — every one of the high principles —really became apropos to Americans of all colors, creeds, cultures, and countries of origin.”

Texas blacks — and many whites and Latinos, too — however, did not lose sight of Juneteenth. In 1980, the state enacted a bill to create an official June 19th state holiday — the first in the nation — devoted to African-American culture. (There was some justice and balance in this as Texas also marks Confederate Heroes’ Day on January 19th. Not too many Confederate heroes were African Americans.)

State Representative Al Edwards of Houston sponsored the legislation that set aside Juneteenth as something more than a ceremonial holiday like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. All state employees — save for a skeleton crew of people to keep the offices open — get the day off.

On many a Juneteenth, Edwards told me, his father and other parents on his block slow-cooked beef barbecue in pits dug in the earth. There were baseball games and church services. People drank Polly’s soda pop, a sweet red drink with a lemonade base.

In 2005, a small Juneteenth statue depicting a black man reading the Emancipation Proclamation was erected outside Galveston’s Ashton Villa house museum, and there are plans to mount a larger version on the capitol grounds in Austin.

Not everyone is thrilled, however, that the person depicted in the sculpture is none other than Al Edwards.

Over time, about half of the other 49 U.S. states declared their own Juneteenth holidays. And for years, the Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., a Mississippi ordained minister and family-health physician, has led a campaign, thus far unsuccessfully, to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

I remember coming across a plaque outside a building in Baltimore, Maryland. “Juneteenth National Museum,” it read. Inside, I found a cluttered basement office with no exhibits, save for a painting or two. It was a virtual museum only, with an active Internet Web site.

When I looked online a few days ago, the site was gone. But on another Web site listing Juneteenth events across the country, the national museum got a mention, along with a notation that it offered underground-railroad tours. (The underground railroad was not a rail line but a network of safe houses, kept by abolitionists and others, for escaped slaves who were fleeing north.)

I reconnected with the Juneteenth National Museum’s director, community activist Morning Sunday Hettleman, who for years has organized Baltimore’s June 19th celebrations. She told me the museum’s funding has been a casualty of Maryland’s severe budget shortfall.

But this year’s celebration will go on as scheduled. It will take place at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, famous as the site where Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” — our eventual national anthem. During the festivities, historic re-enactors will tell stories, not of “bombs bursting in air” as British warships besieged the fort during the War of 1812, but of the black carpenters and other artisans who built many of the fortifications there and at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, where the Civil War would ignite 53 years later. They will mention, too, that the servant who alerted Key that “the star-spangled banner still waves” after the British bombardment was a black man.

Morning Hettleman told me she and others needed to keep Juneteenth alive because northern blacks, in particular, had lost touch with what it stands for.

“As a matter of fact,” she said, “when I first went to some of the leaders in the African-American community to ask them about helping, they said there had been more freedmen than slaves in Maryland, so celebrating Juneteenth was unnecessary. I went ahead and prepared. I had dancers. A friend of mine had made all this food, and when only 10 people showed up, I was in shock. So I realized there had to be a massive education process.”

These days across the South, especially, many more than 10 people show up for the picnics, presentations, and the singing of lyrics such as “I’m on my way to Freedom Land” from old Negro spirituals.

Ten years ago, I met Sharon Pinchback, a U.S. Postal Service worker and mother of three, who had been crowned “Ms. Juneteenth” at the previous year’s event. She had a fascinating perspective on the Juneteenth commemoration:

“Most African Americans think of their past as slavery, starting from slavery,” she told me. “Not starting from Africa, but starting from slavery. And they really don’t want to relate to that any more. So when you bring something positive to the table, they are really ready to absorb it. They are proud of it, but they just didn’t know about it.”

There aren’t Memorial Day-style parades or monster Independence Day-type fireworks at any Juneteenth celebrations that I know of. They are modest, prideful affairs. Americans whose ancestors lived in chains on our soil want to remind others that the passage from slavery into freedom is not irrelevant old news or a trifle. Each June 19th, Juneteenth’s supporters mark freedom’s blessings by gathering where they wish, singing what they wish, reciting the Emancipation Proclamation if they wish, and perhaps, if they wish, lifting a can of Polly’s Pop as well.

WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Abolitionist. A reformer who, through writings and speeches, works to end slavery.

Chattel. Personal, movable property, including furniture and jewelry, as opposed to “real” property such as land. At times, humans have been chattel as well.

Here Yesterday, Gone Today

Posted May 27th, 2010 at 3:47 pm (UTC-4)
5 comments

If you’re one of those people who must have the latest news, the hottest song, the newest techno-toy, catch me next time. This posting, I’m going to take my sweet time waxing nostalgic.

Let’s start up the street, at Bielski’s or Mankowitz’s or Schoeningruber’s store.

For a century and more, corner stores were an essential part of life in American cities and towns. They were neighborhood social centers — the place where families picked up food, household supplies, and gossip, sometimes several times a day.

Immigrants got a foothold there, keeping their families together in living quarters upstairs, and earning a decent living. Outside of schools and hospitals and a few offices downtown, the corner grocery store was one of the few venues where women could make their mark.

The grocer was like family, cutting meat to order, delivering food by bicycle, often selling on credit.

When author and preservationist Ellen Beasley of Galveston, Texas, photographed corner stores and interviewed their proprietors over a 20-year period late in the past century, what first caught her eye was the architecture. Many stores had what are called “chamfered corners” — cut away to allow access from both cross streets — as well as awnings, or what people in Galveston call “sheds,” extending to the street and wrapping around the corner. Beasley said these entryways were like corner shade trees, under which people would sit, play cards, and talk.

Sometimes you’d find two, three, or even four stores on a single corner. Their proprietors would open early — really early, because customers would be waiting to buy the day’s supply of fresh milk, bread, butter, and meat. With little or no refrigeration at home, they couldn’t stock up for a week. So they’d be back each morning. If the storekeeper was late opening up, you’d throw a pebble against the window upstairs and tell Mrs. Cantini or Mr. Kraftcheck to “shake a leg” and hurry down.

You couldn’t get a television set or a watch or a set of tools at these tiny stores, whose selection of goods was limited. But people liked the atmosphere.

Often it was because the father, mother, and kids who took turns running the place spoke your language and stocked the right ingredients for, in the case of my neighborhood, Hungarian goulash or Polish pierogi.

On the store walls, the owner would hang religious icons, family photos, and school diplomas: homemade, personal touches you won’t find at a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

At the Fisher Brothers’ (I think they were brothers) grocery store up at Madison and Winton avenues in Lakewood, Ohio, where I grew up, the aisles were narrow, the smells were exotic, and you could slide across the sawdust on the floor. If we were having guests for dinner, we could call one of the Fishers and ask him to slice and save us a certain cut of beef or a particular kind of bread.

The drug store across Atkins Avenue was a family operation, too. The owners knew my mom and grandmother. They knew me for sure, because they put my name on so many prescriptions. They’d take Mother’s calls late at night, come down and open up, and prepare the needed medications. Mustard plasters, even. Not to worry if we were short on cash. We could bring it next time.

When Ellen Beasley brought some of her corner-store photographs and ephemera to Washington for an exhibit, a woman who grew up in Queens, New York, came to see it. “You knew the people in these stores,” she told me. “They’d be there the next day and the day after that. Now, when you go into the convenience store, it’s a different young kid who doesn’t know you from Adam.

“And doesn’t care to.”

Refrigeration, easy automobile travel, and the development of supermarkets killed off most corner stores. Along with your groceries at a mega-store, you can get almost anything. A bathing suit, enormous cans of peaches, a hundred rolls of paper towels on a skid.

But the people there won’t know you from Adam.

Tomato Seeds to Rock Candy

“Big box” stores where you can get everything from postage stamps to clothes dryers are not some revolutionary concept. They are updated, upsized re-inventions of old-timey general stores.

I remember an authentic one — J. R. Jones’s General Store — at Greenfield Village, a historic theme park begun in 1929 in Dearborn, Michigan by automobile magnate Henry Ford. In a scene out of the 1880s — as youngsters rolled hoops, a steam carousel seated its next load of riders, and a boy on a unicycle glided by outside — a costumed volunteer invited us in.

General stores, she explained, were a rural refinement of early trading posts, carrying all sorts of things one needed to keep a household or farm operating.

This one had once stood along a railroad line in Waterford, Michigan, so James Jones could bring in quite a selection: salt pork, sugar, nails and pickles in barrels, bolts of cloth, pots and pans, chewing tobacco, jars for “putting up” garden vegetables for the winter, and patent medicines that made you feel better, mostly because of their high alcohol content.

A big draw at Jones’s store was the telephone — the first in town. People would come in, make a call, and hang out awhile, maybe over a game of checkers. The arrival of a “drummer,” or traveling salesman, would attract a crowd, eager to catch up on the news from Detroit and Waterford’s surrounding towns.

And just like so many corner-store owners, Mr. and Mrs. Jones lived right upstairs. (The second floor later became a roller-skating rink!)

It wasn’t monster outlets that put most general stores out of business. It was Sears and Montgomery Ward’s mail-order catalogs. Ward’s called its “The Wish Book,” from which folks could order fancy goods a small-town general store couldn’t match.

From Sears, you could even order a brand-new, pre-built home — complete with 600 pounds of nails, 20 cans of paint, and 15,000 asphalt shingles — delivered in two railroad boxcars.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones definitely didn’t have that in stock.

Five’ll Get You Ten

I’m mixing my time periods, I know, but the mists of what Carol and I call “Disappearing America” also cover “five-and-dime” stores, which pretty much bit the dust in the late 1990s when Woolworth’s closed its last 400 of what had been 2,500 stores.

A dime is 10 U.S. cents, and when the Woolworth, Kress, Kresge, G. C. Murphy, and McCrory companies got started toward the beginning of the 20th Century, they sold just about everything for a nickel (5 cents) or a dime. It did not take too many years for prices to go up as these stores became Main Street fixtures, but the “five and dime” or “dime store” name hung on.

Five-and-10-cent stores sold candy — lots of candy — in huge bins that sometimes ran the length of a wall. Scissors and women’s makeup and lampshades, too, and cheap perfume, gloves and scarves, underwear and school supplies — even parakeets, goldfish, turtles and, at Eastertime, baby chicks dyed purple or pink. Few of the poor turtles or colored “peeps,” as we called them, made it very far past the holiday once we got them home.

I remember big meatloaf sandwiches and french fries and banana splits at the Woolworth lunch counter, and the smell of chocolate that permeated the store.


When she recorded the song “Love at the Five and Dime,” country and folk singer Nanci Griffith included this high-school reminiscence about changing buses in downtown Austin, Texas:

“I always had just enough time to run into the Woolworth store and get myself a vanilla Coke, dig through the record bin, wink at the boys, and get back on the bus.

The Woolworth stores . . . have this wonderful smell to ‘em. They smell like popcorn and chewing gum, rubbed around on the bottom of a leather-sole shoe.”

Perhaps the most famous dime store was the Woolworth’s in racially segregated Greensboro, North Carolina. With tensions rising all over town in 1960, in walked four African-American college students. They quietly took seats at the “whites-only” lunch counter and were quickly arrested and jailed. Some say the “Greensboro Four’s” peaceful sit-in ignited a movement for equal rights that soon spread throughout the South.

Shopping centers and strip malls that popped up throughout suburbia featured discount and warehouse places, not humble five-and-dimes. A few dime stores, offering little or no parking, hung on downtown, but the quality of their merchandise and service declined.

Dime stores are all but gone now, but on the poorer sides of towns you’ll find some bargain outfits called “dollar stores.” The name, at least, caught up with inflation.

Eggs Over Easy

I can’t channel musty American institutions without recalling my favorite. It served sorta fresh, sorta prepackaged food, kinda fast or kinda slow, with great or lousy atmosphere, depending on your point of view.

The name above the door didn’t matter. We just called it “the diner.”

It got its name from the sleek dining cars on passenger trains in the 1940s. Some were actual retired railroad cars.

We loved their neon signs and old-time rock-‘n’-roll on the jukebox. And the food: cheap, greasy, full of calories. But made to order: Bacon and eggs for breakfast, and steaming coffee all day long. Meatloaf (again), liver and onions, great big burgers — served with green beans and french fries and root beer in a glass. Milk shakes made right in front of you, from real ice cream.

Diners didn’t have “servers.” A waitress named Marge or Flo, who had a few years on her but a heart of gold, seemed genuinely interested to hear about your big sales meeting or the blizzard out on the highway. She’d pull the pencil from behind her ear, tell you about the meatloaf special and the pie of the day, and pop her gum as she scribbled your order. Beneath his dangling cigarette, Sam, the short-order cook, would fry it up, ding a little bell, and yell out the serving window that your order was “up.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but diners had many elements of modern art: stainless steel, porcelain enamel, shiny chrome, checkerboard linoleum floors, and bright-green booths and counter stools.

Each diner was unique — nothing like McDonald’s or the other formulaic fast-food joints that came along in the 1960s. Most diners couldn’t compete with them. They closed and were busted up and carted off to the junkyard.

But a few survived, and retro versions of the old ones are hot right now.

Carol extensively photographed the old Modern Diner in the blue-collar mill town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. On a Thursday night back in the ’40s, we were told, they’d line up around the block to get in there.

Thursday was payday in the mills.

The Modern Diner was one of a few “Sterling Streamliner” diners, inspired by streamlined trains such as the Burlington Railroad’s “Pioneer Zephyr.” It was silver, with one end rounded like it’s leaning into the wind. Inside: chromium stools, upholstered booths, abundant neon, and little jukeboxes in every booth.

The Modern Diner closed in the 1970s in the face of competition from new, quick-serve places. It sat empty and vandalized for years. Finally somebody bought it, moved it to swankier surroundings, and fixed it up. Now, believe it or not, it’s described as “a cool, upscale diner.”

Indeed, Americans are making new memories — still involving grease and gravy and a touch of heartburn — at diners across America. For my tastes, though, today’s Lisas or Kimberlys don’t have Marge’s panache. I haven’t met one yet who can carry off, “What’ll it be there, bud?” then, to Sam, “Cup-a-Joe. Two birds. Flip-‘em. Burn the bread. Hold the lard. Two pigs. Make ‘em holler.”

WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Ephemera. Sort of a fancy, academic word for memorabilia, including simple household items that were once here, then gone. Ephemeral, in other words.

Goulash. Rich, Hungarian stew, heavily seasoned with paprika spice.

Mustard plaster. A poultice made of cloth and a paste of what, to the touch, feels like red-hot peppers. It’s an old remedy designed to relieve chest congestion.

Pierogi. Polish dumplings, stuffed with ingredients such as sausage, cabbage, and mashed potatoes.

Who am I?

Posted May 20th, 2010 at 4:11 pm (UTC-4)
4 comments

As your mother might have told you when she nagged you to scrub your face and comb your hair, how we look and what we wear say a lot about us.

We make assumptions about people based solely upon their appearance. Disheveled young man: rock-band drummer? Neatly attired older woman: librarian, or maybe a banker? Muscular fellow carrying a lunch pail: blue-collar working stiff.

But as my mother often said, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” (She was big on aphorisms.)

And how right she was. What if the natty lady is not a librarian but the rock musician, dressed up because she has a day job at an insurance office? What if the disheveled fellow is the construction worker who couldn’t string two notes together? The strapping specimen could be the librarian. He just happens to work out and kinda likes lunch pails.

Looks can be deceiving, as Mom Landphair alternately advised.

Without trying, people give us broad visual clues about who they are and what they care about. And Americans, in particular, are quite deliberate about it.

On the Washington Metro subway each day, thousands of people wear sports gear. A New York Yankee baseball cap, perhaps. Or an authentic Washington Capitals hockey jersey, draping clear to their knees. Maybe a purple-and-gold “Property of LSU Athletic Department” tee shirt.

Trust me, not all of these folks are athletes. For sure, they’re not Yankee or Capital or Louisiana State University players.

But there’s a good chance that the guy in the Yankee cap is a Yankee fan — maybe even a New Yorker. He’s as much as announcing it by wearing the blue and white, intertwined “NY” on his head. It wouldn’t be a stretch to peg the tee-shirt wearer as an LSU student or graduate, or at least a proud Louisianian. And it’s a good bet that anyone who would don an expensive, full-length hockey jersey, especially one of the thousands you see with the name “OVECHKIN” and the number 8 stitched on the back, is a hard-core local hockey fan. For those of you in countries that don’t have sheets of ice, Capitals’ star Alex Ovechkin is rated the world’s best, or close-to-best, hockey player.

Sometimes, too, you see elderly bald men or 150-kilo women in Caps’ jerseys with their own names sewn on the back. I find that a little creepy.

Americans openly wear labor-union buttons, crosses and other religious symbols, and colored ribbons that support the fights against scourges such as cancer or autism or drugs. I’m seeing more and more young people of all races affecting a rapper look: garish jewelry, plain dark tee shirt, dark hat cocked sideways. These folks are saying something, all right — something not-so-vaguely hostile. “You wanna make something of it?”

On my sports coat, I often wear a distinctive red, white, and blue “VOA” lapel pin, ignoring the Voice of America’s inexplicable color-scheme switch to blue and green a few years ago.

The messages can get quite specific. Americans wear VOTE!” or “Support the Troops!” buttons. We slap stickers on our car windows or bumpers that read, “My Daughter Made the Honor Roll at Millard Fillmore High!” Do they know that this can prompt a hostile response: “There goes another pushy parent”?

I keep waiting for the sticker that reads, “My Kid’s Just Average at Hannibal Hamlin High!” (Hamlin, in case you’re crazy with curiosity, was one of Abraham Lincoln’s vice presidents.)

Bumper stickers can be witty and inoffensive:

“Boldly Going Nowhere.”

“Stoplights timed for 35 mph. Also for 70 mph.”

“Honk if You Love Peace and Quiet.”

They also serve as passing soapboxes: “Save the Whales” — or the Wolves, or the Bay, or the Great Crested Newt. “Jesus Saves” is also pithy, pointed, and popular. “Kiss Me, I Recycle” is both deft and clear. The message has to be simple. There’s no room on a bumper sticker to explain exactly how we can save western wolfpacks.

Americans also pour a lot of creative energy into devising ingenious “vanity” license plates. In place of the state-assigned plate number, we substitute our own names, mushy nicknames for our spouse or pet, or clever wordplays that are just tame enough to pass state censorship. “DE-WIFED,” for instance, tells a lot about the car’s owner.

In our increasingly polarized political environment, our badges and stickers are becoming more strident and partisan. We just got over a spate of “Bush Lies!” stickers and pins, only to see a raft of “Obama is a Socialist” ones today.

It’s easy to guess how a person wearing a “Hey Barack, I’m Ba-roke” button feels about the president. Or where someone whose car bumper proclaims, “Guns Don’t Kill People; Abortion Clinics Do” stands on TWO combustible issues of the day.

From my own limited observations abroad, and from what my VOA colleagues who were born and reared in other cultures and often revisit their homelands tell me, this pent-up desire to tell the world how we feel or what team we follow has not yet swept the world. It is largely an American passion — or fashion.

A fellow in Delhi might wear a San Francisco Giants baseball cap without even knowing exactly what the “SF” on the cap stands for, what sport the Giants play, or much at all, if anything, about San Francisco. He’s wearing it because it’s American, modern, or sharp-looking.

Needless to say in a dangerous world, not everyone feels as free as Americans to walk the streets wearing more provocative symbols or slogans.

If I wore an “Impeach Obama” pin around Washington, it’s highly unlikely that it would convert an Obama supporter into a conservative Republican, let alone help trigger an impeachment drive. Likewise, an “Obama is Beautiful” button would just draw a snigger from a “Tea Party” ultra-conservative.

But wearing our emotions, preferences, or hometown pride on our sleeves, lapels, or bumpers — or atop our heads — can increase human contact.

I just assume that a Metro rider who’s wearing a St. Louis Cardinals hat is inviting me to ask if he’s from Missouri, or Cardinal fan. If the answer is affirmative and friendly, it won’t be long before we’re talking baseball, Midwest geography, or St. Louis beer. And I’ll likely give this fellow and his family all sorts of tips for their visit to the nation’s capital.

Of course, as a kitty lover, I wouldn’t know what to say to a person on the Metro who was wearing a pin that says, “Cat. The Other White Meat.”

Where Am I?

If you’ve been with me since I started blogging two years ago, you may recall that I grew up in a lower-middle-class household where no one owned, or even drove, a car. So my chances to explore the country were limited, my geographical curiosity outsized, and my longing to travel profound.

When those chances arrived in adulthood, I jumped at them. One of my early jobs — covering the odd combination of education and sports for the National Observer newspaper — took me to towns across America, whose museums and historical societies I couldn’t wait to explore. On a big U.S. wall map at home, I stuck a pin into the name of each place I visited and even strung twine to show the routes that I took to get there.

It was a proud moment when I could inform all who would listen that I had at last visited my 50th and final state: North Dakota, on the Canadian border in the often-frigid, rather empty northern plains.

Craig Wilson, a creative USA Today newspaper columnist, awakened those memories in a recent column when he asked a simple but difficult question: “What constitutes a visit?”

Does it have to involve an overnight stay? A drive-through? Of what duration? Would sticking a toe into a new state count? How about dropping out of the sky for an hour or two on a connecting flight, perhaps never leaving the plane. For it to count as a visit, must one have a meal or a drink?

Wilson, drat it, never answered his own question.

I can’t remember my own criteria when I strung the yarn from pin to pin on my map. Today, I’d say that one has to get enough of a glimpse of the terrain, and talk with enough people in at least part of a state to be able to discuss the state some time later. Merely stepping across Stateline Avenue from Texarkana, Arkansas, into Texarkana, Texas, in order to check off “Texas” on your list of states visited wouldn’t cut it, since one side of Stateline looks pretty much like the other, and because you’d still have almost 700,000 square kilometers of Texas to see.

By the way, the only state left on Craig Wilson’s “to visit” list is also North Dakota. If I were on the North Dakota Promotion Council, I’d push for a new tourism slogan.

Something like “Save the Best for Last!”

What Am I?

Ethnicity and ethnic heritage are hot-button topics in the United States. Witness the furor over legislation in the Southwest state of Arizona that’s aimed at identifying, prosecuting, and deporting illegal aliens, nearly all of whom are Latino. Arizona’s education chief also advocated, and the governor signed, a measure aimed directly at the city of Tucson, near the Mexican border, where more than half the school population is Latino. Schools there have long taught a course in Mexican history and culture.

Those who oppose such a course say it perpetuates ethnic separation rather than assimilation. You’ll recall from my last posting that, for much the same reason, the State of Louisiana ordered that all school instruction, even in primarily French-speaking “Cajun” districts, be conducted in English.

There are hundreds of ethnic societies, museums, and cultural centers across the nation. A few that I’ve visited include “Little Norway” in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin; the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in Chicago; the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina; and the Gullah Heritage Trail in South Carolina’s Sea Islands. (The Gullah people, who maintain a distinctive African language, are descendants of slaves, mostly from Angola.)

Critics of Tucson’s Latino-heritage program argue that there’s a big difference between those cultural programs and what Tucson is up to. They say a Scandinavian village in Iowa, say, enlightens outsiders — non-Scandinavians — about a culture. Tucson’s program on the other hand, they argue, teaches Latino children things they already know about themselves and foments cultural separatism.

Supporters, as you might expect, counter that such programs foster ethnic pride within a population that is often stigmatized as second-class.

Washington, D.C., is packed with ethnically-oriented national museums. They include the National Museum of the American Indian, the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African Art.

Among them is a small, new one that is raising some eyebrows. It’s the German-American Heritage Museum, installed in a downtown Victorian row house. The museum tells the story of — and this would surprise a lot of Americans — what is historically the nation’s largest immigrant group. Washington Post writer Marc Fisher reported that the museum’s supporters — rebuffed 20 years ago when they offered to help finance the national Holocaust museum if it would balance its exhibits on Nazi atrocities against Jews with a section on the positive, democratic changes in postwar Germany — “counter[ed] the Holocaust museum with one of their own.”

Reudiger Lentz, the German-American museum’s director, adamantly denied that putting the Nazi era to rest had anything to do with opening his facility. He insisted that “its focus is on German immigration to the United States since 1607,” not on whitewashing an odious chapter in German history.

I’ve long wondered if some of the suspicions and friction created by ethnic-solidarity efforts could be assuaged with a simple flip-flop of words. If the first word were always the same — “American” — and the second identified the nationality being preserved, explained, and promoted, might a greater good as well as ethnic interests be served?

The unique heritage of American Irish, American Africans, American Italians, American Germans and the like — just like that of American Indians — would be maintained and highlighted. And so, too, would the home that they share today.

WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Aphorism. An easy-to-remember saying, carrying advice on how one should conduct his or her life.

Impeach. Formally, the term refers to an accusation or indictment by a legislative body. The term is often mistakenly thought to refer to the conviction, or even removal, of an officeholder. More loosely, to impeach something — say one’s credibility — is simply to challenge it.

Natty. Dapper and up to date in one’s dress or appearance.

Pithy. Simple, direct, to the point, using few words.

Rebuff. To bluntly and forcefully reject or refuse something.

Soapbox. While a soapbox can in fact be a box holding soap, the term more broadly recalls the pre-amplification days when speakers would have to stand on raised platforms in order to shout their messages to large crowds. “Getting on one’s soapbox” means to vigorously rant on a subject.

Heartbreak Parish

Posted May 12th, 2010 at 4:54 pm (UTC-4)
3 comments

It’s no longer news that on April 20th, the catastrophic explosion of an offshore rig sent an undersea gusher of oil boiling to the surface of the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana. Or that winds, tides and time have overwhelmed efforts to contain a slick the size of Cyprus, spreading globs of emulsified goo to the very edges of the tender marshes and bayous of Plaquemines Parish, and onto the barrier Chandeleur Islands.

Other VOA reporters are keeping you abreast of developments and the science of it all. I want to tell you, instead, about the place where oil threatens the wetlands and wildlife — right at the height of the spring breeding season — and has grounded an armada of small boats that in normal times pulls from the deep, 44 percent of the nation’s shrimp harvest. Thirty-six percent of the oysters, too.

Louisiana also leads the country in crawfish, crab, and alligator-meat production. And the recreational saltwater fishing industry, now idled as well, pumps another $41 million into the economies of the Gulf Coast states.

Up the road, restaurants are, together, exotic New Orleans’ largest private employer, and two-thirds of them prepare and serve seafood.

I could go on and on about oyster po-boys, shrimp étouffée, or catfish meuniére. When I wrote about New Orleans’ insatiable demand for seafood a few years back, I added, “Of course, seafood is abundant in Louisiana.”

Not right now, though, and there are fears that, to keep up with demand, Louisiana restaurants and fishmongers will turn to cheaper, imported shrimp and fish and oysters — maybe for good.

So these are tense and tenuous times in Plaquemines Parish, a place where misery has all too often dwelled. (Parishes, if you’re curious, have been the Louisiana version of counties since the days of French control, 200 years and more ago. The Catholic Church, not civil servants, set the boundaries, and many parishes are named for saints. Louisiana has held onto French ways with the law, too, preferring the Code Napoléon to English common law.)

Plaquemines’ name derives from an Indian word meaning “persimmon,” for the trees that grew outside an early fort. As you can see on the adjacent Louisiana map, it is the exposed, southeastern-most toe of the Louisiana “boot.” There, 4½ years ago, Hurricane Katrina howled ashore and flattened just about everything. Almost 2,000 people died in the neighboring parishes downwind, but just 3 stubborn Plaquemines holdouts lost their lives. Knowing all too well that there is no escape from floodwaters in a place with no high ground, most everyone else in the sparsely populated parish abandoned their farmhouses, tiny businesses, and livestock and fled inland.

About 3,000 of the parish’s 26,000 residents never came back.

Plaquemines’ fishers and beauty-shop owners and oil-rig roughnecks know something about calamities. During the “Great Flood of 1927,” parish and state officials ordered a levee dynamited in order to relieve pressure on the swollen Mississippi River that was threatening to swamp New Orleans’ French Quarter.

The Crescent City was saved, but half of Plaquemines was inundated, and thousands of people lost their homes. Many were African Americans who never returned, instead joining what’s been called the “Great Migration” into northern states, looking for industrial jobs.

It’s a good thing just about everybody left Plaquemines when Katrina struck.

Ninety percent of the parish’s long, narrow landmass — bisected by the first 110 kilometers (70 miles) of the Mississippi River — ended up under water. Half the shrimp boat fleet was destroyed, thousands of citrus trees went unpicked, seawater ruined many a rice field, and an untold number of farm animals drowned.

“New Orleans filled up with water slowly,” Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote in the Washington Post shortly after Katrina. “Davant [in Plaquemines Parish] was swept away fast.”

Katrina acted like a tsunami, he continued. “The Mississippi River came roaring through, frothy and white and mean, up over the levee on one side of town, and the salty marsh water broke through the levee on the other.” All that remained on several blocks of the town of 900, Roig-Franzia reported, “are concrete stoops.”

In Davant and throughout the parish, wood-framed houses that survived the hurricane winds “were ground into kindling” by the water surge.

Davant became a ghost town, and Plaquemines a ghost parish that years of sorrowful rebuilding had only just begun to bring back to life.

“Katrina dug a hole for us,” Louisiana shrimper Charles Robin III told Time magazine. “We’re laying in this grave, trying to dig out, and [now] this spill comes along.”

A couple of years before the storm, Carol and I had taken a boat ride down to what’s called the “Head of Passes” at the mouth of the Mississippi, where the mighty river splits into several channels as it works its way through the delta of rich soil washed downstream from as far away as Minnesota. We were off to photograph “Pilottown,” a quaint little settlement built on piers that was the base of offshore oil exploration and home to the river pilots who guided oceangoing ships up the treacherous, serpentine river to New Orleans.

Katrina pushed Pilottown completely off its foundation, and the pilots decided not to rebuild it. Only 20 or so people live in what remains. Piloting operations moved upriver to Venice, a real, terra firma town.

Seventy years ago, Harnett T. Kane, the author of 25 books about the South, wrote that the bayou country, of which Plaquemines is part, “is a place that seems often unable to make up its mind whether it will be earth or water, and so it compromises.”

Semiaquatic, somebody else described it. Almost half of the parish lies under a meter or more of water. Shorebirds, alligators, and muskrats — large, smelly rodents long pursued by Plaquemines trappers for their water-repellent pelts — live among its cattails and cypress stumps in places where salt and fresh water, silt from the great river — and now the tentacles of an oil sheen — do battle.

This is a labyrinthine world, back among the reeds and purple water hyacinths, the live oaks and overhanging Spanish moss. It’s an easy place in which to get lost, sometimes on purpose. But the people here know their way, even on the darkest night.

Although the most famous part of Louisiana’s French-speaking Acadian population lives farther west, near the cities of Lafayette and New Iberia, there are plenty of multi-generational “Cajun” families among Plaquemines’ human population as well. They are the descendants of French speakers who were expelled  from Canada’s maritime provinces by British authorities in the early 18th Century.

Today’s generation speaks a French-English patois, often with a sort of double emphasis: “I’m so happy today, me,” or “I don’t care for any, no.” They might have held tight to French had not the state required English-only instruction in school, or had so many Cajuns not found work in the English-speaking oil patch.

Plaquemines’ Acadians join with Italian Americans, blacks, Vietnamese immigrant shrimpers, and Isleños to form a generally neighborly ethnic pastiche. Isleños are descendants of Canary Islanders who came to Louisiana during Spain’s 30-year rule in Louisiana, which ended in 1802.

Most all of the parish’s citizens, living in simple frame cabins, sometimes high on stilts in Louisiana’s “wet front yard” — Kane’s words again — are Catholic. Witness the popularity of ritual blessings of the shrimp boat fleet by the nearest bishop prior to gala, waterborne processionals that usher in seasons of bounty on the sea.

They used to be bountiful, at least.

So many of Plaquemines’ people keep to themselves that the parish hasn’t a single incorporated town. The largest village is the parish seat, Point-a-la-Hache (“Point of the Hatchet”), with fewer than 700 people.

Although Plaquemines has always been more of a passage from the sea to the heartland than a destination, it had one early, shining moment. In 1682, the French explorer Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, planted a cross near the Head of Passes, claiming the entire Mississippi Valley and all the area drained by its tributaries for France. He named this vast, mostly unexplored territory “Louisiana” in honor of his king, Louis XIV.

The British had designs on the great river, too, but lost because of a bold but simple ruse. In 1699, another French explorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, was heading downstream in a small boat when he met the captain of a British man-of-war that was heading upstream. He convinced the Englishman to turn tail and head back out in the Gulf, explaining convincingly that the French had built a sizeable fort up ahead. Surely its cannon fire would destroy the British ship. There was no fort, and the French kept control of Louisiana for a century thereafter. The spot where Bienville delivered his lie has since been known as “English Turn.”

Real forts along the river in Plaquemines, built by Americans after the “Louisiana Purchase” from France in 1803, were captured by Confederate forces in the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. They would soon be blasted into submission by Admiral David Farragut’s Union fleet, thus wrenching control of the entire Mississippi River from the rebels.

Over time, Plaquemines Parish became Louisiana’s favorite source of seafood, rice, navel oranges, and satsumas — a type of mandarin orange.

But a different sort of crop — corruption — has been a mainstay as well.

If you consider piracy to be a form of it, the tradition goes back to 1807, when the pirate Jean Lafitte and his smuggler brother Pierre set up operations on an island in Barataria Bay. Both were actually more middlemen than pirates. They outfitted the brigands who plundered ships in the Gulf, then bought the booty and sent it in batches up to New Orleans in flat-bottomed pirogues.

In a more traditional exercise of corruption, in 1844, 970 Plaquemines residents cast their ballots for U.S. presidential candidate James K. Polk. Problem was, only 272 voters were listed on the entire parish voter roll.

Slavery is certainly a corruption of human dignity, and Plaquemines saw its share on indigo and sugar plantations. The great manor homes of two or three of them survive as tourist attractions.

In the middle third of the 20th Century, Plaquemines slipped into the firm grip of a notorious political boss and rabid segregationist, Judge Leander Perez. “Do you know what the Negro is?” he once asked. “Animal, right out of the jungle.” The American civil-rights movement was, he said, the work of “all those Jews who were supposed to have been cremated at Buchenwald and Dachau but weren’t.”

Leander Perez and his cronies bribed voters; put nonexistent, deceased, or famous people such as the baseball star Babe Ruth — a resident of New York — on the rolls; and pocketed bribes from oil companies in return for drilling rights. After Perez’s death in 1969, his heirs settled a lawsuit by returning $12 million to the parish government.

For better or worse, the names “Plaquemines” and “Perez” remain intertwined in Louisiana’s memory. Nonetheless, Leander Perez was posthumously elected to the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame.

So corruption found Louisiana, and Louisiana found oil. Big corporations have drilled among the thick Louisiana marshes for 90 years. Their crews followed canals called trainasses, cut by Cajun trappers.

By the 1940s, the companies had built an array of unsightly derricks just offshore. And in 1947, the Kerr McGee Co. erected the world’s first offshore well truly out at sea. Soon, rigs were tapping the seabed, 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) or more down. The BP company-leased rig that exploded in the Gulf on April 20th is, fittingly, called the “Deepwater Horizon.”

As I mentioned, offshore oil exploration spawned a cottage industry among Plaquemines’ blue-collar workers, who ferry food, equipment, and crews to and from the rigs — which they are usually adept at maintaining and repairing as well.

It’s too easy to say after the recent, tragic oil spill that Plaquemines residents will bounce back as they have following other disasters. But if the pellets of sludge work their way deep into the marshes and seep into the bayous that are the parish’s lifeblood, cleanup would be a nightmare. These are not the scrub-able, smooth rocks of the Alaska sound that were coated with oil from the broken tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989, or beaches whose sand could be excavated and replaced if worse comes to worst. They are intricate, interdependent, incredibly fragile ribbons of nature.

Equilibrium is everything in bayou country, Harnett Kane wrote. It’s “an agency of balance . . . among lakes, rivers, marshes, bays, and swamps.” Could there be a more unbalancing, destructive agent than choking, cloying oil?

Let’s just say that it’s a different, sadder kind of bird-watching going on right now at Plaquemines’ numerous wildlife sanctuaries. And that you won’t find the usual joie de vivre among the watchers or the rescuers of oil-covered birds. It will be some time before the good times roll again in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Bayou. Pronounced “BY-you,” this is an extremely slow-moving stream, often surrounded by or filled with lush vegetation.

Emulsified. A mixture of two normally unblendable liquids, such as oil and water.

Pirogue. Pronounced “PEE-rogg,” this is a small, lightweight boat with a flat bottom and a shallow draft, famously employed by the residents of Louisiana’s swampy “Cajun Country.”

Stoop. Originally a covered porch with room for seats outside a front door, it has come to refer to exposed steps on which people sit and chat with their neighbors.

Heartbreak Parish

Posted May 12th, 2010 at 4:51 pm (UTC-4)
4 comments

It’s no longer news that on April 20th, the catastrophic explosion of an offshore rig sent an undersea gusher  oil boiling to the surface of the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana. Or that winds, tides and time have overwhelmed efforts to contain a slick the size of Cyprus, spreading globs of emulsified goo to the very edges of the tender marshes and bayous of Plaquemines Parish, and onto the barrier Chandeleur Islands.

Many Plaquemines Parish shrimp boats are owned and sailed by Vietnamese immigrants.

Many Plaquemines Parish shrimp boats are owned and sailed by Vietnamese immigrants. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

Other VOA reporters are keeping you abreast of developments and the science    of it all. I want to tell you, instead, about the place where oil threatens the wetlands and wildlife — right at the height of the spring breeding season — and has grounded an armada of small boats that in normal times pulls from the deep, 44 percent of the nation’s shrimp harvest. Thirty-six percent of the oysters, too.

Louisiana also leads the country in crawfish, crab, and alligator-meat production. And the recreational saltwater fishing industry, now idled as well, pumps another $41 million into the economies of the Gulf Coast states.

Up the road, restaurants are, together, exotic New Orleans’ largest private employer, and two-thirds of them prepare and serve seafood.

I could go on and on about oyster po-boys, shrimp étouffée, or catfish meuniére. When I wrote about New Orleans’ insatiable demand for seafood a few years back, I added, “Of course, seafood is abundant in Louisiana.”

Not right now, though, and there are fears that, to keep up with demand, Louisiana restaurants and fishmongers will turn to cheaper, imported shrimp and fish and oysters — maybe for good.

Plaquemines is the parish in the extreme lower right corner of Louisiana, sticking out into harm’s way in the Gulf of Mexico.

Plaquemines is the parish in the extreme lower right corner of Louisiana, sticking out into harm’s way in the Gulf of Mexico. (Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

So these are tense and tenuous times in Plaquemines Parish, a place where misery has all too often dwelled. (Parishes, if you’re curious, have been the Louisiana version of counties since the days of French control, 200 years and more ago. The Catholic Church, not civil servants, set the boundaries, and many parishes are named for saints. Louisiana has held onto French ways with the law, too, preferring the Code Napoléon to English common law.)

Plaquemines’ name derives from an Indian word meaning “persimmon,” for the trees that grew outside an early fort. As you can see on the adjacent Louisiana map, it is the exposed, southeastern-most toe of the Louisiana “boot.” There, 4½ years ago, Hurricane Katrina howled ashore and flattened just about everything. Almost 2,000 people died in the neighboring parishes downwind, but just 3 stubborn Plaquemines holdouts lost their lives. Knowing all too well that there is no escape from floodwaters in a place with no high ground, most everyone else in the sparsely populated parish abandoned their farmhouses, tiny businesses, and livestock and fled inland.

About 3,000 of the parish’s 26,000 residents never came back.

Plaquemines’ fishers and beauty-shop owners and oil-rig roughnecks know something about calamities. During the “Great Flood of 1927,” parish and state officials ordered a levee dynamited in order to relieve pressure on the swollen Mississippi River that was threatening to swamp New Orleans’ French Quarter.

The Crescent City was saved, but half of Plaquemines was inundated, and thousands of people lost their homes. Many were African Americans who never returned, instead joining what’s been called the “Great Migration” into northern states, looking for industrial jobs.

Note the irony of the marking on the truck that was tossed about when Hurricane Katrina slammed into Plaquemines Parish. It says, simply, “fish.” Or, in this case, if it was loaded, “spoiled fish.” (Photo: Andrea Booher, FEMA)

It’s a good thing just about everybody left Plaquemines when Katrina struck.

Ninety percent of the parish’s long, narrow landmass — bisected by the first 110 kilometers (70 miles) of the Mississippi River — ended up under water. Half the shrimp boat fleet was destroyed, thousands of citrus trees went unpicked, seawater ruined many a rice field, and an untold number of farm animals drowned.

“New Orleans filled up with water slowly,” Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote in the Washington Post shortly after Katrina. “Davant [in Plaquemines Parish] was swept away fast.”

Katrina acted like a tsunami, he continued. “The Mississippi River came roaring through, frothy and white and mean, up over the levee on one side of town, and the salty marsh water broke through the levee on the other.” All that remained on several blocks of the town of 900, Roig-Franzia reported, “are concrete stoops.”

In Davant and throughout the parish, wood-framed houses that survived the hurricane winds “were ground into kindling” by the water surge.

Davant became a ghost town, and Plaquemines a ghost parish that years of sorrowful rebuilding had only just begun to bring back to life.

This water tower in the little Plaquemines town of Buras no longer stood high in the air after Katrina hit.

This water tower in the little Plaquemines town of Buras no longer stood high in the air after Katrina hit.

“Katrina dug a hole for us,” Louisiana shrimper Charles Robin III told Time magazine. “We’re laying in this grave, trying to dig out, and [now] this spill comes along.”

This was Pilottown in 1883, as shown on the cover of Mark Twain’s book, “Life on the Mississippi.”

A couple of years before the storm, Carol and I had taken a boat ride down to what’s called the “Head of Passes” at the mouth of the Mississippi, where the mighty river splits into several channels as it works its way through the delta of rich soil washed downstream from as far away as Minnesota. We were off to photograph “Pilottown,” a quaint little settlement built on piers that was the base of offshore oil exploration and home to the river pilots who guided oceangoing ships up the treacherous, serpentine river to New Orleans.

Katrina pushed Pilottown completely off its foundation, and the pilots decided not to rebuild it. Only 20 or so people live in what remains. Piloting operations moved upriver to Venice, a real, terra firma town.

Seventy years ago, Harnett T. Kane, the author of 25 books about the South, wrote that the bayou country, of which Plaquemines is part, “is a place that seems often unable to make up its mind whether it will be earth or water, and so it compromises.”

This is, or was, modern Pilottown, a couple of years before Katrina’s wrath. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

Semiaquatic, somebody else described it. Almost half of the parish lies under a meter or more of water. Shorebirds, alligators, and muskrats — large, smelly rodents long pursued by Plaquemines trappers for their water-repellent pelts — live among its cattails and cypress stumps in places where salt and fresh water, silt from the great river — and now the tentacles of an oil sheen — do battle.

This is a labyrinthine world, back among the reeds and purple water hyacinths, the live oaks and overhanging Spanish moss. It’s an easy place in which to get lost, sometimes on purpose. But the people here know their way, even on the darkest night.

Bayou County is serene, beautiful — and sometimes scary, especially at night, when owls hoot, alligators splash in the water, and the moon passes strands of spooky Spanish moss. (Photo: Louisiana Office of Tourism)

Although the most famous part of Louisiana’s French-speaking Acadian population lives farther west, near the cities of Lafayette and New Iberia, there are plenty of multi-generational “Cajun” families among Plaquemines’ human population as well. They are the descendants of French speakers who were expelled from Canada’s maritime provinces by British authorities in the early 18th Century.

Today’s generation speaks a French-English patois, often with a sort of double emphasis: “I’m so happy today, me,” or “I don’t care for any, no.” They might have held tight to French had not the state required English-only instruction in school, or had so many Cajuns not found work in the English-speaking oil patch..

Plaquemines’ Acadians join with Italian Americans, blacks, Vietnamese immigrant shrimpers, and Isleños to form a generally neighborly ethnic pastiche. Isleños are descendants of Canary Islanders who came to Louisiana during Spain’s 30-year rule in Louisiana, which ended in 1802.

This is a Cajun family’s humble cabin and its watery surroundings. Notice that there aren’t any hills. Indeed, there aren’t any of any consequence anywhere in Plaquemines Parish. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

Most all of the parish’s citizens, living in simple frame cabins, sometimes high on stilts in Louisiana’s “wet front yard” — Kane’s words again — are Catholic. Witness the popularity of ritual blessings of the shrimp boat fleet by the nearest bishop prior to gala, waterborne processionals that usher in seasons of bounty on the sea.

They used to be bountiful, at least.

So many of Plaquemines’ people keep to themselves that the parish hasn’t a single incorporated town. The largest village is the parish seat, Point-a-la-Hache (“Point of the Hatchet”), with fewer than 700 people.

Although Plaquemines has always been more of a passage from the sea to the heartland than a destination, it had one early, shining moment. In 1682, the French explorer Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, planted a cross near the Head of Passes, claiming the entire Mississippi Valley and all the area drained by its tributaries for France. He named this vast, mostly unexplored territory “Louisiana” in honor of his king, Louis XIV.

The British had designs on the great river, too, but lost because of a bold but simple ruse. In 1699, another French explorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, was heading downstream in a small boat when he met the captain of a British man-of-war that was heading upstream. He convinced the Englishman to turn tail and head back out in the Gulf, explaining convincingly that the French had built a sizeable fort up ahead. Surely its cannon fire would destroy the British ship. There was no fort, and the French kept control of Louisiana for a century thereafter. The spot where Bienville delivered his lie has since been known as “English Turn.”

Real forts along the river in Plaquemines, built by Americans after the “Louisiana Purchase” from France in 1803, were captured by Confederate forces in the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. They would soon be blasted into submission by Admiral David Farragut’s Union fleet, thus wrenching control of the entire Mississippi River from the rebels.

Over time, Plaquemines Parish became Louisiana’s favorite source of seafood, rice, navel oranges, and satsumas — a type of mandarin orange.

But a different sort of crop — corruption — has been a mainstay as well.

This is “Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop,” one of the few truly French-style structures in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Now a tavern, it is said to have been the Lafitte brothers’ legitimate “front” business before they left the city and set up shop in Barataria Bay. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

If you consider piracy to be a form of it, the tradition goes back to 1807, when the pirate Jean Lafitte and his smuggler brother Pierre set up operations on an island in Barataria Bay. Both were actually more middlemen than pirates. They outfitted the brigands who plundered ships in the Gulf, then bought the booty and sent it in batches up to New Orleans in flat-bottomed pirogues.

In a more traditional exercise of corruption,in 1844, 970 Plaquemines residents cast their ballots for U.S. presidential candidate James K. Polk. Problem was, only 272 voters were listed on the entire parish voter roll.

Slavery is certainly a corruption of human dignity, and Plaquemines saw its share on indigo and sugar plantations. The great manor homes of two or three of them survive as tourist attractions.

In the middle third of the 20th Century, Plaquemines slipped into the firm grip of a notorious political boss and rabid segregationist, Judge Leander Perez. “Do you know what the Negro is?” he once asked. “Animal, right out of the jungle.” The American civil-rights movement was, he said, the work of “all those Jews who were supposed to have been cremated at Buchenwald and Dachau but weren’t.”

In “Perez: Boss of the Delta,” published by the University Press of Mississippi, Glen Jeansonne tells the sordid story of Leander Perez’s reign in not only Plaquemines but also adjacent St. Bernard Parish. (Photo: University Press of Mississippi)

Leander Perez and his cronies bribed voters; put nonexistent, deceased, or famous people such as the baseball star Babe Ruth — a resident of New York — on the rolls; and pocketed bribes from oil companies in return for drilling rights. After Perez’s death in 1969, his heirs settled a lawsuit by returning $12 million to the parish government.

For better or worse, the names “Plaquemines” and “Perez” remain intertwined in Louisiana’s memory. Nonetheless, Leander Perez was posthumously elected to the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame.

This photo was taken off the coast of Texas, not Louisiana, but it gives you an idea of the rather unsightly view that derricks presented shoreline residents all along the Gulf Coast. (Photo: Library of Congress)

So corruption found Louisiana, and Louisiana found oil. Big corporations have drilled among the thick Louisiana marshes for 90 years. Their crews followed canals called trainasses, cut by Cajun trappers.

By the 1940s, the companies had built an array of unsightly derricks just offshore. And in 1947, the Kerr McGee Co. erected the world’s first offshore well truly out at sea. Soon, rigs were tapping the seabed, 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) or more down. The BP company-leased rig that exploded in the Gulf on April 20 is, fittingly, called the “Deepwater Horizon.”

As I mentioned, offshore oil exploration spawned a cottage industry among Plaquemines’ blue-collar workers, who ferry food, equipment, and crews to and from the rigs — which they are usually adept at maintaining and repairing as well.

It’s too easy to say after the recent, tragic oil spill that Plaquemines residents will bounce back as they have following other disasters. But if the pellets of sludge work their way deep into the marshes and seep into the bayous that are the parish’s lifeblood, cleanup would be a nightmare. These are not the scrub-able, smooth rocks of the Alaska sound that were coated with oil from the broken tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989, or beaches whose sand could be excavated and replaced if worse comes to worst. They are intricate, interdependent, incredibly fragile ribbons of nature.

Could anything be more tranquil than two barefoot boys fishing in the bayou? Well, tranquility isn’t the watchword there right now. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Equilibrium is everything in bayou country, Harnett Kane wrote. It’s “an agency of balance . . . among lakes, rivers, marshes, bays, and swamps.” Could there be a more unbalancing, destructive agent than choking, cloying oil?

Let’s just say that it’s a different, sadder kind of bird-watching going on right now at Plaquemines’ numerous wildlife sanctuaries. And that you won’t find the usual joie de vivre among the watchers or the rescuers of oil-covered birds. It will be some time before the good times roll again in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Bayou. Pronounced “BY-you,” this is an extremely slow-moving stream, often surrounded by or filled with lush vegetation.

Emulsified. A mixture of two normally unblendable liquids, such as oil and water.

Pirogue. Pronounced “PEE-roh,” this is a small, lightweight boat with a flat bottom and a shallow draft, famously employed by the residents of Louisiana’s swampy “Cajun Country.”

Stoop. Originally a covered porch with room for seats outside a front door, it has come to refer to exposed steps on which people sit and chat with their neighbors.

Surprise City

Posted May 5th, 2010 at 4:20 pm (UTC-4)
3 comments

Here’s a classic non sequitur:

Watercress and rockets.

Let me put it in the form of a question: How did Huntsville, Alabama, once a dozy little southern town whose notable claim to fame was its reputation as “The Watercress Capital of the World” morph into a globally renowned “Rocket City” almost overnight?

And how did it evolve still further into a wide-ranging technology center whose 180,000 residents bustle among military and space installations; gigantic research parks, including the nation’s second-largest by number of employees; and high-tech plants such as a Toyota facility that builds the only four-cylinder engine made outside Japan?

How? With determination, a little bit of luck, and a sophistication that those who would stereotype the South as stuck in the 19th Century would find surprising.

And there are many more surprises. Here’s a second: In the midst of breathtaking demographic and technological changes, Madison County, of which Huntsville is the seat, has managed to remain an agricultural colossus.

It ranks first in Alabama in cotton production, second in corn and soybeans, and among the nation’s leading producers of popcorn, of all things. Not much watercress any more, though, even though, 60 years ago, Madison County grew and shipped it all over the nation.

Cotton, not watercress, was King in the South, of course, and Madison County was its throne. The rich alluvial soil near the Tennessee River, which curls to the south of Huntsville, was ideal for cotton cultivation. Cotton gins dotted the countryside, brokers sampled the crop along “Cotton Row” across from the courthouse, and, eventually, thousands of workers ─ including children by the hundreds before child-labor laws and compulsory school attendance put an end to it ─ toiled at 12 textile mill “villages,” as they were called, making cloth and thread.

Then came World War II and Surprise No. 3 for anyone tempted to cast Huntsville in a sultry southern tableau of white-columned antebellum mansions, fragrant magnolia blossoms, and fancy cotillion balls.

Only the sultry part of that image really fits this city at the base of the Cumberland Plateau. Huntsville is hot as the dickens from June through September, for which the cotton farmers are grateful. But spring and fall are delightful, and winter even brings an occasional snowstorm. Huntsvillians get a taste of all four seasons, in other words.

In that regard, and in another of much greater significance, Huntsville is a lot like Washington, D.C.  Washington, a couple hours’ drive north of a former Confederate capital —Richmond, Virginia — is a “federal city,” separate from any state. Three in 10 jobs in the nation’s capital are federal ones ─ not even counting the hundreds of thousands of government-dependent and contracting jobs there and in the adjacent suburbs.

Huntsville — two hours north of another former Confederate capital in Montgomery — is what Alabamans, with some derision and a hefty dose of envy, call “the federal outpost.” According to several folks I met, the Alabama Legislature in Montgomery assumes that Huntsville and Madison County are rolling in federal dollars and don’t need as much state money for roads and schools as they’d normally get. Why, grumble the folks farther south, Madison County even has its own electric utility company that gets (relatively) cheap power from dams built by the federal Tennessee Valley Authority on the Tennessee River in the 1930s.

So Huntsville is sensitive to its reputation as a prosperous place apart. Although Huntsville’s new motto is “the Star of Alabama,” former mayor Loretta Spencer told me, “We need to be careful not to come off as elitists.” As Mike Gillespie, the longtime and current Madison County Commission chairman put it, “Our last name is ‘Alabama.’”

Still, there’s no denying that the Huntsville metro area accounts for almost half of the net new jobs created in Alabama since 2000.

Those who remember cotton-town Huntsville, population 13,000, in 1941 still can hardly believe the transformation. That’s the year, with war raging in Europe and imminent at home, that the U.S. Army picked 15,000 hectares (38,000 acres) of river-bottom land outside Huntsville for a huge chemical-warfare manufacturing and storage facility and, soon, a munitions operation producing bullets, artillery shells, and “burster” explosive charges. Redstone Arsenal, it came to be called.

Move over, watercress. Enter assembly lines and military supply convoys.

But at war’s end, with no active combat to support, Redstone virtually emptied. Troops and brass left town, women we called “Rosie the Riveter”  — who had taken jobs in the munitions plant while their men fought abroad — went back to their homes, and “For Sale” signs ringed the arsenal’s perimeter.

Powerful U.S. Senator John Sparkman — a Huntsvillian — scrambled to find a new Redstone occupant. He worked hard to land a promising Air Force wind-tunnel project but lost out to a town up in Tennessee.

Things were looking grim for Madison County, Alabama, until the biggest surprise of all startled the entire South.

Three states away, at Fort Bliss in the hot, scrubby Texas desert near El Paso, and at the even hotter White Sands Proving Ground in nearby New Mexico, 120 German scientists and engineers led by Wernher von Braun were hard, but rather unhappily, at work. They had developed Nazi Germany’s deadly V-2 missiles, been captured by Allied forces, and recruited during “Operation Paperclip” by American agents to produce U.S. ballistic missiles. Bavarians mostly, the Germans longed for some lakes and hills and an occasional cool zephyr. And the U.S. Government was looking for a place to accommodate them.

Huntsville’s nearly empty Redstone Arsenal would be chosen, not just to please the German engineers but also to move their rocketry near the Tennessee River, which provided a fine shipping channel for rocket components, eastward to waterways that led to the assembly and launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Ed Buckbee, who worked with von Braun and later became the first director of the Alabama Space Camp; Rocket Center — which I’ll describe in a tad — told me about the first trip of a 24-meter (80-foot)-long Saturn booster from Huntsville to the Cape in 1963.

Things went smoothly until the enormous barge carrying the monster rocket arrived at a dam that had broken. Workers somehow lifted the rocket and carried it, portage style — though not on their shoulders — past the dam and back down to the river.

Then the fun began! Buckbee and others escorting the rocket to Florida had to duck when backwoods yokels fired rifle shots at the passing booster. Admittedly, such a thing must have been a terrifying and tempting target.

Back in Huntsville, change — and noise — were in the air. (Have you ever heard a Saturn rocket test fire or blast off?) Happy to be in high country, the Germans and their families assimilated eagerly and seamlessly, taking up residence on Panorama Drive near Monte Sano — though the “mount” was but 488 meters (1,600 feet) high — funding numerous cultural programs, and even starting an astronomical society with a planetarium that they opened to the public several times a month.

Huntsville became a powerful magnet for even more of the “best and brightest” minds from the world over once President Dwight Eisenhower created NASA, the national civilian space agency, in 1958, moved rocket propulsion operations at Huntsville out of the Army and into NASA two years later, and renamed the civilian portion of the Redstone complex the “George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.”

Then, in 1961, just after announcing the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon by decade’s end, the nation’s new president, John F. Kennedy, made Marshall the destination of his first trip of out Washington.

Since then, the Army’s own rocket research effort and a huge helicopter program have migrated to the military portion of the Redstone complex.

Just this year, the Army Materiel Command — including its commander, Ann E. Dunwoody, the U.S. Army’s first female four-star general — have begun a transfer to Huntsville from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as part of the military’s base realignment program. That will mean almost 5,000 new military jobs and a similar number of contracting positions for burgeoning Madison County.
Redstone and the Marshall Flight Center are off-limits to most visitors, of course. But those with a taste for space have plenty to awe them at the U.S. Space Camp; Rocket Center.

Featuring more than 1,500 artifacts — including a NASA shuttle and an array of rockets outside and a gargantuan Saturn V rocket that looms overhead inside its exhibition hall — the center, funded almost entirely from admission receipts, has a colorful story and a mission that goes beyond showing off very, very big space toys.


When Walt Disney decided to build a futuristic theme park in Orlando, Florida, in the mid-1960s, he and his design team visited von Braun, who had advised Disney filmmakers on three space-related movies.

As he listened to the famed Hollywood animator’s plans for Disney World, von Braun came to realize the value of involving the public in the nation’s space adventure.

He found state land and NASA support for a decidedly hands-on space and rocket museum. And something else as well: “space camps” and “space academies” that would take children and teens — from 40 countries to date — into the world of an astronaut, including math and science instruction, flight-deck training, and even rocket-building. The camps began in 1982 with 471 participants. By 2007, total enrollment had passed half a million young people. Three women graduates of the program went on to become U.S. astronauts.

Incubator research and biotech companies popped up in people’s garages and basements or moved to Huntsville, too, to the point that the city soon boasted the highest concentration of Inc. magazine top-500 companies in America. At Redstone Arsenal, the F.B.I. and U.S. Army located a joint Hazardous Devices School, at which civilian bomb squads — including the New York City outfit that dismantled the car bomb recently found in Times Square — are trained.

More accolades: Kiplinger’s, another authoritative financial magazine, called Huntsville America’s best city, period, in 2009, and this year Huntsville became the first Alabama city ever to make the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of a “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” that offer “experiences different from those found at the typical vacation destination.”

Forbes magazine named Huntsville one of the 10 U.S. cities best poised for recovery from the long recession. “Initially we chose not to participate” in the economic downturn, joked county commission chairman Gillespie. Unemployment, once at a 2.3 percent rate that meant just about anyone who wanted a job could get one, has crept above 6 percent, but that’s far below the national average.

It’s a brainy bunch, by and large, who do have jobs. Huntsville boasts the highest concentration of engineers, and Ph.Ds generally, in the entire nation. I overheard one local tell another over lunch, “Ever’ time I bump into somebody, I just naturally say, ‘Excuse me, doctor.”  Somebody else told me that Madison County is growing so fast that “our largest crop is subdivisions.”

And Robert Reeves, a veteran, beloved television anchorman and “Robert on the Road” storyteller, related a tale that might strike you as yet another surprise:

Like neighboring Mississippi, Alabama is still working to overcome history’s black mark for its years as a slaveholding state and, later, bastion of racial segregation. “Back in the ’60s, ‘integration’ was a word, and that’s all,” Reeves told me. “We all remember 1963, with Governor [George] Wallace standing in the doorway at the University of Alabama,” symbolically blocking two black students from enrolling.

“Well this wasn’t our way here in Huntsville. The very first college in the state to integrate was Alabama A&M, the historically black school. The [white] University of Alabama at Huntsville was second, a week later. No photographers. No police officers. A black graduate student walked in, enrolled, and went to class.

“Not too long after that, our city school system told Governor Wallace, ‘We’re going to integrate.’ He sent state troopers up here to block the schools. Twenty-five white families walked through the state troopers to keep the schools open. Four black children went to four different schools. The next day’s headline in the paper — huge line — read, ‘Huntsville Integrates.’ Right down below it: ‘Birmingham Riots. Bull Connor Releases Dogs.’”

Theophilus “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s notorious police commissioner and staunch defender of racial segregation, employed fire hoses and attack dogs against protesters.

In short, for anyone who imagines the South as “barefoot, backward, and bigoted,” progressive, aggressive Huntsville is quite a revelation. As Mike Gillespie put it, “Change is not something that threatens us.”

Way Back When

Huntsville was the first settlement in what began as the Mississippi Territory, immediately west of Georgia. Genteel Georgia had been one of the original American colonies and states, but this was brambly wilderness.

When the area was thrown open to settlement after the colonists’ triumph in the Revolutionary War, a war veteran and trapper named John Hunt built a cabin near a refreshing spring — now the centerpiece of Big Spring Park in downtown Huntsville. A more influential settler named the place “Twickenham” after the hometown of English poet Alexander Pope. Other frontiersmen found the name prissy, and when anti-British sentiments bubbled during the War of 1812 they insisted that it be renamed for their good friend Hunt.

Huntsville was briefly Alabama’s first capital before state offices moved south to Cahawba, and then Montgomery.

As the largest cotton producer in the Southeast, Madison County was assuredly slave country, and the marauding Union Army occupied it at the first opportunity in 1862 during the U.S. Civil War. They sacked plantations and sent their owners packing, but Huntsville was largely spared from Yankee depredation.

Madison County moseyed through the next few decades largely unnoticed, growing its cotton and watercress, and it looked to be heading toward relative oblivion when textile mill after mill closed in the teeth of the 1930s’ Great Depression.

Then came the war, von Braun, and the implausible ascent of Huntsville, Alabama, into the forefront of high technology.

Waterwhat?

You may have been wondering all this time what “watercress” is. It’s a leafy aquatic vegetable, prized as a salad accent and — especially by the British — as a sandwich fixin’. It’s also a main ingredient in the widely sold “V8” vegetable juice. Watercress grows in precisely the kind of cold, high-country springs that you’ll find in Northern Alabama. But watercress devotees need not plan a pilgrimage. Only one or two farms cultivate the plant in Madison County these days.

WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Cotton gin. A machine that separates seeds and husks from sticky cotton fiber. “Gin” is short for “engine.”

Genteel. Civilized, refined, cultivated.

Mosey. To amble along in no great hurry.

Who’s Counting?

Posted April 27th, 2010 at 3:47 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

I received, completed, and returned my 2010 Census form the other day. This was Carol’s and my part of the decennial, or every-10-year, count of adults and children — citizens and non-citizens — living legally or illegally in the United States.

“Count” is the operative word, for the Census is not all that it used to be.

Over the years, I’ve written about various analyses of the American population that the Census Bureau developed from its mail surveys and door-to-door visits to people’s abodes as far back as 1790. I say “abodes” rather than “homes,” since some people live in trailers, prisons, school dormitories, and even on the street.

So I was surprised to open the 2010 Census mailer and find 10 simple questions, including How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2010? and What is your telephone number?

There was a bit more, asking about the gender and race of each person in my household. But no detailed questions of the sort that I could have sworn were part of previous censuses — about everything from our level of education to the number of bathtubs in the house.

In an expensive ($338 million) advertising and public-relations campaign, the Census Bureau has reminded Americans that an accurate count of who’s living where can influence the amount of federal funding sent to communities. And if enough people have moved to or left a state, it can trigger the gain or loss of a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Important, yes, but what about those bathtubs?

Turns out that, these days, detailed “lifestyle” stuff is gathered in a whole different way, not via the Census. It’s obtained in a comprehensive survey that the Census Bureau conducts each and every month, not just once every decade.

That’s because in our fast-changing world, information collected only once every 10 years quickly grows stale and inaccurate. This isn’t the 1790s, during George Washington’s first presidency, when most people lived on farms or in small towns and stayed there for a lifetime.

More than two centuries later, no decennial census can keep up with population and lifestyle trends. We cannot rely on 2000 Census results, for instance, to describe who’s residing in New Orleans, or what their living arrangements might be. In 2005, levee failures during Hurricane Katrina unleashed deadly flooding that erased whole neighborhoods and drove more than half of the city’s population from town. As a result, the old Louisiana city is nothing like it was 10 years ago.

So the Census Bureau’s “American Community Survey” takes monthly demographic snapshots of the nation. It’s sent to a statistical sample — 250,000 — of “housing unit addresses.” In the bureau’s words, this survey is “designed to provide communities a fresh look at how they are changing.” It’s a lot like the “long form” Census questionnaire that I remember, with many more than 10 quick questions. It asks U.S. residents to tell the government about their farm acreage, their utility choices and costs, the nature of any businesses on their property, not only their current marital status but also their marital history, and my favorite: their plumbing facilities.

This is where I’d have gladly told them all about our two bathtubs.

Truth be told, too, the Census Bureau was pressured into shortening the decennial Census questionnaire and finding another way to obtain detailed population information. Too many irate citizens growled about what they considered time-consuming and intrusive questions from the feds every 10 years.

But the monthly surveys are no more popular with some Americans. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican presidential candidate in 2008, for example, grumbled that the nation’s founders “never authorized the federal government to continuously survey the American people. More importantly, they never envisioned a nation where the people would roll over and submit to every government demand.”

Really strident critics of what they consider federal snooping call the American Community Survey the “American Community Interrogation.”

I, as a curious and chatty fellow, on the other hand, love to answer poll questions and take surveys if I feel they’ll do the country — or my family — some good.

Where shall I begin? One of the bathtubs is an old, clawfoot model. It’s upstairs, and when we moved in, we put old-fashioned shower fixtures and a frilly Victorian curtains above it. Now downstairs . . . .

A Little Bird Told Me

Urgent tweet:

Attention, people of the world in 2060: Running late this morn. Only coffee and juice for bkfst.

Why would anyone care about my personal minutiae now, let alone 50 years from now?

No one would, probably. But the mega-prestigious Library of Congress — the world’s greatest storehouse of accumulated knowledge and the place that’s called “America’s Memory” — has announced it is establishing a public archive that will capture and display EVERY TWEET ever sent since Twitter was established four years ago. So I want to be sure a record of my time on earth is included.

There are 50 million tweets a day, or about 73 BILLION little word bursts sent to date, about to be archived and opened to the world to read.

Might this make the cut?: Brought big lunch. Chicken sandwich. Mayo. Piece of lettuce. Whole tomato that I’ll cut at office.

The great library must think that Twitter is here for the ages. Or just the opposite, that the messages should be grabbed and stored now so that some 22nd Century anthropologist can ponder this curious passing fad.

Forgot to mention that morning juice was fresh-squeezed. Makes all the diff.

The announcement from the LOC — Twitter-ready shorthand for “Library of Congress” — concedes that most tweets are, in the words of Tech News Daily’s Dan Hope, “inane.” The great library plans to, in Hope’s words, “highlight the culturally and historically important tweets.”

Now there’s a job for somebody: pawing through 50 million electronic tweets a day and deciding which ones are “historically important.”

Do you think that if I’d had a full breakfast — say bacon and eggs and some toast and jam to go with the coffee and fresh-squeezed juice — my tweet would have historical significance?

Doesn’t matter. I’d never have been able to keep all that fascinating information under 140 characters.

Money, Honey

America’s moneymakers have been busy beavers. Not banks or big corporations, mind you, but the folks who print and mint our money.

In the most successful numismatic program in history, the U.S. Mint just spent 10 years creating and issuing 56 new state and territorial quarter-dollars. As before, these 25-cent pieces feature our first president, the aforementioned George Washington, on the obverse.

That’s the front in minty lingo, but I always get it mixed up and think “obverse” is the back of a coin.

Appearing on the reverse side, in place of the old eagle with wings unfurled, is the name of a state, the District of Columbia, or a U.S. territory such as the distant Northern Mariana Islands, along with a scene that suggests that place.

The Maine quarter, for instance, depicts a lighthouse. A saguaro cactus is featured on Arizona’s, the Wright Brothers’ pioneer “flyer” on Ohio’s, a bison on North Dakota’s. The Marianas coin shows coconut trees, Polynesians guiding sailboats, some sort of stone pillar, and soaring seagulls. It’s the last in the series, and I would guess that a coin devoted to this obscure set of Pacific islands will be snapped up by collectors.

But the mint is not stopping to admire its work. It is introducing yet another set of 25-cent coins. Called “America the Beautiful” quarters, they will depict national parks and wildlife areas.

The initial offering, issued earlier this month, salutes the very first “federal reservation,” set aside in 1832, and I’ll bet not one in a thousand of you could guess where that place is. (I guessed wrong, too.)

Naturally, I’m going to pause to tell you!

It’s not Yellowstone in Wyoming, the nation’s first national park. Or the first national forest, Shoshone, next door.

The first national preserve, Hot Springs in Arkansas, was designated by President Andrew Jackson in 1832, 50 years before Yellowstone was established. Like other sites that the government would later move to claim and safeguard, Hot Springs was chosen for its unspoiled beauty — lush-green bluffs, trout streams, lovely waterfalls, and, especially, piping-hot natural springs, deep in the Ozark Mountains.

But years later, Hot Springs became better known for its manmade attractions, one of which is featured on the new coin.

The turn from the 19th to the 20th centuries was the “golden age of bathing,” when people of means flocked to bathhouse palaces for pampering, especially at beach resorts. Others ventured to bathhouses in remote mountain towns in the belief that their mineral-rich waters, bubbling from springs deep beneath the earth, offered curative powers. “Treatments” at bathhouse spas were said to palliate everything from nervousness to gout to syphilis.

In 1915 in remote Hot Springs, a fellow named Samuel Fordyce built perhaps the most luxurious bathhouse since the Roman Baths of Caracalla.

In addition to whirlpools and hot tubs, the Fordyce Bathhouse offered massage and napping rooms — even a music room. In the Spanish Renaissance-style men’s bath court, patrons gazed at an 8,000-piece stained-glass ceiling depicting mermaids and Neptune’s daughter. There and in the women’s hall, customers shed their clothes and stepped into tubs, where attendants administered vigorous scrubs. Next came a long sweat in what was called a “vapor box,” followed by a needle-like cold shower.

Advances in medicine killed off most bathhouses. So did less-strenuous alternatives such as golfing resorts and theme parks.

The Fordyce Bathhouse closed in 1962. But the National Park Service took it over, gave it a multi-million-dollar facelift, and opened it to public tours. No longer can one take a gingerly dip in Fordyce’s tubs and pools, but down the way a few other, private spas still pull in Hot Springs’ famous steaming waters.

One of “Bathhouse Row’s” thermal spring fountains appears on the Hot Springs National Park quarter that kicks off the “America the Beautiful” series.

Not to be outdone, the people who make U.S. paper money at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing have been scurrying about as well. They are making what the Washington Post calls “high-tech Benjamins.”

The reference is to new $100 bills. Like the old ones, they feature the image of colonial statesman Benjamin Franklin. This batch is high-tech because of the elaborate anti-counterfeit features — far beyond previous efforts — that are incorporated into the currency’s threads.

These C-notes — the nickname comes from the Roman numeral C, for 100 — include a three-dimensional “security ribbon” running right alongside Ben’s left ear. Within it, images of little bells alternate with the number 100, depending on which way you tilt the bill. And embedded inside a sketch of a Revolutionary-era inkwell is a sketch of the Liberty Bell. That’s the bell with a famous crack, acquired the very first time it was rung, that summoned citizens to Philadelphia for the reading of the nation’s Declaration of Independence in 1776. On the new $100 bill, the bell’s likeness changes hue from copper to green, again depending on the angle at which you behold it.

As I said, these 3-D holograms are designed to outwit ever-more-sophisticated counterfeiters. The $100 bill is the largest U.S. denomination still in use — government engravers stopped printing $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 bills 41 years ago, though your Aunt Mabel may have one stashed in a drawer. C notes are heavily circulated overseas, too, so they’re a favorite of those who craft and crank out fake money.

I’ll bet you a Northern Mariana quarter that criminals will be among the first in line when the new “Benjamins” go into circulation next February.

WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)
 

Hologram. A three-dimensional image made from microscopic laser light waves that, when viewed, seem to make the image turn, twist or hover. Thus, holograms are extremely difficult for counterfeiters to copy.

Inane. Idiotic and empty of substance.

Numismatic. Pertaining to the serious collection of coins, paper money, tokens and the like.

Palliate. To the lessen the effect of something. A “palliative” relieves pain without really curing the condition.

More Meanderings

Posted April 20th, 2010 at 12:24 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments


I have discovered the latest medical fib, on the order of “this won’t hurt a bit” and “the doctor will be with you shortly.” 

I recently went under the 21st Century equivalent of “the knife,” involving assorted probes and scopes and zapper devices rather than scalpels.  But the prep hasn’t changed: Strip buck naked and “slip” into a gown that exposes your backside to inspection by medicos, cleaning staff and startled hospital visitors.

Shiver on a gurney, toes a-wiggling, stare upward at chilly-white lights, and await your doctor’s pre-surgical pep talk.  While prone, sign enough forms to insure that the HOSPITAL’S backside is covered in the event the coming sleep is your last.  Agree with the nurse who is digging into the top of your left hand to tap a vein for the saline and anesthetic drip that — ouch — yes, the Spring thaw has been — yow -—lovely.

Then follows the medical equivalent of the “perp walk” in which criminal suspects are paraded before cameras on their way into or out of jail.  This, though, is the “patient roll” down the hall on the gurney, as passersby avert their eyes and wonder what you’ve done to yourself.

Soon you’re in the “surgical suite,” not to be confused with honeymoon quarters at the Mandarin Oriental.  Through a surgical mask, the anesthesiologist introduces him- or herself.  Mine happened to have sung in a quartet with a former VOA colleague of mine.  So as he hooked an ominous-looking bag to the drip line, we compared notes, so to speak, about “The Pirates of Penzance.”  He had once been Frederic, the pirate trainee.  I had sung the “Modern Major General” patter in high school and might have shown off with “In short in matters vegetable, animal and mineral, I am the very model of a modern major general” had not the surgeon, standing nearby, glared at both of us.  At least it looked like a glare behind his mask.

There would be no facemask or tanks of stinky ether for me.  Just that medical fib to which I referred earlier, as the singing anesthesiologist turned a lever and assured me, “I’m just going to give you a little something to make you drowsy.”

Drowsy, as in instantly insensate.

The instant lasted two hours, after which, batting my boyish eyelashes, I awoke groggily in a recovery room, surrounded by other surgical survivors and their relatives. 

“Recovery” is a relative term.  There’s no lolling or snoozing.  Chop-chop, there are decisions to be made: ginger ale or Coke?  Regular or diet?  Feel like a cookie?  (“No, I feel like a stuck pig.”  My weak sense of humor was coming back.) 

Then came the drill straight from the old “Rawhide” television show’s cattle-driving theme song: “Head ‘em up.  Move ‘em out,” driven by today’s tight budgetary, insurance, and bed-space demands.  Here are your undies and pants.  Put ‘em on.  Sign this.  Initial that.  Get you a pain pill for the road?

My doctor was just as soothing “post-op.”  As he cheerfully outlined my rehabilitation regimen, I couldn’t help thinking, first, “Easy for YOU to say,” and then of the old Vaudeville gag:

“Will it hurt, doc?”

 “Only when you get my bill.”

Not in the Bag

Now I know how expert jugglers feel.  If you visit Washington, D.C., and see somebody exiting a grocery or drug store with his arms piled high with products, say hello.  It’s me.  Or more grammatically, it is I, but how geeky does that sound?

I’m balancing a bag of catfood, a jug of milk, a six-pack of beer, one or two prescription bottles, a container of fresh salsa, some sort of crackers, and the daily newspaper because the District of Columbia — whose near-doubling of parking-meter fees has not produced enough pain to close a budget deficit — has ordered retailers to charge five cents for each bag that they dispense to customers.  Paper or plastic?  Doesn’t matter.  Each one will cost you an extra nickel.

This is a “green” initiative. The money raised is earmarked for periodic clean-up of the Anacostia, a polluted branch of the Potomac River.  We’re not talking agricultural runoff in this urban stream.  It’s household trash — including plastic bags that take a few millennia to break down, discarded wood scraps and oil filters and enough tires to run the Indy car series for a year, and various unmentionables.  Let’s just say it takes more than a swimming-pool skimmer to clean up the worst of it.

In January alone, D.C. pulled in $150,000 from people who paid the new bag tax. 

But it didn’t get a nickel from me.  I’m too busy and forgetful to become a Green Warrior, toting one of those biodegradable bags.  And I won’t pay for a plastic or paper one at the store.  So feel free to laugh at the guy with parcels stacked to his eyebrows, stooping to try to retrieve a dropped item.  That would be me.

All I know is, I’m not alone. Washington stores and vendors dispensed an estimated 22.5 million bags each MONTH in 2009.  But in January, when the bag toll took effect, they passed out only 3 million.  That’s 18.5 million fewer bags filled each month.  Or 390 million nickels that stayed in our pockets in the District of Columbia alone.  

I’m not too cheap to pay the nickel.  This bag tax is the straw, the breaking point in the onslaught of government and private-sector surcharges: connection fees and “early withdrawal” tariffs, penalties for using or not using the Internet, fees for checking suitcases and even, from one airline — Spirit — a $30 charge to carry one’s own bag onto its planes.

Other passengers had better hope that I don’t have to book a Spirit flight any time soon.  I’ll be the guy in 22C with no suitcase stowed overhead but his shaving kit, underwear, three days of clean shirts, six folders bulging with newspaper clippings, a large soft drink, two news magazines, the daily sports section, a sandwich, and a big bag of peanuts in his lap. 

And since I won’t pay even a nickel for one, none of those items will be in a paper or plastic bag.

Bouncy, Bouncy

I’m fascinated with obituaries.  Not out of celebrity fascination or as some morbid countdown of the dearly departed in my age group.  Rather, I like to read about those who have brought something unique to the world.


I’ve written about the demise of the inventors of TV dinners, flying Frisbee discs, hula hoops, blinding Day-Glo colors, and the children’s sport of T-ball.

Now, farewell to George Nissen, who died in California at age 96.  Though an American, he is best-remembered as the fellow jumping high into the air for the cameras alongside a kangaroo.

They were bouncing on a device that Nissen had invented.  As a young gymnast and diver in rural Iowa, he loved to watch as visiting circus acrobats sprang from springy safety nets onto their perches.  This looked like good exercise, so he built his own bouncing contraption out of rubber inner-tube straps.  Before long, his University of Iowa swim team pals were having a ball, somersaulting on Nissen’s “trampoline.”  He patented that name — Spanish of sorts for “springboard” — but it soon became the generic term for this bouncy platform.


With two friends, Nissen toured for a time as “The Three Leonardos,” bounding up and down throughout the Midwest, before quitting the road to concentrate on making and selling trampolines.

In 2000, trampoline debuted as an Olympic sport, fittingly in Sydney, Australia.  Russians won the men’s and women’s gold medals.  An Australian, a Ukrainian, and two Canadians won silver and bronze, besting, for all I know, a couple of Outback kangaroos.

It’s Not a Diet, it’s a Lifestyle

I learned something the other day from Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist.  And not about international politics, global economics, or human rights, his usual frames of reference. 

Kristof wrote about the wild dogs of Africa.  As he pointed out, people bond with cute, fuzzy, or imposing creatures — pandas, ducklings, tigers, whales.   But while turkey vultures, tapirs, dung beetles, blacksnakes and the like look marvelous to their kind, they’re plug ugly to us.

African wild dogs were among the scorned — um, hounded to near extinction, Kristof noted — until a part-Brit, part-Zimbabwean named Greg Rasmussen began re-branding the breed.  He found one endearing attribute in these snarly, big-eared pack hunters that chirp like birds rather than bark like hounds:

Their distinctive, spotted coats. 

Rasmussen and others throughout Africa began calling these canids “painted dogs.”  He opened the “Painted Dog Conservation Center,” and a remarkable thing happened.  Contributions began pouring in from around the world.  Soon the African painted dog was no longer threatened.

This got me thinking.  What if, with a few strokes of the pen and a crafty press release, we could burnish the sour perceptions of other unfashionable critters, reviled human professions, and undesirable products.  With zippy marketing, we could take clumsy euphemisms — such as calling used cars “pre-owned vehicles” or toilet paper “bathroom tissue” — to a higher level.

This has been tried with moderate imagination and little success.  Lawyers are “attorneys,” but we’re still not wild about them.  Politicians prefer to be called “lawmakers.”  Owners of steely-jawed pit bulls would have us call their beasts “Staffordshire terriers.”  Or even “Staffies.” 

Cuddly pit bulls.  Nice try.  Hasn’t caught on.

Here’s the same idea, writ large:

PETA — the ever-controversial People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals organization — thinks fish get a bad rap.  (And a bad wrap on occasion.)  We think of them as slimy, bug-eyed, and brainless.  So we’re content to harvest, gut, broil, and eat these dullards of the deep. 

PETA thinks we should call scaly, cold-blooded, aquatic vertebrates something chummier, if you’ll pardon the word, than “fish.”  It suggests “sea kittens.”

Who, it asks astutely, would want to hook, harpoon, fillet, or fry a kitten? 

True enough.  So I say, let’s start calling worms wigglers.

Wolves could become grandma dogs (everybody loves grandma).  The connection?  Check out the Little Red Riding Hood children’s story.

Even though I consider them rats with wings, I’d turn pigeons into coobirds.  Spiders into octobuddies.  Cockroaches into skitterdoodles.

Skunks?  Striped weasels!  (This may need more work, since weasels have their own p.r. problems.   How about land otters?  Anything to draw attention away from skunks’, shall we say, chemical defenses.)

You have to agree that, like Greg Rasmussen, I’m having decent luck tidying up the images of lower beings but haven’t come up with a single zippy new term for scorned human subsets.  I’m having a hard time buffing up bankers, stockbrokers, chief executive officers, or financial advisers in today’s economy.  I haven’t a clue how to rocket car salesmen up the popularity charts.  Or how to help journalists, who seem to be held in even lower regard.

It would be in my interest to think of something for that last one, though. 

Let’s see: I consider journalists to be storytellers.  It has a nice ring, but critics already believe that we make stuff up.

Lifewatchers?  Obscure, a reach, would never catch on.

Objectivists?  Objective journalist?  An antiquated, currently preposterous concept.

Here, I think I’ve got it:

Journalists . . .  painted writers!  

If it worked for smelly wild dogs, it can work for us.

WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Canid.  A canine.  The word comes from the scientific name Canidae, the family of carnivorous mammals that includes wolves, jackals, and domesticated dogs. Insensate.  Unconscious, almost lifeless.

Insensate.  Unconscious, almost lifeless.

Perp.  Short for criminal perpetrator, or rather, in most scenarios, alleged but not yet convicted wrongdoer.

This ‘n’ That

Posted April 9th, 2010 at 12:02 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

Over the weeks that you and I have been figuratively tramping around the American West together, I’ve been stuffing clippings and notes in my pocket.  At the risk of revealing how diffuse and cluttered my mind has become, here are four of the items that caught my eye.

No Sweat

With the nation still scuffling to pull itself out of a prolonged recession, every trend is scrutinized to smithereens.  And something is puzzling:

Many, if not most, businesses have laid off some workers or cut their hours.  Yet as a whole, U.S. companies are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were before the steep economic downturn began.  

This is in part, perhaps, because those who’ve been lucky enough to hold onto good jobs panicked.  Grateful to have avoided the fate of friends who lost jobs and have been fruitlessly looking for work for months, they are cheerfully toiling longer and harder in order to stay in their bosses’ good graces.

Older workers, in particular, believe they’d stand little chance against younger job-seekers in the “cold, cruel world” where even a menial job is pounced upon like a meaty bone tossed to growling jackals.  Companies can leisurely pick from among hundreds of eager, desperate, applicants who are willing to work cheap.  And old-timers are not the likely ones to be picked.

As the Washington Post’s Neil Irwin reported, those who still have desks and cubicles are meekly acceding to stated or implied demands for more hours, greater output — even benefit cuts, if need be.  Smaller bones are better than no bones at all.

So healthy companies would seem to have it made.  They can downsize and fill vacancies with affordable newbies — often part-timers or contract employees whom they don’t have to pay health or retirement benefits.  Or they can let vacancies stand, knowing that the remaining staff will be so thankful to have jobs that they’ll work longer and harder and produce just about as much as a larger workforce did before.

Sweet!

A Rise from the South

It’s said that time is the best healer.  But every once in awhile, something pulls away a bit of the scab.

Recently, Virginia’s new Republican governor, Robert McDonnell, declared April “Confederate History Month” in his state.  

Confederate imagery abounds in Virginia, whose capital city, Richmond, was the last capital of the rebellious Confederate States of America in the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.  

Virginia named one of its main thoroughfares “Lee-Jackson Highway” after Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, two of the South’s most prominent generals.  “Lee-Jackson Day” in January is still a state holiday.  

From 1984 to 2000, in an odd effort to promote racial harmony, Virginia added Martin Luther King Jr.’s name to the holiday, then uncoupled it when it was clear that the black civil-rights leader would soon get his own national day.

In the town squares of hundreds of southern county seats, including many in Virginia, statues to ordinary Confederate soldiers stand tall.  Carol, who’s spending three months photographing in Alabama, and I even found one in little Tuskegee, home of the nation’s most famous historically black university.  

Throughout the South, too, you’ll see defiant symbols of what some southerners call “The War of Northern Aggression” (or “Invasion,”) “The War Between the States,” or — more mirthfully — the “Late Unpleasantness.” It was not until 2000 that the Confederate flag came down from its perch atop South Carolina’s capitol building in Columbia.  Civil-rights groups’ calls for boycotts of South Carolina events and attractions were only slightly muted when state officials lowered the rebel flag but then planted it on the capitol lawn.

Virginia’s past two governors — both Democrats — had allowed Confederate History Month to go dormant by simply ignoring the usual proclamation.  In reviving it, Governor McDonnell said Confederate History Month would promote tourism in a state where battlefields and Civil War re-enactments are huge historical draws.  

In his remarks, though, McDonnell never mentioned that the bloody war that tore the nation asunder was largely fought to preserve or eliminate human bondage in the Confederate states.  Former governor Douglas Wilder, an African American, called Governor McDonnell’s omission of the word “slavery” anywhere in his proclamation “mind-boggling.”  But the governor’s supporters endorsed McDonnell’s assertion that the special month helps Virginians “understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers, and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”

Ordinary rebel soldiers, many of them already poor and barefoot, certainly sacrificed — their lives, in many cases.  Citizens lost their homes, crops, and livestock as Union forces slashed and burned their way through the South.  The sacrifices made by Confederate leaders — whose “fire-eater” rhetoric and romantic appeals to chivalry sweet-talked an undermanned and poorly armed region into a foolhardy war — are harder to fathom.

Two days after he issued the Confederate History Month proclamation, Governor McDonnell apologized “to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed” by the failure to mention slavery.  It was, he said, “an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders.”

The flap over Confederate History Month brought uncomfortable questions back to life: If just about everyone can agree that slavery was the South’s economic underpinning, and that its states went to war to preserve an evil institution, should that period be expunged from the national memory?  Should the Confederacy be venerated?  Or can Confederate History Month artfully comingle the two points of view — saluting the bravery of southern ancestors but condemning the institution that 620,000 Americans died trying to end or maintain?

My southern friends tell me that some white southerners — relentlessly preoccupied with righting what they see as a terrible wrong from a century and a half ago — still fight the Civil War in their hearts and minds, while the region has moved on: growing, modernizing, and building upon its racial diversity.  

Gotcha

If you live west of, say, Istanbul, you’ve probably heard of April Fool’s Day.  It’s April 1, the day when French and French-Canadian kids sneak up and slap a picture of a fish onto their friends’ backs.  Then they yell, “April Fish!” and laugh uproariously.  

People also play April 1 pranks on each other elsewhere in Europe, out of some hoary tradition having to do with Pope Gregory XIII’s decree in 1582 that the new year would no longer start on that date.  Each April Fool’s Day Americans, too, get perverse pleasure out of telling false stories while striving to keep a straight face.  

“D’ja hear?  Vice President Biden just resigned!”  Stuff like that.  When the victim replies, “Really?” with a gasp, your cleverness is confirmed.  “April Fool!” you announce, and laugh uproariously.

When I was a kid, I thought it was incredibly inventive each April 1 to whisper to whatever girl sat in front of me to stay still, VERY still.  

“What?” she would respond nervously out of the corner of her mouth, holding herself stiff as a board.

“There’s a spider on your neck!”

Her shriek, leap from her seat, and frantic brush of her lapel pretty much coincided with my smug announcement of “April Fool!”

Some April Fool’s Day stories are classics.  In 1957, our friends at the BBC ran a TV piece that showed Italians happily harvesting spaghetti from trees.  This prompted predictable inquiries on the telly, such as, “Do you know where I could get some vermicelli-tree seeds?”

In 1998, rational mathematicians across the United States panicked when an obscure society reported that the State of Alabama had changed the value of the mathematical constant pi.  The alarmed whizzes completely missed the significance of the April 1 date on the announcement.

Many a radio disc jockey, stretching cleverness beyond its limits on April 1, has solemnly reported the death of a prominent figure who is actually alive and about to get angry.  After a dirge or two is played and stunned listeners call to convey their shock and sadness, the jock cries out, “April Fool, you idiots!”  He then laughs uproariously, closes out the show, and is fired.

In a famous April Fool sports hoax in 1985, author George Plimpton raised the flickering hopes of New York Mets fans when he reported that the baseball team had signed an amazing phenom, Sidd Finch, a pitcher who could throw a ball at 270 kmh (168 mph) with unerring accuracy.  Not only that: Finch had studied in Tibet and practiced the art of “siddhi” yogic mind and body control.

Girded by all these whoppers to be wary, we in Washington, D.C., did not for a moment buy a story that appeared in the Washington Examiner this April 1.  The newspaper reported that the hometown Washington Redskins football team had acquired Donovan McNabb, the star quarterback of its hated rival, the Philadelphia Eagles.  And what made the deal sweet, the paper added, was that all the ’Skins had to give up in return was a second-round prospect in the upcoming draft of college players.  

The story was preposterous — an obvious fib:  McNabb was an all-star performer and an acclaimed leader of men.  The Eagles would never send him to an arch-foe that competes in the same division.  Besides, the story appeared on  . . . April 1.  Duh!

The Examiner quickly fessed up.  The lame story had been the best April Fool’s tale it could come up with.

Then, three days later, sports fans’ tranquility on a beautiful Easter Sunday was shattered when word pinballed across town that Donovan McNabb had in fact just been traded to the Redskins for a second-round draft choice.

No fooling.

We’re Not in Kansas Any More

Speaking of April Fool’s Day, if you’re a Google user, you’ve probably noticed little touches that the search engine adds to its home page every once in awhile.  A green motif on St. Patrick’s Day, for instance, or a goblin face on Halloween.

But for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why, when I opened the site on the morning of April 1, the word “Topeka” appeared — without explanation — in place of the usual “Google” trademark.

Why the name of this city in Kansas, out of nowhere?

It was another April Fool’s gag of sorts, and a clever one.  With his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt explained that “Google” became “Topeka” for a day to honor the Kansa Indian tribe, which, he said, was famous for digging potatoes.  His site, in turn, is known as a good place to dig for information.

The switch was a good-natured reply to Kansas’s capital city, which has been lobbying to become the testing ground for Google’s new ultra-fast fiber-optic network, which will dramatically improve access to the Internet and bring jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars to some community, somewhere.  At least 22 cities had mounted expensive Facebook and other Internet page campaigns aimed at catching Google’s eye and contract.  

Topeka’s mayor issued a proclamation changing the name of his town to “Google, Kansas,” for the entire month of March.  Had I been there, I’d have run over to the train station and changed the name of the famous line to the “Atchison, Google, and Santa Fe.”

“Whether we get the Google Experiment or not,” wrote the Topeka Capital Journal during “Google, Kansas” Month, “the excitement alone has been a ton of fun!”

WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)


Hoary.
  Gray or whitened by age.

Pi.  Pronounced “pie,” this is the mathematical ratio of the circumference of a circle to the circle’s diameter. It’s approximately 3.14159265 to 1.

Smithereens. 
Small fragments or bits, as in “blasted to smithereens.”  It comes from the Irish “smidirin.”

Vermicelli.
 
Pronounced “ver-mi-CHELL-ee,” this is round and very thin spaghetti.  The name in Italian means “little worms.”

Whopper.
  Something really big, as in a fish or a highly exaggerated joke.

Arid Arizona

Posted April 2nd, 2010 at 2:56 pm (UTC-4)
6 comments

Let’s conclude our odyssey through the West with a look at dry yet surprisingly green Arizona.

Green, thanks to irrigation and irrigation alone. Without it, the bulk of Arizona would still be brown and barren. There’d be no Phoenix-to-Tucson mega-city, no spring “Cactus League” Major League baseball games, no farming to speak of.

The West is America’s driest, but also fastest-growing, region. Arizona, its most parched state, alone is crammed with an astounding 67 percent more people than lived there in 1990. For all of them, there’s been a stampede of new businesses, golfing resorts, and housing developments — especially those geared to retirees, who can’t seem to get to Arizona fast enough.

These people and enterprises use a whole lot more water than the roaming sheep, coyotes, and the mere 3.7 million people who lived in Arizona 20 years ago.

Thanks to modern engineering, Arizona cities can tap into precious river water and vast aquifers deep beneath the porous soil. A single rushing river, the Colorado, which formed and still courses through the Grand Canyon and then becomes the border between Arizona and neighboring California, supplies water to 40 million people in seven states. In 1922, those states signed a compact in which those in the upper reaches of the Colorado agreed to allow enough flow to supply hyper-growing states like Arizona to the south.

The Colorado (“Red” in Spanish) River gets its name from sediment washed from layers of nearby rock. So much over the centuries that — get this — it formed Mexico’s long Baja Peninsula, south of California.

Prolonged droughts have dramatically reduced water levels in reservoirs, including Arizona’s Lake Powell. “We live in a desert state and, some would say, in a state of denial,” Arizona Republic reporter Shaun McKinnon wrote in 2005. Because of all the irrigation needed to supply fertile farms, beautiful lawns and lush gardens where only cacti and red ants would normally be found; and the showers, toilets, and washing machines of Arizona’s boomtowns, he noted, the state’s 6.2 million people use the amount of water that would normally supply five times that many people.

In the five years since McKinnon’s article, the capital city of Phoenix alone has grown by 200,000 people. The 2010 Census, currently being conducted, will likely show that 1.65 million people live in this city where, 2,000 years ago, native people we call the Hohokam had to create 217 km (135 miles) of crude irrigation canals from the Gila and Salt rivers just to make the Sonoran Desert arable.


In modern times, farmers — who control many of the dams and reservoirs and canals — have become “emergency water bankers,” as reporter McKinnon calls them. They hold back water reserves to get them through dry times. “But as farms give way to subdivisions, the reserve is shrinking, and water once used in fields is now claimed by homes and businesses.”

And tensions over water are mounting. People in Arizona’s welter of subdivisions say that farmers are lavishing precious water on thirsty crops like alfalfa and cotton. The farmers insist that they’re the frugal ones, and without their careful water conservation there’d be no array of new communities with catchy names like “Sun City” and “Surprise.” Arizona’s innumerable golf courses alone consume two-thirds of the state’s commercial water supply. Why do you think Arizona looks so green from the air?

Then there’s the intense evaporation toll exacted by Arizona’s nearly perpetual sunshine and legendary heat. One day 12 years ago, the mercury hit 53° (128° Farenheit) at Lake Havasu on the California border. On an average summer day in Phoenix, the temperature reaches 39° (102°).

One has to wonder what early Indians, two millennia before air conditioning, saw in such a place. In 1540, Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led an expedition out of Mexico as far north as the Grand Canyon. He was searching for the legendary “Seven Cities of Cibola,” supposedly Zuni Indian strongholds full of riches. Finding only drab villages and hostile Zunis, Hopis, and Pueblos, he and his men moved on to what is now New Mexico, where he had no better luck.

Still later in Arizona, U.S. soldiers would mount costly campaigns against migratory Chirichaua Apache Indians, led by Cochise and then Geronimo. Unlike the Spaniards, the bluecoats persisted and prevailed. More than 5,000 soldiers and 500 scouts hunted down the feared Geronimo and his band. They were shipped to a fort in humid Florida on the distant East Coast, where many died of malaria or tuberculosis.


Geronimo himself was moved twice and eventually released, though never allowed to return to his Arizona homeland. Like some other Indian warriors and chiefs, he became a celebrity, appearing at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and even riding in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade a year later.

Geronimo, by the way, was not a skydiver. But the actor Chief Thundercloud (born Victor Daniels) playing him did yell Geronimo’s name when leaping off a cliff in the 1939 movie of the same name, and members of the 501st United States Parachute Division adopted the call for their freefalls: “Geroni . . . MO!!!” Some people jumping out of planes still do likewise, as do kids bouncing off diving boards into pools.

Except for missionary priests bent on converting native populations, the Spanish and Mexicans (after the latter’s independence from Spain in 1821) spent more time and energy in lovelier New Mexico than they did in scrawny Arizona.

The latter came under American control in two stages — the northern three-fourths as part of the large new territory of New Mexico after a victory over Mexico in a short war ending in 1848; and the remainder via the Gadsden Purchase five years later. The only reason the United States wanted that hot and desolate sliver south of the Gila River was to gain land for a transcontinental “southern route” railroad line.

It would be almost 60 years before New Mexico Territory was deemed worthy enough for full inclusion in the Union in 1912, as the separate states of New Mexico and Arizona. They were last among our contiguous “lower 48” states.

Irrigation — that word again — this time by Mormon settlers and federal dam-builders — pretty much explains the only reason Arizona grew much at all for awhile. Then between 1940 and 1960, its population doubled, and the boom was on. Why? Still more irrigation, air conditioning, and the discovery by many Americans that Arizona’s dry air ameliorated their allergies.


Tourism explains the population explosion, too. People came to see the Grand Canyon, amble among the giant saguaro cacti down around Tucson, take in some Spring Training games, or putter along what remained of historic U.S. Highway 66 on the northern edge of the state. Some of them fell in love with the rugged place and moved there.

Healthy, tree-sized saguaros — pronounced “su-WHAR-ohs” — whose night-blooming flowers are the Arizona state blossom, live for 75 years or more. With their single central column and uplifted “arms,” the saguaros are sometimes used to symbolize the entire Southwest, even though wild ones don’t grow outside Arizona. Woodpeckers and golden flickers drill holes in saguaros, and all sorts of birds, spiders, and scorpions move in. Unfortunately, other holes are created by yahoos who think it’s hilarious to use the spiny cacti for target practice.


Arizona boasts the longest portion of the original Route 66 still in use. Instead of just paving over and widening a lot of the road to create modern Interstate Highway 40 from New Mexico west to Nevada, engineers chose a whole new route, leaving much of the old, two-lane pavement intact but isolated.

Along it today, you’ll find delightful anachronisms from half a century ago, when people took carefree spins on the “Mother Road” between Chicago and Los Angeles. If you’re into old motels and gas stations with working neon or rusted remains, funky tourist attractions such the “Meteor City” trading post and a giant fiberglass rabbit, or lonely sections of road, a detour onto nostalgic Route 66 is worth the extra time.

One last historical reference that is not Arizona’s proudest moment: During the panic and paranoia following Imperial Japan’s sneak attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry removed from “war sensitive” areas” — broadly defined as the entire West Coast — as “disloyal Americans.”

Whole families, including American citizens, were uprooted and forced into internment camps, some of them in the brutally hot Arizona desert. Cherry Tsutsumida, a longtime federal health worker who became executive director of a memorial to the internees in Washington, D.C., later told me, “Some of our Chinese friends began to wear little tags that said, ‘We are not a Jap,’ which reinforced our isolation and our feeling of being guilty of something that we did not understand.”

President Roosevelt ordered the camps closed in 1944, and by war’s end in 1945, the interns had regained their freedom. But more than four decades would elapse before President Ronald Reagan signed legislation apologizing for the internment that, the bill stated, had been based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The government also paid internment survivors or their heirs $1.6 billion in reparations – a sum that worked out to about $20,000 per person.

There’s no logical transition that I can think of from that misguided episode to a Grand Canyon adventure, so let’s just abruptly refocus on America’s most popular national park.


About 5 million people visit the awesome, 1.6-kilometer (1-mile)-deep canyon each year. Most come by car, charter bus, motor home, or motorcycle, sit in long lines at the admission gates, and scramble to find a scarce parking space inside the park.

But there’s another way in that’s much more fun. It’s a 2½-hour ride aboard the Grand Canyon Railway, a scenic steam train out of Williams, Arizona — once a big maintenance center on the Santa Fe Railroad’s Chicago-to-Los Angeles route.

The railway made its first run up to the canyon in 1901. But the old rail line through the juniper forest stopped carrying passengers in 1968. It simply could not pry enough people from their cars to make a profit.

In 1989, though, Max Biegert, who made a fortune in the crop-dusting business of all things, bought the decrepit line and overhauled it. The engine of the train that Carol and I rode was sitting in a Michigan museum when Biegert bought it, and eight of the nine cars were what the crew called “rustbuckets,” abandoned and vandalized in a California scrapyard.


Onboard the richly appointed steam train nowadays, it sounds and feels like the Old West. The train lurches to an unexpected halt mid-route when “robbers” appear and shoot it out with railroad “guards,” to the delight of camera-toting passengers. Troubadours stroll the aisles. “If you listen carefully,” one of them tells the riders, “you’ll hear a train in the background.” And of course he’s right.

More than 120,000 people make the run up to the Grand Canyon’s 1906 log train station each year, theoretically displacing more than 40,000 cars from the park. Of course, other visitors’ vehicles quickly take their place.

What everybody who makes it to the canyon encounters is a spectacular, winding gorge that’s 450 kilometers (279 miles) long and almost 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) wide in spots that gives a stunning light and color show each sunny day — especially at sunset.

Carol and I were fortunate to hook up with an old friend, Tom Glatzmayer, a jolly Canadian who had moved to Grand Canyon Village and was leading bus tours along the South Rim. “Remember what they say: it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity that gets you down,” he reminded his boarding passengers on a stifling, 33-degree day. “There’s very low humidity up here, which means you won’t even notice that you’re sweating profusely!” That earned Tom the first of many laughs.

Once, Spanish explorers peered down at the canyon floor and thought the rushing Colorado River below was only three meters across, he told them. They got it wrong because the river is so far down that it’s hard to judge.

One reaches the canyon floor by foot or mule along narrow and steep trails, via boat from a point far upstream, or — in lifesaving emergencies only — by helicopter. Those who pick mule rides — some of which take half a day and include an overnight stay at a lodge down below — must be at least 1½ meters tall, weigh less than 90 kilos, not be visibly pregnant, and speak good English. Apparently the beasts don’t comprehend Slovakian or Thai, though you’d think they’d understand full-throated screams in any language. Nancy Smart, my former editor here at VOA, rode a mule down and back and said it was the scariest experience of her life. Once the mule starts down the steep paths along ledges an arm’s length from the abyss, there’s no turning back, and you’re staring straight into the canyon the whole time. Riding back up is apparently less frightening because the end of the ordeal is in view.

To date not a single one of the sure-footed mules is known to have tumbled over the cliff, with or without its rider. But you can buy a little book called Death in the Grand Canyon that will curl your hair. It describes the demise of foolish folks who stepped off the canyon rim while posing for photos or wandered into the wild ravine and lost their way.

Last year, too, following a fatal collision between a sightseeing helicopter and a small, fixed-wing plane over the Canyon — the latest of several such calamities over the years — officials banned flights below the rim and established specific corridors for tourist air excursions.

The Grand Canyon has existed for 40 million years, or what Tourmaster Tom called “an eyeblink of geological time.” It was formed when one great tectonic plate slid under another, forcing the land upward. The river then began cutting a path deep down to its old level. Boulders that fell into the Colorado produced the 160 rapids that make a rafting trip so hair-raising.

“A lot of people ask whether you can take a bus or car to the bottom of the canyon,” Tom Glatzmayer told his audience. “The answer is yes. But only once!”

As Tom — who, to our sadness, has since died — was loading his passengers into the bus for the return trip to Grand Canyon Village, he couldn’t resist one more wisecrack. Like most employees of his company and the National Park Service at the canyon, he lived inside the park, a rock’s throw from the South Rim.

He called it “living on the edge.”

WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Ameliorate. To sooth or make something more bearable.

Arable. Suitable for farming or other cultivation.

Welter. A jumbled pile or collection of something.

Yahoo. Pronounced “YAY-hoo,” this is a rube or a fool who’s likely to behave stupidly.

Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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