Posted September 9th, 2009 at 3:02 pm (UTC-4)
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On a just-completed cross-country trip, Carol and I drove, languidly and admiringly, through a tidy place full of cheery people, picture-postcard farms with bright-red barns, and white-fence towns with names like Oconomowoc and Ashwaubenon — Indian words that locals articulate as fluidly as they order a beer and a brat. That’s brat as in bratwurst sausage, pronounced “brott,” not “bratt” like the unruly child.

The place is Wisconsin, whose middle syllable gets an extra pounding from the natives for some Scandinavian reason. It’s “WisSCONsin,” the state that’s north of Illinois, west of Lake Michigan, and east of Minnesota and Iowa in the American heartland. To the even-more-frigid north lie Canada and a peninsula that strays over from the state of Michigan.

If you want to see “Small Town America,” savor some great cheese and sausage, listen to accordion music, dance the polka, and freeze in the winter, Wisconsin’s the place for you. The coldest days I’ve ever spent were in Madison, the state capital, in January, when the wind off frozen lakes Mendota and Monona just about broke my eyebrows.

Wisconsin borders two Great Lakes (Michigan and Superior), holds 8,500 smaller ones, dots its horizons with innumerable silos and a few respectable skyscrapers (in Milwaukee), and boasts four delightfully distinguishable seasons, ideal for agriculture. Winters, especially in the Northwoods, seem never-ending, Wisconsinites admit with a smile and a wink. That’s what mittens and snowshoes, cross-country skis and snow tires were made for.

Wisconsin is SO cold, and SO rural, and SO wholesome that its neighbors make fun of it, using a northern equivalent of the “hillbilly jokes” that bedevil residents of the American Mid-South. You hear a lot of “Sven and Ole” Swedish and Norwegian jokes, too, given the Swedish and Norwegian ancestry of many Wisconsinites.

Here are a few knee-slappers about the Badger State — badgers being chubby little burrowing carnivores with ornery dispositions completely unlike the even-tempered humans around them:

You must be from Wisconsin if:
• You owe more money on your snowblower than on your car.
• The first day of deer season is a school holiday.

• More than half of your relatives work on a dairy farm.
• You think the world has two major religions: Lutheran and Catholic.
• You or your sister was the “Dairy Princess” at a county fair.
• Driving is safer in the winter because the potholes are filled with snow.
• You have a fishing cottage “upnort.”
• You take out-of-town visitors to La Crosse to see the World’s Largest Six-Pack of beer cans.
• Your hometown needs a bus but instead buys a Zamboni rink-surfacing machine for the hockey team.
• You decide to have a cookout this summer because it falls on a weekend.
• And you know what a “bubbler” is.

For the rest of us, “bubbler” is a Wisconsin drinking fountain.

Jokes aside, Wisconsin, with its emerald hillsides, rushing rivers, rugged bluffs, deep woods, and educated, industrious and well-mannered people, has been called “the perfect state.” And the tens of thousands of visitors who each year raft Wisconsin’s rapids or tour its Dells — canyons carved by the Wisconsin River — hunt Wisconsin deer or bear, camp in its rugged parks, make tracks in a snowmobile, or poke holes in a frozen lake, perchance to snare a passing muskie or pike, eagerly agree.

Controls on industrial emissions are vigorously maintained, and visitors to Wisconsin are hard-pressed to find an unkempt wayside — as highway rest stops are called in these parts — or discarded cheeseburger wrappers along a highway. Wisconsin’s state parks are more than a touch wild, full of hiking trails, waterfalls, and glorious vistas of valleys, rocky deposits called moraines, and teardrop-shaped hills known as “drumlins,” all formed by glaciers ages ago. The state established a wildlife refuge in the desolate Horicon Marsh — the “Everglades of the North” — whose 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of cattails and duckweed are a popular stop for a quarter of a million migrating Canada geese.

I’m not sure if Wisconsin has official colors, but you’d think so, looking at scarves and stocking caps and store-window displays clear across the state. They’re hunter green and gold, the colors of the Green Bay Packers professional football team — though, to my eye, the latter looks more shocking-yellow than gold. Since the Packers play on Sundays, you see a lot of hunter green and garish-yellow shirts, dresses, and ties — even whole suits — in church, too.

The Packers are locally owned, not by some mogul of industry or a corporate conglomerate, but by 112,000 shareholders, which is more people than actually live in Green Bay. In a league of teams based in big cities with an average population of 3 million, that’s a matter of justifiable statewide pride. Everyone in Wisconsin refers to the Packers as “we.” It takes a visitor awhile to realize what in the world someone in La Crosse, 266 kilometers (165 miles) from Green Bay — “coast to coast,” as they like to say in Wisconsin — is talking about when he says, “We looked great this week,” and his friend replies, “You betcha. We killed dem Bears.” There are bears, lots of black ones, in Wisconsin, but these Bears, from Chicago, are the Packers’ oldest and most despised rivals. Nine decades old.

In their flat, faintly nasal accents, punching those middle syllables —WisSCONsin, ChiCAWguh — Wisconsin citizens love to tweak mighty Chicago, just below their border, and to beat its teams in sports. Wisconsonites will tell you it’s Chicagoans (not Illinoisans; just those creeps from Chicago) who are buying up all the lake cabins in Wisconsin and driving up prices, and it’s Chicagoans who are clogging Wisconsin’s free highways with their cars and campers each weekend.

But when Wisconsinites want to catch a concert “down sout,” they have to pay tolls on Chicago’s maze of freeways to get there. Surely, Wisconsinites will insist, it must have been punks from Chicago enrolled at the “U” — the University of Wisconsin in Madison — not our clean-cut kids from Oshkosh and Eau Claire, who caused all the trouble in the Sixties. Back then, anti-war students staged sit-ins in university buildings, disrupted recruiting efforts of defense contractors, and, in 1970, bombed a U.S. Army mathematics think tank in Sterling Hall, killing a physicist, injuring four others, and causing $2.1 million in damage. The mastermind, Karleton Armstrong, served seven years in Waupun State Prison, then returned to Madison, where he drove a cab and ran a popular delicatessen called the “Radical Rye.”

Wisconsin has, however, also produced remarkable daughters and sons, and a number of firsts. Escape artist Harry Houdini, painter Georgia O’Keeffe, novelist Edna Ferber, actor Spencer Tracy, director Orson Welles, and innovative architect Frank Lloyd Wright were all born or spent significant years in Wisconsin. Some scoundrels did, too, including “robber barons” who ran logging companies that nearly denuded the state of trees. But that era spawned a virtuous antidote: Wisconsin’s fabled Progressive Movement, led by Madison lawyer Robert A. Lafollette Sr. and his sons, “Young Bob,” who held his father’s U.S. Senate seat for 21 years after “Old Bob’s” death; and Phil, who three times won the state’s governorship. Un-baronlike John Muir, too, hailed from Wisconsin. He founded the Sierra Club, crusaded for America’s national park system, and wrote in luxuriant detail of the birds whose songs “sweeten Wisconsin.”

“Good Wisconsin stock,” as the people sometimes refer to themselves, revere the hearth-and-home values of the yeoman farmer. After all, it was in a “Little House in the Big Woods” — Wisconsin woods — that “Pa” first taught Laura Ingalls Wilder, and she, in turn, generations of the nation’s children through her novels, the virtues of hard work and fair dealing.

As one of the Wisconsin wisecracks points out, Wisconsin is among America’s most Catholic states, yet also one of its most Lutheran ones. Although its stock is largely German and Scandinavian, many cultures have blossomed here. Each year Milwaukee alone holds Polish, Irish, Italian, and German fests, “Asian Moon” and “African World” festivals, a Mexican fiesta, “Serbian Days,” and a Native American celebration. Overall, the count of identifiable ethnic groups in town stopped at 110 about 15 years ago.

Racine, with the nation’s highest concentration of Danish descendants, throws an annual “Kringle Fest,” named for its sinfully delicious, filled Danish pastries. Not far from Madison are “Little Norway” and “America’s Little Switzerland.” There’s a “Little Finland” cultural center in Wisconsin, too, and colorful powwows on the Menominee and Chippewa Indian reservations in the western and northern parts of the state.

Wisconsin was the first state to number its highways, the first to require seat belts in new cars, and the first to outlaw the death penalty and to revoke the racist, secret Ku Klux Klan’s charter. First, too, to pass workers’ compensation and unemployment laws.

Wisconsin’s winter sports, in particular, draw enthusiasts from far and wide: cross-country skiing on frozen rivers, canals, and more than 300 designated trails; ice-fishing jamborees on frozen lakes; a snowmobile derby; speed-racing on ice skates; and ski jumping on the Mississippi bluffs. Wisconsin marks an astounding 32,000 kilometers (20,000 miles) of interconnected snowmobile trails — annually ranked the best — and no doubt noisiest — in North America. And I dare not forget windsailing, ice boating, even “skijoring,” which involves climbing onto a pair of skis and hitching to a sled dog team.

Carol dislikes one thing about Wisconsin that I adore: It’s a pig-out paradise and cholesterol-fighter’s nightmare. Wisconsinites swear there’s more to their diets than cheese, brats, and beer. But veal bratwursts, pork bratwursts, summer sausage that locals call “beef logs,” a half-dozen kinds of wieners, and a dozen more obscure varieties of wursts still hang from hooks in old-fashioned meat markets across the state. The Milwaukee Brewers baseball team even interrupts its home games for a faux contest among five costumed “racing sausages”: Brett Wurst the bratwurst, Stosh the kielbasa, Guido the Italian sausage, Frankie Furter the hot dog, and Cinco the sombreroed Spanish pork sausage.

And cheese is serious business in a state with 1,257,000 dairy cows. Who, exactly, counted them, I’m not sure. For years, Wisconsin law forbade the sale of the butter substitute oleomargarine within its borders. Its dairy farmers produce more than 200 varieties of cheese, including some, such as Havarti, once thought to be foreign and exotic.

Wisconsin farmers had little choice but to turn to dairying. Wheat was the Badger State’s early cash crop, and Wisconsin was the Union Army’s breadbasket in the Civil War of the 1860s. But giant wheat combines could not negotiate the hills and woods, and yields could not match those of flatter Minnesota and the Dakotas. So most Wisconsin farmers turned their spreads over to cows and corn. Most of their farms are small, about 81 hectares (200 acres) on average, and stubbornly owner-occupied, in defiance of the nationwide trend toward massive corporate operations. Many Wisconsin barns are designed to store hay bales on a second floor, from which the fodder would be tossed to the cattle below. But as machinery allowed famers to bundle hay in huge rolls, simple sheds — many metal and prefabricated — have replaced drafty old barns in several places.

Though state license plates proclaim Wisconsin’s continuing status as “America’s Dairyland,” its economy revolves far more around industry, including thousands of specialty fabricating shops. All along state and county roads, you see little factories that make many parts that we sort of see but don’t much notice: clock hands, springs for toasters, plastic lids, keychains, dentists’ pliers. All sorts of things.

Bigger than beer in Wisconsin are bathtubs in Kohler, floor wax in Racine, facial tissues in Appleton, motorcycles in Milwaukee, and cheese in Monroe. In recent years, agriculture, including fishing as well as farming, has accounted for less than 5 percent of the gross state product, industry around 30 percent, and services like graphics, computer work, and financial planning for all the rest.

The first European known to set foot in what is now Wisconsin came not from the south or east like so many who would follow, but from the north. French explorer Jean Nicolet paddled into Green Bay from Quebec in Canada in 1634, looking for a Northwest Passage trade route to China. He — and many others on similar quests — went home disappointed, and it was a while before French trappers and traders followed. They coveted otter and beaver pelts, not land, and while French place names abound in Wisconsin — La Crosse, Lac La Belle, Prairie du Chien — it is a rare place that can trace its land ownership back to the French. The same lack of interest did not apply to the British, who were victorious in the French and Indian Wars of the middle 1700s and nominally controlled this western edge of European settlement for a time. To them, and to American settlers who moved into Wisconsin in search of land after the British were expelled during the War of 1812, land meant power. Native peoples, who repeatedly lost battles to better-armed whites, ceded most of present-day Wisconsin in 1833. The area became, in rather quick order, part of America’s vast Northwest Territory; then of Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan territories; then a territory unto itself before achieving statehood in 1848. The new state took its name from the Indian “Misionsing” and French “Ouisconsin,” meaning “gathering of the waters.”

After its initial Yankee settlement, Wisconsin became heavily German. Just as feisty German “Forty-eighters” were fleeing the strife of Central Europe in the mid-1800s, the United States was offering homesteaders 160 free acres (65 hectares) to settle the mostly untamed state it had just created to the north of Illinois. Save for its lack of Alps, the Germans found Wisconsin’s climate and topography to their liking, and they quickly put the state’s abundant raw materials to good use in machine shops, paper mills, and factories. Breweries, too, with names like Leinenkugel, Huber, Schwalbach, Rhinelander, and Zimmerman.

For half a century, German would be widely spoken on Wisconsin’s streets and even in schools. German was the language of hundreds of churches, and German newspapers abounded. But World Wars I and II, in which Germany was the hated enemy, severely damaged the prosperous Wisconsin enclave. Suspected and sometimes vilified despite abundant evidence of their loyalty to their new country, German-Americans saw their influence wane in the communities they had largely created. “A tragic tide of hatred and anti-German bigotry swept the country, leaving once-proud German settlements, like Milwaukee, quivering in its wake,” wrote Ellen Langill and Dave Jensen in the commemorative Milwaukee 150 history. “The German language became odious. . . . From a high point of 30,000 students enrolled in German in Milwaukee schools in 1916, the number fell to only 400 two years later.” To survive, German merchants found it necessary to post signs reading, “English spoken here,” and most German newspapers were gone by 1930.

African Americans from the South and Poles from Eastern Europe, searching for factory work, streamed to Wisconsin’s industrial cities after World War II. But jobs proved to be more elusive than elsewhere in the North. Blacks, in particular, faced not only racism, but also entrenched hiring and apprenticeship systems that favored the employment of relatives and friends. Blacks today make up 25 percent of Milwaukee County’s population but comprise only 6 percent statewide. Polish neighborhoods can still be found in Milwaukee, but even 25 years ago, in their Book of America, Neal Peirce and Jerry Hagstrom were quoting a priest in Milwaukee’s “Polish flats” as observing, “My funerals are all in Polish. My weddings and baptisms are all Latino.”

Wisconsin’s top tourist attraction is a modest one. It’s Wisconsin Dells, an 11-kilometer (7-mile) stretch of the Wisconsin River that is flanked by steep, sculpted cliffs. Families come for the water slides, small theme parks, and miniature-golf courses, as well as bracing splashes in the river. Second is Door County, a picturesque finger of land that juts north from Green Bay. Its Lake Michigan bluffs and beaches, multiple lighthouses, and array of apple and cherry orchards are endearing enough; add specialty shops, flaming fish boils, and cozy guest houses, and Door County looks for all the world like Nantucket Island had been lifted out of Massachusetts back east and deposited inland.

Visitors also come to see Wisconsin’s rugged Northwoods, cheese being made in several little factories, great summer “cottages” — read, mansions — built by dem filthy rich ChiCAWguns, and various retreats, including Taliesin, which was acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate in the Wisconsin River Valley. There’s also a bizarre place near Spring Green called the “House on the Rock,” which includes not only a room with 3,264 windows — yes, 3,264 windows! — that seems to teeter 100 meters out and over a valley, but also the world’s largest carousel inside the house.

Elsewhere in Wisconsin, “heritage” tourists check out preserved lumber camps, great Victorian homes, cranberry bogs, railway museums, Mississippi River steamboats, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthplace in Pepin, and Al Capone’s cottage along a lake. That’s where the Chicago mobster relaxed with his pals and gals and flew in high-quality Canadian booze by seaplane throughout Prohibition from 1919 to 1933, when the manufacture and sale of alcohol were officially forbidden in the United States.

Pretty little Appleton is noteworthy, too, if only because two of Wisconsin’s most disparate characters — the magician Houdini, a rabbi’s son; and rabble-rousing, Communist-hunting U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, the son of an immigrant Irish Catholic farmer — grew up there.

Wisconsinites are rarely flashy or outspoken, though. Tradition matters, and steady marks its course. Save for Pennsylvania, Carol and I couldn’t think of another place in America that is so industrial yet agricultural, so homespun yet sophisticated, so beautifully manicured yet naturally wild, so ruggedly individualistic yet socially involved, so reverent towards antiquity but open to new people and ideas, all at once.

One feels good — upbeat, optimistic — after a prolonged visit to WisSCONsin, where the direct and simple state motto fits the mood. It reads:



(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!)

Combine [noun]. A big and complex farm machine that first cuts, then threshes, or bundles, grain.

Feisty. Spirited, spunky, aggressive. You can expect a lively argument if you tangle with someone who is feisty.

Languid. Listless, dreamy, momentarily lazy.

Mogul. A powerful businessperson or industry titan, traditionally male. How the word also came to be associated with bumps on a ski slope, I have no idea!

Oleomargarine. Sometimes shortened to “oleo” and now universally called “margarine,” it is a spread that looks like butter but is made from cheaper vegetable oils. Because of the influence of the powerful dairy lobby, for many years oleo came in lard-like white. Homemakers would stir in powdered food coloring to make it look halfway appetizing.

Think tank. A research organization or institute that studies and reports on issues of the day. Today, many think tanks display an obvious political bias.

Formidable Footpath

Posted August 27th, 2009 at 1:15 pm (UTC-4)
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I want to tell you all about the Appalachian Trail from experience, for I have hiked it.

Layers of fog greet A.T. hikers in the Appalachian Mountains.

Well, not all 3,400 kilometers, or 2,100 miles, of it. More like 10 miles, some of it in my street shoes, thereby learning the first lesson of traversing the world’s longest footpath: Do not wear street shoes.

I wasn’t one of those hiking fanatics who set out to conquer the whole trail in a summer, or the gluttons for punishment who try to make it both ways before the snow flies. Carol and I just wanted to get some neat photographs along the mountaintops, ridge lines, valley floors, wildflower meadows, isolated cow pastures, and a few paved roads — my specialty — all remote but within shouting distance (“hello, hellooo, hellooooo”) of 100 million people along the East Coast.

Before I go any farther, I want to explain something about the pronunciation of this challenging path. Those living in southern and south-central portions of the route have always called their mountains the “Apple-ATCH-ins,” and the region, “Apple-ATCHIA.” For some reason, northerners and bureaucrats who assign names to things have preferred “Apple-AY-chins” and “Apple-AY-chia.” The latter stuck with the folks who oversee the trail, so that’s how you’ll hear me pronounce it in the podcast that accompanies this posting. Apple-AY-chia it is, over the protests of at least one of my friends, a former VOA colleague who makes it clear every time I see her that she grew up a stone’s throw from the “Apple-ATCHIAN Trail.”

This is where the trek ends for most thru hikers: lofty Mount Katahdin in Maine. A small percentage start here and work south instead.

What just about everyone who walks it calls it, however, is simply the “A.T.” whose precise route and length keep changing. That’s because officials keep tinkering with the route to get it as far away from civilization as possible. In fact, a different mountain, Oglethorpe, was the southern terminus until 1959 until it was moved to Springer Mountain because there was too much chicken farming, of all things, going on on Oglethorpe’s hillsides.

Besides, how does one precisely measure a path that scrambles over rocks, tree roots, big and little bridges, a few fences, and such natural features as “the Lemon Squeezer” — not sure what that is, but it can’t be, uh, a walk in the park — “the Priest,” “Pollywog Stream,” “Eph’s Lookout,” “the Pinnacle,” “Crawfish Valley,” “Hogwallow Spring,” “Dragon’s Tooth,” “Beauty Spot,” “Charlies Bunion” (sounds painful), and, gulp, “the Guillotine”?

The north-and-south trail connects 14 states, but it runs east-westerly in spots, especially in New England in the Northeast, where the A.T. was hacked through forestland to connect existing north-south trails in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Several sections there follow trails like the Long Trail and “Fishin’ Jimmy Trail” that existed well before the footpath from Maine to Georgia was conceived. The Appalachian Mountain Club, the first known U.S. hiking club, was founded in 1876 to “explore the mountains of New England and adjacent regions for both scientific and artistic purposes.”

You or I would thrill to see such views. And most A.T. hikers do, too — for awhile, until vistas become commonplace. For most, more attention is focused on keeping moving and reaching the next shelter.

The A.T. hugs the crestline of the ancient, wrinkled Appalachian Mountains, named by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto after the Appalachee Indians who lived in northwest Florida. Trails of the southern Appalachians were cut by bison that roamed the land before European settlement. Early adventurers and botanists were thrilled to discover the bounty of flowering plants and shrubs, notably mountain laurel, flame azalea, and rhododendron. They saw literally billions of chestnut trees that are since gone — victims of a terrible blight. Today another plague, acid rain, appears to be killing or damaging many southern Fraser firs.

The Appalachians are old, worn-out mountains by American standards and were formed by staggering geological compressions and uplifts. A.T. thru hikers must conquer almost all of their most daunting peaks, including Clingmans Dome in North Carolina (2,025 meters/ 6,643 feet) and Mount Washington in New Hampshire (1,917 meters/ 6,288 feet). Middle-of-the summer snowstorms on the latter summit are common.

But much of the trail’s course worms under a dense canopy of trees — a “tunnel through time,” as National Geographic magazine once called the trail. Rivers have sliced several gaps through the mountains, and A.T. hikers tromp through those as well.

The idea of an Appalachian Trail was proposed in an article published in the obscure Journal of the American Institute of Architects in 1921 by Benton MacKaye, a Yankee forester, hiker, dreamer, and believer in the “creative value of wilderness.” It was written at a time when “tramping,” as hiking was known, was becoming a passion among many New England intellectuals. According to the member handbook of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (A.T.C.), the governing body of most trail activities, “the article proposed an extended wilderness along the Appalachian crests as a crucial line of defense against both demoralization of urban laborers (by providing a refuge for contemplation in a natural setting) and ‘the lure of militarism’ (by channeling primal heroic instincts into the care of the countryside).”

The A.T. idea was peddled to supportive newspaper columnists and outdoor enthusiasts, including the national commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America. Hiking clubs joined in the fun of proposing the trail’s exact route, and the first section was cut and christened at the Palisades Interstate Park in New York in 1922. A bridge there had made possible a connection between New England and the New York-New Jersey area — and thence southward.

The Appalachian Trail cuts right next to this old place, possibly a hunting cabin, in central Pennsylvania.

At the trail’s organizing conference in Washington, D.C., in 1925, attendees agreed upon an Appalachian Trail monogram, in which the crossbar of the “A” serves as the top of the “T.” The logo is used to this day. At the conference, MacKaye was careful to distinguish between his “trailway” and a railway. He said a railway opens the countryside to civilization, but “the trailway should ‘open up’ a country as an escape from civilization.” Later, he would write that “the Appalachian Range should be placed in public hands and become the site for a Barbarian Utopia.”

Others like Myron Avery, an early Appalachian Trail Conservancy chairman and a legend in hiking circles, turned MacKaye’s lofty vision into a reality. What would be designated America’s first “National Scenic Trail” was completed from up-north Maine to Georgia, way down South, in 1937. A year later, an unnamed, devastating hurricane that killed hundreds of people and destroyed whole coastal villages in New England nearly obliterated the trail in that region. At the time there were no more than 100 active volunteers on the entire length of the trail, compared with more than 5,000 today, ready to effect repairs.

A simple plaque on a rock on Springer Mountain in Georgia’s Chattahoochee Forest marks what is the beginning point of the long journey for most. Many start. Few reach Maine.

Perhaps 2,000 people depart Springer Mountain in Georgia or Mount Katahdin in Maine — the lion’s share from the former in the Spring, when the weather is nice in Georgia but still snowy in Maine — determined to hike the trail’s entire distance at one time. Most years, rangers won’t even allow thru hikers to depart Mount Katahdin until June 1 or thereafter because of the nasty weather in the Maine highlands. The highest officially estimated number of “starters” intending to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in any one year was 2,900 in 2000. That was four years after humorist Bill Bryson published the wildly successful book A Walk in the Woods, an account of his hike of 1,400 kilometers (800 miles) of the A.T. The year 2000 was also incorrectly observed as the millennial year, in which a lot of hikers reported a desire to complete a life-changing accomplishment.

Starting and completing are two different matters, of course. The most people to attest that they completed the route was 411 northbound last year, and 70 southbound in 2000. The number of long-distance A.T. hikers has been growing, in part because of an increasing number of hostels that give foot-weary travelers both rest and encouragement along the way.

This Appalachian Trail patch shows the distinctive A-atop-the-T logo and recognizes the wearer as both a hiker and “maintainer” — one who volunteers time to keep the trail open and marked.

Awarding of a patch for completing the trail — the only reward beyond one’s immense satisfaction — is strictly on the honor system. No longer does a panel of experienced hikers grill a purported successful thru hiker, as was the case for the first 25 years or so, to be sure he or she did indeed hike the entire way. Earl Shaffer of York, Pennsylvania, faced such an “oral comprehensive” exam, and had to show his series of slides taken all along the route when he became the first documented person to hike the entire trail in 1948. Only well-wishers and photographers greeted him in Maine when he repeated the hike in 1998 at age 79, lugging the same tiny back-pack, to mark the 50th anniversary of the feat.

The Earl Shaffer of 1998 was older than most, but not all, hikers. Don Cogswell, owner of both a diner and a lodge catering to hikers in Millinocket, Maine, told me he once ran into an 82-year-old man who asked for a lift to the start of the trail at Baxter State Park. “I took him out to the mountain,” Don said. “He looked through the windshield and said, ‘Don, I can’t wait to tackle it.’ I said, ‘Papa, I don’t want to be disrespectful, but you’re a freak of nature!’”

“Trail names” like “Trailhead Ted” are a relatively recent phenomenon. A.T.C. officials trace them to the 1970s when clever citizens’-band radio “handles” were in vogue. Many hikers on the Appalachian Trail introduce, and forever know, each other by their trail names alone. Some have even had their names legally changed to their trail personas.

Another badge of individuality among hikers is the walking stick, often carved with care by a loving relative. There is, you see, an element of romance, even fantasy, in the thru-hiking experience.

Hikers Scott Davis — trail name “Flow Easy” — and Deborah “Twilight” Smith are joined by their trusty companion, Linville. All three completed the thru hike, but Linville had to be boarded in two stretches where dogs are not allowed.

I should point out that, from what people tell me, one does not really walk the Appalachian Trail. Nor is it a hike in the image of a happy wanderer, whistling “I love to go a wandering, my knapsack on my back” along a gently sloping path. Neither, however, is conquering the A.T. an extreme sport akin to rappelling. Rather, one could be said to trudge the trail in five million or more strides, purposefully and carefully under a considerable burden. Even frugally stuffed backpacks weigh 30 kilos (44 pounds). Among the packed items considered essential: a bandanna, lip salve, water filters or iodine tablets, a candle, a waterproof pack cover, and “mountain money”: toilet paper. And, of course, some real paper money, a credit card, and at least a dollar’s worth of change in case an emergency call at a pay telephone becomes necessary. I didn’t mention a cellphone because there aren’t a lot of cell towers in or near the deep woods.

Jagged and slippery rocks, exposed roots, and muddy ruts await the hiker’s step. I can attest from my laughably short experience on the trail that all one has to do to turn an ankle is to take one’s eyes off the next rock in the path. Except in meadows, there’s no eyes-ahead, jaunty stride possible, even if you wanted to affect one. And there are a few treacherous (short) jumps across boulders, and grades that can be steep. To many hikers’ surprise, the slog down a mountainside can be far more grueling than the trip up because of the pounding to one’s feet and knees. Surprisingly, too, hikers soon loathe the stretches along hard, smooth roads and bridges, preferring the softer footfall of the earthen trail.

In rain, shine, sleet, or snow, A.T. thru hikers walk farther every 20 minutes than most Americans walk in a week.

Let me repeat that for effect: To make it the entire length of the trail in time, thru hikers on the Appalachian Trail go farther on their feet every 20 minutes than most Americans walk in a week. Thanks to sturdier boots and lots of practice, they find a comfortable gait that enables them to hike 15, 20, even 30 kilometers in a day. One superbly conditioned fellow, Andrew Thompson, set what is thought to be the unofficial speed record for through-hiking in 2005, at 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes. Needless to say, he hiked fast, slept little, and traveled light!

And in 1991, Bill “Orient Express” Irwin, previously a bitter alcoholic whose rehabilitation included a commitment to outdoor activity, became the first, and perhaps only, blind hiker to cover the whole trail in eight months, accompanied by his guide dog, “Orient,” and a variety of sighted companions who came and went along the way.

Others have walked the entire trail as surrogates for disabled friends or loved ones. One such man whom we met carried a mini-tape recorder on which to detail the events of each day. When he’d come to a town, he’d mail his progress report to his son, who had contracted multiple sclerosis.

The trail runs right across massive Fontana Dam in North Carolina. Built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the early 1940s, it tamed the wild Tennessee River and provide hydroelectric power to seven states.

Thru hikers soon discover the trail’s delights, obstacles, and eccentricities, including 112 straight kilometers of crest line in the Great Smoky Mountains; spectacular bridge crossings of great rivers, including the Shenandoah and Potomac; and a long stretch above the timberline in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. Five or six Yellowstone National Parks could fit inside the uninhabited wilderness that greets northbound hikers at the end of their trek in Maine’s Baxter State Park. Parts of it have still never been surveyed! And at the very end is one last, taxing climb of Mount Katahdin, where late summer-afternoon thunderstorms, pierced by dangerous lightning, are legend.

Almost as daunting as the physical challenge of the Appalachian Trail is the boredom. Brilliant sunsets, grazing deer, arresting fog banks, and spectacular valley views quickly lose their allure as the grind of a 3,400-kilometer ordeal sets in. Homesickness intrudes. Some of the best-conditioned athletes are the first to drop off the trail when they lack the self-sufficiency and inner strength to keep going. As simple an impediment as a foot blister can send a perfect physical specimen packing. The A.T.C. reports that 20 percent of hikers who begin the trail intending to reach the distant terminus drop out within 10 days. Some heading north even give up on the 25-kilometer approach trail in Georgia’s Amicalola State Park up to the A.T.’s starting point atop Springer Mountain!

The A.T.C estimates that one-third of all thru hikers are college-age men and women, often just out of school and awaiting their first jobs. While some of their buddies are off touring Europe, they’re challenging the Appalachian Trail — and themselves. Others of all ages who make the attempt are changing jobs, on sabbatical from work or school, or have a hefty financial “nest egg” — necessary because the reasonably equipped thru hiker will spend $6,000 or more on gear, clothes, and food.

New Englanders call their passes through the mountains “notches.” This is Franconia Notch, through which the A.T. passes in New Hampshire.

Parents of some hikers — and, secretly, some hikers themselves — worry about bears, snakes, criminals, or frightening encounters with drooling backwoodsmen of the sort depicted in the dark movie “Deliverance.” Statistics are faulty because many confrontations go unreported, but authorities calculate that no more than 10 hikers — many who are day hikers and intoxicated — die on the Appalachian Trail each year, often from sunstroke, heart attacks, or falls. There have been close calls due to hypothermia following late-spring blizzards, too. Few if any snakebites are reported, since snakes with any sense about them avoid pathways, but some pet dogs accompanying hikers have been bitten while nosing around in the brush. Reported murders and rapes over time along the trail can be counted on two hands. The shooting of two lesbian hikers — one of whom survived — by a self-proclaimed “mountain man” who professed a hatred of homosexuals sent reporters and filmmakers scrambling to Pennsylvania’s Michaux State Forest in 1988, however. The biggest crime problems associated with the trail are the occasional thefts of backpacks and the vandalism of cars left while their owners are off day hiking.

To reduce confrontations with unsavory locals, A.T. officials keep moving the trail farther off roads and away from picnic areas and other “beer party” locations where hikers are likely to get hassled. Hunting is permitted over many sections of the trail, but no hiker has been reported shot by these men and women in camouflage. In Georgia, Army Rangers practice in the mountains, occasionally scaring the living daylights out of hikers.

Long-distance hikers report developing a keen “woods sense” that allows them to detect potential trouble from humans or animals. Most fellow hikers prove to be eminently honest and trustworthy, and criminals are usually too clumsy or lazy to venture far off the road. Some thru hikers take along dogs for protection, but this is strongly discouraged. Not only do they slow down the hike — some mutts are quite paunchy, and no dog does well on slippery rocks — but, as mentioned, they are far more likely to spook a snake or moose or bear.

One certainly does not want to break a leg or ankle on the trail, although help in the form of the next hiker is always on the way. Such rescuers will sometimes construct a makeshift litter to get the injured person to a road, where real assistance can be summoned. But in rugged back country, rescue parties of 50 or more must sometimes be mounted to evacuate victims by forming human chains. As I said earlier, if you ever attempt to stroll up the A.T., watch where you’re going!

Not only is Harpers Ferry the unofficial midpoint of the Appalachian Trail and its headquarters location, it also offers a lovely walk over a bridge across the Potomac River.

Officially the Appalachian Trail is overseen by the National Park Service, although only a single ranger, operating out of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia — approximately 160 kilometers to the south of the midpoint of the trail — assumes this responsibility. The park service delegates the day-to-day running of the trail, so to speak, to the A.T.C., a caretaker organization also headquartered in Harpers Ferry. Its budget, in the millions of dollars, is raised from membership dues, a federal payment, corporate and foundation support, and income from its maps, guidebooks, and other publications.

Trust me, you’ll want more than a tourist brochure before you go ambling off into the wilds.

The trail, which winds through national parks and forests, state-owned land, and even a few short stretches of towns or private property, would not exist without the direct involvement of 30-some hiking clubs, some of which include members as far away as Michigan in the U.S. Midwest who drive east once or twice a year to help maintain a part of the trail. Hikers don’t need big signs to remind them not to litter or deface trees or private property. Carol and I found it nigh unto pristine every place we went.

Here’s a beautiful fall view of Big Meadow in Virginia, which the A.T. crosses beneath the Shenandoah Mountains. If it’s late fall and you’re there, you’d best be heading south, as the northern terminus will soon be closed.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy faces a continuing conundrum. Part of its mission is to promote the Appalachian Trail through newsletters and photographs, including the happy shots of hikers who reach Harpers Ferry and the two termini. This, however, only attracts more hikers, including what one might call short-time “joy hikers,” making it harder to protect the trail and keep it wild. At one time or another, even pricey “guide services” have appeared, offering to tag along on the edges of a client’s thru hike, meeting him or her at a road crossing every night, bringing good food and driving the hiker to a motel or comfortable campground. That’s “roughing it” in style!

But it is truly dedicated thru hikers whose stories are the stuff of legend on the Appalachian Trial. Those whom we met assured us that if there was any question about one’s fitness, “the trail gets you in shape” fast. Knees and hips ache. Feet can easily get caught in crevices. Achilles’ tendons get painfully stretched. Tents collapse. Mold grows inside rain jackets. Your only dry clothes are the ones you sleep in; you get up in the morning and have to put your wet clothes back on again. Biting bugs give you no break for the effort you’re putting in; indeed, sweat excites many of them. Hikers soon miss the taste of vegetables and fresh fruit. “You’re not going carry a big head of lettuce, three cucumbers, and six apples with you,” one young woman told us, “because they’re going to weigh so much with all the water in them.”

After awhile, she told us, the world outside the trail “doesn’t exist. You think, ‘This is what I do. I walk.’” Many hikers report a remarkable metamorphosis. Striding through the endless forest, they are no longer students or secretaries or executives. They are hikers. Many report an incredibly difficult transition back into the “real world” of responsibilities and relationships when their thru hikes are completed. Some, disoriented and missing not only the quietude but also the community of hikers, take odd jobs and continue hiking the A.T. or other trails again and again.

This is one of the nicer shelters along the trail, a big improvement over simple lean-tos in most locations, and cheaper (free) than even the cheapest paid hostel.

A hiker with the trail name “Interplanet Janet” told us she expected to see bears and did — in captivity at Bear Mountain Zoo in New York State, through which the trail actually winds. Her parents sent periodic provisions, to be picked up at some of the larger “drop sites” at shelters along the route. “I got sick of oatmeal,” she said. The provisions included clean underwear and T-shirts, a small cooking stove (which she sent back as too cumbersome), and moleskin, intended to cover blisters. “I ended up just popping the blisters with a safety pin,” she recalled. “Not very sanitary, but it worked.”

Another hiker found the trek to be “a meditative experience, living for the moment.” When her mind seemed to deaden, she’d read a book in the shelters.

And she was surprised when she finally reached trail’s end atop Mount Katahdin that “it wasn’t this big, elated moment. It was like, ‘OK, I’m at the end of the trail, and in a few moments I’ll be hiking down the mountain” and going home. “I was glad, but there was so much calmness in me that I didn’t need some big exciting moment.” Nor did she report a ravenous “hiker’s appetite,” a common experience among those who complete the trail.

Many hikers take away what they describe as “a lot of inner peace,” or at least a calmer perspective on life. Physically, some say it takes them months to lose the stoop in their strides from carrying a heavy backpack. As Bill Bryson wrote, “It’s one thing to walk 2,000 miles, quite another to walk 2,000 miles with a wardrobe on your back.” And still another to adjust to the noise of urban life. Some hikers find they have lost interest in television and nightlife and find themselves switching jobs to positions with less pressure. Many who live anywhere close keep hiking and helping local clubs maintain a part of the Appalachian Trail.

One man told me he and his friends became “almost insane about the weight” they were carrying while hiking. “Our whole group cut off toothbrush handles,” he said. “We’d get toilet tissue and knock the core out. You’d do anything to lessen the weight.” No portable cook stoves for these folks!

The hikers use more than maps and trail books to find their way. Volunteer “maintainers,” as they’re called, keep the footpath a couple of meters wide, with at least a three-meter clearance above to accommodate the ever-increasing height of hikers’ backpacks.

And they freshen the little blazes of paint on trees, fences, and bridges that mark the route of the Appalachian Trail. Two blazes atop each other signal an obscure turn and alert hikers to consult their maps before proceeding. Blue blazes mark side trails, viewpoints, campsites, and shelters — if you call the 250 nighttime stopping places shelters. Most are little more than three-sided lean-tos, invariably open to whichever side from which rain, snow, or cold winds are advancing. Because the floor is sure to be wet, hikers sleep on boards in a crude loft and hang their food high in “bear poles.”

Fortunately, there are often inexpensive boarding houses, old hotels, and hostels not far off the trail at several points along the way.

Back to the blazes for a moment: They replaced a system of axe marks, which sometimes killed trees, and metal diamond shapes tacked to trees and posts. The diamonds are now collectors’ items. There is no set distance between blazes. Where the trail is well worn and relatively flat, there may be as much as a ten-minute walk before you see the next one. The blazes are as unobtrusive as possible. After all, this is the backcountry, and man’s handiwork is to be kept to a minimum.

To address a chronic erosion problem along the trail, crews dig pits into which they roll small boulders.

Over the years, almost the entire length of the trail has been relocated to get the path off roads, out of cities and subdivisions, and onto public land in the woods to realize Benton MacKaye’s vision of a “ridgecrest trail” with a view. In some cases, as in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania, previous landowners are allowed to continue to farm or graze cattle — no bulls, though — on a ridge, so hikers can experience walking through pastures and cornfields.

The trail passes beside a fisherman, enjoying the day on Connecticut’s Housatonic River.

To alleviate overcrowding caused by the bunching-up of thru hikers starting from Georgia each spring, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy encourages “section hiking,” in which hikers complete the trail in stages, sometimes over several years. Or “flip-flopping.” Flip-floppers typically hike north to a point at which they realize they will not make Mount Katahdin before it’s closed for the winter. So they catch a ride to Maine and work their way south to the point where they had left the trail. As mentioned earlier, some superhumans “yo-yo” the full trail, hiking one direction (usually north), then immediately heading the entire way back. In the 1980s, a fellow named Phil Good completed three thru hikes, from Georgia to Maine to Georgia to Maine in one calendar year. You go, guy!

Hikers in silhouette do what comes naturally — keep moving, up a short hill.

The A.T. has distinctive social protocols: those inventive trail names, courteous sharing of limited shelter and hostel space, and communication via journals at points along the trail. This “A.T. Internet,” as it’s called, is little more than a series of crude spiral notebooks filled with handwritten, often simplistic, Twitter-like entries such as “Passed Cooter en route to Beagle Gap” and “Another glorious day to be alive!”

The journals are a lifeline. They are the first place authorities check to determine the last movements of missing hikers.

Are trail enthusiasts, in the words of the theme of an A.T.C. gathering in 1997, “loving the trail to death” from overuse? Not just a few hundred thru hikers but also thousands and thousands of day hikers are tramping about the mountain path right about now. Most trail authorities have concluded that there’s no right answer. One person’s view of overuse is another’s delight at the popularity of the trail as an escape from mundane daily life.

Little Wolf Creek footbridge near Bastian, Virginia, was carefully built by hand.

In his book, Bill Bryson pointed out that the Appalachian Trail had already outlasted the historic Oregon and Santa Fe trails, the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway, and old U.S. Route 66, about which I’ll be writing in detail one of these days.

In the 1990s, the Appalachian Trail was informally extended from the official northern terminus in Maine into New Brunswick and Quebec provinces in Canada, creating a long dreamed-about “International Appalachian Trail.” Not very many hikers are thought to have made it all the way from Springer Mountain,

The end, beautiful Mount Katahdin, is in sight. But there’s a whole lot of wilderness hiking left before one can raise a fist in triumph at the top.

Georgia, to Cape Gaspé in Quebec.

Still under construction is even more of the International A.T. in Newfoundland. But there’s a little problem. Newfoundland is an island, and there’s no bridge from Quebec. That would necessitate either forgiving a gap in the trail or the far more unlikely feat of walking on water.

Because nature bedevils the Appalachian Trail in the wintertime, and administrators keep tweaking the route, it is the attitude of most officials, volunteers and hikers alike that the Appalachian National Scenic Trail will never be finished.


(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!)

Bandanna. A large and brightly colored handkerchief, often used as a scarf or headband.

Conundrum. A difficult problem or riddle.

Rappelling. The controlled descent of a cliff, using a rope.

The Plain People

Posted August 13th, 2009 at 7:27 pm (UTC-4)

Carol and I recently visited the land of the Plain People in Holmes County, Ohio, just down the road from the ordinary, middle-sized cities of Akron and Canton.

These neatly tied shocks of barley epitomize the look of the countryside in Ohio’s Amish country

This is “Amish country,” the largest, if not richest, concentration of Old Order Amish in the world. It is a serene place, full of rolling meadows, vibrant fields of corn and grain, and the Amish people’s tidy farmsteads. Serene, that is, until you’re stuck behind lines of tourists’ cars, funneling into quaint villages with even quainter names: Charm, Birds Run, Nellie, Seventeen, and Blissfield, to name five. There’s a Berlin, a Schoenbrunn, and a Gnadenhutten, too, giving a clue as to the German heritage of many folks thereabout.

Gnadenhutten. Gesundheit!

You can ride in Amish buggies, gorge yourself at smorgasbord restaurants and Amish bakeries — just try eating a couple of whoopee pies and then tell me the Amish aren’t sinful! — and watch Amishmen make cheese and furniture. You can walk through an authentic Amish home, too, run by non-Amish but with the Plain People’s blessing. It’s a way that the Amish can satisfy the curious while keeping outsiders from prying too deeply into their lives and affairs.

This town-limits sign says it all about one little Holmes County community.

Like the more famous, and much more touristy, Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – replete with its own odd place names (Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse, Blue Ball) – Holmes County is an unusual juxtaposition of cultures. The Old Order Amish’s distinctive 19th-century lifestyle endures alongside, and within, the 21st-century world. These people cheerfully acknowledge that they are living in a time warp as they drive horse-drawn buggies, open carts, and mule- or horse-pulled farm machinery. Their farms, located in the rural parts of 22 mostly eastern and midwestern U.S. states and eastern Canada, are often the largest, best-kept, and most prosperous in their counties. Their homesteads are characterized by well-manicured gardens, windmills, and long rows of hanging wash on clotheslines, as well as one, two, or more additions to their farmhouses to accommodate large, extended families.

And what makes these places especially easy to spot are the plain window shades – that “plain” word again – and the absence of electric wires, frilly curtains, or any other kind of adornments.

Three especially memorable stops marked our visit, not counting dozens of screeches to a halt so that Carol could photograph the alluring countryside:

These are just a few of the lamps on display at Lehman’s General Store. Kerosene lamps are the principal form of illumination in Amish homes.

Lehman’s General Store in Kidron, Ohio. It was founded by a former Mennonite missionary in 1955 to serve the Amish but has evolved into room after room of old-timey and non-electric products that my mother knew well growing up “back in the country” of rural Pennsylvania. This is the place, in a series of refurbished old barns that Jay Lehman moved to one location and joined, to find butter churns, sauerkraut crocks and pickle kegs, oil lamps and cookie cutters by the hundreds, farm bells, noodle makers, potato mashers and other “hand-powered kitchen appliances,” jump-ropes and jack-in-the-boxes, washboards, straight-edge razors, cider presses, hand-cranked radios and ice-cream makers, and something called “granny-ware.” That’s a “water-bath canner” – a metal tub with handles to heat jars of fruits and vegetables like those that my mother “put up” for the winter, even in our suburban basement. Lehman’s carries books like Living With Chickens and Basic Butchering of Livestock and Game. Walking through the place, I felt like I was inside a living Sears & Roebuck mail-order catalog from 1905.

This is the Homestead Furniture “floor lamp” of which I speak. It’s more like a ceiling lamp, though.

Homestead Furniture in Mount Hope, where I was perplexed by floor lamps that rose – and rose and rose – all the way to a very high ceiling. That’s because the owner, Ernie Hershberger, is Old Order Amish, and these lamps, powered by batteries secluded in drawers at their base, take the place of overhead fluorescent electric lights.

And the Gutisberg Cheese Factory in the town of Charm. Now in its 60th year of making cheeses, it invented the “baby Swiss” variety, milder and creamier than typical Swiss cheese, and with far smaller “air” holes. Amishman Abe Mast walked me through the cheese-making routine

The baby Swiss rounds will soon rise to fill the molds at the Gutisberg Cheese plant.

– at least the part that begins once horse-drawn Amish wagons have dropped off tanks of fresh milk. The process is full of vats and enzymes, brine racks and cultures, curds and (of course) whey. Something called “renet,” too. Are you sure you want to know what that is? If not, skip to the next paragraph. Renet, as the Gutisbergs spell it, or rennet, is the extract of the fourth stomach of young ruminants like cows and goats. It helps them digest their mother’s milk, and it causes milk in the vats to coagulate into the beginnings of cheese.

Naturally we also saw what we came for: Amishmen and women and their children, the men and boys in straw hats and the women in bonnets. Their homes and buggies and horses, too.

An Amish farmer heads home with his team after a hard day in the fields. Every day is hard there.

Amish, you see, unlike odd societies that keep their distance from the rest of us, are not separatists. They do not live in communes. Their handsome farms are spread alongside those of their non-Amish neighbors. The most noticeable difference is that their neighbors will plow their fields with motorized tractors, while the Amishman – or just as often, the Amish boy – will plow his with a team of draft horses or mules. (Some of the strictest, Old Order Amish will not allow the use of mules, though, because they were created by human cross-breeding of a donkey and a horse, and not by God.)

Tobacco and cattle were once the Amish’s chief cash crop. The manure from cattle fertilized the tobacco fields, and stockyards and gigantic tobacco warehouses stood on the outskirts of towns near Amish farms. Today dairy cattle, corn, and soybeans are the most prevalent cash crops.

This day’s crop is certainly bountiful, as are most in Amish country.

The demand for land, certainly in Pennsylvania and to a growing degree in Holmes County and surrounding east-central Ohio, is so great that Amish farmers as well as non-Amish developers routinely bid against each other for available parcels. Since the Amish live simply and frugally, the wealthy among them do not spend their money on baubles, cruises, or fancy homes; they buy more land! And they put their money in the bank to save for future generations. The Amishmen are also always in search of more land to meet their obligation to provide farms for their male offspring.

The current U.S. recession has not entirely bypassed the Amish, however. Many of their young people, working in stores and factories in town, have been laid off. And sales of Amish people’s goods have dropped commensurately with a decline in consumer spending. But there’s no such thing as a homeless Amishman. There’s always a large and welcoming place to go home to.

Communities of Amish can be found as far west as Montana and as far south as Texas, and many Amish keep track of other clans’ doings through a chatty newspaper called The Budget, published in nearby Sugarcreek, Ohio. For more than a century, it has printed letters that are the antithesis of racy tabloid fodder. An example from Hillsboro, Wisconsin:

The spring peppers are really enjoying this fine weather, their first outing, and during the day the chirping sparrows’ song fills the air.

There’s plenty of work for man and beast at this Amish sawmill, whose blades and belts are driven by steam engines.

The U.S. Amish population is estimated to be near or above 165,000. This number includes groups of “New Order,” or “Beachy,” Amish – named for Amishman Moses Beachy from Somerset County, Pennsylvania, who led a walkout from an Amish community over the issue of shunning. (More about that in a bit.) Beachy Amish have incorporated some vestiges of modern technology, sometimes even driving cars – albeit black ones with plain black bumpers.

To further confuse visitors to Amish country, members of strict Mennonite orders also drive buggies and eschew electric appliances in their homes. And many Mennonite men wear beards and plain clothing. And there’s a fourth group of Plain People in the mix, too. They are “Dunkards”: German Baptists or “Brethren,” whose baptismal ceremonies include immersion – dunking – in water.

This “Amishman” didn’t mind having his photo taken. In fact, that’s the whole idea.

The Amish call their neighbors who live with 21st-century conveniences the “English,” or Englischers in German. They, and many Mennonites, refer to themselves as “Dutch.” Together, the Plain People (even in Ohio) are often called “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which English Quaker settlers corrupted from the word Deutsch – the German language spoken by many immigrants. Old Order Amish are in fact trilingual: They speak High German at worship; English at school and in dealing with the Englischers; and, at home, a German dialect peppered with words borrowed from English and softened by French influences from their people’s time in Alsace.

Both the Mennonites and the Amish are part of the Anabaptist movement, which began in Switzerland in the early 1500s at the time of the Protestant Reformation. The name means “twice baptized,” as their members – already baptized into the Roman Catholic Church as infants – were baptized a second time as adults. Later, Anabaptists rejected infant baptism, believing that the individual should make a free choice to accept a life with God. At that time, adult baptism was considered a criminal offense that was punishable by death, and many Anabaptists were imprisoned and tortured for their beliefs. Amish songs and books keep stories of their persecution alive and contribute to ongoing Amish distrust of society at large. A favorite Amish story tells the fate of Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems, who pulled to safety a pursuing sheriff who had fallen through the ice on a pond. For his kindness, Willems was arrested and burned at the stake.

One of the reasons Amishmen wear no moustaches dates to this period, for the soldiers who tormented them often wore long, florid ones.

Simplicity — and piety — are the watchwords of Amish life. There are a few Amish trades that you won’t find much in the “English” world.

To avoid detection, Anabaptists fled to the mountains or distant rural regions, where many became farmers. In 1693, Anabaptists in the Alsace region, now part of France, broke away from the larger church. Jakob Ammann, their leader, believed the Anabaptists had become too liberal in their lifestyles, straying from strict biblical teachings. Thereafter, Ammann’s followers became known as the Amish, and Swiss Anabaptists as the Mennonites, a name derived from their leader, Menno Simons.

In the early 1700s, the Amish accepted the invitation of William Penn, Pennsylvania’s founder, to Europeans of all religions to come to “Penn’s Woods” and enjoy a life of freedom and religious tolerance. The Amish from Germany and Switzerland arrived in Philadelphia, and true to their history, promptly headed far into what was then the wilderness, where the “world” could not follow. Such a notion seems preposterous today, as the “world” has built a jumble of outlet centers, strip shopping malls, and quasi-“Amish” attractions, right next to Amish farms. There are some, but nowhere near as many, such startling contrasts in Ohio Amish country as well.

No Amish congregations remain in Europe.

There are no Amish church buildings and no religious icons other than the Bible – an edition originally translated into German by Protestant reform leader Martin Luther. There’s no special Amish creed aside from following Christ’s example by living simply and humbly and helping others. Even personal Bible study is discouraged because it might lead to individual interpretations outside the accepted understanding of God’s word.

There’s nothing religious, or even Amish, about the “hex” signs that one finds in Amish country. They appear on some barns to inspire hearty crops and ward off evil, but they’re more of a tourist trinket than an everyday part of Amish life.

The Amish believe that working the soil brings them close to God. Their worship is organized into districts of about 25 households, led by a bishop. Services are held every other Sunday in each other’s homes. Thus Old Order Amish are sometimes called “House Amish.” In rooms cleared of household furniture, men and boys sit on one side, and women and girls on the other, both facing a central area where leaders are seated. Home worship harks back to the days in Europe when persecuted Anabaptists were forced to worship secretly. It reinforces the Amish belief that worship and daily life are inseparable.

The 3½-hour service begins with about 35 minutes of singing from the Ausbund, an 812-page German-language hymnal written by Anabaptists while they were imprisoned in the 1530s. There are no musical notes for the 140 songs within it, and no instruments accompany the singing, which is delivered slowly in a chant with no harmony. (Thus I, a shower tenor and choir lover, could never be an Amishman. Not that I’m big on plowing, either.) Some hymns have as many as – are you ready for this? – 60 verses!

These buggies are lined up outside an Amish house in which a church service, or at least hymn-singing, are probably going on.

Then comes a series of New Testament scriptures read from a booklet that lists 26 texts appropriate to the time of year. A second speaker, chosen by the congregation’s leaders only moments before he begins speaking, then preaches the main sermon that lasts an hour or more without notes of any kind. Talk about pressure! More scriptures and comments from the assembled, called “witnessing,” follow, then a prayer from a German prayer book and a benediction. And they’re not done yet! Announcements from the deacon and a final hymn bring the service to a close.

Then the women, who take no leadership role in any religious service, prepare a light, cold meal. Offerings are collected only twice a year – at Eastertime and at a fall communion service that can last seven hours or more. (The Amish are certainly a patient, unhurried lot.) That service is followed by ritual foot-washing and the sharing of bread and wine, the latter made from grapes by the bishop’s wife.

Religious holidays are solemn occasions. The Amish exchange small, practical gifts at Christmas, but there are no Christmas trees, lights, or Santa Claus figures, stories or songs. Nor does Peter Cottontail hop down the bunny trail around Easter in Amish country. Bunnies are sometimes served at mealtime, however.

This could be a “courting buggy,” although it looks like it’s had a lot of other uses. Note the rear reflector, required by law but a slim slice of protection for driver, passengers, and horse.

Sunday afternoons are a time for play and socializing. Baseball and softball are passions among Amish youth, even though they do not listen to games on radio or watch them on television. Young singles, who, together, are called “gangs” by the Amish, travel to other homes on Sunday evenings for more hymn-singing. A “date” will often consist of singing hymns (you may be detecting a trend here) or perhaps a spirited game of volleyball. It is to and from these events that a young Amishman will often drive a single Amishwoman in an open “courting buggy.”

An enclosed family buggy, sometimes laughingly called a “cheese box” by the Amish themselves, costs about $7,000, its single horse about $2,000, and harnesses $1,000 or more. In communities with large Amish populations, buggies, which must have lights and triangular rear reflectors, are sold at dealerships, just like cars. I can’t say whether they take test drives and haggle over the price there.

A common Amish country scene. Heavy traffic on both sides of the road, but one side crawling behind a slow-moving buggy that has nowhere else to go on the narrow roads.

Those reflectors are meager protection against onrushing automobiles, although the Amish keep to the side of the road whenever possible. Nevertheless, there are many gruesome accidents in which the Amish and their horses almost always get the worst of it.

Amish elders often “look the other way” as many of their young people “sow their wild oats” and taste worldly pleasures for a period. In this time of modest rebellion, it is not uncommon for Amish teenagers and young adults to obtain driver’s licenses and drive cars, change from their simple clothes into Englischer garb, and go dancing and bar-hopping in big cities like Philadelphia or Cleveland. Young Amish have occasionally been arrested for drunken driving of buggies as well as automobiles. Such rascally behavior is tolerated because the young people have not yet joined the church. But once a person accepts baptism – often at the time of marriage – all such worldly dalliances are banned forever. At baptism, the young Amishman or woman accepts the Christian faith and the authority of the group, and the penalty for deviation is lifetime shunning by the community, parents and siblings included.

Young Amish people are adept at making whoopee . . . pies out of oatmeal, chocolate, butter, and the creamiest filling in the land. They also are free, briefly, to make the other kind of whoopee: exuberant fun.

The excommunicated person may remain with his or her Amish spouse, but sexual relations are forbidden until and unless he or she renounces wicked behavior and returns to the fold.

Elizabethtown College professor Donald Kraybill, who has written several long backgrounders on the Amish, estimates that four of five young Amish people accept baptism and remain in the fold. After all, temptations to stay are surprisingly strong. Within the community there is love, support, security, and what I would call a degree of certainty that the harsh “real world,” with its unexpected twists, cannot guarantee.

Marriage is encouraged by the Amish but by no means expected. Unmarried Amishmen work farms or get jobs as carpenters, buggy makers, or mill employees. Amishmen are enthusiastic participants in volunteer fire departments, whose efforts obviously benefit Amish homes and barns. But the Amish do not participate in other community or professional organizations, organized sports, or political parties. They do vote in local elections, but usually not in state or national contests. Amishmen will not serve in military services; in wartime, they have traditionally been exempted from service as conscientious objectors and given noncombat roles. Some Amish do, though, keep rifles for hunting and even share hunting cabins in the mountains.

You know this is an Amish farm. You see no electric wires, but a clothesline getting lots of use.

The Amish buy goods that they cannot make or grow – especially raw materials, fertilizer, and farm machinery – from Englischer merchants, they bank at town financial institutions, and they hold public auctions. Unmarried Amish women often leave home to run quilt, bake, or craft shops, or to work in Amish butcher shops or health-food stores. Married Amish women also sometimes work outside the home, and two-income Amish households are becoming almost as common as in the community at large.

The Amish are never ostentatious, but the Plain People do express themselves exuberantly in their exquisite quilts.

Obedience – children to parents and teachers, wives to husbands, and all to God’s word – is central to the Amish way of life. So is the glorification of God and the community, not the individual. Arrogance, pride, publicity, and adornments that call attention to oneself are forbidden. You won’t see Amish people with nose rings or tattoos.

It is therefore apt that Amish appearance and dress are plain and utilitarian. Amish girls and women wear their hair parted in the middle and pulled back in a bin; the hair is never cut! They wear prayer coverings at all times in public due to a biblical dictate from 1st Corinthians. When they travel, Amish women and girls also wear bulky black bonnets that are almost as big as hoods.

Unmarried men are clean-shaven, and boys often are given bobbed “Dutch cut” haircuts. Married men grow beards, which, for the rest of their lives, they never trim. They wear straw hats to keep the sun off their necks in warm weather but switch to black felt hats for worship and on cold days. From the moment they are potty-trained, boys wear the same clothes as men, including suspenders.

If you’d ever shake hands with an Amishman, you’d remember it, for work on an Amish farm is hard, and an Amishman’s hands are tough, callused, and extremely strong.

There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place, in an Amish home.

Amish homes are generally devoid of decoration, although the Plain People will hang calendars, dried flowers, colorful quilts, and photographs . . . of scenery – never themselves or others. They believe that only the vain pose for photographs, and they do not take kindly to close-up photos snapped by others. Distant shots don’t seem to disturb them, though, and anyway, the most you’ll get for popping one is a shaken fist, since the Amish don’t believe in lawsuits!

This is an Amish “washing machine.” Actually, some homes have mechanical ones, powered by oil or gas.

Often the kitchen is the only heated room in an Amish house, and the sick are sometimes tended to there. Most kitchens do have modern-looking appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines – run by kerosene or propane gas. But you won’t find dishwashers (except the women and girls), toasters, microwave ovens, or, indeed, any electric outlets in which such contraptions could be plugged. Few Amish have deep freezers, but they get around the problem by bartering produce in exchange for freezer space at a non-Amish neighbor’s farm.

The aversion to electricity, by the way, has nothing to do with the modernity of it all, and certainly the Bible was silent on the practical use of electrons. Rather, the objection is that wires from the street into the house or barn are a tangible tie to the outside world that the Amish wish to avoid. Modern plumbing is readily accepted, and many bishops allowed telephones in Amish homes for a time until people were found to be gossiping; pay phones can now be found at the end of country lanes on some Amish farms.

A horse and “cheese box” buggy fittingly pass in front of the Gutisberg Cheese Co. factory and Swiss-inspired showroom. The founder was hired from Switzerland by local Amish looking for a cheese-making master.

You won’t find Amish people going door to door looking for converts. They believe that their good works and piety speak for themselves. They welcome converts, but
find it difficult to renounce modern conveniences (“No I-Pod? You’ve got to be kidding me.”). One Amish woman told me that potential converts find it especially wrenching to give up their automobiles. Who would trade tooling along at 100 kpm in a luxurious sedan for clip-clop, clip-clopping behind a moseying horse?

The Amish do not practice birth control, and families of seven, eight, or, for that matter, fifteen children are not unusual. Several siblings of the same sex often share bedrooms. Offspring are needed, of course, to support large Amish farms, though prosperous farmers will also employ non-Amish labor, especially during the harvest season.

To give you an idea of the size of Amish steam engines, that’s good-sized me standing in front of one of them.

You’ll find mechanized equipment on the farm and in mills, but it’s powered by steam, not internal-combustion engines, and is pulled by draft animals just like a farm wagon. And Amish farm equipment may have only steel or wooden wheels for the same reason that Amish allow tricycles, roller skates, and push scooters but not bicycles: rubber wheels on vehicles would make travel away from the community and into the temptations of the world too easy. The Amish do, however, accept rides, and “English” taxi services do a lively business. The Amish will also hire non-Amish drivers to move products and take them to visit far-off relatives. Train and intercity bus travel is allowed, but air travel is rarely permitted.

A young Amishwoman and her even younger siblings sell baskets by the side of the road in Charm, Ohio.

The Amish may be modest in most realms, but they are ambitious in business. Common at the end of an Amish family’s driveway are tiny, hand-printed signs announcing “bunnies for sale” or “quilts – no Sunday sales.” No other signs will be found. No beer or cigarette advertisements on billboards, for sure. Like Englischers, the Amish take advantage of tourism, as we saw in Holmes County. They want strangers to come, see, and buy – but not pry. “Yes, we’re different,” they’ll tell you. “But you’re different, too. We could certainly ask why you dress the way you do.”

Amish children may attend public school, but more common in heavily Amish areas are one-room, English-language parochial schools where, once again, girls sit on one side of a central aisle, boys on the other. It was such a school in Bart Township, Pennsylvania, that brought worldwide attention to the reclusive Amish in 2006, when a deranged non-Amish gunman shot and killed six girls after lining them up against a chalkboard. What staggered the outside world even more than the heinous act was the Amish response to this tragedy. The grandfather of one of the girls told his fellow Amish, “We must not think evil of this man.” An Amish neighbor comforted the killer’s wife and children, and the Amish set up a charitable fund for them, and offered them the community’s forgiveness.

Amish furniture is prized for its quality and craftsmanship.

Amish life is quaint but by no means idyllic. They are plain, not perfect, people, and very much a people apart while still in our midst. They cling stubbornly to old ways, resist new ones, and keep to themselves. There are jealousies and feuds as in any community. Births out of wedlock, mental illness, family violence, and suicide are not unknown among them. But the Amish by all accounts are also loving and supportive, though strict, parents. Their homes are “safe houses” for old and young. The “information age” may be passing the Amish by, but so are many of the stresses and dangers that grip the outside world. The Amish can and do fairly ask of their worldly neighbors, “Where is all your ‘progress’ taking you? Are you happier? More loved? More fulfilled?”

Seen in this light, the wholesome life of North America’s Plain People does not seem backward at all.


(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!)

Dalliance. A frivolous use of time. “Goofing around” rather than working.

Mosey along. To dawdle or take one’s sweet old time about getting somewhere.

Perplexing. Confusing, lacking clarity.

Our Temple of Radio

Posted July 30th, 2009 at 6:53 pm (UTC-4)

Let’s say you’re a longtime, enthusiastic Voice of America listener who has the opportunity to visit the United States, and someone like me, right now, informs you that there’s one place in America where you can find:

There’s even an interstate highway sign pointing drivers to an amazing VOA complex

• the site where VOA transmitters once sent the mightiest signals in international radio history into the heart of occupied Europe and elsewhere during World War II;
• a three-in-one museum that chronicles VOA’s story, the saga of wireless communication going back to Marconi, and local broadcasting history in rich detail;
• a large and beautiful park named for the Voice of America where you can hike, fish in a 14-hectare lake, sled down a long hill, get a match going on one of 24 soccer fields or a cricket pitch, bird-watch in meadow that’s an official wildlife preserve, let your mutt loose in the “Wiggly Field” dog park, and even get married!
• a university learning center that also carries the name of the Voice of America;
• and even a good-sized VOA shopping center, of all things.

You would surely assume that such an immersion experience would be in Washington, surrounding VOA headquarters on Independence Avenue and the National Mall. Or somehow squeezed into downtown New York City, where most VOA programming originated during the war.

Those choices are too obvious, of course. I must be teasing you about the location for a reason.

OK, so where is Cox Road?

Indeed, the place where you’ll find the Voice of America “brand” on dozens of buildings and signs and thousands of lips is nowhere near the nation’s capital or the Big Apple. I can assure you that there isn’t a VOA shopping center, university extension, wildlife preserve, or dog park anywhere near our nondescript Washington headquarters building or the VOA news bureau in congested Manhattan.

To picture their location, take your right hand and make a “V for Victory” sign of the sort for which Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, was famous.

Your fist is the pleasant and prosperous Midwest city of Cincinnati, Ohio. And your two uplifted fingers are busy interstate highways, the index finger heading north toward Dayton, Ohio, and on to Detroit, Michigan; and the middle finger angling northeastward to Ohio’s capital city of Columbus and the Great Lakes port of Cleveland.

Inside the V, what was once the rural township of West Chester has exploded from 39,700 population in 1990 to more than 62,000 today as housing subdivisions, shopping malls, business parks, hospitals, and freeway exit clusters of gas stations, restaurants, and motels have gobbled up almost every clod of dirt.

We’re getting warmer!

Save, that is, for a pretty, 253-hectare (625-acre) oasis 650 kilometers (400 miles) west of Washington where you can get that unparalleled Voice of America “fix.”

Why there?

As announcer Fred Foy intoned on the old Lone Ranger radio show in the 1940s, return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear for the fascinating answer.

Powel Crosley at age 20 or so, before he made his first million

The story begins with a man who, early on, had nothing to do with the Voice of America, or even broadcasting. Now mostly forgotten outside Cincinnati, Powel Crosley, Jr., an inventive industrialist, had his heart set on building inexpensive automobiles but would one day be known as “the Henry Ford of Radio.”

Lots of people drove Crosleys home and grabbed a beer or sandwich from their Crosley refrigerators in the 1940

Crosley had only modest luck making cars, but he – or rather, he and his engineers – did invent the first car radio and push-button radio, and the first auto with disc brakes. And, over in his appliances division, the “Shelvadoor” – the first refrigerator with shelves in the door – the first portable refrigerator, and the first fax machine. It was at his Crosley Field, too, where his Cincinnati Reds baseball team would inaugurate night games “under the lights” in 1935.

Powel Crosley became intrigued with broadcasting when his son asked for a radio set as a “toy.” Revolted by their exorbitant cost, Crosley was soon building radios and their components himself. By 1924, the Crosley Corp. was the world’s largest manufacturer of desk radios and large radio cabinets of the sort you see families gathered around in old photographs.

Crosley the radio man wanted to give people a good reason to buy his product, so he constructed a 20-watt transmitter in his home and began broadcasting to his neighbors.

Within ten years, the entire country would be listening, not through some network but to Crosley’s WLW – “The Nation’s Station” in Cincinnati – which generated its own elaborate programs, including the first “soap opera” using a resident company of actors and musicians. Many of them – singers Doris Day and the Mills Brothers among them – would become American superstars.

Broadcasting on medium wave at 500,000 watts – ten times the power of any other U.S. radio station then and to this day – beginning May 2, 1934 with the throwing of a switch by President Roosevelt in Washington, WLW bounced a signal off the ionosphere from coast to coast and beyond. Rival stations complained bitterly of unfair competition and interference with their signals. And when some of them began haranguing the federal government for equal power to mount their own superstations, Congress in 1939 rid itself of the controversy by capping every station’s power, including WLW’s, at 50,000 watts.

This early informational booklet shows the unusual shape of WLW’s 224-meter (735-foot), 200-ton tower that blasted its signal clear across the continent

The WLW megastation’s programs emanated from Crosley’s downtown appliance factory, but its enormous tower – taller than the Washington Monument – sat 40 kilometers away near the little town of Mason, Ohio, in those same farm fields that we mentioned earlier. For good reason. A half-million-watt signal bouncing around downtown buildings would have played havoc with other electronic signals and drowned out every other station in town.

Fast forward to the early days of World War II, when Nazi Germany, too, had developed 62 powerful transmitters, shortwave in this case, pointed across Europe and reaching as far away as South America. German broadcasters poured out propaganda aimed at softening resistance to Nazi aggression and diverting America’s attention. Japan, too, operated 42 long-range transmitters flooding the Asian nations it was in the process of subjugating.

There was no equivalent American response, since the nation was trying mightily to stay clear of war. The signals of only 13 shortwave stations, programming innocuous entertainment, emanated from America’s shores at the time.

Powel Crosley’s WLWO – or WLW Overseas – was one of them. From two towers next to the WLW monster in those corn and alfalfa fields, it beamed orchestra music, comedy shows, crime dramas and “westerns” to Europe and Latin America with 75kw of shortwave power. Following Japan’s bombing of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, and America’s immediate declaration of war on Japan and Germany, President Roosevelt summoned titans of industry and pleaded for help in countering Axis psychological warfare. WLWO began beaming German- and Italian-language broadcasts supplied by the Voice of America’s predecessor agency, the Office of War Information, operating out of New York. WLWO broadcasters like Robert Bauer, who had escaped Nazi Germany by an eyelash, gave the Third Reich a dose of its own bluster. Bauer, an Austrian like Adolf Hitler, could mimic the Führer’s speech impeccably. He would give faux rally speeches in which “Hitler” would dissolve into stark-raving lunacy – which, of course, wasn’t far removed from reality. The real madman, in turn, was heard to rail against “those Cincinnati liars.”

WLWO and other American-based shortwave stations also carried the very first words of the new Voice of America in February 1942, when newsman William Harlan Hale said in German from New York, “The news may be bad or the news may be good; we will tell you the truth.”

During a break in the president’s meeting with the moguls, Crosley Corp. Chairman James Shouse called his top engineer in Cincinnati and asked if the company could build 200kw shortwave transmitters with directional antennas that could be aimed at Europe, Africa, and South America.

“I don’t know, but I will sure give it a hell of a try,” replied the engineer.

These are some of the mammoth pillars, sunk far into the ground, that supported VOA’s Bethany towers

And so it was that the U.S. Government purchased a 250-hectare (625-acre) stretch of hillocks, meadows, and alfalfa fields in southwest Ohio, just down the road from Crosley’s WLW transmitter complex. This new “Bethany facility,” named after a local telephone exchange, was ideal because of its location far from coastlines that were viewed, in those anxious days after Pearl Harbor, as vulnerable to Axis attack. Besides, power from companies in Cincinnati and Dayton was readily at hand. (And boy, would Bethany need it. Once the plant was up and operating in September 1944, the Federal Government would pay the electric utility companies almost $900,000 a year for “juice.”)

Needless to say, the Bethany project got “AA-1” priority, obtaining all the glass vacuum tubes, steel, and copper it needed, despite the strict wartime rationing of such materials.

There in bucolic West Chester within a year and a few days, Shouse’s men, including Clyde Haehnle, who is still an active broadcast-engineering consultant and one of the VOA museum’s board members, constructed an impressive building the size of a small city’s airport terminal.

Here’s the Bethany transmitter site and some of the towers that it controlled.

A former board member and the project’s architect, Jim Fearing, calls it a “temple of radio,” Why so fancy for a top-secret installation, off-limits to, if not out of sight of, the public? “Powel Crosley was a showman,” says board member Dave Snyder, the facility’s supervisor in its final days. Crosley thought, perhaps, that he’d be getting control of the building back once the war was over. “You’d go up an impressive set of stairs to what we called ‘the fishbowl,’ from which you would see the whole transmitter concourse,” Snyder added.

Three of the old Crosley transmitters, photographed at the VOA Bethany site in 1968

Inside the handsome edifice, “RF,” or radio-frequency, transmitters converted low-wattage signals incoming on telephone lines into powerful ones, and six 175kw shortwave transmitters – the strongest in history, plus 24 directional shortwave antennas sent programming, ultimately in 52 languages, skipping off the ionosphere to overcome the earth’s curvature to precisely pinpointed target areas abroad.

“These shortwaves are not like those of our standard broadcast band,” an early VOA broadcast informed its audience. “They are the siege guns of radio, the heavy artillery – guns of war that can hurl explosive facts against weapons of lies and confusion, anywhere in the world.”

A Collins transmitter panel, including its signal’s “flow chart”

For those of you who “speak engineering,” I’m told that these manually tuned Crosley transmitters were later replaced by even more powerful, remotely tuned 250kw Collins units.

According to one report, the Crosley engineers had to overcome “horrendous” technical problems in mounting the new transmitter site. “New tubes had to be designed [and built from scratch], 24 high-gain rhombic antennas improved, [and] ‘re-entrant termination’ advanced to keep antennas from simply melting. . . . It was the most sophisticated antennae system ever devised.”

Funny things happened out in the antenna field from time to time. Not always so funny if you were involved, however

John Vodenik, who spent a decade at Bethany and now works in VOA’s Network Control Center at our Washington headquarters, recalls the day when an “electric blue” flame shot from one of the Collins transmitters, melting a hole in the aluminum side panel and setting off a popping sound matched only when various wildlife species would meet their demise atop one of the 300-ohm transmission lines, or when accumulations of ice would create a “light show” of arcs among the wires. The building did not burn down during the blue-flame incident, but the station crew had to take the panel to a local auto-body shop for repairs. Every once in awhile, though, VOA engineers had to call in the local fire department to extinguish flames triggered by lightning strikes in the alfalfa. The government had allowed a farmer to continue planting and plowing right in the antenna field.

The entire complex was surrounded by chain-link fence and closely guarded by military sentries, some of whom slept in the observation tower above the transmitters and control rooms. Guards would remain through the Cold War years, after which engineers could finally allow in curious citizens and passersby for impromptu tours.

You would not have found a single microphone at the Bethany site. It was pragmatism – and paranoia – at work. What if enemy agents were to seize control of transmitters that could be redirected to different parts of the world in ten minutes?

This model of VOA’s Bethany station, sold as part of fundraising for the new National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting, includes a good look at the observation tower

VOA’s Bethany site, like others in California and North Carolina, was considered a “relay station,” passing along, rather than originating, programming from Washington and New York directly to international audiences or to other such stations in North Africa, Pacific Islands, Asian locations, and elsewhere. For a time, Bethany even connected with relay stations aboard destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea.

In 1945 Powel Crosley, still determined to build and market inexpensive automobiles, sold WLW and all other Crosley broadcasting properties, though Crosley engineers continued to operate VOA’s Bethany site until Voice of America personnel took over in 1963.

Early VOA Bethany Station engineers weren’t a jeans-and-T-shirt crowd. The dress and attention to detail were professional all the way

Beginning in 1951 during the Cold War, arrays of “curtain antennas,” strung among gigantic steel support towers, were added to Bethany’s broadcast arsenal. These arrays were oriented at different angles facing Europe and parts of Africa. Exactly where could be changed quickly during station breaks while the transmitters were briefly shut off. But to do it, crews of three had to hustle out back in all types of weather and flip a series of handles by hand in a “switching matrix” of telephone poles and wires that still survives. It looks like a small power substation. Switches would freeze so solidly in the dead of winter that engineers had to attach lit propane torches to poles, reach up and melt the ice in order to throw them. Sudden shifts in frequency came often, too, to outfox Soviet engineers who were adroit at jamming shortwave signals.

Down goes one of the Bethany towers. Old-timers had wanted to keep them, but the prevailing view was that even unelectrified, they were a safety hazard, too tempting to daredevil climbers

Operations continued at the Bethany Relay Station six final years after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, hastening the end of the Cold War. With the advent of satellite transmissions, the need for the aging Ohio facility had declined. Pressures on the VOA budget, plus our agency’s steady move away from shortwave broadcasting except in parts of the world where medium wave, FM, and television broadcasting had yet to take hold, hastened Bethany’s death knell. The site was decommissioned in September 1995, and its landmark towers were pulled down soon thereafter.

With the closing of the Bethany station, it was time to tell its story, if succinctly, in a historical marker

There was another factor working against Bethany as well. Its ever-increasing number of neighbors did not find the interference from our powerful transmitters amusing. We can laugh at the stories of a radio signal causing windshield wipers to spontaneously erupt, neighborhood downspouts and one fellow’s entire furnace to throb with music, and a nearby church’s public-address system to break into VOA Spanish in the middle of the minister’s sermon. Nearby bedsprings were a good VOA signal carrier, too. But things got so bad that the local telephone company passed out anti-interference filters; and car and truck manufacturers would run new models up and down Tylersville Road, testing their shielding against the radio behemoth’s signals.

In 2000, shortly after the Bethany site was formally transferred to West Chester Township, Bill Zerkle, the parks and recreation director, was visited by his boss. “We’re getting the VOA property,” he told Zerkle, and as part of the agreement this old transmitter building is to become a museum. “So buddy, you go for it,” Zerkle recalls the superior’s instruction.

The preserved VOA transmitter building and grounds are dwarfed by the rest of the site. They lie at the bottom middle, to the right of the shopping center parcel
Miami University’s “Voice of America Learning Center” has an impressive home

The site was carved into several pieces. Thirty hectares in the southwest corner – thankfully only that corner given the glut of civilization already in the area – was sold to shopping-mall developers for a “Voice of America Centre” shopping plaza. Eight hectares went to Miami University, one of Ohio’s state universities, for a learning center. Once built in a halls-of-ivy-style columned structure complete with classrooms and meeting spaces, it began serving 21st century-style “swirling students.” These are often working adults with what the VOA Learning Center’s Rod Nimtz calls “fluid student experiences” who are compiling college credits evenings or weekends and adding them to those earned years earlier and elsewhere.

In addition to lovely natural features like this fishing lake, the VOA Park will one day add a performance amphitheater, whose crowds may be ripe customers for the VOA museum

The county’s “metroparks” system got 80 hectares as a nature preserve, a recreational site – including a sledding hill that attracts snow-lovers from three states – and a lodge for receptions, dances, and those weddings that I alluded to earlier.

The little piece that remained of the project, including the transmitter building, was left to the township for that unspecified museum.

Zerkle, who left the parks department to become president and CEO of the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting in 2007, set up shop in the deserted, unheated building. It had been toasty warm in the days when its transmitters, full of large and red-hot tubes, were, in architect Fearing’s words, “sucking up 3 million watts” of power; so hot were the tubes that some transmitter components had to be cooled in vats called “water jackets,” whose rising steam heated the building. Now Zerkle was spending his winters in sweater, coat, and hat, surrounded by little space heaters. He and volunteers from a group called the Veterans’ Voice of America Fund, later renamed The National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting Fund, began money-raising, and in 2008 they secured enough funds to create the museum master plan.

The “National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting” will one day, perhaps soon, incorporate four “visitor experiences,” two of which are already in place:

Just a few of the items, some of them now truly priceless, at the Gray’s Wireless Museum portion of the building

• Gray’s History of Wireless Museum, which had previously resided in the hallways of Cincinnati’s public television station. One of the largest assemblages of antique radio and telegraphy equipment in the country, the collection is named for Jack Gray, a onetime Marconi Co. shipboard wireless operator and Bethany Station engineer who began displaying artifacts in his garage.

Some of the displays at the Greater Cincinnati and Ohio Museum of Broadcasting wing of the building, such as this children’s-show exhibit, are lighthearted

• and the Greater Cincinnati and Ohio Museum of Broadcasting, put together by Cincinnati broadcaster Mike Martini, whose nonprofit Media Heritage organization has gathered thousands of oral histories, photographs, radio scripts, early radio shows, and the private memorabilia of area broadcast pioneers. Some of this material had literally been rescued from trash bins after a previous broadcast museum was closed and “mothballed.”

A third component, now under construction, is a reincarnated working amateur, or “ham” radio station, WC8VOA, whose operations will be fully visible to visitors. Technicians had run the amateur station on the premises during the Bethany station’s operating lifetime.

A restored control room console

The fourth and key ingredient, of course, is the building itself – with all of its control rooms, giant transmitters, and switching equipment, augmented by recorded stories of VOA employees and those behind the Axis, Iron, and Bamboo curtains who received transmissions from Bethany. From the moment the gates to the property were thrown open after the feds left town, international visitors have shown up unannounced, knocked on the door, and asked when the museum would open. Some then told riveting, even heroic tales of surreptitiously listening to VOA’s words of truth and hope in occupied lands.

The pièce de résistance will be a Grand Concourse and a VOA Gallery. The former will feature an overhead oval screen so that the story of “America’s Voice” can be dramatized using a 360-degree multi-media presentation. Actors will also portray VOA notables and broadcasters. The interactive VOA Gallery will use artifacts, hands-on displays, and a large-scale model of the Bethany Station to focus on the station’s role in World War II and the Cold War.

The museum will also offer a gift shop, a grand tour of the restored VOA transmitter facilities and control room from half a century ago, and, outside, such experiences as walks along paths carefully sited along the azimuths of the Bethany antennas’ signals. Maybe even the restrooms will be part of the tour. “There were two,” Gray’s Museum Secretary-Treasurer Bob Sands notes. “One for employees and one for gentlemen”!

Visitors are sure to find the site’s switching matrix fascinating

Earlier this summer, West Chester Township commissioners agreed with the museum’s board that the VOA Bethany site, properly promoted as a companion tourist attraction to the nearby King’s Island amusement park and a museum complex inside Cincinnati’s ornate downtown train terminal, could draw 30,000 or more visitors annually. They allocated $1.4 million to fix the Bethany building’s crumbling glazed-block exterior, replace every door and window, and install floodlights and ramps for disabled visitors. The move gave the museum board confidence that the search for the estimated $14 million needed to complete a world-class museum will bear fruit.

The degree to which the federal government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), VOA’s parent agency in Washington, will support the VOA Museum in Ohio with funds, artifacts, or special permission to present VOA programming has yet to be determined.

Distant shortwave listeners who record the time, date, frequency, and nature of a program that they hear and send in the information get a confirming, souvenir QSL card, like this one from the Bethany site, in return

“At its core the story here is not about technology,” Bill Zerkle told me, with considerable passion. “It’s not even about radio or the old days. It’s about a strategy for spreading freedom and democracy that is so simple – to just tell the truth.

“What these people here did was to pull together the inventions that evolved from Marconi and create state-of-the-art technology that enabled professional VOA media people to tell the truth about this great country. It’s a story they believed in – still believe in – and one that resonates with the people of this area.”

This is a conception of a gallery to be incorporated into the new VOA Museum. It will focus on the site’s role in World War II and the run-up to the Cold War and include a model of the Bethany Relay Station site


(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!)

Bucolic. Rustic, pastoral, countrified.

Soap opera. A serialized radio, and later television, romantic drama, aimed at a female audience and frequently sponsored by the makers of soap powders.

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Noble Barns

Posted July 24th, 2009 at 3:58 pm (UTC-4)
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Everywhere Carol and I go — well, maybe not everywhere — we look for old barns.

Georgia farmers haul fertilizer to their barn — by horse wagon, you will note — in 1940

“Old barn” is nearly redundant, unfortunately, since just about every barn is old. As “Market to Market,” the online weekly journal of rural America, puts it, “For centuries, the American barn stood as a testament to the value of hard work and a rural way of life. But, like the covered bridge and one-room schoolhouse, the barn is rapidly disappearing from the landscape.”

This creaky old barn is of no use to anything but mice and clinging vines

Some weathered, abandoned barns, including a number that are strangled by kudzu or other unchecked vines, are collapsing almost before our eyes. “She’s gonna go,” Iowa barn preservationist Rod Scott told a visiting New York Times reporter last year as they gazed at a buckling, 1850-vintage stone barn. The account continues: “Down a gravelly road, he sighs at a small barn decorated with a mural, standing but stooping slightly now. A bit farther, holes in the walls of another offer a flash of some forgotten life — a rusted rocking chair, a beer can, an old bed frame. And on one rise sits a ruin, the oak beams of a barn fully collapsed, hay bales still at the ready, crushed beneath.”

These are common scenes down country roads across America.

This Pennsylvania Amish Country corn crib is practically bursting with cobs

Next to a barn photo on his Web site, Iowan Lavonne House wrote, “I wonder how many ears have been stored in the corn crib over the years or how many calves were born in the barn or maybe some girl’s and boy’s first kiss as they looked at the stars through the cracks in the roof?”

And how many square dances filled the barnyard with music there? There’s a reason why the classic country-music show called the “Grand Ole Opry” is staged in a Nashville, Tennessee, auditorium that is decorated like a barn.

If a skyscraper is a symbol of the city, a barn is a telltale sign that you’re in the country

In a bygone era when the nation lived closer to the land, the first thing a farmer built after he bought a new spread was not a farmhouse but a barn, using wood sawed from timber felled right on the farm, or, especially in rocky New England, stones unearthed nearby. Heavy stones, too, and thick-cut timber fitted into a “post and beam” skeleton, so the structure would withstand storms and the weight of animals as big as Clydesdale draft horses, and their feed. That feed could be dropped directly into the animals’ stalls from above through trap doors.

The farmer and his neighbors would gather on a piece of high ground to raise a sturdy, all-in-one structure to shelter his livestock, store his grain, and protect his wagon. Alongside many a barn, too, rose simple corn cribs or much taller silos. The latter stored silage — fermented green fodder such as chopped hay, alfalfa, clover, or shredded corn — that compacted tightly, keeping out air and pests and preventing spoilage. Silage seems rank to humans, but cud-chewing animals like cattle and sheep find it tasty.

Another Amish Country scene. Here in central Pennsylvania, and in Wisconsin in the Midwest, too, most farms are tidy and prosperous

Big barns also often included a blacksmith’s shop; a tack room where saddles and bridles and such were kept and repaired; an attached milkhouse where milk was stored for delivery; and sometimes a space equipped with an iron “squeeze chute” that could catch and hold a large animal for examination or veterinary treatment.

The barn may belong to this girl and her family, but we can see who has the run of the place

Barns must seem cozy and luxurious to the animals that are sheltered there, compared to conditions outside. But they’re hardly equipped with all the comforts of a human’s home. If you’ve ever been asked whether you were “raised in a barn,” you have a sense how drafty even the snuggest barn can be. And odors from animal waste, awaiting a good washdown or mucking, while presumably quite tolerable to the animals and a reality of farm life to their owners, are hardly sylvan scents to the unaccustomed. There’s a reason why even rural folk prefer the upwind side of a pig farm, in particular.

I should pause here to make it clear that, as a child of suburbia, I have visited and very much appreciate the strength and symbolism of barns and the men and women who built and maintain them. But most of what I know about these iconic structures came from my mother and uncle, raised in “the country” in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains, from childhood stories like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, from numerous farm visits — ever watching where I stepped — and from a number of neat Web sites.

Neighbors arrive for an auction at, or perhaps of, a Vermont farm in 1940

But I must still channel a bit of their poor Scalp Level, Pennsylvania, farm — or my ancestors’ native Wales — since every time I’m in the country, I find myself plucking a grain stem, sticking it between my teeth, and ambling down the road, kicking rocks.

Where were we?

Ah, yes. As the number of family farms dwindles before the onslaught of consolidation and suburban sprawl, many barns that survive have become nostalgic landmarks, even to those who have never set foot in one.

This is a bank barn in Illinois. You can see that the farmer built a long, earthen ramp up to the second level to facilitate the unloading of grain

Early barns, built with great sweat and affection, reflected the heritage of their builders. Norwegians and Swedes built “bank barns” with a lower entrance and, on the opposite side, a long, earthen ramp that enabled wagons loaded with feed to drive directly into the upper level. Below you could thresh grain or keep livestock — plus a family of mousers — cats that keep the rodents in check. Scots-Irish farmers erected crib barns with pig or cattle stalls and covered them with tin or asphalt roofs. Western farmers with large cattle herds topped their barns with high “hip” or gambrel roofs — bent a bit like a horse’s hind leg — that greatly increased the capacity of the haymows and often included an overhang equipped with a pulley to hoist hay bales into the loft.

Talk about fancy! This what Shelburne Farms, hard by Lake Champlain in Vermont, calls the “farm barn,” meaning it was the headquarters of a huge model farm and cheese-making operation, rather than a working dairy barn

Czechs and Russians had an affinity for house-barn combinations. Cedar shingles and bay windows — for ventilation — were common New England adornments.

You can see the long forebay on this barn along the old Lincoln Highway, or U.S. Route 30, in Pennsylvania, where the owner is obviously a historian and artist, or art lover

Germans and Swiss, whom many early Americans mistakenly called “Pennsylvania Dutch” because they spoke Deutsch, built many a “Pennsylvania barn” or “Dutch barn,” notable for their gable roofs, cantilevered “forebays,” or upper floors that projected past the foundation line. This provided a bit of shade and covered working space outside. Most Dutch barns also included three or four distinctive ventilators in decorative cupolas, which pulled moisture and heat from the buildings.

George Washington, the nation’s first president and a prominent Virginia farmer, discovered the advantages of a round barn or round-appearing structure with 12 or 16 sides. They’re a favorite of mine, and I’ll have more to say about them anon.

Massive and relatively unadorned barns had the simplest of decorations. Chief among them was their color — usually red because reddish ferric oxide was the cheapest pigment and acted as a modest preservative. But in poor regions such as southern Appalachia, where farms were less prosperous, many a barn went unpainted until an

This Mail Pouch barn needs some touch-up. Like many barns in southwest Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia, it is stained black to actually intensify the heat inside, to speed the tobacco-curing process

advertising salesman came along. He would see to it that the barn got painted if the owner would permit him to emblazon it with a grandiose testament to brands of chewing tobacco or patent medicine, or promotions of nearby waterfall or rock-formation attractions. “Red Man,” “Mail Pouch” and “See Rock City” barns are still somewhat plentiful in the mid-South. Such is their nostalgic appeal that people treasure them, photograph them like crazy, and keep some of them freshly painted.

By the way, if you’re tempted to grab a brush, you should know that it can take a single person three summers and 200 liters [53 gallons] of paint to cover a good-sized barn. Check back with me on Twitter in a month or two and let me know how it’s going.

Here’s a creative bit of barn art for sure, in Wisconsin. Note that the Mona Lisa is a big Green Bay Packers football fan

“Hex” signs, weather vanes, and lightning rods were other decorative touches. Barns became the perfect “canvas” for oversized portraits, animal likenesses, and fanciful designs, as you can see in a couple of Carol’s photos. We saw several in Ohio that carry the state outline and a faded plug for Ohio’s 2003 bicentennial.

Of course, barn aficionados like me would argue that barns themselves are works of art.

Of literature, too, though the best-known “barn quote” isn’t very grand: “It’s too late to close the door after the horse is out of the barn,” goes an old proverb, or words to that effect. The late, droll television host Johnny Carson — once a Nebraska farmboy — had a cute one: “I was so naive as a kid that I used to sneak behind the barn and do nothing.” Sam Rayburn, the colorful Texan who ran the U.S. House of Representatives as its speaker for 17 years, once wryly observed, “It takes a good carpenter to build a barn, but any jackass can kick one down.”

Can you find anything not to like about this beautiful scene on a rapeseed farm in Idaho?

I’m not sure why a tense, often fast-paced sporting contest is called a “barn burner,” since the term traces to an old Dutch story about a fellow who found the perfect way to rid his barn of rats. He burned it down.

You would probably write the same caption I would for this photo of Carol’s: “Seen better days”

Thousands of barns have been left to rot as farmers turned to sturdier, climate-controlled metal sheds that could hold large machinery. When small farms are combined, fewer barns are needed. Many farmers also lacked the capital or insurance to rebuild barns that burned, sagged, or blew down. Others had no reason to, knowing that their children, gone to the city for good, would want no part of long hours and backbreaking farm work. So they left the old barn to termites and windstorms, vandals and the kudzu.

Others in “the country,” including city refugees trying out the rural lifestyle, find they have no real use for a barn and raze it to make room for a garden or more rows of corn.

That’s Carol’s Aunt Kate and a neighbor at the North Carolina barn where Carol helped “sucker” tobacco, meaning she would pull auxiliary shoots called “suckers” from the leaves

In North Carolina alone, a study found that the number of tobacco barns, estimated at half a million in the 1950s, is down to 50,000 by “the most generous estimate.” Carol photographs about 8,500 of them each year while visiting Carolina for her family’s summertime reunions.

But an incredible array of historical societies, professional and amateur architects, Internet Web sites, collectors’ groups, and just plain barn lovers have rescued old barns. The National Trust for Historic Preservation not only helped save hundreds of barns through its “Barn Again!” program, it even staged an old-fashioned barn-raising inside the National Building Museum in Washington in 1994. Needless to say, that building has a really large atrium.

As for round barns, there’s an old American saying about people who throw a baseball or a rock or a snowball and miss their targets entirely. They throw so poorly, they “couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.”

Round barns, though, don’t have a broad side.

This is not literally a round barn. It’s a nonagon, a barn with nine sides in Door Prairie, Indiana. But a nine- or 12- or 16-sided barn has pretty much the same effect as a round one

There are at least a thousand of them across America. They have been part of the rural landscape almost as long as European settlers have lived here. George Washington admired them, as I mentioned. He also built one. So did early Massachusetts settlers from an odd religious order called “Shakers.” Others built them throughout the Midwest from the 1880s through the 1920s.

Carpenters discovered that round barns required less stone or wood than rectangular barns, thus saving on costs. Because their roofs are supported by the one circular wall, no columns are needed. So there’s more room for livestock and hay — and dancing! Midwesterners learned, too, that high winds – even tornadoes – that would pulverize an ordinary barn often glance off a round one.

This is the classic: the Arcadia Round Barn on Route 66 outside Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Perhaps the most famous American round barn is a big red one with a green, egg-shaped roof made of cedar shingles. It was built in rural Oklahoma out of burr oak in 1898 by a farmer named Big Bill Oder. In order to bend the boards around the circular frame of the barn, he soaked them for weeks in the closest river.

Over the years the round barn was — and still is — the town’s favorite dance spot and one of the most-photographed buildings along scenic, two-lane Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles. The Arcadia Round Barn may not be one of the world’s Eight Wonders, but it’s among Oklahoma’s top ten for sure.

In the 1970s, the barn was abandoned. Slowly it began to bulge and slump to the east, until a group of citizens bought it and fixed it up. They pounded telephone poles into the ground all around the barn, wrapped heavy guy wires around them and the barn, and pulled until the old red barn was upright again. That caused the roof to collapse, but they made a new one.

This old Tennessee barn hasn’t exactly been restored. But was put to another use, as a rural garage and repair shop

Thousands of other barns have been restored as well — some for continued agricultural use, thanks to a 20-percent federal tax credit, but many more for other purposes. We’ve run across historic museums, antique shops, real estate offices, firehouses, and bed-and-breakfast inns set up in barns across the country. Quite a few people now live in old barns, too. A few are even born there. (“Hey. Shut the door. Were you born in a barn or something?” “Why yes, I was.”) Most recently in Ohio Amish country, we explored several refurbished barns that a dealer in Amish and other Pennsylvania Dutch goods had moved to the site and connected.

All these “adaptive re-uses” preserve barns as photogenic relics, but, as I once wrote in a VOA “Only in America” essay, “Almost always, something is missing from this happy picture: a cornfield or a pasture – or a pig, or a cow!”

It beats the alternative of a forlorn, collapsed shell or no barn at all, however.

There’s little in life that’s more peaceful and refreshing than springtime in the country

Barns that survive on the farm or live in our memories are cherished harvest homes. We stop to admire a beautifully preserved one, to pause over a yellowed photograph, to wonder at the hard but honorable work that went on inside what is now a sagging ruin, and to sigh at the erosion of an American tradition that the passing of barn after barn represents.

A barn owl: the farmer’s friend

If small farmers keep leaving the land, and bulldozers and wrecking balls keep clearing the countryside for cookie-cutter houses and streetlights and cars, you’ll one day need those old photos, or maybe an old farmer if you can find one, to show your kids what a barn was.

Uncle Walter

As you know from encountering my “Wild Words” each week, I like and use a lot of unusual English words. In America, one of them needs no definition beyond the mention of a person’s name.

The word is avuncular.

And the name is Walter Cronkite.

Most of the obituaries of this lion of television anchormen, who died July 17 at age 92, reach for that word in describing him. It has to do with the twinkly qualities of a kindly uncle. Note the “unc” in both words. Genial, unthreatening Uncle Walter — he on the screen and we at home were on a first-name basis, it seemed — invited us onto his knee for story time.

Not happy stories, often, but important ones that we needed to hear.

Today’s media environment glorifies action, sizzle, and showmanship. As Tom Knott points out in the Washington Times, the hottest medium, the Web, has as “its principal objective [to] push out gobs of content, create traffic, and inspire comments.” There and on TV, there’s no one who, by consensus, we all turn to, count on, and trust. You like her. I like him. Sets down the street are tuned to a hundred others whom those people prefer.

A young Uncle Walter

Most of America watched Walter Cronkite, and everybody trusted him.

Uncle Walter had no sizzle at all. For 21 years, until his retirement in 1981, he sat stiffly on camera — as you or I would — as if the limelight discomfited him. But we grew comfortable with him. There were few yuks on Managing Editor Cronkite’s CBS Evening News. A touch of bemusement, a twitch of his little moustache, or an arch of his raging eyebrows was as far as he’d go.

It’s hardly original thinking, but it bears repeating: When Walter Cronkite signed off “That’s the way it is,” that’s the way America was, all right, that night.

I doubt we’ll be using “avuncular” much any more.


(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!)

Gambrel. This is a French word, roughly meaning “meat hook” and is often applied to the style of roofs, especially on barns. It reflects the abrupt change in pitch of the roof.

Haymow. A loft where hay or other grain is piled, ready to feed animals below. “Mow” as used here, by the way, rhymes with “plow,” not “toe.”

Hex signs. In the United States, hex signs are Pennsylvania Dutch folk art meant, despite their name, to bring farmers good luck, not cast a spell on their neighbors. They are intended, however, to ward off evil and others’ hexes and to “protect” the site from bad luck, which is one way of bringing good fortune.

Kudzu. An aggressive vine that can completely cover abandoned structures and strangle trees and other plants. Kudzu was introduced from Japan as a decorative plant at the 1876 U.S. centennial fair in Philadelphia. Little did people know that the invasive species would become a nightmare as it ran rampant, especially in the hot, humid South.

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The New Prometheus

Posted July 17th, 2009 at 4:31 pm (UTC-4)
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Journalists are taught to “peg” our stories to something. We mustn’t just wade into a topic for no reason but should reference a breaking-news development to explain why in the world we’re writing a particular story.

It would be perfectly OK to compose a “sidebar” about, say, marshmallows if a marshmallow factory has just exploded. “Marshmallows Through the Ages”: a soft story for sure. But absent a catastrophe, who in the world would be curious enough about marshmallows to read a story about them? We’d need a peg, a hook, a grabby “lead” to draw people in.

Or a coupon for free samples.

Since I haven’t found that newsy peg to introduce today’s topic, you may already be gone.

But look what you’re missing: some thoughts about lighthouses.

Cape Hatteras
The Cape Hatteras Light, perhaps the nation’s best-known lighthouse, was moved more than 30 meters away from the shore on that barrier island

So far as I know, no lighthouse of any stature has recently collapsed, washed away, been moved from the encroaching sea as the magnificent Cape Hatteras Light in North Carolina was in 1999, been visited by President Obama, or has anything to do with marshmallows.

I just love lighthouses so. Lots of people do.

Lightkeeper Frank Schubert polished the lens once a week in the Seagate light station in New York Harbor

It has been said that lighthouses, probing the eternal, mysterious sea, are to America what castles are to Europe. Satellite and navigational aids have rendered lighthouses obsolete to big shippers and sophisticated recreational mariners. But to owners of small boats, a lighthouse is still a valuable visible aid, a welcome sight in a storm, and a guide past treacherous rocks, reefs, and shoals, just as it was when hardy keepers maintained the lights.

Split Rock Lighthouse
Here are the light tower and fog-signal building at Split Rock Lighthouse in Minnesota

Even if most went dark years ago, and if souvenir-hunters, seagulls and the elements have had their way, lighthouses and their foghorns, many of which continue to call out into the gloaming, still take hold of our hearts. Growing up near the southern shore of treacherous Lake Erie but too far away to see a beacon, I could hear a foghorn’s rhythmic bellow every time skies turned soupy, which was often. I imagined giant ore boats plowing through the windswept chop toward port, saved from destruction by those low, mournful horns.

Romance attends lighthouses, the sentinels of the sea. “For my husband and myself, Lighthouses are symbols of Faith, Hope, and Love,” writes Debbie Dolphin on her “Lighthouse Songs” Web site. I don’t know if that’s her real name, but it’s a fitting one.

Kilauea Lighthouse
Looking at Kilauea Lighthouse from a distance, you can see why a light station was needed at that dangerous turn of Hawaii’s Kauai Island shoreline in the Pacific

“I can envision being the lonely wife of a seaman who stands on the widow walk overlooking the sea for my husband’s return,” she writes. “The Lighthouse in the distance reassures me of its faithful Light providing hope of his safe return into my loving arms.”

In “The Lighthouse,” poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in 1850:

A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
still grasping in his hand the fire of love,
it does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
but hails the mariner with words of love.

The god Prometheus was one of the Greek titans, and a naughty one. He stole fire from Zeus and shared it with humans. In ancient Greece and elsewhere, humans lit beacon fires on the shoreline to guide navigators. “GLEAM — a gleam — from Ida’s height /By the Fire-god sent, it came,” the playwright Aeschylus wrote in Agamemnon, more than 2,000 years ago.

In 1959, the Lightship Nantucket was wrenched from her moorings off Portland, Maine, and drifted 120 kilometers out to sea! She’s now owned by the National Lighthouse museum but lies rusting in a berth in Oyster Bay, Long Island, in New York

And Roman galleys sometimes carried baskets into which fires were built as signal lights. They were the first “lightships” or lightvessels, crude forerunners of a fleet that the U.S. Coast Guard moored in waters too deep for a traditional lighthouse.

Civilization’s first known lighthouse was a doozy. Instantly the world’s tallest building at what is thought to have been 40 modern stories high!

This sketch of the great Pharos light was drawn by German archaeologist Hermann Thiersch in 1909

It was built of stone about 280 B.C. on the island of Pharos off Alexandria in Greek-ruled Egypt. “Pharos” became the root word of “lighthouse” in several languages. Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it used mirrors to reflect firelight at night and rays of the sun in the daytime, far into the Mediterranean Sea.

Earthquakes toppled the great tower in the 14th century A.D.

Boston Light
This is an early color postcard view of the Boston Light, which is our last officially staffed lighthouse. Others are occupied, but as museums or bed-and-breakfast inns

Wood fires illuminated other early lighthouses as well. Arrays of candles arranged in tiers, and coal in brazier pans, were also tried. Then came whale- and fish-oil lamps, which produced a terrible stench. Even worse was colza oil from rapeseed, which, Scott Stanton once told me, “smelled like cooking cabbage.” Stanton was a Coast Guard boatswain’s mate who was one of the keepers at the Guard’s last staffed station at Boston Light in that city’s harbor.

This was also America’s first lighthouse, erected by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1716.

West Quoddy Lighthouse
Talk about distinctive markings. Mariners would not have trouble identifying West Quoddy Lighthouse on the Atlantic Ocean off Lubec, Maine

There is good reason for the old lighthouse saying that “there is no such thing as a fat keeper.” These men — and women who often inherited the job when their husbands drowned, died, ran away, or went mad — had to haul oil up the tower’s twisting stairs in huge cans. Twice a night, sometimes in raging storms, deep fog, and icy mists, they trudged up to reset the optical mechanism. There were wicks to be trimmed and lit — hence lighthouse keepers’ “wickies” nickname — reflectors to be polished, soot to be cleaned from lenses, and the fog signal to be maintained. Because of the importance of lighthouses in daytime as well as at night, they also had to be kept freshly painted in a variety of distinctive patterns.

And when mariners foundered nearby, the lightkeeper felt duty-bound to rescue them. Dozens died trying.

You can see why a powerful light generated inside a Fresnel lens would scatter far and in many directions, especially if the lens rotated. Looks like an alien’s head, doesn’t it?

French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel revolutionized the lighthouse in 1822 with a system that took advantage of the refractive properties of glass. The Fresnel lens bent a single light source inside a beehive of glass prisms into powerful sheets visible up to 35 kilometers — 22 miles — away. The old U.S. Lighthouse Service, which staffed the nation’s light stations for 29 years beginning in 1910, designed a different signaling pattern for each and every light. Observing the idiosyncratic flashes and unique markings of each lighthouse, sailors had a pretty good idea where they were, and which rocks and sandbars to avoid.

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt, concerned about wartime readiness, placed light stations under Coast Guard control. It spelled an end to the Lighthouse Service and to the staffing of most towers.

The New Canal Lighthouse, built in 1890 on a canal leading from Lake Pontchartrain to the city of New Orleans, was nearly demolished by the deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It is being rebuilt

Even the sturdiest of lighthouses could not survive all of the ravages of nature and man. Some have succumbed to relentless erosion. Ice floes took out others. Earthquakes, too, as in Egypt. Before park services and historical societies came to the rescue, the Coast Guard rapidly decommissioned lighthouses, leaving them to whatever fate might befall them. As I’ve mentioned, it was open season for pranksters, pyromaniacs, and vandals.

During the heyday of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, when 1,462 light stations ringed

North Shore

America’s shorelines — including the “North Shore” along Fthe five Great Lakes in the Midwest — Fresnel lenses were brought to a depot on Staten Island, New York, where they were assembled for shipment to light stations around the country.

The depot buildings envisioned for a new national lighthouse museum are beautiful but fragile, and the site is coveted by developers. Parts for lighthouses across the nation were once stored here

Abandoned in the 1960s, the depot complex sat idle until 1999, when the site, with a spectacular view of Manhattan, was selected over several other bidders as the home of a new national lighthouse museum. Sadly, despite millions of dollars in state and city funding used to stabilize the old storehouses and lamp shop building on the Staten Island site, the museum has never opened. Developers, too, you see, have an eye on this prime property.

(Hey, the National Lighthouse Museum’s precarious fate could be my “peg”! Rewrite!!)

Alluring Point
Alluring Point Vicente Light guides mariners past dangerous channel islands past busy San Pedro Harbor near Los Angeles. Check out more of Carol’s lighthouse photos in a special gallery in the right column

Each lighthouse is its own treasured historic curiosity. The towers’ austere beauty, keepers’ lonely stories, and fanciful tales of lighthouse hauntings have inspired books and poems, paintings, collectible ceramic miniatures — Richard Moe, the head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, for instance, collects them — lighthouse license plates, and postage stamps. Some people who love lighthouses even more than I do have purchased them and turned them into remarkable bed-and-breakfast inns. Other light stations remain endangered despite the good efforts of reverent local lighthouse societies, but our affection for these beacons in the night shines brightly.

The brilliant kernel of the night,
The flaming lightroom circles me:
I sit within a blaze of light
Held high above the dusky sea.
—Robert Louis Stevenson



Had this been 1974 instead of 2009, my editor, “Hawkeye Rob” Sivak, could have been, well, just an editor, vigilantly sprucing up my copy and others’.

This is not our Inventory Control Officer, but it looks suspiciously like the kind of work he has in mind. Please tell us he’s not going to be recording the barcodes on stashes of BEER!

He’s been dragooned into the ignominious additional role of English Features Branch Inventory Control Officer. As such, he’s been making the rounds, mostly electronically, imploring us to dig through our suitcases, equipment bags, and file-cabinet drawers to lay hands on each and every VOA-owned digital recorder and camera, laptop computer, TV clam and the like. Since I’ve been spared the rigors of television work, no doubt because of the lumpy cut of my jowls, I can tell you only that a “clam” is an ominous-looking device that opens and shuts like the bivalve, gobbling and expelling little cassettes on command.

The search is not so much for the equipment itself, but for the number on a sticker that someone had affixed to it when it was issued. For Inventory Control, remember.

On each sticker is a parade of 30 black and 29 white, thick and thin, machine-readable lines, all in a row.

A “barcode.”

This all means something, if you’re an electric scanner

It’s a . . . what would you call it? An arrangement of lines that looks like bad wallpaper? A tiny version of an old television test pattern? An optical Morse code? Whatever it is, it was introduced in 1974 and is usually written as one word, “barcode,” to distinguish it from bar codes having to do with proper dress and the legal drinking age.

The barcode’s groupings of lines — thick, thin, white, black — together form a computereze number, plus the number in the usual numeric form just below it. Electronic scanners can read the lines, and humans with really good eyesight can read the numerals.

If you’re keeping up with this, you’re a geek.

Here’s more, not that you’ve asked for it, but something to bring smiles to the faces of M.I.T. engineering students and Inventory Control Officers: Some of the digits, diabolically, are read right-to-left and others left-to-right. Not only that, but some of the stripes align black-white-black, and others white-black-white.

Or something like that. It’s a Control thing.

The whole 12-digit number is called a Universal Product Code or UPC number. It’s what Hawkeye Rob is looking for, high and low, throughout the corridor.

Thirty-five years ago, Rob the Much Younger Inventory Control Officer would have had to write or type a list of our broadcasting gadgets, describing them, stating who possessed them, and assigning each a “control number.” There must be control, I remind you, in the Inventory Control business. Now he just needs the UPC Code. It knows all about each device and an awful lot about the person who possesses it.

Barcodes first appeared on grocery products, and their applications have come a ways there since. Here, you can weigh your peppers, and a scanner will spit out a barcode and a price, ready for self-checkout

In a short but glorious history of the barcode, New York Times writer Gerry C. Shih noted that barcodes are scanned 10 billion, with a “b,” times a day around the world. They’ve come a long way since the first one was slapped on a pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gum on June 26, 1974. Indeed, barcodes’ first application was as inventory control — that term again — of products sold in grocery stores.

Today’s UPC Codes tell all, or at least a lot. Shih points out that “they are used to board airplanes and track packages. Bar codes help people with diabetes calibrate glucose meters and researchers study the pollination habits of bees. They inspired a hand-held video game, Barcode Battler, in 1991.”

Barcodes brawling. That would have been something to see!

The barcode was developed at I.B.M., which for some reason never patented the idea. So now they’re everywhere.

Barcodes run amok! I see the initials “UK.” What are those wily Brits up to now?

But they’re not free. Manufacturers pay a small amount to a company called the Uniform Code Council, which controls — that word again — the assignment of numbers. This makes sense. Can you imagine what would happen to scanners and Inventory Control Officers if you and I and Aunt Tilly could arbitrarily dream up and assign whatever barcode we felt like on our own?

No, every code and every UPC number is controlled — yes indeed, controlled — and unique. That should make that pack of radishes at the supermarket really proud.

When barcode scanners do their thing, they’re actually performing a calculation. (Most of you who have hung in this long will be leaving us now.) According to Marshall Brain — and what a perfect name for this — on the “How Stuff Works” Web site, the scanner adds the value of all the digits in odd positions, multiplies that number by 3, adds the value of the digits in even positions, adds that sum to the values in step 2, then somehow creates a “check digit” that tells it whether it did all that correctly.

Got it?

What have we here? Two barcodes: one on the painting and one on the girl?

Not surprisingly, when barcodes were first introduced, freaked-out customers and civil libertarians suspected a government plot to track our every move, or at least our every purchase. Now that we’ve made our peace with barcodes, cost-conscious store owners have put us all to work, scanning our own tomatoes and canned soup at many checkout lines.

Barcodes are used for much more than Inventory Control, however. You betcha! Stores don’t just want to know how many boxes of spaghetti remain on a shelf, and scan in new shipments as they arrive. They also want to know what brand of spaghetti each customer prefers, and what other ingredients we buy on the same shopping trip. So don’t be surprised if, at the end of check-out, the scanning device prints out discount coupons for precisely the products you’ve just purchased, and for similar products that competitors make as well.

The store might even send you a note at home that begins, “We know you love Mama Randonzo’s Spaghetti, so we thought you’d like to know that Mama Randonzo has come out with three new flavors.” All because the barcode scanner ratted on you to the store manager.

No wonder we’re all fearful that the Inventory Control Officer’s maraudings are but the first step down a slippery slope. Next he’ll be barcoding our stories, substituting the white and black lines for bylines so that viewers, listeners, and readers can instantly scan our life stories, our previous writings, and our product preferences at the grocery store.

Yes, at future cocktail parties, we may not be wearing “name tags” like “Hello, I’m Ted,” but rather “barcode tags” that tell a lot more about us than our first names

Then Hawkeye, having moved to Inventory Control fulltime, will stop by unannounced to barcode our coats and hats, eyeglasses and coffee mugs. Since he will then have little else to do, I will ask him to barcode our lunch boxes and bags and soft drink cans, while he’s at it, with a code that matches our ID badge. Then some sort of secret alarm could be rigged to sound the next time someone absconds with my macaroni and cheese from the lunchroom refrigerator.

Finally, in a blaze of glory before he retires, Hawkeye Rob can tattoo all of us with barcodes, discretely on the hand or nape of the neck. It would be the ultimate tool for tracking VOA assets, assuming we’re still regarded as such. The Federal Government conducts an annual “Human Capital Survey” for which burned-in barcodes could come in handy.

Back in 1974, a fellow named George Laurer, who’s now 84, led the team that developed the first barcode. See what you wrought, George?


(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!)

Abscond. To run away quickly, usually with someone or something. Escaping prisoners are absconding, but they are really absconding if they take, say, the jailer’s keys with them.

Doozy. A doozy is something that is really difficult, or something that’s extraordinary or extreme.

Dragoon. To obligate or bully one to do something, perhaps by force. Dragoons were French soldiers who sometimes compelled peasants to leave the farm and join the military.

Pyromaniac. One who compulsively starts fires; a firebug. The word derives from the word “pyre,” which refers to a roaring fire.

Rat on. To turn you in or inform on you. Sometimes communities try to encourage citizens to tell authorities about lawbreakers, but those who do can be regarded as “dirty rats,” or worse, on the street.

Refractive. Reflection bounces back light. Refraction bends it or changes its direction by passing it through a medium like glass.

Widow Walk (or Widow’s Walk). An observation platform above the roof of a house near the sea. It’s called “widow’s walk” because many a seafarer’s wife has paced on this platform, watching in vain for her sailor to return from a voyage.

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Cause Celebrity

Posted July 10th, 2009 at 1:28 pm (UTC-4)
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What’s the difference between a prehistoric dinosaur and a journalist dinosaur?

A prehistoric dinosaur didn’t know it was a dinosaur.

New York Times
The “bullpen” at the New York Times in September 1942, my birth month. For the benefit of our young readers, the instrument in the foreground is a “rotary” telephone, and those things spread across the desks are printed newspapers

The old notion of a resourceful “ink-stained wretch” digging for facts out of the public eye, plucking the truth from complex human events, and writing about it all has been pushed aside on the fast track of media celebrity. Journalism’s tent of writers, reporters, and editors from various media had to be greatly expanded to hold today’s “pundits,” politically biased bloggers, glib Tweeters, “TV titans,” and “news moguls” who not only pushed their way in but immediately took over the center ring.

The last two — the titans and the moguls — are two of the categories featured on a new Web site, Mediaite.com, created by NBC television legal analyst Dan Abrams. That’s media-ite, not mediate or meditate. Abrams and his crew are not divorce lawyers or zenmasters. They’re practitioners of the modern art of sizzle.

Abrams told the Washington Post, “Part of what we’re doing is appreciating the celebrity of the media.” The site “plays into the vanity of these individuals,” added Mediaite.com Managing Editor Colby Hall. He is a former producer of the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” which does satirical, make-believe newscasts and pretend reports from the field on cable’s Comedy Central channel.

Not exactly the gruff, fuddy-duddy “just the facts” days before “news personalities” started elbowing each other for “face time” so they could be the story.

Hottest News Anchors
These are Maxim magazine’s “10 hottest news anchors.” The woman in the middle of the top row looks like she has anger issues

Mediaite.com’s initial posting included a lengthy “Power Grid” — what the site calls an “influence index,” or rating, of 1,477 “important players” (not journalists, “players”) in radio, television, newspapers, magazines, and the online world. Television anchors and hosts, for instance, were rated on such scales as number of total viewers, “Google buzz,” and “blog buzz.” Print and online reporters were ranked by the same two forms of “buzz,” plus their publications’ circulation.

I fully understand why I didn’t make the list. The only thing at which I’m a “player,” and then only occasionally, is poker. The site advises those with wounded egos who might be asking, “Why am I not on here” that “you may not be a well known person in the media.”

We don’t “move that needle,” generate “buzz,” or “push product.”

My colleagues and I who toil in pitiful anonymity don’t mind ceding the spotlight to performers, including clowns, so long as there’s still a ring for news and information.

You remember “news and information,” that musty term from the cultural crypt.

Burning newspapers
Another burning question: Do we even need newspapers any more?

When I was in journalism school — most are “communications departments” now — students and professors argued incessantly over which was our calling: Bringing readers, listeners, and viewers what they need to know? Or giving them what they want?

That race has been run, and the results are in — on the Power Grid at Mediaite.com.


Read This, By Cracky!

Please forgive me. In the previous section, I used a lot of “retrotalk,” as Ralph Keyes calls it. The bestselling author, playwright (“Is There Life After High School?”), and writing critic says such practices “risk alienating those who are too young to get the allusions.”

The dears must not be confused or irritated by unfamiliar references that go back more than, say, two weeks.

Perhaps every publisher’s copy editors should have one of these stamps to imprint words that young readers might not instantly understand. The author would be instructed to find a current equivalent

Opining in Editor & Publisher, the trade journal of the newspaper business, Keyes reminded editors that retrotalk employs “terminology rooted in our past that may not be familiar to younger readers. Or immigrants. Or anyone at all, for that matter.”

We shouldn’t, whatever we do, use common catch phrases — “98-pound weakling,” “bigger than a breadbox,” “green eyeshades,” “tough row to hoe” — Keyes warns. The young’uns might have to look them up. Oh, the hardship!

“The implicit message [that mainstream media give] to younger readers seems to be: ‘Hey, if you don’t know what we’re talking about, maybe you should butt out,’” Keyes writes.

If older journalists just can’t break themselves of arcane references from long ago (approximately May 12 and before), Ralph Keyes suggested that we add a little glossary that explains them, similar to my Wild Words but right in the text so tender young readers won’t have to strain to keep up.

Columnist Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post thinks that’s a swell idea.

Sorry, “swell” is one of those moldy oldies. It means bangin’, like da’ bomb, ya know what I mean?

Weingarten took Keyes’s admonitions to heart and wrote one of his “Below the Beltway” columns using footnotes and glossary annotations, just as Keyes suggested. Here’s an excerpt:

Phone booth
Show and tell to go with Gene Weingarten’s example. This is a pay phone, also known as a “phone booth.” Coins, not credit cards or passwords, are required to operate it

“[Keyes] cites the rampant use of anachronistic expressions such as ‘drop a dime.’4
4To put a dime in a pay phone.5
5A public telephone6 requiring coins to use.”
6A phone that was available in a public place.”

Yes, siree, Bob! Footnotes within footnotes for the clueless!

Maybe we should ask those under 30 to register their email addresses. We can then boil down our stories to 140 or fewer characters and send them Tweets instead.

Here’s one: The House today passed and sent to the Senate a measure that its leaders say addresses the health-care crisis by, uh, catch you next time!

Or maybe Ralph Keyes got it right. We’re using grown-up terms here, some of which date to, like, centuries ago. If that’s too much trouble, butt out.

WARNING. The last line of this segment, to follow shortly, is for older readers and is unannotated. Information about it is not available on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flock, Muck Rack, Delicious, Friend Feed, or your iPhone, unless you call a senior citizen.



Fool’s Gold?

To add a dash of balance to all the gloom about journalism, I should report that I just attended a seminar on “social media” such as Twitter, presented by Amy Webb, a former Newsweek and Wall Street Journal reporter who founded a firm that specializes in “adapting technology for journalism.” It was she who laid out all those Web sites — Flock, Muck Rack, Delicious, et al — that I referenced a moment ago.

I had never heard of, let alone used, most of them.

Let’s say you love pickles. Adore them. You could form your own social network and connect with other pickle lovers. The cucumber crowd, too

Webb asserted that, contrary to my concerns and others’, we are living in “the golden age of journalism.” That’s because, she says, journalists can not only connect with individual online “followers” and “friends” through the social sites, but also “supercharge what you know” by forming interest groups and social networks around a beat or specialty, quickly research topics in far more depth than an ordinary search engine can plumb, and even create our own, personal and private “daily newspapers,” to be delivered to us online or printed off our computers as many times a day as we want them.

This photo is entitled “Mr. Bacon versus Monsier Tofu.” Mr. Bacon would be on my list of online “friends.” Mr. Tofu would not. I might even “follow” Mr. Bacon

If I like geography, American colloquialisms and quirky roadside attractions, beer, ice hockey, Carol, my kids and grandkids, and puns — which I do — I could create a newspaper that keeps me current on them and only them, two or three times a day. If I don’t like fashion news, celebrity gossip, advertisements, pro basketball, tofu, TV hosts who talk over and interrupt their guests, and rap music — and I don’t — not a word about any of them will appear in my “paper.”

Yours might be chock full of stories about kites, Fidel Castro, the Bolshevik Revolution — though a hint: not much new is happening there — fly fishing, your mom and dad and Uncle Rudy, and recipes for pizza.

It’s like an information cafeteria, serving knowledge ala carte. No tray needed. Someone will bring the news right to our “table.” And if we choose the “print-out edition,” we can still wrap fish and line the parakeet’s cage with it.

Frazzled guy
Already frazzled? Too much to do and not enough time? Wait till I show you all the new online social sites you can connect to

To get back to food metaphors, I am still trying to digest all that Amy Webb told us about social media. Do you have to be sociable to use them? I figure that to find sufficient time to set up, read, react, and respond to all the wonders that lie before me in this Golden Age of Journalism, two things are going to have to give:

Reporting and writing. My job, in other words.
And every other part of my life.


Parting is Semi-Sweet

The other day, people throughout the VOA headquarters building gathered to say good-bye and good fortune to Ethel Shaw Hagans, a cheerful and indefatigable member of the Facilities staff who had kept our offices and cubicles neater than a pin for more than 20 years. Without her, the building would most certainly have been condemned, and we’d be broadcasting from fumigated Quonset huts.

Miss Ethel

A good time was had by all at the fete, especially when Ethel’s good friend Petrella Robinson, who once worked in our Computer Services office and has gone on to loftier things as mayor of a nearby town in Maryland, delivered a farewell that had the room chortling, in between uncomfortable nods of recognition at what she was describing.

She warned Ethel — and the rest of us — to beware of an old but recently named disease called A. A. A. D. D.

A. A. A. D. D., she explained, is Age-Activated Attention Deficit Disorder, a debilitating syndrome brought on by retirement.

Old folks crossing
Epidemiologists can strike A. A. A. D. D. gold in this neighborhood

Petrella Robinson found some of its symptoms on the Internet — neither of us could locate a particular author to credit — and she embellished them with additional warning signs that Ethel should look for.

Here’s how Petrella described the insidious ways in which the dreaded Age-Activated Attention Deficit Disorder sneaks up on the unsuspecting retiree:

About mid-morning, you decide to make something of the day. Glancing out the window, you see that the garden needs watering. So you walk out the side door.

As you turn on the hose in the driveway, you look over at your car and see that it desperately needs washing.

You start toward the garage and notice that there is mail on the porch table that you had brought in from the mailbox earlier.

You decide to go through the mail before you wash the car.

Here’s a good way to keep track of your car keys

You lay your car keys on the table, pick up the mail, and see that it is all bills and junk. You decide to open the bills and toss their envelopes and the junk mail into the wastebasket under the table, when you notice that the bin is full.

You figure that you’d better take out the trash.

But then you decide that since you’re going to be near the mailbox when you take out the trash, you might as well pay the bills first.

You take your checkbook off the table and see that there is only one check left. Your extra checks are in your desk in the study, so you go inside the house to your desk, where you find half a can of Coke that you had been drinking.

Before you look for your checks, you decide to push the Coke away from the edge of the table so that you don’t knock it over. But the Coke is getting warm, so you decide to put it in the refrigerator.

As you head toward the kitchen, flowers in a vase on the counter catch your eye. They’re limp and need to be watered.

I hope these are your reading glasses. Otherwise, how will you ever find them?

You place the Coke down and discover your reading glasses that you’ve been searching for all morning.

You decide you’d better put them on your desk, where they belong, but first water the flowers.

You set the glasses back down on the counter top, prepare to fill a container with water, and suddenly spot the TV remote. Someone has left it on the kitchen table.

You know that if it stays there, you’ll be looking for it when you go to watch television tonight and won’t remember that it’s on the kitchen table. So you decide to take it into the TV room and put it next to your lounge chair where it belongs, but first water those flowers.

You pour water into the watering can, but quite a bit of it spills onto the floor. So you set the remote back down on the table, get some paper towels, and wipe up the spill.

Then you head out of the kitchen and down the hall, trying to remember why you’re going that way and what you were planning to do.

See what happens when you have a full retiree’s day?

At the end of the day:
The car isn’t washed
The bills aren’t paid
The wastebasket on the porch is overflowing
There is still only one check in your checkbook
There is a warm can of Coke sitting in the kitchen
The flowers have died
You can’t locate the TV remote
You can’t find your glasses
And you don’t remember what you did with the car keys.

Then when you try to figure out why nothing got done today, you’re baffled because you know you were busy all day long, and you’re really tired.

Oh, and you left the hose running.

Note to Petrella: This is not just a retirement disease. It’s my weekend!


(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!)

For sure, Charles Atlas was no 97- (or 98-) pound weakling

98-pound weakling. A scrawny man, especially when compared with a strapping bully who’s standing next to him on the beach. Body builder Charles Atlas had patented “97-pound weakling,” so those who copied the idea simply added a pound!

Bigger than a breadbox. The meaning is clear. The term is thought to have entered popular culture thanks to American television personality Steve Allen,

Steve Allen was a hilarious TV host, willing to try offbeat skits. But he was also a gifted musician and a serious man who led an often-losing fight against indecency on the air

who was a regular panelist on the show, “What’s My Line.” Trying to guess a line of products that the “mystery guest” might work with, he’d ask, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

Fuddy-duddy. I used this word as an adjective, but it’s usually a noun, fuddy duddy, meaning an old person, usually, who’s “stuck in his ways” and appalled by modern life.

Green eyeshades. These are clear visors, first made of celluloid and then other plastics, worn — at least in the movies — by accountants, clerks, telegraphers, and copy editors. The term became an unflattering characterization of obsessively detail-oriented people and professions.

Quonset huts
These Quonset huts, used as warehouses, have seen better days. Many others of them around the world have as well

Quonset hut. A prefabricated structure made of galvanized iron that’s shaped like a huge pipe cut in half lengthwise. Strong but easily lifted by cranes, these huts have served as military housing and office space. The name comes from Quonset Point in the state of Rhode Island, where the first such structures were built in 1942.

Flatiron Building
You can see in this old postcard view of the Flatiron Building, shot around 1910, why a breeze might divide as it hit it and pick up papers and skirts and such

Skidoo. A slang term originating in the early 1900s, meaning “to leave quickly,” as a variation on the even older “skedaddle.” No one can say for sure where “23-skidoo,” in particular, came from. Wisegeek says it might have something to do with New York’s famous Flatiron Building on 23rd Street in Manhattan. Its pie shape supposedly kicked up such a breeze that dignified ladies passing by had to keep a good hold on their skirts. The police gave the “23-skidoo” to men who loitered nearby, waiting for a pretty woman and a good gust.

Tough row to hoe. Often misquoted as a tough road to hoe, the expression, which ties to hard weeding in a cotton or vegetable patch, now means, more broadly, any difficult task.

Yes siree, Bob. Yes, indeed, you’d better believe it! This phrase may have first been uttered by Gabby Hayes, the cranky Western-movie sidekick to singing cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Hayes also let out a few “no siree, Bobs,” even to cowpokes whose names were not “Bob.”

What’s in a (Nick)Name?

Posted July 2nd, 2009 at 1:06 pm (UTC-4)
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The College of William & Mary, America’s second-oldest college (after Harvard), whose graduates include two U.S. presidents and 16 signers of the Declaration of Independence, is one of several academically superior schools of higher education in Virginia. But William & Mary, chartered in 1693 by Britain’s King William III and Queen Mary II, is also the butt of some good-natured jokes, as I’ll explain. Most have to do with athletics.

One longstanding gag involves the lame concept that when an opponent faces this school, even if it defeats William, it still has Mary to deal with.

But the latest ripples of laughter relate to the school’s search for a sports mascot. This requires considerable background before I tell you what’s so all-fire funny, as my mother used to say.

Williamsburg, home of The College of William & Mary, was Virginia’s colonial capital

In 1916, this college in Williamsburg, Virginia, adopted the nickname “Indians” for its basketball team. This made a bit of sense back then, since part of the college’s mandate when it was founded was to educate some of the area’s native peoples, who would then propagate the Christian faith “amongst the Western Indians, to the Glory of Almighty God.”

If “any great [Indian] nation will send 3 or 4 of their children thither” to the college, Virginia’s royal governor proclaimed, they could be trained in British ways, then “sent back to teach the same things to their own people.”

This is George Catlin’s painting of War Chief Osceola, who fought against intruding whites in the Seminole Wars in Florida in the early 1800s

The “Indians” nickname hung around until the 1980s. That’s when the NCAA — the National Collegiate Athletic Association — which governs intercollegiate sports, began pressuring schools to eliminate “hostile and abusive” racist stereotypes of Native Americans in their team nicknames and mascots. Faux tomahawk chops, phony war whoops, painting faces to look like “braves on the warpath,” gyrating “pow-wow” dances, and fiery spears hurled from an “Indian pony” onto a football field — all by whites dressed as “redmen” — were deemed to be far too reminiscent of the days when many Americans openly scoffed that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

In the NCAA’s view, “Warriors,” “Chiefs,” “Redmen,” and “Braves” nicknames weren’t any better. St. Bonaventure College in New York State had even called its teams the “Brown Indians” and “Brown Squaws” until 1979.

And this is the white mascot’s interpretation of Osceola at a Florida State University football game

Fans of schools with various versions of Indian nicknames pointed out that even the United States Army uses Indian names (Comanche, Blackhawk) for its helicopters. Chrysler makes Jeep Cherokees and Dodge Dakotas. The U.S. Government even picked an

Randy’L He-dow Teton, a Shoshone like Sacagawea, was the model for the new U.S. dollar coin, issued in 2000

American Indian, the Shoshone Sacagawea, for its new dollar coin. And if Indian derivatives are offensive, shouldn’t we, logically, change Indian-based city names like “Miami” and “Chicago,” and state names like “Iowa” and “Arkansas”?

Universities protested that their Indian nicknames and mascots evoked strong, positive images of proud native peoples. Right, responded reformers. How do you think other minorities would have reacted to nicknames like the “Mighty Negroes,” “Fightin’ Brownskins,” “Battling Beaneaters,” or “Chinamen”?

This Thanksgiving caricature, created about 1902, carried a caption: “Two marvels. “Look!” “Ay, a strange sight! Redskins having conniption fits and a hog interested in something he can’t eat!”

“American Indians are a race of people,” not animals (Wolves), objects (Rockets), or professions (Cowboys) from which most teams choose a nickname or mascot, John Two-Hawks writes on his “Native Circle” Web site. “The terms ‘reds**n’ [he cannot bring himself to write the word “redskin”] and ‘brave’ are . . . racial slurs. ‘Reds**n’ is a historic word which came into use during the times when Indian men, women and children were hunted like animals and murdered, then scalped. These scalps or ‘redsk**s’ were then turned in for a bounty.”

“Indian children cannot possibly look at a stadium full of thousands of people mocking their ethnicity and making fun of their traditions and feel good about being Indian. . . . They glorify all the stupid old stereotypes and steal the pride our children could have in the beauty of their race. They insult the entire Indian race.”

The University of Illinois’ mascot was one that infuriated Two-Hawks and other American Indians. A young white guy dressed in full Sioux Indian regalia, including a feather headdress and fearsome war paint, he went by the name “Illiniwek.” The nickname of the university’s sports teams is “Fighting Illini,” after the Illini Indian Confederation that once ruled the Upper Mississippi Valley. Illiniwek was supposed to invoke their ferocious spirit.

Chief Illiniwek
“Chief” Illiniwek prances no more at University of Illinois sports events

For years, the university’s administrators declined to retire Chief Illiniwek. After all, they said, a Sioux tribe sold them the mascot costume, so it can’t be that degrading. But last year, the university gave in and “retired” the dancing “chief.” A university spokeswoman told me, tersely, “We have no mascot and no plans to get one.”

Like Illinois, other colleges had taken their athletic team nicknames from tribes that are, or had been, prominent in the area, including Utes in Utah, Choctaws in Mississippi, and Chippewas in Michigan. One university, Southeastern Oklahoma — ironically based in a state that used to be America’s “Indian Territory,” where native peoples were banished to reservations against their will, called its teams the “Savages” for years before modifying it to “Savage Storm.”

“Savages,” of course, fits the old stereotype of Indians as wild and vicious — and more recently, drunken — barbarians.

“Chief Zee” is a Washington Redskin superfan who became famous by menacing a rabid Dallas Cowboy fan in a cowboy getup with his rubber tomahawk

The NCAA had no clout over high-school teams, about 2,500 of which still carry one sort of “Indian” nickname or another. Nor can college administrators influence the professional National Football League, in which the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins refuse to even discuss a name change; or Major League Baseball, in which “Braves” and “Indians” still whoop it up — literally, if you listen to their fans.

The NCAA also concluded that it could not force individual colleges to drop their Indian-related nicknames, but it hounded and embarrassed many into doing so. At a time when many universities were struggling with accusations of racism over admission policies or sexism in the allocation of athletic resources (see last week’s Ted Landphair’s America called “IX at 37” in the archive to the right), some schools capitulated and changed their nicknames.

Chief Wahoo
Unlike pro teams like the Cleveland Indians with their longtime “Chief Wahoo” symbol, some colleges agreed to dump their Indian logos

Many that were “Indians” or “Redmen” kept the “red” part: Red Wolves, Redhawks, Red Storm. Marquette University’s Warriors became Golden Eagles, and Stanford University’s Indians morphed into the Cardinal. Yup, just one Cardinal (it has to do with the reddish color, not the bird). The University of Louisiana-Monroe not only changed its team nickname from Indians to Warhawks, it also stopped referring to its campus as “the Reservation.”

Bradley University in Illinois dumped its Indian mascot, replacing him with a bobcat, but held tight to its “Braves” nickname. Indiana University in Pennsylvania clung to its “Indians” team names, too, but adopted an inoffensive brown bear as a new mascot.

Still, the NCAA kept tightening the screws. In 2005 it banned most schools with Indian-style nicknames from hosting tournament playoff games, which the national governing body controls. Colleges that had already scheduled tournament games would have to remove Indian imagery and mascots from the events.

Finally the NCAA had found a sanction with teeth, since colleges make a lot of money hosting these playoff games.

One of the colleges that has adamantly fought to keep its Indian nickname and logo is the University of North Dakota, which treasures its “Fighting Sioux” identification. The university’s excellent ice-hockey team had been one of the programs barred from hosting postseason play. “It is not at all obvious to us why the NCAA finds the nicknames Chippewas, Seminoles and Utes worthy of exceptions, but somehow Sioux is deemed hostile and abusive,” university president Charles Kupchella said at the time. Schools that were permitted to keep their Indian nicknames “have been exempted on the basis of a ‘special relationship’ with American Indian tribes,” Kupchella noted, “yet our proportionate number of American Indian students and the number of substantive programs in support of American Indian students exceeds that of all of the exempted schools combined.”

North Dakota
The University of North Dakota has fought to hold onto its prized “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo but will give in if the state’s two Sioux tribes don’t agree

But this May, weary of the fight, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education agreed to relinquish the university’s nickname and logo next year, unless tribal councils of the state’s two Sioux tribes agree by October 1 to let the university keep, for 30 years, the “Fighting Sioux” nickname and its logo of an American Indian man with feathers and streaks of face paint. As the calendar pages keep turning, tribal leaders are sending mixed messages about their final positions on the matter.

The Grand Forks Herald in the university’s hometown has concluded that it’s time to give up the fight. “No, the use of the nickname and logo were not intended to offend anyone,” it wrote in January. “But offense is in the eye of the offended, and offenders often overlook that.

“What’s more, the Sioux have a right to claim their name, and they
have forcefully argued that UND does not.”

All this is a long prelude to the William & Mary story in Virginia, two-thirds of a continent away. It underscores the sensitivity of college nicknames and mascots, most of which were originally chosen for the fun of it, with little regard for hurt feelings that they might cause. On campuses that were then often 100 percent white, there were no hurt feelings.

William and Mary
William & Mary has replaced its old “Indians” nickname with the somewhat more nebulous “Tribe.” It plans to keep it, even when it gets a new mascot

At William & Mary, which from the mid-1960s until the mid-‘70s had displayed a stupidly grinning Indian logo similar to the Cleveland Indians baseball team’s “Chief Wahoo,” officials first tried to accede to the anti-“Indian” mascot wave by softening the nickname to “Tribe.” They even adopted a fuzzy blob of a mascot in a colonial costume called “Colonel Ebirt.” Ebirt is “Tribe” spelled backward. After the NCAA ruled that the university could keep “Tribe” but would have

William and Mary
The old logo, with feathers

to revamp or discard the school logo — a “WM” with two Indian feathers — the university kept the image, erased the feathers, and set up an elaborate “new media” search for a new mascot, soliciting suggestions on Twitter, Facebook, and the like.

The selection will be difficult. How do you capture in one name or image a complex, academically astute liberal-arts college in a way that excites students and alumni? People across America, who have any association with Virginia Tech, down the road from William & Mary, for instance, call each other “Hokies.” Lots of folks here at VOA refer to each other as “Terps,” too. It’s short for “Terrapins,” the sports teams’ nickname at the nearby University of Maryland.

Will some of the names suggested for William & Mary, such as “Phoenix” (as in rising from the ashes), convey the same bond? Somehow I can’t see two old William & Mary grads calling each other “Phoenixes.”

William & Mary’s Christopher Wren Building is depicted in an early color postcard

The wren, a warbly little bird, is getting some consideration, since Wren Hall — the nation’s oldest college building, named for the British architect Sir Christopher Wren — is prominent on campus.

But — and here, at last, comes the humor that I promised — of the more than 500 mascot nominations submitted so far, one that’s drawing critical bemusement, even some outright acclaim, is an asparagus stalk!

Oh, those mirthful students and alumni. A lot of people are rooting for the Asparagus, which, of course, would need a name.

Gaspar the Asparagus?

What do you think? Is this mascot material??

“Nothing says ‘Alma Mater of a Nation’ like a stalk of asparagus,” Ed Miller of the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, wrote recently. “It’s green, nutritious, and if served au fromage, is an edible representation of the school colors” [green and gold].

I, too, am rooting for the Asparagus over tiresome contenders like “Spartans” and perplexing ones like “Mud Bears.” The Mighty Asparagus could take its place beside some of the other funky college sports nicknames and mascots that I will shortly detail. In doing so, I am indebted to Adam Joshua Smargon, whose exhaustive Web site appears to have unearthed every one of them, even those at entire universities I’ve never heard of!

So you want a chuckle? Check out these nicknames:

• the Anchormen — rowers, not TV hosts — of Puget Sound College in Washington state
• the Anteaters of the University of California-Irvine
• the Banana Slugs of the University of California-Santa Cruz. Imaginative bunch, these Californians.
• the Battling Bishops of Ohio Wesleyan University
• the Belles of Bennett College in North Carolina
• the Black Flies of the College of the Atlantic in Maine. If you don’t think a black fly is fierce enough to be a sports mascot, spend an hour at the Maine shore and get back to me.
• the Black Squirrels of Haverford College in Pennsylvania
• the Bloodhounds of John Jay College in New York City
• the Blugolds of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire — a limpid take on the school’s colors. But it’s better than the old nickname: “Normals,” which originated when the college was a “normal” school, a two-year teachers’ college imparting standards or “norms.”
• the Boilermakers of Purdue University in Indiana. This dates to the 1890s, when engineering students there trained in blacksmith shops and boiler rooms.
• the Boll Weevils of the University of Arkansas-Monticello. A weevil is a beetle that feasts on the bud, called the “boll,” of the cotton plant.
• the Boxers of Pacific University in Oregon
• the Bridges of Brooklyn College in New York
• the Camels of Connecticut College
• the Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina University in North Carolina. The chanticleer was a fierce rooster that dominated the barnyard in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
• the Claim Jumpers of Columbia College in California. Claim jumpers were unscrupulous miners who occupied land in the gold camps of California that had been legally claimed by others.

Go, Cobbers, go!

• the Cobbers of Concordia College in Minnesota. Take a look at the team logo to the right and you’ll see where the nickname comes from. That is, if you know a cob of corn when you see one.
• The Dirtbags of California State University-Long Beach. I’m serious. The Dirtbags! (Those nutty Californians again.) The school’s official nickname is “49ers,” but the university proudly calls its baseball team, in particular, “dirtbags” because of its gritty style of play.
• The Dust Devils of Texas A&M International. A dust devil is a miniature whirlwind that skips across a parched prairie.
• The Ephs of Williams College in Massachusetts. The college was founded in 1793 by Col. Ephraim Williams. The players are “Ephs,” pronounced “effs,” but the school’s sports mascot is a purple cow! Go figure.
• The Fire Ants of the University of South Carolina-Sumter. I’d pay to see the Fire Ants face the Black Flies.
• Three colleges have chosen “Flying Dutchmen” as their nickname, and one picked “Flying Fleet.” And the women’s basketball team at Wayland Baptist College in Texas is the “Flying Queens.”
• Then there are the Frogs of Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Not Horned Frogs or Croakin’ Frogs or Killer Frogs. Just plain old Frogs.
• The Gamecocks of the University of South Carolina. These are more chickens. Mean ones, bred for fighting.
• the Gauchos of the University of California-Santa Barbara. Gauchos are South American cowboys. The campaign for this nickname back in 1936 was led by women on campus who had thrilled to “The Gaucho” movie, starring the dashing Douglas Fairbanks.
• the Gentlemen of Centenary College in Louisiana
• the Golden Gusties of Gustavas Adophus University in Minnesota

I could go on and on — and will!
• the Golden Hurricane — just one hurricane — of Tulsa University in Oklahoma
• the Gryphons of Sarah Lawrence College on New York’s Long Island. Often perched in stone high on castles and the like, a gryphon is a winged monster with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion.
• the Gyrenes of Ave Maria University in Florida. Gyrene is one of the nicknames for U.S. Marines. It’s a curious choice for a Roman Catholic school — not that there aren’t Catholic Marines.
• the Harriers of Miami University-Hamilton in Ohio. A harrier is a pesky hawk or anything that “harries” or harasses its prey.

This is one of a series of “Hokie birds” in Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech. It’s a turkey because an older, alternate school nickname is “the Gobblers”

• the aforementioned Hokies of Virginia Tech. The name was appropriated from a “spirit yell” that begins, “Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy.” This makes sense only in Blacksburg, Virginia, and “Hokie Nation.”
• the Humpback Whales of the University of Alaska-Southeast
• the Hustlin’ Quakers of Earlham College in Indiana. There’s something strange about the imagery here.
• the Ichabods of Washburn University in Kansas. The name did not derive from author Washington Irving’s fictional character who was pursued by a headless horseman. Ichabod Washburn was the school’s founding patron.
• the Jaspers of Manhattan College, which is in the Bronx despite the college’s name. The nickname comes from a Brother Jasper, who was the team’s first baseball coach in the 19th Century.
• the Javelinas of Texas A&M-Kingsville. A javelina is gray peccary with a white “collar.” And what’s a peccary? It’s a really ugly, grouchy, and stinky pig-like creature with razor-sharp tusks.
• the Jennies of Central Missouri State. A jenny is a female mule.
• the Jimmies of Jamestown College in North Dakota. Nobody in the town, which is bisected by the James River, can seem to pinpoint who adapted the nickname for “James” to the college, or why, by Jiminy, it’s not spelled the usual “Jimmy.”
• the Judges of Brandeis University in Massachusetts
• the Keelhaulers of California Maritime Academy. These athletes must be nigh unto sadistic, since keelhauling was one of the most brutal forms of corporal punishment inflicted upon sailors. The miscreant was dragged through the water under a ship’s keel, often across razor-sharp, flesh-flaying barnacles that clung there.

Who needs a mascot suit when your nickname namesake is this cuddly?

• the Koalas of Columbia College in South Carolina. Koalas are bear-looking cuties — though they’re not bears — that you see in Australian travel posters, placidly munching on eucalyptus leaves.
• the Ladies of Centenary College. Hey, Centenary’s male athletes are “Gentlemen” (at least in name) so of course . . .
• the Lemmings of Bryant & Stratton College in Ohio. Lemmings are Arctic rodents with a weird reputation. They’re said to commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. That’s bunk, and it’s hardly heroic imagery for a sports team!
• the Lobos of the University of New Mexico and Sul Ross State in Texas. Lobos are gray wolves.
• the Lord Jeffs of Amherst College in Massachusetts. The college is named for its town, and the town is named for British general Jeffrey Amherst, who dashed about British Canada more than the lower colonies prior to the American Revolution.
• the Lumberjills of Northland College in Wisconsin. The men’s players are “Lumberjacks.” Get it?
• the Lutes of Pacific Lutheran in Washington State. These aren’t musical instruments. “Lute” is sort of shorthand, with a Scandanavian accent, for Lutheran.
• the Magicians of Lemoyne-Owen in Tennessee
• the Mastodons of Indiana University-Purdue University-Fort Wayne
• the Medics of Thomas Jefferson University in Pennsylvania
• the Minutemen — and, yes, Minutewomen — of the University of Massachusetts. Minutemen were American colonial militiamen.
• the Mounties of Mount Aloysius College in Pennsylvania
• the Nads of Rhode Island School of Design. This one’s a bit risqué, but if it’s clean enough for the school’s official Web site, it’s clean enough for me. The name is taken from a cheer, particularly for the school’s rugged hockey team: “Go, Nads!” I’ll let you piece it together.
• the Nor’Easters of the University of New England in Maine. A Nor’Easter is a fierce storm whose winds from the northeast off the Atlantic Ocean pummel the New England coast.
• the Paladins of Furman University in South Carolina. A paladin is someone who champions another’s cause. The originals were warriors in the court of the Frankish king Charlemagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
• the Penmen of Southern New Hampshire University. In a “pen is mightier than the sword” metaphor, “Penmen” was designed to evoke New England colonials’ courageous use of the quill.

You can see why Whittier College uses a cartoon fellow in a colonial hat as its logo rather than trying to make something out of John Greenleaf Whittier’s mug

• the Poets of Whittier College in California. Get it? Whittier. Poets.
• the Polar Bears of Ohio Northern and of Bowdoin College in Maine
• the Pomeroys of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana. This nickname is taken from a onetime sports-loving faculty member, Sister Mary Joseph Pomeroy.
• the Professors of Rowan University in New Jersey. I’ve heard of buttering up the faculty, but please!
• the Radicals of Antioch College in Ohio. Check out the school’s history and reputation in the link, and you’ll understand.
• the Ragin’ Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette. “Cajun” is short for the French-speaking Acadian people who fled Quebec in Canada and settled on the Louisiana coast.
• the Railsplitterrs of Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee. Refer to Abe Lincoln’s bio for this one.
• the Rambelles women’s teams at Angelo State in Texas. The men are “Ramblers.”

Georgia Tech’s yellowjacket mascot and some winsome cheerleaders make their entrance in a Ramblin’ Wreck that actually looks to be in decent shape

• the Ramblin’ Wreck of Georgia Tech. That comes from the team’s fight song. In it, the original wreck was not an automobile or train. It was a drunken — e.g., “wrecked” — engineering student!
• the Razorbacks of the University of Arkansas. A razorback is another wild hog with an irritable disposition.
• the Reddies of Henderson State in Arkansas. The original “Red Jackets” sports nickname was gradually modified to “Reds” and then “Reddies,” probably because no one could think of anything to rhyme with “Red Jackets” in a pep yell.
• the Retrievers of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Not all states have “state dogs,” but Maryland does. It’s the Chesapeake Bay retriever. This university’s version even has a name: “True Grit.”
• Six colleges call their sports teams “Roadrunners,” after darting little ground birds. You knew that if you’ve seen the Roadrunner cartoon films in which the bird utters an insolent “meep-meep” as it zips past the clutches of hapless Wile E. Coyote.

The saluki looks like it’s bred for speed, all right

• the Salukis of Southern Illinois University. A saluki, or gazelle hound, is a swift hunting dog, similar to a greyhound, that originated in Egypt.
• the Sea Aggies of Texas A&M-Galveston. Students and graduates from colleges with an agriculture emphasis are called “aggies.” And Galveston is on a sea — the Gulf of Mexico.
• the Shockers of Wichita State in Kansas. Out in wheat country, a shock is a bundle of cut grain of the sort that you see on coins and state seals.
• the Sooners of the University of Oklahoma. During an organized rush into unassigned federal land in what is now Oklahoma in 1889, some people jumped the gun and grabbed the choicest homesteading spots. They got there “sooner” than those who followed the rules.
• the Spires of the University of Saint Mary in Kansas. When the previously all-women’s school began accepting men and playing sports in 1988, it needed a nickname. “Spires” honored a prominent campus tower and the idea of aspiring to lofty things.
• the Stormy Petrels of Oglethorpe University in Georgia. Now there’s a rival for “Banana Slugs” when it comes to originality. A petrel is a sea bird that flies so low, it looks like it’s walking on water. In a windstorm, it ducks into the lee of a ship.
• the Stumpies of the State University of New York-College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Forests. Stumps. Now it’s time to chop the name of the school.
• the Tars of Rollins College in Florida. “Tar,” or “jack-tar,” was an early name for sailors. It may relate to tarpaulin cloths, impregnated with tar, that are common aboard ships.
• the Toreros of the University of San Diego in California. A torero is a matador or one of his supporters in a bullfight.

Trinity’s Troll is a mascot of which children’s nightmares are made

• the Trolls of Trinity College in Illinois. This, too, is an unusual nickname for a Christian school, since, in Nordic fairy tales, a troll is a scary, definitely irreligious figure that lurks in caves or under bridges.
• the Vandals of the University of Idaho. These aren’t punks who trash property or scrawl graffiti. They are the namesake of Fifth Century nomadic hordes who made a name for themselves by sacking Rome.
• the Vixens of Sweet Briar College in Virginia
• the Wasps of Emory and Henry in Virginia
• the Women of Troy women’s teams at the University of Southern California. The men, natch, are “Trojans.”

The New Mexico zia sunburst

• and the Zias women’s squads at Eastern New Mexico (the men are “Greyhounds”). The zia is the sunburst symbol on the New Mexico state flag. Taken from the American Indian pueblo dwellers of the same name, the zia’s four radiants have several meanings, including stages of life.

Tomahawk chop
At least there wouldn’t be any offensive “tomahawk chops” associated with a lovable green vegetable mascot

I’ve ignored the abundant and unimaginative Lions, Tigers, Bulldogs, and Cougars, and annoying weather phenomena like “Thunder” and “Fire.” It’s hard to pick a favorite from the list above. “Banana Slugs” wins on audacity, but “Stumpies” sort of works for me.

I’m withholding a vote, though, in hopes that the brave men and women of William & Mary rally behind the “Fightin’ Asparagus Stalks”!


(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!)

Audacity. Daring, of the kind where you find yourself saying, “Of all the nerve!”

Bunk. Patently false information, akin to “hogwash” or bull excrement.

Capitulate. To surrender under agreed-upon terms, usually after a long and honorable struggle.

Hapless. Pathetic, deserving of pity.

Intractable. Not easily convinced, managed, or fixed.

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IX at 37

Posted June 26th, 2009 at 1:10 pm (UTC-4)
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“Time will show that this is the most important law in our culture over the last 40 years,” USA Today columnist Christine Brennan wrote recently.

The most important? That must be some kind of law!

Brennan is a sports columnist specifically, and like it or not — and there are plenty in both camps — the law to which she refers has profoundly changed the nation’s sports scene.

Yet the word “sports” never appears in its language.

The law, passed in 1972, is known as “Title IX.” It was one of the amendments to what is now called the “Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act,” after its author, the late Hawai`i congresswoman who as a young woman had faced several obstacles in her quest for a college degree. A few days ago at the White House, various speakers marked Title IX’s 37th anniversary.

“No person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded in participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid,” Title IX reads.

Most American high school and college team photos were a strictly male affair from early days until not too long ago

In 1972, according to the National Women’s Law Center, fewer than 32,000 women participated in intercollegiate athletics, and women’s sports programs received just 2 percent, nationwide, of colleges’ athletic budgets when the law was signed. In the eyes of the bill’s backers, this was an obvious and raging inequity. And since just about all colleges and public school systems receive federal funding, the national government was in a position to try to correct it.

Nothing less than fully equal opportunities for both sexes would be acceptable.

When it came to sports, the U.S. Department of Education interpreted the mandate to mean that young women should have the same level of equipment, practice time, quality of coaching, facilities and housing, and even publicity. And of most concern to the women athletes, they should have the same access to financial assistance in the form of athletic scholarships as well.

College and even high school football are expensive, but lucrative, spectacles. This is a Clemson University game

Since football, in particular, is played almost exclusively by men and is a terribly expensive sport to field, the government did not require an absolute 50-50 split of all athletic expenditures on college and high-school campuses. But schools could not use the high cost of football to justify denying women full access to sports of their choice. In fact, the law demanded:

Title IX is predicated on women and girls’ right to experience the satisfaction and joy of athletic competition

• “athletic opportunities that are substantially proportionate to the student enrollment” — an enormous hurdle for institutions where lots of women are enrolled but which had barely given women’s sports a thought;

• OR “continual expansion of athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex” (women, almost always) — a bit more do-able;

• OR “full and effective accommodation of the interest and ability of the underrepresented sex” — open to considerable interpretation.

Title IX had no impact on the number of cheerleaders, pep squad members, and majorettes, of which there were already plenty

After several class-action lawsuits and demands by the education department, the average U.S. college now offers women the opportunity to participate in nine different sports, including basketball, volleyball, and soccer. In a letter to women’s-advocacy groups a month before his election, Barack Obama wrote that Title IX had made “an enormous impact on women’s opportunities and participation in sports.” Two months into his term as president, he signed an executive order creating a new Council on Women and Girls “to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy.”

In the view of one woman — my middle daughter, Dr. Juliette Landphair, who is dean of Westhampton College, the college for undergraduate women at the University of Richmond in Virginia — Title IX “has been hugely successful. So much so that the female varsity student-athletes at UR have no idea about it and just assume athletics has always been some sort of ‘right.’ It has made athletics a part of middle-class U.S. culture for girls as well as boys. Many other societies (e.g., Mexico) where, say, soccer is huge, do not have girls playing at a younger age the way the U.S. does.”

Local soccer leagues and Little League softball are no longer the end of the athletic line for girls

Girls who play sports are more confident, Juliette believes. “They are healthier (fewer occasions/desire to do drugs, drink). They find great friends and are exposed to opportunities they would never have had without sports.”

One “would be hard-pressed to find parents these days who do not want their girls playing some sort of sport,” Dean Landphair concludes.

I issued an invitation on Facebook to anyone who wanted to comment on the impact of Title IX. Linda Bjorkland replied from St. Paul, Minnesota: “Best thing that ever happened for young women….next to the vote perhaps.”

It used to be an insult to say that someone played “like a girl.” These women could give all but the most muscular men a good game

Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote on a White House blog that “what I learned from my coaches and teammates” while playing high-school sports “extended well beyond the basketball court. . . . I’m often reminded that in basketball as in diplomacy, you have to know when to throw elbows and when to show finesse.”

Title IX detractors, mostly male, say the law has unleashed a wave of reverse discrimination, forcing institutions to eliminate men’s teams — often golf, wrestling, and track — to pay for all the new women’s sports. To use a sports cliché, Title IX has unevened the playing field, in some people’s view. A fellow with the online name “spikerritz,” for instance, wrote, in the parts that are tame enough to be quoted here, “Title IX is a joke. . . . It cost me personally a wrestling scholarship at the University of Colorado.”

All Title IX did, he continued, “was erase opportunities for men.”

Another man, using the name “DelcoDad,” stated, “Title IX is based on a false premise: that girls are as interested in competitive sports as boys. . . . At the high school level, Title IX often means that the girls’ soccer coach demands as much pay as the boys’ football coach, which is ludicrous on many levels. Count Title IX among the subjects about which one is not permitted to speak the truth.”

The intercollegiate athletic program at Howard University in Washington, D.C., is sometimes brought up as an example of this point of view. In 2007, its student body was two-thirds female, but women made up only 43 percent of the college’s athletes. The university responded by eliminating men’s wrestling and baseball and adding women’s bowling. The impact of Title IX’s proportionality standard “has been disastrous,” Wade Hughes, Howard’s former wrestling coach, wrote on “The Root” Web site, because “far more males than females are seeking to take part in athletics.”

In other words, schools must offer and fund sports programs for women beyond what they even want or need.

Carol Hutchins
Coach Carol Hutchins’ softball teams have chalked up more than 1,100 wins in her 25 years at University of Michigan. It’s safe to say that she makes considerably less than head football coach Rich Rodriguez’s $2.5 million annually

The U.S. Department of Education took a look at coaches’ pay at several universities in the year between July 2007 and June 2008. It found a great disparity. At private, Jesuit Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., for instance, coaches of male sports teams earned an average of $125,420 compared to $53,620 for coaches of female teams. The gap was roughly the same at public Syracuse University in New York State. But at Marquette University, another Roman Catholic college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, coaches of male teams made about four times as much as female teams’ coaches. Virtually all men’s-sport coaches are male; about 52 percent of coaches of women’s teams are male as well.

As you might imagine, this gulf in the compensation of coaches prompted lively debate. Some who commented said that a coach is a coach — teaching, motivating, inspiring — with similar responsibilities and time required to do the job. Equality is equality, these proponents argued. Anything less is un-American. So there’s no excuse for paying the coaches of men’s programs like princes and the coaches of women’s programs like relative paupers.

Others countered that men’s sports are generally more visible, recruiting of athletes is critical and time-consuming if winning is to be achieved, competition for top-flight coaches is more acute, and attendance and fan interest are greater than they are for most women’s sports.

It’s not hard to see why football is the Big Man on Campus when it comes to revenue. This is a North Carolina State Wolfpack crowd

And this doesn’t even include the “elephant in the room”: the revenue that men’s sports — football and basketball in particular — rake in compared with mostly non-revenue-generating women’s sports. Therefore, goes the argument, coaches of men’s programs richly deserve their higher pay.

Softball is a fast-rising intercollegiate sport. Women at large U.S. universities have competed for a national championship since 1982; men, playing baseball, since 1947

Whether one applauds Title IX or not, it has clearly changed the sports landscape. According to a longitudinal “Women in Intercollegiate Sport” study funded by Smith College and Brooklyn College, in 1970, two years before the law was enacted, the average number of women’s sports teams at each U.S. university was 2.5. By 2008, the number had jumped to 8.65 per school. And the study found that 2,755 new women’s-sports teams had been added nationwide just in the decade from 1998 to 2008. Another study, quoted in the Desert Beacon blog in Nevada, looked at the high-school scene. Whereas only 7 percent of high school athletes were female in 1972, the report showed, the figure had grown to 40 percent by this year.

You’ll recall that Title IX never actually mentions athletics, though it has become part of the American sports lexicon because of its effect on athletic competition and competitors. Title IX supporters are not resting on the laurels of girls’ increased participation in sports, or a vast escalation of funding for women’s sports and scholarships; they are beginning to look more closely at girls’ status in education as a whole. President Obama himself has called for “similar, striking advances for women in science and engineering.”

Virginia Tech
This is graduation day the Virginia Tech University, renowned for its engineering and science program. The picture illustrates the gender imbalance in such fields

But the idea that girls are somehow neglected or short-changed in academic subjects, even the traditionally male-dominated sciences, is preposterous, Title IX’s critics reply. John Hinderaker, a Minneapolis lawyer, and two other authors of the Power Line Weblog, scoff that “the comparison between female participation in college athletics and female participation in science and engineering is beyond specious.” Sports involve men’s and women’s teams, competing for resources, they say. “But men and women do not compete for slots on the same teams.” In graduate engineering, they continue, “the tracks are the same for both genders. Thus, men and women are in direct competition for the same slots. If the government wants to control that competition, it must override decisions about who the best-qualified competitors are. The analogy in the sports context would be requiring men’s basketball teams to include a certain number of women.”

Participation in college sports is an end in itself, Power Line argues. It is athletes’ reward for superb performance. Thus “a prima facie case can be made for ensuring that participation rates do not favor one gender.” But science is “very different,” the authors maintain. Promoting high-quality science and engineering, and a good livelihood for those who study in these fields, are the primary aim. If the government goes further and, Title IX style, tips the scale in favor of selecting women in the name of promoting equal participation, it will undermine American scientific excellence.”

Proponents of turning the Title IX attention to school matters besides sports note not only a male dominance in many science and math classrooms, but also a notable absence of women science teachers and professors

Christina Hoff Sommers, an American philosopher and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute — best known for her scathing critiques of feminists in books such as The War Against Boys — has noted that by 2002, women were already earning nearly 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and at least half of the Ph.D.s in the humanities, social sciences, life sciences and education, while men retained majorities in fields such as physics, computer science, and engineering. “Badly in need of an advocacy cause just as women were beginning to outnumber men on college campuses, well-funded academic women’s groups alerted their followers that American science education was ‘hostile’ to women,” Hoff Summers wrote. “Soon there were conferences, retreats, summits, a massive ‘Left Out, Left Behind’ letter-writing campaign, dozens of studies and a series of congressional hearings.”

Will a switch of Title IX emphasis to academics help American science as much as it helped women’s basketball? Hoff Summers asked. “Activist leaders of the Title IX campaign are untroubled by this question. Some seem to relish the idea of starkly disrupting what they regard as the excessively male and competitive culture of academic science.”

If you are confused by all this back and forth regarding equity in school sports and school itself, so are most Americans, even though we don’t seem to hesitate to offer our opinions when asked.

So what’s your vote?: Title IX is “the most important law in our culture” (Brennan) or “a bad joke” (Hinderaker and his Power Line co-bloggers).


Bed and Buzz

On the mercifully lighter side . . .

Another relatively obscure person with a fascinating life story has left us at age 92. John Houghtaling was never well known beyond his family and industry, but the product that he invented was an icon of American travel a generation ago.

John Houghtaling is the Magic Fingers man!

He was not a masseur, but his beds were, sort of, in motels all over America. Not sleazy “no tell motels,” either, but entirely respectable Mom and Pop establishments on the main drags of every decent-sized town. Surface travel in the 1960s and 1970s was grueling. Most highways were narrow and dotted with traffic lights and stop signs. Speed limits were modest, and you couldn’t go fast anyway because you were following one truck after another that was moseying down the pike. Then the roads ran right into towns, slowing you to a crawl.

Here’s an old motel on historic U.S. Route 66 out West that might have featured the Magic Fingers experience. Might still today, in fact

When you finally made it to the Mountain Aire Lodge or Sleep Rite Motel or Carl’s Cozy Cabins, you were bushed and really ready to relax. Many of these little places had no swimming pool, only three or four fuzzy channels on black-and-white TV, and window air-conditioning units that dripped and rattled and put out mere wisps of lukewarm air if they worked at all.

But if you were lucky, a Magic Fingers “relaxation service” — “featured in over 10,000 hotels and motels throughout the world” — was attached to your bed! In fact, there were 250,000 units in hostelries across the United States alone in Magic Fingers’ prime in the 1960s.

Magic Fingers Box
This Magic Fingers box has seen its share of customers

On your nightstand, you’d find a box about the size of an alarm clock, affixed with a sticker promising that the Magic Fingers would “quickly carry you into the world of relaxation and ease.”

“Try it,” the label urged. “You’ll like it.”

Millions did, by dropping in a quarter that got your entire mattress vibrating for 15 minutes. The idea was that the tingle would gently glide you into a comfy, satisfying sleep. Jimmy Buffett even sings about the sensation, in “This Hotel Room”:

Put in a quarter.
Turn out the light.
Magic Fingers makes you feel all right.

I don’t recall a lot of “tingling relaxation and ease” during my few Magic Fingers moments

My own experience with these units was that even if the slight jiggles would prompt me to nod off, I’d jolt awake when the unit shut off. This may have been the idea. With just one more quarter, and then another, you might finally settle into the embrace of Morpheus.

John Houghtaling — pronounced “HUFF-tuh-ling” — did not come up with the idea of a vibrating bed, but he simplified it. And the catchy name “Magic Fingers,” which he and his wife devised, didn’t hurt sales. As Houghtaling’s New York Times obituary noted, “The earliest vibrating beds predated the Industrial Revolution and were powered by household servants. Then came steam power, and after that, electricity. Mr. Houghtaling’s great innovation was to separate the motor from the bed.”

The problem with most earlier models, which were vibrating slabs built into mattresses, was that their manufacturers had to peddle the entire bed to motel owners — rumbling slabs and all. This was a hard sell for Mom and Pop proprietors, who had already invested in perfectly good beds and didn’t have $200 to $500 times 20 or 50 or 100 room “units” to spend on new-and-improved shaking beds.

Magic Fingers unit
This is the prototype of the Magic Fingers motor unit, packed in what looks like little more than a tin can, then a snazzier cover

In his basement in Glen Rock, a New Jersey suburb of New York City, Houghtaling tinkered with small motors. “I can’t tell you how many I went through,” he told American Heritage magazine in 2000. “I finally got to about 250th of a horsepower.” In the final prototype, weights were attached, slightly off-center, to a revolving disc that, in turn, was clamped to the motor. The offset weights caused the whole unit to vibrate, and the tricky part was determining exactly the right degree of oscillation. The completed fixture was placed in a can-like casing, then hung upside down and wedged into a space amid four different coils — not in a mattress but in the box spring below. A wire from the coin box set off the shaking.

John Houghtaling sold Magic Fingers to distributors — $2,500 for 80 units and three days of training.

The distributors went town to town, convincing motel owners to test and buy them. Although Houghtaling made a good living, he missed out on a fabulous one, since it was the dealers — not he — who collected the coins, splitting the proceeds, 80/20 with motel proprietors. One of Houghtaling’s sons, Paul, recalls meeting a distributor whose sales territory included six western states. “He’d drive the circuit and come back with $6,000 or $7,000 dollars in quarters” — literally a nice “chunk of change” in 1967 or 1968.

Father and son
Paul Houghtaling says his father was always tinkering with gadgets, had a cheerful outlook on life, and always preferred to work for himself rather than some big company

The Houghtalings themselves serviced a few Magic Fingers units in the Miami, Florida, area. Paul remembers scooping up a few stray quarters that had fallen behind the bed or nightstand and been overlooked by motel housekeepers.

Overly torqued Magic Fingers beds became superb props for slapstick comedy. The gag beds produced teeth-jarring shudders that, no matter how frantically a pajama-clad “guest” clung to the headboard, tossed him or her onto the floor. In the 1987 movie “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” a Magic Fingers unit vibrates so violently that a beer bottle explodes on the bed.

The dated technology and slightly frowzy connotation of a vibrating bed put an end to most of Magic Fingers’ motel trade, except in a few vintage motor-court-type establishments off the beaten path. As the Daily Finance Web site noted, “By the seventies, the scarred, fake-wood and brass boxes would seem to be a foundational part of the iconic sleazy motel room, as much a requirement as shag carpeting, cheap paneled walls, and unwashed comforters.” Daily Finance adds that the Best Western chain of independently owned motels specifically advised its proprietors not to offer Magic Fingers because they “cheapen the accommodations.”

Magic Fingers lost its customer base, too, because thieves kept breaking into the coin boxes or stealing them entirely. This problem was eventually addressed when Houghtaling devised a card containing a magnetic stripe that the customer would swipe through the pay box in lieu of depositing quarters. It was an early version of today’s debit card or key-entry card used to access hotel and motel rooms today. But the public’s fascination with trembling beds had waned.

People might have felt a little funny plunking their money into a box for 15 minutes of vibration from a motel bed. But they’re investing many times more in various vibrating lounge chairs to this day

Magic Fingers units are still sold on the Web, not to motels but to individuals. Often they’re baby boomers who are nostalgic, truly enjoy the tingle, or are disabled and perceive a bit of therapeutic relief from the unit’s rumblings. And any number of vibrating recliner chairs have borrowed the concept and are selling at a premium price.

Bloggers and their readers who heard about John Houghtaling’s death posted several reminiscences about the Magic Fingers device. One wrote that when, as a kid, he and his family would stop at a bargain-rate place, “usually called the ‘Dew Drop Inn’ or ‘Piney Top Motel,’” he and his brother would invest a quarter “out of our hard-earned allowance and put the quarter in the ‘Magic Fingers’ coin box. 9 times out of 10 it had no power left and would vibrate so slow that it was more annoying than relaxing.” Another online writer recalls being too embarrassed to try the unit. “If it worked, it might make such a racket that the entire motel would know. . . . It might be so old that if I inserted a quarter it would short out the device and sparks would fly and catch the bed on fire, causing the fire department to respond, leaving me to guiltily explain how my depraved actions resulted in the loss of the motel.”

One little quarter would have satisfied a young man’s curiosity about Magic Fingers. Now he’ll have to go a ways to find an operating unit to try

Now, he says, he regrets not investing that quarter. “I will spend the rest of my life wondering whether I could have enjoyed two nights being blissfully vibrated to la-la-land.”

Fifteen minutes at a time.


(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!)

Bushed. Exhausted. Apparently the word traces to the Dutch word for woods or wilderness, traipsing around in which is indeed tiring.

Embrace (or into the Arms) of Morpheus. Morpheus was the son of the Greek god of sleep. But it was a Roman, the poet Ovid, who gave him his own job, as the god of dreams. So it’s zzzz time when you fall into the arms of Morpheus.

Laurels. Awards or honors. Roman heroes were often crowned with stems of the laurel, or bay-leaf, bush. To “rest on one’s laurels” means that you are satisfied with your past achievements and not interested in working particularly hard to earn more.

Mosey. To amble, proceed at an extremely leisurely pace. The word may trace to an Old English word that refers to moving about in a dull, stupid way.

Prima Facie. From the Latin meaning “at first appearance” or examination. When one has a prima facie legal case, it means there’s apparent evidence of guilt that only strong refuting testimony could disprove.

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Hatred and Tranquility

Posted June 19th, 2009 at 7:39 pm (UTC-4)
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A week or so ago, when I heard that an 88-year-old virulent white supremacist had shot and killed a security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum a few blocks away, my thoughts drifted to a serene spot — an almost eerily peaceful, contemplative patch of green — 2,200 kilometers (1,340 miles) away in the Great Plains state of Oklahoma.

There’s a tranquil reflecting pool at this place, in a pleasant park dotted with rows of empty chairs — all tightly framed by hovering skyscrapers, whitewashed churches, and nondescript government buildings in the heart of the bustling business district of Oklahoma City, the state capital.

Murrah Building
The Murrah Building was not particularly distinctive, architecturally or in function

Another ordinary government enclave, the Alfred P. Murrah Building, housing federal agriculture officials, Army and Marine Corps recruiters, health agency workers, credit union clerks, drug agents and other bureaucrats, once stood there, nearly unnoticed and rarely remarked upon. Some of the employees’ little children played or napped in the building’s day-care center.

Until one unfathomable moment on a Wednesday morning in 1995.

All was normal at 9:01 a.m. on that “hump day.” Most of the worker bees were at their desks or pouring coffee down the hall. The children were at their chalkboards or blocks or sippy cups.

Murrah Building after bombing
It’s remarkable that any part of the building still stood after the titanic blast

One minute later, half the building was gone, its glass façade ripped from steel beams and parts of nine floors pancaked into a nine-meter (30-foot) crater; 168 people lay dead or dying, and 850 more had suffered wounds or burns. In an instant, one government worker lost her mother, two children, and part of her leg.

They did not, literally, “know what hit them”: the deafening concussion and towering fireball from an ignited 1,800-kilo (4,000-pound) bomb made of blasting caps, bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and liquid solvent called nitromethane packed into drums in a rented truck that had been nonchalantly parked out front.

Aerial view of blast
Devastation spread far and wide, particularly directly across the street from the blast site

In that minute of carnage, 326 other structures and 86 vehicles in a 16-block radius had also been destroyed, set ablaze or disfigured. Damage estimates downtown-wide, calculated much later, would top $650 million.

“I think I know what they mean by terrorism now,” said Dr. Carl Spangler, the first physician to reach the Murrah Building. “It was terror.”

Horrified, disbelieving Oklahomans and more than 3,000 others from across the nation rushed to help with the rescue, recovery, and rebuilding effort. By noon, four thousand people had lined up to give blood. Local merchants emptied their shelves of work gloves, paper masks, bottled water, and boots. Housewives, office workers, and school kids brought in more clothes and toiletries and sunscreen than donation centers could handle. “Florists sent tens of thousands of flowers to funeral and memorial services [attended by almost 20 percent of the area’s population] free of charge,” according to The First Decade, a short history of that terrible day and what followed, published by the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation in 2005. “A single county in New Jersey sent $100,000. Turkey’s ambassador donated $10,000 to the American Red Cross, and the consul general of Japan sent the same amount to the state.”

The Murrah Building explosion was the most extensive, abominable act of “domestic terrorism” in the nation’s history. And what seemed like the most inexplicable. Unlike the places that foreign terrorists would target with deadly effect six years later — the Pentagon in Washington that is the locus of American military might and New York’s World Trade Center towers that seemed to epitomize American capitalism — the Murrah Building was that out-of-the-way bureaucratic beehive, bothering no one.

Timothy McVeigh
Timothy McVeigh never wavered in stating what he believed to be the righteousness of his deed

But it bothered 27-year-old Timothy McVeigh, a decorated Army Gulf War veteran who loathed the federal government for what he considered its “usurpations” — he loved to pick words from the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence — against ordinary citizens. Gun owners and grunt soldiers in particular. McVeigh had even traveled to Waco, Texas, two years earlier to shout his support for religious fundamentalists called Branch Davidians barricaded inside a ranch house and menaced by federal agents. In the months after 76 of the Davidians, including two pregnant women and more than 20 children, died in the inferno that ensued when agents stormed the compound, McVeigh seethed over what some called the Waco “massacre” and another siege-gone-violent at a place called Ruby Ridge in Idaho, in which the wife and daughter of a cornered white supremacist were shot and killed by federal agents.

McVeigh vowed revenge. “Blood will flow in the streets,” he wrote a boyhood friend. “Good vs. Evil. Free Men vs. Socialist Wannabe Slaves.”

Along with two confederates who helped him fashion the truck bomb, McVeigh would take that revenge in unsuspecting Oklahoma City on the second anniversary of the Waco firestorm.

“I am sorry these people had to lose their lives,” McVeigh said of his victims years later as he was moved to death row at a U.S. penitentiary in Indiana. “But that’s the nature of the beast. It’s understood going in what the human toll will be.”

If there is a hell, McVeigh added, “then I’ll be in good company with a lot of fighter pilots who had to bomb innocents to win the war.”

After various appeals and postponements, McVeigh was executed by lethal injection at 7:14 a.m. on June 11, 2001 —three months before the first of three passenger planes hijacked by Islamist terrorists slammed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

These chairs are made for contemplation, not relaxation

Today in downtown Oklahoma City, where the 168 brass and glass chairs — 19 of child-size proportions — fill the footprint of the Murrah Building, visitors are moved to somber silence and to tears. The chairs are arrayed in nine rows and inscribed with names according to the floors on which the victims fell. Five other chairs that sit off by themselves acknowledge those killed in two other buildings and on the street below.

“It would make me proud if someone got tired and they could maybe sit in my mom’s chair,” said Clint Siedl, who was seven years old when his mother died in the blast. “I’d probably walk up and say, ‘Hi, I’m Clint Siedl. This is my mom’s chair.’”

Within four months of the cataclysm, a memorial committee — not a “blue-ribbon” handful of the city’s rich elite but 350 people from all walks of life — had been formed and set to work. How, they asked, should the people who died on April 19, 1995 be remembered? Can any good come from their deaths, and what message should our shaken prairie oiltown send to the world?

The mission statement upon which they settled proved so enduring that its preamble is now chiseled in granite over the two entry gates to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum grounds. It reads:

We come here to remember
Those who were killed, those who survived
And those changed forever.
May all who leave here know the impact of violence.
May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.


There’s simplicity in these “naval blue” brass panels and in the inscription

Architects who presented visions of a memorial were invited to not only walk the cleared land where the Murrah Building had stood and observe photographs, artifacts, and keepsakes left at the scene, but even to draw inspiration from a chance recording of the blast, caught on audio tape at a water-commission hearing nearby.

Five finalists were chosen from an astounding 624 entries. On June 24, 1997, the design of the husband-and-wife team of Hans and Torrey Butzer, with their colleague Sven Berg, who were all studying architecture in Berlin, was selected unanimously in blind judging.

The Butzers did not just fly in to present their drawings and supervise the installation. They moved to Oklahoma City — and live there to this day — to work with families and others in the interpretation.

Construction barrier
This construction fence was a barrier, but also a magnet that drew hundreds of people daily to the blast site

To many of the relatives of those who died that spring day in 1995, there was nothing that the Butzers could design that would remember their loved ones better than the crude chain-link fence that stood for four years around the Murrah Building’s tattered remains, to which the city’s shaken citizens brought teddy bears and toys, quilts and hand-drawn posters, flowers and American flags.

The Butzers and Berg had already envisioned a tiny section of that fence somewhere on the memorial grounds. But after listening to relatives and survivors, they gladly incorporated 64 meters (210 feet) of it. To this day, visitors leave mementos that are periodically collected, indexed, and stored.

There’s a haunting quality to the “sacred room,” as the Butzers describe the Oklahoma City National Memorial — open to the sky and stars and swirling Oklahoma rains, and to the wind that does indeed come “sweepin’ down the plain,” as the “Oklahoma!” Broadway musical’s title song lustily avers.

Memorial park
The memorial park is open to the world, and to each person’s interpretation, any time of any day

The “Outdoor Symbolic Memorial,” as the park is officially called, is accessible without any charge, 24 hours every day.

At night, the glass bases of the empty chairs glow like luminescent tombstones. To the east of them stands a remnant of a Murrah Building wall — a “chunk of ragged concrete and protruding rebar,” as one account describes it. Blast survivors are named and remembered as well, on a plaque inside a small chapel.

Chairs at night

The march of memorial chairs accentuates the magnitude of the outrage at Oklahoma City

Memorial pool
The memorial’s pool is indeed a place for reflection

The 91-meter (300-foot)-long reflecting pool — a “liquid mirror,” the memorial staff calls it — extends the length of the chairs along the path of what used to be N.W. Fifth Street, where McVeigh parked his rigged Ryder truck. The pool is but two centimeters deep, accentuating the mourning-black granite beneath. Water bubbles soothingly across the surface, which depresses toward the middle, suggesting, slightly, the blast crater.

High on a hill beyond is a listing elm tree, perhaps 90 years old. At the time of the explosion, it shaded the employee parking lot in which most of the cars were blown to bits or incinerated. But the tree endured, leafless but alive. It came through the intrusions of ladders and chain saws afterward, too, as technicians rudely retrieved bits of evidence hanging from its branches.

Survivor Tree
The Survivor Tree is a tough old plant, for sure

The gritty old elm is thus revered as “The Survivor Tree” — a symbol of the people and the city that came through the ordeal. And Oklahomans’ love for the gnarled tree extends beyond the capital. Cuttings from it are grown in nurseries and sold across the state.

The memorial’s features that live longest in Carol’s and my memories are the nearly identical, bronze-clad “Gates of Time” that bookend the reflecting pool. An inscription on the gate to the east reads 9:01 — the last minute of innocence before the deadly convulsion. Etched on the western gate is 9:03 — by which time McVeigh had had his way.

In a curious relationship unique to this memorial, the outdoor site is interpreted by U.S. Park Service rangers, even though the memorial is owned by an Oklahoma-based public-private partnership that draws no government support. When Congress granted the site its “national” designation, those involved in Washington and Oklahoma City agreed that visitors, used to finding helpful rangers at important monuments and memorials, would expect and welcome the guidance of the men and women in Smokey Bear hats.

Museum display
One gets at least a hint of the destruction inside the Murrah Building in this display at the memorial museum

At the time of McVeigh’s demented handiwork, the headquarters building of the Journal-Record, the city’s business newspaper, stood across the street from the Murrah site. Every window of that building imploded, several walls collapsed, and 126 journalists, clerks and pressmen were injured. The newspaper’s operations moved elsewhere, and part of the building was converted into an interactive memorial museum in which visitors take a chronological, self-guided tour of the events of that spring day. The museum is divided into “chapters” with names like “Confusion,” “Chaos,” “Watching and Waiting,” and “Hope.” In a children’s area, youngsters and their parents alike are encouraged to “draw what you feel” and send their artwork home via e-mail.

The total estimated cost of the museum and the outdoor memorial was $29.1 million.

One visitor left this message there:

Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum
At the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, one cannot help but ponder matters larger than a single tragic event

This tragedy did not tear the heart out of the heartland. It only made the hearts of the people larger.

Another wrote:

Please let this place breed love and tolerance for each other. It has touched my heart like no other site on earth.

In 2002, Edward T. Linenthal, a professor of religion and American culture at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, who wrote a book, The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory (Oxford Press), provided eloquent insights into the lessons of it all in an interview with Architectural Record magazine.

Survivors, family members, rescuers, and others feel an “ownership” of such tragedies, he pointed out. “[N]o one should be surprised that these kinds of events bring people together and tear them apart. . . . No one should be surprised about concerns that someone got more relief money than someone else. . . . or that [some people regard the site] as ground too sacred to be built upon.”

In Oklahoma, Linenthal found “the democratic arts to have been practiced in a majestic way,” starting with a moving mission statement before designs were ever debated. “People gained a public voice in the process and felt enfranchised.”

At the same time, he told Architectural Record, “People can hope for too much. If [they] expect a memorial to resolve the grief and emotions that they feel, I think they are in for a tremendous disappointment.” Memorializing a violent event is not about resolving or coming to “closure,” he said. “It’s about enduring.”

Oklahoma City skyline
After the events of April 19, 1995, can Oklahoma City ever again be thought of only as an oil town, livestock center, or state capital?

So enduring that, in any discussion of terrorism, one need say only “Oklahoma City” for people to know what took place on N.W. Fifth Street in 1995. It is not the lasting image that the town would have chosen, just as Waco wishes the Davidians had settled elsewhere.

But there’s pride on the Oklahoma prairie in how their people responded to hatred, and what they built in the name of love.


(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!)

Hump Day. Wednesday, the middle day of the work week. It’s all downhill to a weekend after that!

Nonchalant. With blithe unconcern or indifference. Behaving matter-of-factly in a situation that might normally evoke extreme reactions.

Smokey Bear. He is a brawny but gentle mascot of the U.S. National Park Service. In his trademark drill-sergeant hat, he sternly reminds campers, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

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Ted Landphair


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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