Valley of the Stun

Posted June 12th, 2009 at 2:51 pm (UTC-4)
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Only one lonely, two-lane highway pierces Monument Valley, a vast natural wonder that straddles the Arizona-Utah border in the Desert Southwest. And then one unpaved, rutted, 27-kilometer [17-mile] loop trail winds through it once you get there.

Monument Valley
Stubs of sandstone jut upward like broken lower teeth on Monument Valley’s desert floor

The air is clear there and often scalding hot, the desert floor still wild, and the red-rock formations that seem to march in review will take your breath away.

Until this spring there was but one motel anywhere nearby – an old lodge that advertises “refrigerated air conditioning,” “iron and ironing boards,” and “bathing amenities.” You can rent John Wayne movies if you stay there. That’s significant, because more than anyone, that rugged star of epic western movies brought attention to this remote, prehistoric time capsule. More about “the Duke” in a bit.

Now that that paved road passes nearby, a new inn has opened right at the entrance to the eroded old loop trail, and people like me have spread the word about the stunning spectacle of buttes and spires, the days of undiscovered desolation for Monument Valley are gone forever.

East and West Mitten Buttes
East and West Mitten buttes take their place among the formations

Unlike the Grand Canyon off to the west in Arizona, whose beauty emanates from the cliffsides of a single, awe-inspiring gorge, or Arches National Park to the north in Utah, where one must hike to see many of the amazing formations, Monument Valley’s rocky “Mittens,” “Three Sisters,” and other towers of red rock rise in a staggering panorama that can be visited and photographed up-close as well, via that dusty trail.

Three Sisters
The “Three Sisters” spires poke out of the desert

For Carol and me, it is Monument Valley more than any of the other spectacular parks that pulls us back to the Southwest for another look, and then another, as the sun paints each formation, turning dark silhouettes a dappled sepia, then fiery crimson depending on matters as mercurial as a passing puffy cloud. To the Navajo people who live here, this is a sacred place, a shrine to Mother Earth and Father Sun. To them – and others who come from the world over to behold it – it is Nature’s might and God’s artistry entwined.

“Nowhere in the world can one find a similar effect of nature’s work,” wrote Josef Muench, the German-born photographer whose work turned Arizona Highways from a travel magazine into a catalog of landscape art. “Words alone cannot begin to describe the thousand-foot pyramid and castles, the slender tower, bridges and arches that dominate Monument Valley.”

Road

Believe it or not, the sandy path that looks like an expanse of beach is the ROAD that ordinary vehicles travel through the heart of Monument Valley

Like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley is a national park. But the nation is not the United States of America. Monument Valley is the jewel of several Navajo Nation tribal parks within the vast, three-state, largely sovereign homeland of the Diné – “the People” – as the Navajo call themselves. (It’s clear why they use another name: “Navajo,” assigned to the tribe by the Spanish, traces to a word that means “thief.”)

And the story of Monument Valley is tied inextricably to the Navajo people and their history.

At 70,000 square kilometers [27,000 square miles], Navajoland, as the Diné like to refer to what whites once called the Navajo Reservation, is larger than 10 of the 50 U.S. states. It is also the largest Indian nation in both size and population (174,000). Another 75,000 Navajos live elsewhere, including large cities like Arizona’s capital of Phoenix.

Code Talkers
These Navajo Code Talkers were photographed on the island of Saipan in 1944

People the world around have heard of Navajos because of their singular contribution to the Allied victory in World War II. Navajo Code Talkers joined every landing and parachute jump by U.S. Marines in the Pacific theater of war. Once ashore they transmitted messages by telephone and radio in their native language, baffling the Japanese, who mistook it for a secret code that they never succeeded in cracking.

Navajo mother and child
A Navajo mother and daughter inspect the long, thick fleece of a Churro sheep

But the world is coming to know the Navajos of Monument Valley as well. “Navajos are nomads and adaptors,” writes K.C. DenDooven, publisher of the “Story Behind the Scenery” series of interpretive books, including a new one on Monument Valley. “They live by their rules and at their own pace – both of which in many ways are distinctly different from the white man’s. Sheep and wool [and the intricate Navajo rugs made from wool] are one of the main forms of industry throughout the entire Navajoland. Sheep wander. Navajos wander.”

Anasazi
The ancient Anasazi built cliff dwellings throughout the Four Corners area. This one can be found at Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado

Their ancestors, Athabascan people who first crossed the Bering Strait from Asia into present-day Alaska and Canada 35,000 years ago, eventually migrated southward into barren lands that are boiling hot each summer and cold enough to dust the sandstone with snow each winter. Like us today, they came upon remnants of an earlier, mysterious native culture that we have named the Anasazi – Navajo for “ancient ones” – who built homes on the cliffsides, carved rock engravings called petroglyphs, and created painted pictographs.

Then they disappeared without a trace. Driven to starvation by the harsh conditions perhaps, or driven out by marauders.

Sandpainting
It’s hard to believe this “painting” is made of loose sand

The Navajo paint, too, in sand paintings using bright pigments ground from the rocks, as part of the healing ceremonies of medicine men. When the rituals are completed, the paintings are destroyed and the sand disbursed.

Navajos
Navajos weave and dye their own woolen rugs in a multitude of hues

Navajo clans dotted the remote hills of what is now northern Arizona and New Mexico with little cohesive government. That changed with the coming of Spaniards in the 1500s. Bent on colonizing the area for New Spain (Spanish-controlled Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and the distant Philippines, run as a viceroyalty from Mexico City), the Spanish sent out soldiers and missionaries. But the nomadic Navajos proved to be elusive converts, resisting Christianity, the Spanish language, and any notion that they would meekly settle down and tend to crops. The Spaniards’ fortunes dimmed further when the Navajo stole their horses – they were thieves indeed in that instance – and used them skillfully to elude and bedevil their would-be conquerors. When the Spanish proposed treaties, not one Navajo entity or spokesman could be found to agree.

So the Navajo held out, beyond Spanish control or that of the Mexican Empire that succeeded New Spain in 1821.

But the U.S. territorial government that came next had greater resources, and therefore better luck, in its series of “Indian Wars” against the Navajo and Apaches. In 1862, Gen. James H. Carleton, commanding U.S. forces in Arizona and New Mexico, decided that it was time to put an end to the “Indian troubles.” As the SouthernNewMexico.com Web site puts it, “His plan was to put [native peoples] on a reservation under military guard, teach them farming and livestock raising to encourage self-sufficiency.” Carleton ordered Col. Christopher “Kit” Carson, a legendary western scout and frontiersman who thought he had settled into peaceful retirement in New Mexico, to round up Navajos and Apaches, kill any who resisted, and bring the captives to Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo (“Round Wood”), an Indian reservation and trading post in southern New Mexico.

Bataan Death March
It’s estimated that one in four U.S. and Filipino soldiers driven along the Bataan Death March did not survive the brutal ordeal

White soldiers killed the livestock of each Navajo family, who were then ordered to chop down every tree and cut their wheat and corn. Starved into submission, the Navajo were marched at gunpoint in what the Diné call “The Long Walk” from their homeland to Bosque Redondo. It was a journey that one day would be compared to the earlier Trail of Tears following the “Indian Removal Act” of 1831 that uprooted eastern Indians and prodded them on foot to reservations in Oklahoma, and to the Bataan Death March of captured Americans and Filipinos by Japanese soldiers in the Philippines during World War II.

Any trust that the Indian people of the American Southwest had invested in whites before Bosque Redondo was replaced by hatred, suspicion, and defiance – attitudes that linger, in varying degrees, to this day.

Only 6,000 Navajos survived the Long Walk, though others fled to hide in the Grand Canyon and elsewhere. The captives faced a difficult choice between accepting “civilization” and white ways, or extinction. Exclusion and segregation onto reservations, not assimilation into the larger culture, were official U.S. policy for the “red man.”

An unidentified Navajo, quoted on SouthernNewMexico.com, wrote in 1865:

Bosque Redondo
Indians who survived the Long Walk gather near the Bosque Redondo trading post

Cage the badger and he will try to break from his prison and regain his native hole. Chain the eagle to the ground – he will strive to gain his freedom, and though he fails, he will lift his head and look up at the sky which is its home – and we want to return to our mountains and plains, where we used to plant corn, wheat, and beans.

So many Navajos died of dysentery, malnutrition, and, metaphorically, heartbreak at Bosque Redondo that the U.S. Government abandoned its attempt to “civilize” them. The government signed a peace treaty releasing the captives. At dawn on June 18, 1868, a column of 7,000 Indians, 1,500 horses and mules, 50 Army wagons, and 2,000 sheep stretching 16 kilometers [10 miles] long left Fort Sumner. It was the Navajos’ Long Walk in reverse, this time without hostile armed escort, back to their homeland in northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona.

Navajo siblings
This Navajo brother and sister were photographed, reluctantly it would seem, in 1915

There, they would have the hard land much to themselves for decades to come. An occasional prospector passed through, unsuccessfully looking for gold or silver. Archaeologists and anthropologists descended upon Anasazi cliff dwellings. And collectors’ agents plundered the ancient sites. But the region’s harsh climate and nearly bone-dry terrain held no long-term appeal to white settlers.

Monument
Did we say “harsh”? Of course, Carol’s photo was shot on infrared film, which exaggerates the terrain’s extremes

In 1923, a white sheep rancher named Harry Goulding and his wife, whom everyone called “Mike,” moved into the valley. They would build a trading post from which to sell supplies, Indian rugs and jewelry, including rings and necklaces made of turquoise, the robin’s-egg-blue gemstone that is one of the Navajos’ sacred stones. For centuries, Navajo hunters have worn turquoise to bring success, shepherds donned it to assure the fertility of the flock, and warriors carried it to inspire victory.

Hogan
The hogan is the pragmatic but extremely modest traditional Navajo home. It’s made from the crude and scarce materials available

According to K.C. DenDooven’s account, the Navajos who helped Harry Goulding construct his lodge had never before seen a two-story stone building; their people lived in hogans – always east-facing toward the morning sun – made of wooden poles, tree bark, and mud. Navajos would later move into modest trailers or small houses, but they continue to build hogans for religious ceremonies and tourist demonstrations.

The Gouldings’ trading post still stands, more as a museum next to the old motel that I mentioned. But the Navajos’ wool, once delivered to Harry’s place by horse and wagon, is now carried to fair-sized towns by pickup truck. From time to time, sheep and goats are also herded along the park’s sand dunes for the benefit of tourist photographers.

Business was anything but brisk at Goulding’s Trading Post in the 1930s. The only roads were old, pitted trails. Monument Valley lay unnoticed to just about all whites except the Gouldings and Muench the photographer.

But one day, Harry Goulding told Muench that they should gather some of his black-and-white photos – the technology to produce today’s stunning color shots hadn’t yet been perfected – and drive to Hollywood, over in California. And that they did. There, they spread a photo album before producers who had been filming barely-believable “westerns” in the California desert or on contrived back lots. Surely, Goulding and Muench told the movie moguls, a rugged-rock backdrop of the real West would be an improvement.

John Ford, already a noted screenwriter and director who had delivered a silent western spectacular, “The Iron Horse,” about an early railroad across the West, and his production chief, Walter Wanger, were sold on the spot. (However, after Goulding and Muench left, Ford dispatched an aide to fly over the area to verify that the valley looked as astounding in situ as it did on film.) By the time Goulding and Muench reached Williams, Arizona, 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Monument Valley, on their trip back home, crews had already descended, buying food and other supplies for the first film shoot.

Stagecoach
Besides John Wayne, notable “western” regulars Thomas Mitchell, Andy Devine, and John Carradine appeared in “Stagecoach,” along with several Monument Valley scenic shots

The result was the classic 1939 western “Stagecoach,” starring John Wayne in his breakthrough role as the Ringo Kid. It was Ford’s first “talkie” western and the first of ten he would film on location in Monument Valley. The plot concerned “men and women on the last frontier of wickedness!” enduring a harrowing trip by stage across dangerous Apache – not Navajo – land. (“These hills here are full of Apaches. They’ve burnt every ranch building in sight!”) The surroundings looked appropriately stark.

In the long run, Monument Valley’s panoramas, as much as famous actors, were the stars of “Stagecoach” and other movies filmed there, bringing the park’s red-rock splendor from obscurity into the world’s imagination. There’s now a “John Ford Point” in Monument Valley, marking a spot from a scene from “The Searchers,” supposedly set in Texas but filmed in Ford’s favorite Navajo valley. Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper rumble through Monument Valley on their motorcycles in the 1969 counter-culture

Road
Many a Hollywood actor, or perhaps a stunt man or woman “double,” has driven one sort of vehicle or another down the dusty road through Monument Valley

classic, “Easy Rider.” In “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” the Griswold family’s station wagon falls apart in a most unfortunate place: forbidding Monument Valley. Stanley Kubrick picked a perfect spot for an alien planet’s bleak terrain in his “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was, of course, Monument Valley. Tom Cruise even climbs a Monument Valley spire in “Mission Impossible II,” a practice that in real life is sternly prohibited by the Navajos in this sacred place.

Lots of TV shows and music videos have been shot in the valley as well, all thanks to Harry Goulding and Josef Muench’s sales pitch.

Some of the visuals shot in Monument Valley, including those of visitors lucky enough to arrive in early spring, show the rabbitbrush, cliffrose, aptly named snakewood bush (rattlers, you know), scarce cottonwood trees, and the purple sage – after which Zane Grey’s best-known western novel and the country-rock group “New Riders of the Purple Sage” are named – are in vivid bloom. Many of them spring to life again, fleetingly, after a summer deluge and flash flood. Otherwise, they lie dormant beneath the sizzling sun.

But the red rock, blue sky, white clouds and occasional snow, raging black thunderheads, and flat-green brush supply plenty of color without them.

Sunset

Monument Valley sunsets are worth waiting for

Monument Valley is, of course, a prime geological exhibit. For hundreds of millions of years, sediment eroded from surrounding mountains coagulated into a vast table of solid sandstone, 300 meters [1,000 feet] deep, spread over 259 square kilometers [100 square miles]. Then came a slow geological uplift that turned what had been a basin into a

Monument Valley
You can see many geological folds, layers, and striations in this up-close view of a Monument Valley formation

high plateau. And once again millions more years of erosion followed. They left behind the hardest slabs and slivers of rock, looming as pinnacles, buttes, and arches above the land that we know as Monument Valley. I say “know as,” because it’s not really a valley at all! It’s a sweeping plain without many surrounding mountains but punctuated with those magnificent red-rock formations.

But neither the rocks nor their gorgeous depictions in western movies brought many outsiders to Monument Valley until the 1940s, when the main road from Kayenta, Arizona, up into Utah was finally paved. Miners came to extract uranium but left after 20 years when the veins played out. Still, 11,000 tons of ore containing “yellow-cake uranium” mined there would supply the Manhattan Project – the top-secret, all-too-successful effort to build an atomic bomb in the desert next door in New Mexico.

1915
The Navajo’s traditions and humble lifestyles haven’t changed much since this photo was taken in 1915

All the while and afterward, the Navajos stuck to their sheepherding and crafts – a proud but meager existence. Today, according to the Utah Department of Community and Culture, “Despite its significant economic potential, socio-economic conditions on the Navajo Nation are comparable to those found in some underdeveloped third world countries.” About 55 per cent of the Navajo people live below the poverty level compared to 12.8 percent for the United States overall. A Navajo’s average annual per capita income is about $6,000. It’s $47,000 nationally. Unemployment in Navajoland ranges from 36 percent in tourist and crop season to more than 50 percent each winter. And in another measure of the bleakness of one’s days in this barren but beautiful land, there are, even today, just 3,200 kilometers [2,000 miles] of paved roads in all of the Navajo Nation; West Virginia, a relatively remote and rural place of about the same size, has nine times that much good roadage.

As tourists slowly but insistently began to come calling in Navajo land in the late 1960s, the Navajos tightened their organizational structure, changing their designation from Indian tribe to Navajo Nation and asserting even greater control over their economic and political life.

Seal

The Navajo Nation’s sovereignty from U.S. control, yet coexistence with the states and federal government around it, are embodied in its official seal. It displays 50 arrowheads – representing the U.S. states – in an unbroken circle around a drawing that shows four great mountains that border Navajoland, and three species of livestock.

Responding to increased tourist traffic, the Navajos set up a small souvenir shop and a gatehouse at which a $5 fee to enter the dirt loop road is collected. Tribal members increased their horseback and wagon tours to hidden parts of the park, including a place called “Mystery Valley” that contains Anasazi pueblo ruins and rock art such as a petroglyph of a sheep.

It became clear to many visitors that Monument Valley equals or surpasses the scenic grandeur of better-publicized and more accessible U.S. National Parks, and we have all wondered why it never became one.

The answer traces to Navajos’ national pride, plus their lingering suspicion and defiance of whites.

As I’ve noted, few outsiders had discovered Monument Valley before John Ford and his film crew arrived. But Roger Toll had. He was the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, the original U.S. national park far to the north in Wyoming. In 1931, he was dispatched by federal authorities to traverse the West and identify sites where national parks could be established before developers gobbled up the land. He showed up in Monument Valley and was, not surprisingly, “blown away” – to use today’s vernacular – by what he saw. Toll wrote a report that enthusiastically recommended creation of a vast new national park there. It noted that the State of Arizona and the U.S. Indian Service, predecessor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, would no doubt be thrilled with this addition to the nation’s scenic attractions.

He said nothing at all about what the Navajos might think.

Toll’s plan proceeded cheerfully through the federal bureaucracy. Patronizingly, it stipulated that local Indians could continue living – no doubt far away from tourists – in the new park, and they could keep their sheep, too. No doubt they’d prosper, relatively speaking, as seasonal park hands.

Congressional approval seemed certain, and the relatively compliant Navajo Tribal Council signaled that it, too, would go along.

Thumb
Perhaps inspired by this notable upcropping, Roger Toll gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the notion of a Monument Valley U.S. park that never materialized

But in a stroke of truly bad timing, the new U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, showed up in Tuba City, Arizona, the Navajo Reservation’s largest city, 120 kilometers [75 miles] from Monument Valley. He carried a startling new mandate for the Navajo people. To curb what had become a serious problem of overgrazing in the sparsely vegetated area, Collier ordered a “stock reduction” program. It cut the size of many Navajo sheep herds by half or more, resulting in even greater destitution – and documented starvation – among the Navajo people. As one U.S. Park Service history concluded, “No event since the exile to the Bosque Redondo was more demoralizing. . . . The Navajos became suspicious of any government program . . . as a threat to the Navajo way of life.”

So suspicious that the Navajo Tribal Council angrily rejected the Park Service’s plan to create a dandy new national park in and beyond Monument Valley.

The opening of The View, the Navajo Nation’s new motel and visitor center from which tourists can take decent, if distant, panoramic photos of Monument Valley’s formations, illustrates a predicament for the Navajo people: a tug-of-war between traditional ways geared to livestock herding, rug weaving, and the spiritual power of the surroundings; and the forces of modernity, including tourist money and what it can buy. Even 18 years ago, a report about the U.S. Park Service’s Navajo National Monument, not far away, observed, “A recent trip to Farmington Mall [over the state line in New Mexico] revealed scores of young Navajos in the classic garb of the generic teenager: unlaced tennis shoes with the tongues hanging out and heavy metal T-shirts of popular groups. The demands of the modern world have an overwhelming character. They hegemonize indiscriminately.”

Navajo Nation
The Navajo Nation flag was designed by J.R. Degroat, a New Mexico Navajo. It was selected over a 139 competitors in a contest and adopted in 1968

Standing on that balcony, watching visitors’ cars inch their way along the torturous dirt road through Monument Valley, Carol and I lamented the day that is almost sure to come, when – for the “convenience” of visitors, that road will be paved, and then widened, and then, perhaps, interspersed with gas stations and convenience stores and a gaudy Indian casino. When that day arrives in a place that is holy to the Navajo and serene to everyone who beholds it, honking cars and lines of campers, crowded overlooks, clouds of CO2, and scraps of litter tossed at the great rocks and stuck in the trees will have turned Monument Valley into America’s latest paradise lost.

***

While We’re There

I should also mention three other remarkable places to see within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation.

Two are national monuments, administered by the National Park Service.

Betakin Canyon
These cliff-dwelling ruins at Navajo National Monument overlook Betakin Canyon

Navajo National Monument protects what’s left – after serious erosion and the depredations of relic thieves – of three cliff dwellings of ancient puebloan people. Access is along short, self-guided trails.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument also features cliffside Anasazi ruins. They can be viewed from the opposite rim, but access to the canyon floor is restricted to tours by park service rangers or Navajo guides. Inside the canyon, two towering sandstone spires that together are called Spider Rock have been the setting for a number of television

Canyon de Chelly
Seven Navajo riders and a dog cross the Canyon de Chelly in this photograph, taken about 1904

commercials. According to Navajo beliefs, the taller of the two is the home of Spider Woman, sometimes called the “Spider Grandmother,” who threw a web laced with dew into the sky, creating the stars. De Chelly, pronounced “de SHAY,” is a combination of Spanish and Navajo words meaning “inside the rock,” as in finding oneself in a tight canyon surrounded by high, red bluffs.

My favorite, outside of Monument Valley, is Four Corners, the only place in America where four states – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, touch. It takes forever and half a tank of gas to reach, but it’s one of those places where you feel compelled to get a picture, no matter what it takes to get there.

Even if there isn’t much of a there there.

Four corners
We’ll show you this tasteful photo of the point where four Southwest states come together, rather than the disgusting one of me trying to position myself in all four at once

All of the four abutting states would surely have ignored the place had the Navajo not set up a modest monument, ringed by flags of the four states and a few sorry shacks from which one can purchase jewelry, a cold drink, or fried Indian flat bread. Criss-crossed lines on a U.S. Department of the Interior marker denote the convergence point of the four states. Of course, tourists cannot resist turning themselves into quadrupeds, down on “all fours”: left hand in Utah, right hand in Colorado, right foot in New Mexico, left foot in Arizona, and dignity out the window.

I remember my remark to Carol in that circumstance: “Yes, I know I look stupid. Just take the photograph!”

***

Hold the Croutons

One last thing, completely off the subject:

If you’ve followed these postings, you know that I like to note the passing of those who have done interesting things, whether or not the person has reached the threshold of fame.

Norman Brinker, who died on June 2 at age 78, was such a guy. Norm had an important influence on my life, at least as of late. He is credited with having invented . . . the salad bar! . . . that long table of fruit and veggies that might have been good for you if you hadn’t heaped on bleu cheese dressing, sunflower seeds, bacon bits, and maybe a glop of chocolate pudding from the “dessert bar,” squeezed into a crevice in the mound of food on the plate.

In the 1960s, Brinker started a chain of casual “Steak & Ale” restaurants in which he gave customers the option to fix their own salads or even make a main course of them. So, a tip of the lettuce tongs to Norm!

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

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

Depredations. The ravages left behind by plunderers or marauders.

Forbidding. Stark, rugged, even life-threatening.

In situ. In its full and natural setting. Someone commissioning a photograph of a gate, for instance, might ask that it be captured in situ, including the fence and landscape that surround the gate itself.

Traverse. To cross or pass through a place. The word’s root is the same as the root of “travel.”

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The (Condo) Good Life

Posted June 5th, 2009 at 3:53 pm (UTC-4)
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I was going to write about Carol’s and my recent visit to Monument Valley, in sweeping Navajo tribal land on the Arizona-Utah border. But I need to spend a tad more time “studying up” on Navajo history and culture in order to put this awesome terrain in context. Next posting, I’ll show you some of Carol’s stunning images and paint some (less-stunning) word pictures as well. I’m pretty sure that the formations of Monument Valley, 65 million years in the making, won’t have changed much in the next few days.

***

Do Good HOAs Make Good Neighbors?

Last week, I was reading one of the “news obituaries” in the Washington Post or the New York Times – I can’t recall which. In fact, I don’t remember the name of, or many details about, the man whose life story was recounted. I asked my VOA colleague and cubicle-farm neighbor, Faith Lapidus, if she had perhaps read the same obit and could help. She replied, “No, I’m not old enough to be reading the obituaries.”

There’s some truth in that.

In case you’re wondering, a news obituary differs from the short testimonials to the ordinary dearly departed that are a staple of every local newspaper. News obituaries are short biographies, not a recitation of the deceased’s job résumés, fraternal affiliations, and extended relatives. News obits don’t describe funeral arrangements or the charities to which donations may be sent in lieu of sending flowers to the survivors.

What jumped out at me about this man, whoever he was, was what the obit writer described as “his passion” – directing and enforcing the strict rules of his condominium association.

What an odd thing to be passionate about, I thought.

Guarded gates greet visitors to some luxury communities across America. And many of them are especially fussy about keeping up appearances

Homeowner, condo, subdivision, and other “co-operative” associations that attempt to establish reasonable neighborhood standards (as one viewpoint would have it) or heartlessly trample the right of free expression (as others see it), are examples of, to put it politely, “dynamic tensions” that exist among neighbors in such communities. Tempers flare when neighbors start telling each other what they can and cannot do with their property. That’s why, as a Las Vegas resident told the local newspaper, “HOA” stands for “homeowners’ association” to some and “Home Owners with Attitude” to others.

This is The Villages, a “retirement lifestyle center” in Ocala, Florida

Homeowner associations are legal entities, and some are registered nonprofit corporations as well. States like Florida and California, where millions of retirees own and live in apartments, attached condominiums, and single-family homes in planned or gated clusters with names like “Sunnyside Commons” and “The Estates at Babbling Brook,” give associations all sorts of power. They can write “covenants” regulating design and behavior standards, enforce the rules with fines and even evictions, and charge monetary “assessments” to each household to cover shared maintenance of trees, parks, swimming pools and tennis courts, strips of grass along the street, and walking trails. Up north, some homeowners’ associations even plow the streets in wintertime with the money they collect.

Hawaiian flag
In co-op apartment buildings, residents pay the doorman and other staff. The doorman usually has the best of it. He gets the most tips

In hotel-sized, owner-occupied apartment towers with swanky monikers like “The Excelsior,” condo associations collect the money that pays the salaries and benefits, if any, of front-desk clerks, doormen, maintenance workers, housekeepers, pool cleaners and the like.

Most residents gladly pay these assessments. Having someone else sweep up fallen palm-tree fronds and negotiate good rates for basic cable service throughout a building or neighborhood is one less hassle that they have to worry about.

But all is not so rosy when it comes to “special” assessments and “architectural control” from the HOA.

Here’s an example of the former:

Hawaiian flag
Townhouses in a long row can look as different as night and day. But they share some walls and a common roof, which means that tough decisions must be made come repair time

You live in a rowhouse community, side-by-side with your neighbors – in individual units but under a common roof. When the aging roof begins to leak above one unit, your condo board decides that the entire roof needs replacing, and it passes a one-time assessment in the thousands of dollars to pay for it – to be divided among all the households.

This may not sit well with you if the roof has never leaked above your place.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
Many HOAs have a tolerance for cuties like this

Disputes over pets and kids also get tempers flaring in cooperative communities. A state like Florida has thousands of “55-plus” condo and neighborhood developments, designed and equipped for retirees.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
And not so much for bowsers of this size

The homeowner association may allow lap-sized pets like precious Fritzy or Fifi, but ban bruisers named Bruno and Butch. This does not please those who’d like to bring in a mastiff puppy for companionship. Sad or tragic life experiences sometimes force grandparents to inherit the care of young children, and it’s a tricky and contentious matter for the owner association to tell the old folks that their own flesh and blood is banned by covenant and cannot stay.

Hawaiian flag
Homeowners’ associations typically take a dim view of yard signage, not to mention the idea of footloose renters moving into the community

Many HOAs forbid members from renting their homes, or even a room or two, in the belief that itinerant renters have no inherent interest in maintaining the property. They’re viewed as undesirables who’ll introduce large families, loud music and late-night carousing, strange cooking odors, suspicious strangers, drugs and crime.

But homeowners who lose a job or a loved one and could use the extra income from a rental have a hard time understanding why they can’t rent out something they own.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
“Excuse me, Madam President, but did you say I CAN’Tscreen in my front porch?”

Thus a seat on a condo or subdivision’s board of directors can be the quintessential “thankless job.” To top it off, it’s usually unpaid. Board members call meetings that few attend – until a storm brews over a controversial issue. Then the room can be packed with snarling people who call them liars, thieves, witches, Nazis, incompetent idiots and worse. Even board members can end up at each other’s throats over volatile matters like opening a private beach to outsiders, making a club room smoke-free, or allowing residents to “run a little business” out of their homes. People have even come to blows over issues as minute as the allowable dimensions of hanging birdhouses.

It’s not like having a disagreement at work. HOA matters involve neighbors who see each other all the time and may be stuck with each other for years to come.

As “The Cooperator,” the monthly online co-op and condo newsletter noted, board membership “is not exactly a walk in the park.” It quoted a 1976 Wake Forest [University] Law Review article: “Too often, Board members approach their Association responsibilities as if they were on the committee of a social club, religious group, or other similar organization.”

Instead, they find themselves in charge of thousands of dollars of community members’ money, and if they don’t do well they can face serious legal problems, including lawsuits and criminal charges.

Earlier I mentioned, but did not explain, “architectural control” – “control” being the operative word. Nothing, but nothing, gets people worked up as much as this facet of condominium or subdivision life.

Hawaiian flag
There’s a certain sameness to many housing tracts – which is just the way some HOAs like it

These communities were often developed by a builder, developer, or apartment-building owner according to a master plan. “Units,” including single-family houses, were designed to project a consistent, predictable “look” based on similar building materials, floor plans, balcony and deck configurations, landscaping features – even exterior paint schemes.

A look that you could accept or walk away from when you considered moving in.

You might, for instance, choose a community because of its Victorian ambience – classic gabled houses painted in a limited variety of pastels and graced with nostalgic wraparound porches. The uniformity of style increases the neighborhood appeal and property values.

Hawaiian flag
“Uh, interesting color scheme, but we don’t think so. And by the way, you’ve hung the American flag backward.”

And homeowner associations exist to keep it that way. No funky, cubist lawn sculptures, please. No day-glo-orange window trim. No loud music after 10 p.m. No liberation flags in the window. No outrageous additions that turn modest dwellings into elephantine “McMansions.”

Inside, you can go wild if you like. Even tear out some walls. But don’t mess with the exterior without permission of the association board.

And don’t hold your breath waiting to get it.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
Cute. Warmhearted. Not allowed. Sorry

The homeowner association can even regulate nuanced decorative touches that one wouldn’t think would offend anyone: Display an American flag in the window? Hang a Jewish mezuzah on the doorjamb or string pretty Christmas lights on the roof? Stick a satellite dish of modest size – “modest” being a relative term – out of sight in the back yard? Put a cute white picket fence around the garden?

Maybe, maybe not. Depends on the association covenants and the imperial rulings of its Architectural Control Committee.

Now, to those who argue “a man’s home is his castle,” to which he can do just about anything he pleases, this all sounds as if self-appointed neighborhood vigilantes are preserving mindless conformity captured in Malvina Reynolds’s song “Little Boxes,” famously performed by Pete Seeger in the 1960s . . .

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.

Well, like it or not, the condo or homeowner association has the force of law behind its authority. It can fine you or even kick you out if you don’t go along with its dictates.

Hawaiian flag
Rules, rules, rules. They’re what make some HOA volunteers’ world go ‘round

A friend of mine, whom I will not name for reasons you’ll understand once I quote him, lives in a lovely high-rise condominium. He’s kept a close eye on relations between the residents and the condo board. He may even be on it, for all I know. And he sent me an entertaining account of, as he puts it, “a few of the inane, ridiculous and sublime things we’ve run into in the years we’ve been here.”

It’s instructive to quote him in full, minus a few of his intemperate interjections:

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
“Look out below!”

1. We have a balcony that is partially exposed to anything which our fellow residents may discard from their balconies on upper floors. We make great use of this area to relax in the evenings. This became a problem when the lady [on a higher floor] decided she was entitled to wash her windows and balcony floor. That in itself sounds somewhat innocent. However, her drain scuppers deposited literal cascades of dirty water onto our balcony. There is an absolute prohibition in our bylaws against throwing anything, even CLEAN water, off a balcony since those below might be injured or have their right to enjoy their property impaired.

We made a formal complaint to the management. Presently, the neighbor appeared at our door to negotiate. She took the position that we ought to allow her to dump her waste water off her balcony onto ours on a weekly basis. She was willing to settle for every two weeks if we really pressed the point. She was dumbfounded that we would not agree amongst ourselves to violate the building’s bylaws. She lost that argument and to this day will not speak to us, which I regard as a victory in itself.

Hawaiian flag
“If we let you hang flags, pretty soon you’ll be putting out your wash on the railing.”

2. This one was really dicey. An upper-floor resident began displaying a large American flag on the outer portion of his balcony railing. You could see it for hundreds of yards. Once again, the bylaws are strict and unmistakable. Nothing can be hung from a balcony. No exceptions. The condo Board agonized over how to approach the fellow without seeming to be anti-American or at least anti-flag. One bright fellow, he isn’t even a lawyer, found some obscure (to me) federal statute that specifies exactly how and under what conditions an American flag may be displayed. The resident was in gross violation of this statute, particularly the part which demands that the flag be reverently taken down at sunset. He was horrified to learn of his transgression, and he hasn’t displayed the flag since.

Hawaiian flag
Your HOA is watching you!

3. At virtually every Board meeting I have attended, at least one resident has objected to the presence of security cameras in the building. We have a large number of them strategically placed to record all activity, 24/7, in the COMMON areas of our building. Areas such as the lobby, exercise room, party room, mail room, pool deck and parking garages are all under surveillance. Typically it takes the association President only a minute or two to ascertain that the objecting resident has somehow gotten it into her head that the security cameras are in HER apartment recording every moment of her existence. Even after it is carefully explained that the cameras only monitor activities in the public areas, she usually objects and wants to know if the people who are entitled to review the recordings have had proper background checks. Happily, our President is the proud possessor of federal security clearances that, as he puts it, “I am prohibited by federal statute from describing to you.” That has always ended the discussion.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
Has the Architectural Control Committee seen this??

A few people still encourage their precious pets to poop in the terribly expensive landscaping around the building, but we caught a few on camera and they’ve been fined. Some people prop open doors to the outside or garages for their own momentary convenience and then forget to close them. That compromises our security. Similarly, last summer a resident decided to invite a group of friends over for a pool party. Unfortunately, his party took place around midnight after the pool had been closed for hours. The security cameras revealed that it was clearly a “clothing optional” event. I was hoping the videos would be screened publicly with light refreshments served, but legal counsel overruled me.

“I could go on,” my friend’s account wound down, “but you get the picture.”

He noted that in his state, those who enter into a contract to buy a condo are required by law to receive all bylaws and other documents in advance of closing. This allows someone who just can’t live with the regimentation an opportunity to get out of the deal without penalty. “Of course,” my friend noted, “virtually no one actually reads the documents.

“In our case, we did and decided the tradeoffs were ones we could live with.”

Somewhere in this tug-of-war between conformists who like things just so – “condo commandos,” a friend in Miami calls them – and those who think homeowners ought to be able to express their various tastes through the appearance of their property, lies some interesting psychology. It takes a certain kind of person to give up many nights and weekends, drafting homeowner association rules, rewriting charters for obscure committees, calling and faithfully attending board meetings, and keeping a vigil for “architectural” transgressions.

Hawaiian flag
“You can’t fool me. I know you’re with the HOA violation inspection team!”

A colleague here at VOA who served for several years on such a board told me that some of the board members actually walked the neighborhood in a pack, clipboards in hand, peering into their neighbors’ yards to check for obscure “violations” like unburied television cables and fences that aren’t plumb. She believes that gung-ho immersion in neighborhood affairs can be a power trip for some, or a nearly obsessive-compulsive desire to “keep up community standards” for others.

“But in their hearts, they believe they’re motivated by altruism,” she says – “a desire to serve.”

Some people – perhaps like the fellow profiled in that news obituary – seem to thrive on the challenge of HOA service. But others steer so clear of getting involved that many owner associations have been forced to hire hard-hearted outside management companies to run their affairs.

Such is life for condominium, co-op, and homeowners’ associations.

Or Home Owners With Attitude.

***

Would You Believe?

If you read a checklist – author or source unidentified – that’s widely circulated on the Web, it’s a miracle that anyone born in America before 1980 is still alive.

Borrowing from and elaborating on it, just think:

When we were in the womb, our mothers ate bleu cheese dressing and tuna from a can, took aspirin, had a drink or two, and smoked.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
Look ma, no hands. And no helmet, either

As toddlers, we had no childproof lids or locks on medicine bottles, doors, or cabinets.

We rode our bikes clear across town and back, and the only thing on our heads was a Cleveland Indians baseball cap.

We ate cupcakes and white bread, and we drank sugary soda pop. (I used to spend my paper-route money on cases of returnable bottles of R.C. Cola. If you don’t believe it, ask my dentist today.) Rapture was sinking our teeth into a richly marbled steak, or lobster drenched in melted butter, or – more likely in our modest circumstances – two or three boxes of Good & Plenty licorice candy at the movie show. But we weren’t overweight because we were always outside playing. We even passed around that bottle of pop, and two or three or four friends would put their actual lips on it!

Sometimes we’d go over to a friend’s house – friends were human kids then, not Internet avatars. We’d play football, build treehouses, swing on swings, fall and cut ourselves or break a bone. And – you won’t believe this – no one sued our parents when we did.

We made up games rather than buying them, and some of them involved sharp objects or Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Air Rifle guns that did not put out an eye.

Not everyone made the Little League baseball team. Those who didn’t got over it. Only winning teams got trophies. There were no “participation” ribbons.

Some students did better than we did in school. And if we caused trouble and were disciplined, our parents sided with . . . the teachers. Imagine!

In college, we hitchhiked.

We rode in cars with no seat belts or air bags. Riding in the back of a pickup truck was a treat.

We drank water straight from the garden hose. (I swear it!)

We had no video games; had only three fuzzy, black-and-white TV channels to watch; owned no cell phones, had no way to “download” music or take and view photographs on the spot.

We had no computers at all. Imagine!

Hawaiian flag
“What did I tell you about the sun?”

The point that some people take from all this is that since millions of people not only survived these harrowing times but even went on to become risk-takers, innovators, leaders, and blog writers, the government and do-gooder activist groups should butt out of everyday life and let people take their lumps.

It’s a facile and tempting conclusion. But surely there’s a reasonable middle ground between slathering our lives with regulations and letting the weak and strong, poor and wealthy, slow and brilliant, unlucky and lucky fend for themselves.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
None of these is Mother

I do miss lead-based paint that spread so smoothly and lasted forever. But then, I don’t, any more, have toddlers crawling across the porch and teething on banister rails. My mom smoked like a steam locomotive and drank a Miller High Life now and then, probably even while she was pregnant with me, and I turned out OK in some people’s estimation.

Yet I’m glad that someone warns expectant mothers to knock those things off today. I won’t so much as back out of the driveway without a buckled seat belt, thanks to safety campaigns. And having once seen what happens when a motorcyclist who’s struck by a car is propelled through a windshield, I’m happy that most states require cyclists to put something hard on their heads. I’m pleased that makers of fast and processed food must now tell me what all they put in their products. Because someone just might put an eye out, I don’t mind it a bit that, inside each box that they sell, BB-gun makers must list firearm-safety rules as long as your arm. Even the ugly health-warning label on my box of poker-game cigars makes a lot of sense to me.

To Carol’s consternation, I still drink out of the garden hose, love bleu cheese dressing, drink a beer and smoke those cigars now and then. Regulators or no regulators.

***
Ponderables

Here’s another list that makes a good lead-in to WILD WORDS. An old radio colleague, Jim Slade, sends around a gentle humor compendium that he calls “Gadfly.” And in a recent edition, contributor John Taylor asked some questions:

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout

If a word is misspelled in the dictionary, how would we know?
If Webster wrote the first dictionary, where did he find the words?
Why do we say that something is “out of whack”? What’s a whack?
Why do “fat chance” and “slim chance” mean the same thing?
Why do “tug” boats push their barges?
Why do Americans sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when we are already there?
At the game, how is that we “sit” in the “stands”?
Why, at night, is it “after dark” rather than “after light”?
And John’s capper: Doesn’t “expecting the unexpected” make the unexpected expected?

You may have to think about that last one awhile!

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

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

Avatar. Lots of young people know this word well. Online, it stands for a computer representation of oneself – an alter ego that looks and acts much like a human. The word traces to Hindu mythology, in which a god comes to earth in human form.

BB gun. An air gun, or one that fires small, round, metal projectiles called BBs using a spring. It’s sometimes said that “BB” was taken from industrial “ball bearing” pellets, but it actually originated from the size of lead shot used in some shotguns – BB was in between the B and BBB sizes. A number of companies have developed less-dangerous toy alternatives that employ plastic pellets.

Cubicle farm. A sarcastic reference to an array of small office workspaces, each surrounded by partitions to give their inhabitants the illusion of privacy. At VOA, we call one such arrangement in our large newsroom “Podland.”

Mezuzah. A small scroll containing handwritten passages from Jewish sacred writings that is stored in a protective case and hung on a doorpost. The mezuzah serves as a reminder of God’s presence in the house.

Slather. To spread generously. Mayonnaise on a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, for instance.

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Paradise Redefined

Posted May 29th, 2009 at 5:49 pm (UTC-4)
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Wh`y Hawai`i?
Hawaiian flag
The Hawaiian state flag is certainly a curious one for a U.S. state. It’s actually a hybrid of the British Union Jack and the American standard’s stripes, with blue ones thrown in

Until relatively recently, most Americans, including me, have identified our 50th and newest state – if you call admission to the Union in 1959 “new” – as Hawaii.

Nope. America’s most ethnically diverse and distant state – farther from another landmass than any other inhabited place on earth – is Hawai`i.

And yes, what appears to be an apostrophe in “Hawai`i” is facing the wrong direction, according what English-users are used to.

It turns out that the reasons for the distinction – Hawai`i rather than Hawaii – are a lot more complex than I imagined when I began asking about them.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
This is the breathtaking view from Kaua`i’s Pu`u o Kila Lookout

I didn’t pay much attention to, or try to make sense of, any of it until the last time Carol and I traveled to the archipelago of eight inhabited Pacific islands a couple of years ago. Then we noticed that these odd words with their backward apostrophes – odd if you’re from Ohio – had sprouted like wild Hawaiian orchids: Pu`u o Kila Lookout and the Nu`alolo Valley on the “Garden Island” of Kaua`i, and Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park on the volcanic “Big Island” of Hawai`i (like the state), for example.

Wiki Wiki
No apostrophe needed in this commonly seen Hawaiian sign, for a Wiki-Wiki (quick-quick!) convenience store

No longer, in blissfully incurious tourist fashion, could we chalk up all these apostrophes to “local color” and pay them no mind. And here’s what we found out:

Hawaiian – one of the state’s two official languages, along with English – has Polynesian roots, tracing to the settlement of the archipelago by Marquesans and Tahitians from even more distant Pacific islands beginning about 300 A.D. When certain vowels in certain places within certain words bump into each other in Hawaiian, those who are speaking the word take an almost imperceptible breath – something that linguists call a “glottal stop.” You hear it in English, for instance, when one puts a brief, breathy pause in “Oh-oh!”

Vocal chords
The human throat isn’t all that attractive, but as this old Grey’s Anatomy sketch illustrates, it’s functional. The glottis is the expanding and contracting opening leading to the trachea

“Glottal,” in case you’re curious – and even if you’re not – derives from the glottis. That’s the space in the back of the throat that’s created when one’s vocal chords open and quiver.

The glottis produces that slight sound during that ever-so-brief interruption in some

Godfrey
Here’s Arthur Godfrey in 1953, strumming his ukulele. Godfrey was a headstrong fellow who routinely fired others on his show, including singer Julius LaRosa once, on the air!

Hawaiian words. You can almost hear the fleeting exhalation that turns the common English pronunciation of “Huh-wy-ee” into “Huh-WHUH,ee,” with a little puff of air between the “whuh” and the “ee.” Native Hawaiians prefer “Huh-VUH,ee” – with a “v” – but still with the tiny pause toward the end of the word. For those of us long-toothed enough to remember: Arthur Godfrey, the venerable, red-haired radio and television personality who wore a gaudy, floral Hawaiian shirt, didn’t miss the authentic pronunciation by much when he sang about “going back to my little grass shack in Kealakekua, Huh-vuh,ee” while strumming his ukulele.

Now that you’re up to speed with the glottal stop (aren’t you?), a word about that funny apostrophe. It’s not an apostrophe at all. “Well I’ll be,” I can hear you saying.

Okina
That’s the okina key, shared with the tilde (~). Usually it’s overlooked, up there next to the much more useful No. 1

It’s an “okina” – a mark that exists specifically to indicate those glottal stops within a word. Most English computer keyboards do park an okina symbol way up on the far left corner of the “numbers” row, on the key that also houses the tilde diacritical mark (~) , not that you ever notice them up there.

All of this, including the reference to a radio guy who’s been dead for 26 years, would be mighty arcane if it weren’t associated with a highly serious nationalist movement in the Hawaiian Islands. (The adjective “Hawaiian,” by the way, isn’t spelled with the okina – it’s not “Hawai`ian” – because it’s a purely English word; there’s no direct equivalent in the Hawaiian language.)

An Offering Before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands
This is a 1778 illustration, “An Offering Before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands,” by Andrew Middleman. Cook made three trips to Hawai`i. He was killed in a fight onshore after the third one

This all goes back to the islands’ colorful history. They were ruled by one Polynesian monarch or another until British naval captain James Cook “discovered” them in 1778 and named them the Sandwich Islands, after his patron, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. It wasn’t long before other European ships stopped there on voyages to and from the Far East. They brought wondrous new goods, Christianity, and diseases that killed a huge proportion of the indigenous population.

King Kamehameha I – Kalani Pai`ea Wohi o Kaleikini Keali`ikui Kamehameha o `Iolani i Kaiwikapu kaui Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea in Hawaiian – whom Hawaiians consider a founding father equivalent to the first U.S. president, George Washington – unified the islands in 1810 into a new and independent country, and his descendants and their families maintained control for a century.

Pineapple harvest
This view of a Hawaiian pineapple harvest was shot about 1920. The backdrop is beautiful, but the work was grueling

The 19th century also brought foreign “investment” to Hawai`i in the form of vast sugarcane and pineapple plantations, owned and run by whites, and worked largely by a steady stream of imported Asian immigrants. Remember, the Hawaiian population had been cut to one-sixth its original size by disease, and most of its survivors preferred the traditional life of subsistence farming and fishing to backbreaking work in the steamy sugar and pineapple fields.

In 1893, a revolution led by American pineapple baron Sanford B. Dole deposed Queen Liliuokalani and brought forth a short-lived Hawaiian Republic.

Three guesses as to its president.

You got it on the first guess: Sanford B. Dole.

This takeover, more than a century ago, infuriates Native Hawaiians to this day. To them, it represented a theft of their kingdom, their lands, and their identity. That identity is re-emerging, at least symbolically, with the appearance of so many Hawaiian word forms in official parlance.

In 1898, 11 years after King Kalakaua had given the United States exclusive use of Pearl Harbor as a naval base, the American Stars and Stripes replaced the Hawaiian flag when the United States, with President Dole’s blessing, annexed the islands as a territory.

Another guess: Who was the first territorial governor?

My, you’re a sharp one: Sanford B. Dole.

Dole
Sanford Dole takes the oath of office as territorial governor of Hawai`i in Honolulu in 1900

The islands have a rich 20th- and 21st-century history, too, of course, notably including the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that

Pearl Harbor
Fireboats pour water onto the U.S.S. West Virginia, burning at Pearl Harbor following the surprise attack by Japanese planes on Dec. 7, 1941

brought the Americans into World War II, and a different kind of explosion – of the tourism industry around Honolulu’s Waikiki beach and beyond. For Native Hawaiians, the indignities of life at the bottom of the archipelago’s economic barrel only intensified as prosperity for others swelled. On islands so far from Asian and continental-U.S. supply lines, life is inordinately expensive, even for the handsomely employed. Haoles (Caucasians, who constitute 25 per cent of the population), those of Japanese origin (16 per cent), ethnic Filipinos (15 per cent), and people of mixed race have cornered the lion’s share

Dancers
Dancers entertain at a luau on Maui, known as the “Valley Isle” or the “Magic Isle.” It’s the archipelago’s second-largest island, after (of course) the “Big Island”

of good jobs, including federal government positions that make up one in eight jobs in the islands. So prevalent are low-level tourism gigs – as waitresses, busboys, porters, luau hula dancers – among full-blooded and part-Hawaiians that many have moved to what some call “the ninth Hawaiian island” – Las Vegas, Nevada, deep into the U.S. mainland, to find better jobs in casinos, and more affordable housing.

Even though full-blooded and part-Hawaiians now make up only 6 per cent of the state’s population, their nationalist movement, embodied in the prideful expansion of the Hawaiian language into official commerce, has grown many tentacles.

Native Hawaiians have so far successfully fought off court challenges to their Kamehameha School program – a system in which money from lands once ceded to private interests, such as big hotel chains, is set aside for excellent private schools exclusively for Hawaiians.

At one Hawaiian-rights protest, “Mele Welte, a former Kamehameha teacher, carried a placard reading, ‘Honor, preserve, protect and celebrate the Hawaiian people,’ as she gave a mini lecture to a couple of tourists,” the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper reported. “’I feel that people who attack Native rights need to consider the diversity of our country,’ she said.”

Akino Falls
Water drops 134 meters (440 feet) down Akino Falls on Hawai`i’s Big Island. This is the island from which lava flows spectacularly into the sea from one of many active volcanoes

In 1997, the University of Hawai`i Hilo, in the Big Island’s largest city, established a College of Hawaiian Language. “`O ka ‘ōlelo ke ka`ā o ka mauli,” reads the first line of the online description of the program. “Language is the fiber that binds us to our cultural identity.”

And as a result of recent amendments to the Hawai`i state constitution, Hawaiian-studies programs are proliferating in lower schools and government departments as well.

Inuit
This was considered an “Eskimo” family when this photo was taken in 1929. Now these Alaskans’ own word for their people – “Inuit” – is preferred

These developments dovetail with those by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks among the Inuit people – also called Eskimos, though activists in the population consider the term, applied by outsiders, to be insulting – by the University of Montana and Montana State University among other western American Indian tribes, and through worldwide higher education programs called WINHEC – the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium, based at Sámi University College in Norway. Its charter reads:

“We gather as Indigenous Peoples of our respective nations recognizing and reaffirming the educational rights of all Indigenous Peoples. We share a vision of Indigenous Peoples of the world united in the collective synergy of self determination through control of higher education. We are committed to building partnerships that restore and retain indigenous spirituality, cultures and languages, homelands, social systems, economic systems and self-determination.”

Fish
Ice fishers make a good haul of muikku – a small but tasty variety of fish that they bake, fry, or pickle and eat whole – in the Lapland region of Norway

Sámi University College, in frigid northern Norway where the Sámi people, once known as Lapps or Laplanders, have hunted, trapped, fished, and herded reindeer for centuries, has developed a Sámi-language preservation program, just as the University of Hawai`i Hilo has done on the temperate coast of the Big Island, 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) away.

And Carol and I could not help but notice another of the world’s notable and impressively successful language-preservation efforts on a trip that was closer to Norway than Hawaii – back to my ancestral home in Wales. There, Welsh names and signs and language courses are everywhere, not just as a matter of pride, but also as government policy bent on saving the difficult language at all costs.

Did I say difficult? Let me tell you, a few sprightly okinas stuck into prominent words in Hawai`i are a piece of cake to comprehend, compared with what those Welshmen have going. Try this one on for size: “Cynhaliwyd Eisteddfod Genedlaethol yn Llanelwedd.” I have no idea what that means – and no clue how to pronounce a single one of those words – but it has something to do with the town from which the first bunch of American Landphairs came: Llanfair-ym-Muallt.

Aloha!

***

A postscript

You might think that most Hawaiians would be pleased, or at least benignly tolerant, of the renewed emphasis on the Polynesian-based Hawaiian language. It’s still easygoing Hawai`i, after all, fifty years into statehood, where, as the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” reminds us, “Blue skies of Hawai`i smile” and “Clouds won’t hide the sun.”

Honolulu
Because of its multiethnic population, Honolulu, on the Island of O`ahu, is one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities

But as I noted, many ancestors of the islands’ current population emigrated from Japan, the Philippines, and other Pacific destinations. More than twice as many people of Japanese ancestry, and twice as many of Filipino origin as well, live in Hawai`i than do Native Hawaiians. These citizens of Asian extraction, whom Native Hawaiians call “Asian settlers,” argue that while the Polynesians got there first, everyone who arrived on the uninhabited islands and stayed was an immigrant, and that immersion schools in Japanese and Tagalog (the most widely spoken Filipino language) ought to be offered along with lessons in Hawaiian.

Especially, they argue, in one of the world’s most multiracial crucibles, where official discrimination based on race or national origin has long been unfashionable. Just ask U.S. President Barack Obama, now the world’s most famous Hapa (Hawaiian of mixed racial ancestry). Son of a black African father and white mother from the American heartland in Kansas, he was born in Hawai`i, returns whenever possible, and considers himself very much a kamaaina – a native or local.

***

Another postscript

Or “p.p.s.,” as I sometimes write at the end of my long letters, never having checked “Miss Manners” to see if there really is such a thing:

If you can’t get to sleep at night, worrying yourself sick wondering whether there’s a connection between the Earl of Sandwich of Hawaiian Islands fame and the everyday bite or two that we call the sandwich, there is!

At least according to legend. John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), was a gambler so inveterate that he did not want to step away from the action for a heavy, time-consuming British meal. Kidney pie, potatoes and a pint, and all that. Supposedly he asked a waiter to bring him a hunk of roast beef stuck between slices of bread, so he could balance this edible in one hand while holding his cards or rolling the dice, grease-free, in the other.

Voila! The sandwich!

As to which child in which country first corrupted this into wanting a “sammich,” you’ll have to do your own research.

Good life
This photograph, by Carol, of Hawaii’s “good life” has nothing to do with sandwiches. But I had to include it somewhere to illustrate, yet again, the beauty of this Pacific paradise

It’s a good thing for Sir John’s legacy that he ordered a snack. Sandwich was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, in the late 18th century, when Britain lost its American colonies in our revolution, and he was assigned much of the blame. Better to be known for roast beef on a roll than as the fool who lost New England. (I threw in the American Revolution reference to give his story a skosh of Americana so you’d not think this was Ted Landphair’s British Empire.)

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

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

Crucible. In concrete terms, a crucible is a strong vessel, often made of porcelain, in which materials can be combined and melted, even at extremely hot temperatures. Metaphorically, one who is thrown into a crucible, say a roiling controversy, had better be ready for some heat as well.

Gig. As I’ve used the word in a mention of Hawaiian entertainers, a “gig” is a job, often in some form of show business. The online “Word Detective” notes that “Every job is a ‘gig’ today. Calling your job a ‘gig’ is a way of saying ‘I’m not really emotionally invested in my job, which I find boring and soulless, and I’m only doing it so I can act/write novels/play jazz saxophone on the weekends.’” “Gig” also has many other meanings. It’s a small spear used to snare fish, for instance, and it was once an object that spins, such as the child’s toy called a “whirligig.”

Luau. A Hawaiian feast, originally named after one of the dishes served there: chicken wrapped in Taro leaves and baked in coconut milk. Guests who arrive are often greeted with leis – necklaces of flowers or shells. One of the traditions at touristy luaus, in addition to the strumming and singing of soft Hawaiian melodies, is the dangerous fire dance, borrowed from the Samoan Islands.

Skosh. A dab, a touch, a teeny bit. People often ask their tailors for a “skosh more room” around the waist, for instance, when getting fitted. (I know I would if I could afford a tailor.) Skosh, pronounded “SKOHsh,” is one of a few English words borrowed from the Japanese, where sukoshi means “little.” Supposedly, United Nations troops heard the word while on leave in Japan during the Korean War of the early 1950s and mangled it, and the shortened version of the word became part of military jargon.

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Remembering the War to End Wars

Posted May 22nd, 2009 at 3:17 pm (UTC-4)
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In 1917 and 1918, many ordinary Americans and most soldiers heading off to fight on the European Continent in World War I crossed the country by rail. And those who passed through Kansas City – once a brawling cowtown on the wide Missouri River that had grown into a brash city of a quarter-million people run by the Pendergast political machine – detrained into a magnificent new, Beaux-Arts terminal, the third-largest in the country.

This is a recent photo of Kansas City’s Union Station and the city skyline, taken from the top of the Liberty Memorial. Closed for awhile, the station again serves Amtrak passengers and is full of shops, restaurants, and a historic museum

Directly across the street to the south, they first beheld a steep rise leading to an ordinary rock outcropping above Penn Valley Park, beyond which automobile enthusiasts had set up a campground at the time. Across Main Street, they saw rows of decrepit buildings and billboards touting cheap bourbon and cigars, moustache waxes, nickel-beer joints and the like.

But that hill in Penn Valley Park would soon be the site of something special, unique in fact, worth a long look on Memorial Day weekend in 2009.

Worth a second look, too, because of what has happened there recently as well.

I should begin with an explanation of Memorial Day, which to the average American, regrettably, has become less a tribute to fallen servicemen and women in America’s wars than the unofficial kickoff to summer and the beach season – another three-day dispensation to eat, drink, relax, shop, and make merry.

Girl Scouts salute at a Memorial Day gathering in Gallipolis, Ohio, in 1943

As you’ll read later, the holiday traces to tributes to the fallen that began in the somber days that followed America’s bloody Civil War almost a century and a half ago. Interest in the tradition surged again half a century later during the conflict that the world idyllically called “The Great War” – four years of carnage now barely remembered and rarely commemorated.

German troops get a break in their trench near St. Michel, France, about 1915

It was the same war to which American “doughboys,” pausing at Kansas City’s Union Station, were heading in 1917 and 1918. A war of barbed wire and mustard gassings, hand-to-hand combat and tank attacks in the stagnant trenches and deadly “no-man’s lands” of Western Europe. This was to be the War to End All Wars but instead spawned the conditions for a deadlier spate of conquest, destruction and death two decades later.

Kansas Citians were front and center when it came to supporting war-bond drives during the Great War

Patriotic fervor for the Great War effort swept the Kansas Cities – for there are two separate and distinct ones: the larger, citified hub in Missouri and a smaller satellite city across the Missouri River in Kansas. Kansas Citians, who lost 441 of their neighbors in the European fighting, gave bountifully to war-bond drives and remained in a thankful mood when an armistice was declared at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

The following year, in a span of just 10 days, even more remarkably while an influenza epidemic was sweeping the city, 83,000 contributors – about one in every four persons in town – kicked in $2.5 million for an amazing tribute to the nation’s war dead. That’s about $30 million in 2009 dollars.

The fund drive’s slogan: “Lest the Ages Forget.”

Kansas City outdid itself with its Liberty Memorial, which towered over any other structure in town

With the money, the city demolished a few houses and mangy trees up the hill in Penn Valley Park and erected Liberty Memorial, a 66-meter (216-foot)-high limestone shaft that dominates the city’s southern skyline to this day. Designed in the Egyptian Revival style by New York architect H. Van Buren Magonigle, who won the commission following a nationwide competition, the memorial features four stone guardian spirits – representing courage, patriotism, sacrifice, and honor – sculpted by Robert Aitken. (He is even better known for his “Equal Justice Under the Law” pediment above the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington.)

And the great tower is further protected at its base by two giant stone sphinxes. One, facing Europe, is shielding its eyes from the horrors of war. The other, facing the opposite direction, also hides its eyes, but from the unknown future. Given the events that followed World War I, apparently it knew something that the world did not.

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These are models of Robert Aitken’s guardian spirits that appear facing each direction of the compass at the top of the Liberty Memorial

Among Kansas City folk, the memorial is most appealing at night, when a series of pipes carries steam from a subterranean boiler up the tower and past a series of yellow and red lights. The long-range effect is that of a flame rising into the sky, and it takes $65,000 to pay the utility company to produce it. That’s why there is now a “Save the Flame” campaign for financial support to keep the steam rising.

The tower is fully accessible, by the way. An elevator whisks visitors to a floor near the top; 45 steps later, they are standing on an observation platform, gasping at one of the most spectacular skyline views in North America. There’s no fear of scalding from the steam! It doesn’t start spouting until dark, after closing time.

This is Washington State’s inspiring, but modest in scope, World War I monument outside the capitol in Olympia

The Liberty Memorial is not America’s only monument to those who fought and died in World War I, but it is the most prominent. Many of the nation’s cavernous old “memorial stadiums,” including Soldier Field in Chicago, were named in tribute to service in the Great War, a fact that likely escapes most modern-day sports fans.

The intent and scope of Kansas City’s memorial, however, were unmistakable. Architect Edward Durrell Stone, who designed Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and other acclaimed buildings, called the Liberty Memorial “one of the country’s great memorials, in a class with the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.”

Just look at the throng that turned out for the Liberty Memorial dedication in 1921!

A crowd approaching 200,000 people, including American Expeditionary Forces commander John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and military leaders from four other Allied nations, packed the grounds for the groundbreaking ceremony in 1921. And a like number returned to hear President Calvin Coolidge speak at its dedication five years later.

Today, in the words of writer Michael Braude of the Kansas City Business Journal, the Liberty Memorial “stands as a proud symbol of human dignity and the love of liberty for all.”

Kansas City’s devotion to preserving the memory of the First World War was all the more impressive to Carol and me because we have visited, and she has photographed, so many magnificent war memorials here in Washington and elsewhere. Indeed, visitors to Washington’s National Mall will find spectacular and moving monuments to the fallen of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War; and the city is replete with stone and brass tributes to Civil War heroes and battles.

Bright sunshine and a pretty snowfall spruce up the drab World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C., built in 1931 as a bandstand

But the only nod to World War I hereabouts is a small District of Columbia Doric temple, dedicated in 1931 and now nearly hidden in the trees of West Potomac Park. The monument’s peristyle, or ring of columns, encircles what was designed as a bandstand, not that very many people know there were concerts there or, indeed, even know there’s a World War I monument in town at all.

The neglect of this once-handsome structure “is due in part to the fact that its history had been forgotten by most, both by the federal government and local D.C. citizens” according to The National Coalition to Save the Mall preservationist organization. “The memorial has no signage or explanation except for that carved in the white marble. Part of the problem was that until recently, it seemed unclear who was responsible for maintaining the structure . . . . The [National Park Service] felt it had responsibility for the grounds, but not the structure.” Only after a park service cultural resource specialist examined early records was it determined that the nearly hidden memorial is that agency’s responsibility.

‘Over There’ Over Here!

Neglect of World War I and its everyday heroes is certainly not the case in Kansas City, where, you’ll remember (won’t you?) that I mentioned that something else quite special has happened on that hill above Union Station.

Directly below the Liberty Memorial, in fact.

That soaring memorial was built upon a flat stone deck, next to two small, bunker-like buildings. One became a meeting place, and the other a sort of “relic room,” crammed with World War I souvenirs that soldiers and their families had sent in.

View
This shot by Carol gives you a good look at the Liberty Memorial, the supporting platform, the two sphinxes, and the old buildings that once housed Great War artifacts

Over the decades, the mementos kept coming and coming as Great War veterans died, to the point that Kansas City found itself holding the nation’s largest Great War collection. Too much stuff, and much of it too enormous, to fit into a single, drab room. Meantime, stonework on the tower’s support deck deteriorated to such an unsafe level that the platform had to be fenced off in the 1990s.

What had been a Kansas City treasure became an eyesore once again.

Repairs were urgently needed, but, true to its gung-ho spirit, Kansas City did not stop there. Citizens approved a sales-tax increase that raised $106 million to fix the memorial and build an entirely new, dramatic museum underneath it.

A lovely reflecting pond, out of sight from a distance, graces the below-ground entrance to the National World War I Museum

So impressive was the result, designed by Ralph Applebaum, who also drew the plans for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, that Congress designated it as The National World War I Museum. Yet its opening in December 2006 came as a surprise to many Kansas Citians, since it’s only when you’re upon it that you realize there’s something deep in the hillside, hidden down a long ramp beneath the great memorial.

Inside, its story begins with two movies, one an orientation and one that explains why the United States was drawn, most reluctantly, into the European conflict. After all, President Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected in 1916 on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.”

The museum offers several timelines to help modern-day visitors grasp the increasingly horrifying events of almost a century ago

Exhibits trace the story from the war’s precipitating event – the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 in Sarajevo, the capital of Boznia-Herzogovena – through the early years of the conflict among European Great Powers, to the impact of U.S. involvement, beginning in 1917, at home and abroad.

These are sort of “living exhibits” at the museum – volunteers dressed in 1915 German and French infantry uniforms, respectively

There is a host of other things to learn beneath the Liberty Memorial as well. A haunting factoid, for instance: One of three Frenchmen ages 18 to 30 died on battlefields of World War I.

Poignant quotes, too, greet many a step through the exhibits. Here’s just one, from Ernst Bergner, a German infantryman:

The Western Front was a living hell of artillery barrages, machine gun bullets, and sniper fire. Quiet sectors existed, however, where units on both sides, either through exhaustion, poor leadership, or apathy, tried to avoid conflict. ‘Live and let live,’ a phrase coined by a British war correspondent, took a variety of forms. Troops in the frontlines would sometimes refrain from firing at mealtime or on holidays. . . . Night patrols would spot each other in no-man’s land and quietly move away to avoid an encounter. Commanders detested ‘live and let live’ and took various measures to stamp it out.

Now it is Christmas time for the second time in this war. Along the front line all is quiet, only some rifle bullets are crossing the air like lashes. It is three o’clock in the afternoon. I have to look for a Christmas tree. Without a tree, there is no Christmas.

This flag, displayed at the museum, flew over the U.S. Capitol on the day of the nation’s declaration of war against Germany, on April 2, 1917

The opening of the nation’s new World War I museum fueled thousands more donations – 3,200 in the first 29 months alone. “One person gave us his entire hand-grenade collection that he had been amassing his entire life,” museum vice president Denise Rendina told me. One specimen is a British rifle-fired grenade with a cloth “ballerina skirt” that helped guide it aerodynamically. Another gift, Rendina says, “was pieces of fabric that people had put inside cigar boxes, denoting flags from all the nations participating in the war. Someone had taken those and quilted them, and they had been in their family for generations, and they just gave them to us. Both are examples of the personal way in which people experienced the war.”

At some point, museum officials must tell veterans and their families, discreetly, that they have reached a limit on certain kinds of gifts. Rendina wouldn’t specify, but I’m guessing it has all the helmets and buttons, belt buckles and certain uniform patches that it can handle, lest this sweeping museum turn into a crowded “relic room” once again.

This is the “good side” of the prized, French-made tank – the side that’s still intact and doesn’t have a gaping shrapnel hole

The National World War I Museum does occasionally purchase an item, such as its one-of-a-kind, two-man, camouflage-painted Renault FT-17 tank – notable for the huge shrapnel hole on one of its sides. And it didn’t come cheap. The museum paid a collector in Montana a quarter of a million dollars for it.

In just over two years, more than 300,000 visitors, including about 35,000 school kids, have toured the museum. “A lot of them knew next to nothing about the Great War,” Denise Rendina says. “I see people moved to silence, because of the horror of this and all wars, and because of conflicts around us right now.”

This is Frank Buckles next to an ambulance inside the museum a year ago. We should all look so good at 107!

One visitor who arrived by special invitation last Memorial Day.: Frank Buckles, now 108 years old, is the last known living American veteran of the War to End All Wars. Buckles enlisted at 16 – lying about his age– and drove ambulances and motorcycles in the conflict.

Entirely cognizant, he remarked approvingly about the museum’s collection. There was little time to dwell on most of the 52,000 objects, but he was impressed with the re-creations, stretching into several rooms, of the crowded and shell-pocked trenches in which so many of his comrades lived, and lost, their lives 90 years ago.

Naturally, Buckles liked the museum’s ambulance and motorcycles, too.

***
More About Memorial Day

There are varying explanations as to the origins of Memorial Day, which used to be celebrated in the United States every May 30th. Since 1971, the holiday has been observed on the last Monday in May, whether or not it falls on the 30th, in order to create a three-day holiday weekend. This year, it falls on Monday, May 25th.

The main federal observance of Memorial Day is held at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The president or his designate places a wreath of flowers at the Tomb of the Unknowns, honoring all of the men and women who have died in America’s wars. There’s a celebrity-studded Memorial Weekend concert, too, and a Memorial Day parade, featuring patriotic floats and helium-filled balloons, up Constitution Avenue.

The Grand Army of the Republic, a unit of which is seen here parading up Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue in 1865, was enormously influential

It’s generally accepted that Memorial Day dates to just after the Civil War, which ended in 1865. According to one of many versions, the tradition was established when the people of Waterloo, New York, gathered at the local cemetery the following year and placed flowers on the graves of local men killed in the Civil War. Later, the Grand Army of the Republic – or G.A.R – an organization of northern veterans, endorsed ceremonies that honored the dead and suggested that its members take up the practice. In 1868, General John Logan, a former Union army general who commanded the G.A.R, designated May 30th as the day to decorate graves.

Indeed, the holiday was long called “Decoration Day.” Even before the Civil War had concluded, women’s groups in the South were laying flowers below their loved ones’ tombstones, and an 1867 hymn, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping,” carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

This was actually an Independence Day parade in my current hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland, in 1922. Decoration Day festivities had the same corny trappings

Eighty years later, as a child far to the north in Cleveland, I was festooning my bike or my wagon with crepe paper streamers for the neighborhood Decoration Day parade.

As I mentioned earlier, following World War I Congress set aside May 30th as a day to honor the dead from all American wars. That was the war in which a Canadian field artillery surgeon, John McCrea, wrote the moving poem “Flanders Fields” at a burial ground near Ypres, France. It reads, in part:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Two days before the armistice quieted the fighting, Moina Michael of Athens, Georgia, a Civil War veteran’s daughter working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ office in New York, got an idea. She had long treasured the last line of McCrea’s poem – we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields – and when she saw the poem once again, she sat down and wrote a short verse of her own:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
A member of a Veterans of Foreign Wars delegation pins a poppy on the lapel of President Calvin Coolidge in 1924

Moina Michael vowed to wear a red poppy in memory of Flanders Field each remaining day of her life, and the idea of marking Decoration Day with the sale and display of red, paper poppies soon spread among the former Allied nations. In Britain, Australia, and Canada, the poppies appear on Armistice Day in November. Less so, any more, on November 11 in the United States, where the holiday has been broadened into “Veterans’ Day.”

On the days that I was whizzing down Winton Avenue on my dolled-up bike each Decoration Day, nearly all the cheering adults along the way proudly wore red poppies. Now, as my cynical friend and colleague Art Chimes points out, a poppy in one’s lapel might be viewed suspiciously as some sort of homage to the opium trade.

This is the poppy field at the National World War I Museum

Poppies have their day at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City as well. Just inside the door, one crosses a glass bridge over an entire field of red, paper ones – 9,000 of them: each representing 1,000 combat fatalities. No doubt only a few of the older folks who visit, and perhaps some history-savvy students, know why poppies were chosen to tell this story.

***
Looking Sharp

Everything really is, as the song goes, “up to date in Kansas City.” Carol and I couldn’t believe the difference between this vibrant, clean, architecturally exciting city and another U.S. city of almost identical (475,000) population: my tired, sad-looking hometown of Cleveland, which, you may recall, we had visited a few weeks earlier.

How’s this for funky? It’s one of several giant badminton shuttlecock sculptures outside K.C.’s dynamic Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza district, with its Spanish-inspired architecture, brims with activity – shopping and dining, mostly – day and night. Besides the remarkable World War I museum, one can find delights like the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues baseball museum, plus the astounding new Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, whose eerily illuminated façade shimmers at night. I can’t rave too conspicuously, though, about “K.C.’s” famous barbecue, having waxed so lavishly about the barbecue that they cook up in North Carolina, half a continent away. (But the heartland variety is pretty good.)

Refreshing, eh? Through this fountain spray, you get a glimpse of a tower in Kansas City’s genteel Plaza shopping district

One delight from our Kansas City visit wasn’t exactly up to date, since most of the city’s 200 or so fountains – more than anywhere outside Rome, it’s said – go back a ways. The first, built for the locals’ horses and dogs and for wild birds, was erected in 1899. And I learned something about the early fountains: the reason one sees water flowing from nymph and lion and fish figures high above the fountains’ pools was a sanitary one. Animals drank from the reservoir; humans could dip their hands or cups into fresh, clean water streaming from those figures before it fell to the fountain’s floor below.

Today, there’s an unwritten policy in town that a fountain be incorporated into the design of every significant new public or commercial building project.

In fact, one might say that Kansas City is a “font” of such good ideas.

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TODAY’S WILD WORDS

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

Doughboys. American infantrymen in World War I. There is debate about the origin of the term. One theory ascribes it to the doughy white clay that soldiers used to clean their white belts. Another states that it was other Allies’ derogatory term for U.S. forces, who were said to be “soft” for showing up late to the war. The term had been used (sparingly) in other conflicts and may also have had its origin in cavalrymen’s contempt for ordinary foot soldiers.

Mangy. Worn or threadbare. The word is often applied to a pitiful animal’s coat, or to a carpet or bedspread.

Sphinx. In ancient Egypt, a sphinx was a tactile representation of a sun god, often in a lion’s shape and wearing a headdress of the pharaohs.

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The Thin Place

Posted May 15th, 2009 at 1:12 pm (UTC-4)
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On the banks of the Wabash River that separates southern Indiana from Illinois, there’s a community of 915 people unlike any other small town in America. Different – and unforgettable, too.

Toll bridge
The easiest, though not cheapest, way into town is across the Wabash River on a toll bridge from Illinois. The toll is only a buck, however!

New Harmony, Indiana, is clean, safe, historic yet artistically spunky, free of chain fast-food restaurants and mammoth retail stores. It’s a peaceful place in the old-fashioned meaning of the term: restful, contemplative, even spiritual.

As a group of screenwriters who go there each year to write told the locals, they can feel their blood pressure dropping the minute they drive into town. Residents and some visitors, including seminary priests from Austria who journeyed to New Harmony last

New Harmony
That’s New Harmony in the distance, though the beautiful trees obscure much of it

year, call it “The Thin Place,” a rare spot on earth where heaven and earth come close together.

It isn’t heaven on earth, of course. New Harmony has its squabbles, especially between those who wish to preserve its remarkable historic character and those who grump that when they buy a house or a store or a lot, they should be able to do what they damn well please with it. But if clean air, verdant surroundings, a measured pace of life, and culturally and intellectually enriching colloquy are parts of your definition of heaven on earth, New Harmony comes pretty close.

David Lenz House
The 1819-22 David Lenz House is a typical example of Harmonist architecture. The walls inside its frame exterior are insulated with kiln-dried bricks

And a little bit of paradise was exactly what the town’s Christian founders sought when they arrived 195 years ago. They were convinced that the Rapture – an-end-of-the-world scenario in which Jesus returns to call deceased as well as living believers to his side – was at hand, and they wished to create a perfect society in which to welcome Him.

So the settlers created their utopia on the Wabash. The first of three quite different utopias, as it turned out, if you count New Harmony today as one of them.

The founders called themselves “Harmonists” and their town Harmonie. There were native Indians in the area – hence the name “Indiana” – but most had moved north and west, away from the onrushing white settlers in what was then the Northwest Territory, 10 years before Indiana became a state.

The Harmonists were German “pietists” – Lutheran separatists who sought to create a simple, strict, hardworking community free from the ceremonial flourishes and what they considered the mystical mumbo-jumbo of their faith. Logical pragmatists, they did not buy the notion, for instance, that an unknowing baby could receive faith and salvation with a few sprinkles from a baptismal font. Baptism should come later in life, they believed, as one’s conscious choice, an acceptance of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Johann George Rapp
Johann Georg Rapp told a town official in Malbronn, Germany, “I am a prophet, and I am called to be one.” The official promptly had him arrested

The Harmonie Society, as it was called, was led by Johann Georg Rapp, a charismatic, though stern, taskmaster who considered himself a prophet and had the followers to prove it. In 1803, he led German pilgrims to western Pennsylvania, near what is now Pittsburgh, and founded a colony. These were not ragtag dreamers, scratched out a living. The first Harmonie prospered as a communal society in which property was held jointly, and the considerable profits from their vigorous labor on the land and in small craft shops were shared. Even married people lived, or were supposed to live, celibately as brothers and sisters in dormitories. Babies were born, assuredly, but Rapp asked his followers to give up whiskey, tobacco, and pleasures of the flesh as purifying measures in anticipation of Christ’s coming.

The Harmonists were standoffish German speakers who inspired envy among their less industrious English-speaking neighbors. And after 10 years in Pennsylvania, and Rapp’s vision of an even better life on the frontier, Rapp sold Harmonie, “lock, stock, and barrel,” as the saying goes, to local Mennonites – also Germanic but better assimilated into the overall culture – for 10 times what he had paid for the land.

And off they went, down the Ohio River and up the Wabash.

Rapp may well have chosen the location for another reason besides the fertility of its fields. Three years earlier, the area had been riven by a powerful earthquake, centered in New Madrid, Missouri, not terribly far away. (Indeed, one sees sensors, placed by seismologists, at various spots throughout still-tremor-prone New Harmony today). Some say Rapp considered the New Madrid cataclysm another sign from God that the end was near, and his followers might as well get as close to the action as possible.

Blockhouses
Harmonie’s earliest cabins were called “blockhouses” because they were made of square timbers. The originals do not survive. These similar examples were imported from a nearby farm

In Harmonie, The Rappites’ pattern of sturdy settlement and curious abandonment repeated itself, almost to the day. They also stayed 10 years in Indiana, built cabins and dormitories and a big church, and prospered to the point that they were soon making rope, bolts of prized textiles, candles and other goods that they sold in 22 states and 10 foreign countries. Somehow as they bustled about, they found time to come together for prayer three times a day.

Then, no doubt to the surprise of their Indiana farmer neighbors, they up and moved again – back to Pennsylvania, founding yet a third town called Economy.

New Harmonie Photo
Although some things had changed between Harmonie’s founding and the taking of this photograph in 1892, it gives you a flavor of the old days

“Our [orientation] film says they left because it was tough to get their goods to eastern markets,” Linda Warum, a New Harmony town council member who conducts many tours of the community, told me. “I doubt that was the reason, since they knew that would be the case when they came here. Reading between the lines, I think they felt the town was simply done. These were builders for whom busy hands were happy hands. It doesn’t take the energy to run a town that it does to build it.”

Once again, the Harmonists preferred to sell every stick and stone in New Harmony for a tidy profit and go away.

And in their place came an entirely different sort of utopians: secularists rather than a religious bunch, driven to create human happiness in a communal cooperative based on high-minded ideas and ideals rather than the search for a closer walk with God.

Up the Wabash, to the neat and tidy town that Rapp and his followers had built for them, came what today’s townspeople call a “boatload of knowledge.” It was a barge, actually, carrying Robert Owen and a collection of his very smart friends: scientists, philosophers, educators bent on creating the nexus of a new moral world built upon equal education and social status.

Robert Owen
Robert Owen was a brilliant and daring social reformer who brought his ideas, and many idealistic followers, to the Indiana prairie

Owen was a socialist long before the word became fashionable and years before Marx and Lenin came along. Like Rapp, Owen was an immigrant – a Welshman who had prospered as an industrialist in neighboring Scotland. There, in his woolen mills and the company towns that housed his workers, he tested social experiments, including the free public education of children and Chautauqua-like learning opportunities for adults of both sexes.

The Chautauqua movement was a series of assemblies that met each summer for more than 50 years, spanning the turn of the 20th century. Named for the town in New York State where they were first held, away from the smoke and bustle and cares of the big city, Chautauquans sought to impart intellectual enlightenment, oratorical inspiration, artistic and musical enjoyment, spiritual enrichment, and physical rejuvenation. It was an idea that Robert Owen had tried in New Lanark, Scotland, almost a century earlier.

Owen believed that his ideas would flower even more profoundly in adventurous America, where radical ideas found nourishment. Owen met some Rappites, visited New Harmony, bought the place from Johann Rapp and his followers for $135,000, and invited other eminent thinkers to move there. Many, beginning with those aboard the “boatload of knowledge,” accepted.

Garden
Gardens were not hobbyists’ playgrounds in busy Harmonie. Their bounty was an important part of the economy

In New Harmony, Owen established a system of “time money” and “time stores,” classic utopian concepts in which citizens were issued local scrip instead of U.S. currency based upon their labors. The currency was then exchanged for goods at the colony’s stores.

But a problem developed almost at once. Unlike Rapp’s Harmonists, Owen’s brainy band had no unifying religious bond; they were individualists with headstrong ideas on how things should run. Rifts developed. So deep, in fact, that roughly half the town, south of Church Street, was occupied by Owen’s family and his disciples; and the neighborhood north of this main street by William Maclure and his followers.

Maclure was a Scottish-born philanthropist and naturalist from Philadelphia – a man so renowned that he was known as “the Father of Geology.” Maclure opened the “Working Men’s Institute,” in a building that still stands, in which common laborers were invited to borrow books and attend lectures aimed at elevating their lot in life. The institute is now the town library.

Robert Owen headed off in search of more intellectual settlers, leaving New Harmony’s management to one of his sons, 23-year-old William Dale Owen. In a piece of local fascination, it is noted that all four of Owen’s sons – Robert, William, David, and Richard – shared the middle name “Dale,” after their mother’s maiden name. Son Robert became a diplomat and U.S. congressman who introduced the legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. William ran the local newspaper in addition to the town. David, a geologist for whom the granary was a laboratory, became the state, and then the nation’s official geologist. And Richard, also a geologist, became the first president of Purdue University, up the road in Indiana.

New Harmony was awash in accomplished thinkers, all right, but there weren’t many doers willing to break a sweat tilling the land or producing food and crafts. According to the Web site of the Robert Owen (the elder) Museum in Wales, “Settlers flocked to New Harmony, but most were unsuited to community life, and very few had the necessary skills to farm the land or run small industries. As the settlement became overcrowded the chaos developed. William had to write to his father urging him to send no more settlers.”

Laboratory
Geologist David Dale Owen used New Harmony’s first level for shops and workrooms and the second and third floors for his laboratory and lecture hall

The colony structure collapsed within three years, but many of the intelligentsia stayed put, preserving some of New Harmony’s remarkable early architecture, including the granary, Working Men’s Institute, and several cabins and houses.

Thus the town never fell to rack and ruin. Twice it flowered anew, first during a late-19th-century agricultural bonanza in which many Victorian-style downtown banks and mercantile stores appeared; and then during an oil boom in the 1930s and 1940s that attracted fresh out-of-state capital and talent. In that wave, in 1942, came Kenneth

Downtown
Downtown New Harmony in 1942 looked a lot like any American small town, though perhaps a tad tidier

Dale Owen, a great-grandson of Richard Owen, the Purdue president. Kenneth Owen had been born in New Harmony but moved away. Upon the couple’s return there, Kenneth Dale’s wife Jane – wealthy from her family’s Esso Oil ties – fell in love with New Harmony and became its biggest investor and preservationist. Still living, she owns a company that runs a cozy inn, small conference center, and little restaurant.

And another entity helped return New Harmony to what some would say is a third utopian epoch. It is the Historic New Harmony Society, originally a private, nonprofit preservationist operation that is now a part of the University of Southern Indiana, based in nearby Evansville. Historic New Harmony has helped restore, or keep

Labyrinth
This Harmonist labyrinth, re-created in 1939, is planted in accordance with a Harmony Society plan in concentric circles of privet hedge leading to a stone temple

ship-shape, such local landmarks as the opera house, a double log cabin, a foliage labyrinth on the site of one constructed by the Harmonists, as well as a remarkable, 1960-vintage “roofless church,” designed by noted architect Philip Johnson and funded by Jane Owen. Inside, where the sky is the roof and interdenominational, Easter morning, and wedding services are conducted, stands an unusual – covered – central altar in the shape of an inverted rose.

There’s also another labyrinth in town. This one, flat on the ground, is made of rose granite, not twigs and leaves. It’s identical to one at Chartres Cathedral in France.

Drawing from the Harmonists’ trademark, the golden rose, architect Philip Johnson created a dome in the shape of an inverted rosebud inside his Roofless Church

New Harmony also found donors for other structures, including an atheneum – a place where learned reading materials (and some less-weighty tourist brochures) are available. This shining-white building, which vaguely suggests the structure of a ship, was designed by acclaimed architect Richard Meier. It serves as the visitor center and vantage point for the townsite and the Wabash River Valley, and it’s the envy of small towns across the country. The atheneum is the most prominent modernist example in an

The New Harmony atheneum contains several levels of historic galleries containing artifacts and town models

otherwise historic town; sculptures that pop up in unexpected places and modern additions to traditional homes are others.

New Harmony has a few of the accouterments of any small town, including a kindergarten-through-12th grade school, a movie theater to go with the opera house, and a bandstand in Maclure Park. The town’s abundant supply of local musicians makes sure there are plenty of accessible performances there or under the granary’s 205 tons of oaken beams. One in each location takes place on American Independence Day, July 4th, following the annual parade of “floats.” I put the word in quotes because the vehicles are decorated golf carts! – about 50 of them. These carts are the preferred mode of transportation in town, even though there’s no golf course on which to ride them.

It wasn’t New Orleans’ Mardi Gras or New York City’s Thanksgiving Day parade, but New Harmony’s July 4th golf-cart procession was a hoot

The humming carts contribute to the sense of quietude. Kids walk or bike to school. Signposts direct visitors along numerous nature walks. Meditation is encouraged at the roofless church, in gardens, on or in the town labyrinths, and in New Harmony’s eight traditional churches that do have roofs. Johann Rapp might be pleased to learn that not a one of them is Lutheran.

“I live in paradise,” Linda Warum told me. “On Granary Street.”

Stephen de Staebler’s sculpture, “Pieta,” in a courtyard off the Roofless Church, epitomizes New Harmony’s modernist touches in a historic setting

Is it utopia, heaven on earth? Well, Carol and I didn’t see a black or brown face in town, and the only ones that local residents could think of belong to the family from India who run the local grocery-deli and live in a rented apartment. If devouring a double cheeseburger is your idea of ecstasy, the closest place to get one is on the west side of Evansville, 20 minutes away. And there aren’t many rock concerts or hangouts for young people or, come to think of it, all that many young people past high school age at all. They tend to go off to college and not come back.

Of course, that keeps the noise level down and contributes to New Harmony’s air of contemplation.

Former President Taft arrives in New Harmony for the town’s centennial

In 1914, upon the 100th anniversary of New Harmony’s founding, William Howard Taft, who had just left office as U.S. president, and other luminaries visited and spoke. “No town or city in the United States boasts a history of greater romantic or sociological interest,” the opening statement in the centennial program read. That may be a stretch, but perhaps not too long a one.

The year 2014, just five years away, will mark the bicentennial of this remarkable utopian experiment in the wilderness. By then, the Historic New Harmony Society should have plenty of ideas to work with, including those taken from a wall in the atheneum on which, beginning just this month, visitors have been encouraged to leave their thoughts about what makes a place “utopia.”

New Harmony is a sort of Tranquility Base – not on the moon, but here on earth

Carol and I were running around shooting and gabbing, and we forgot to scribble something on that wall. I doubt it would have been very original anyway, since it seemed to both of us that this serene and prosperous spot on the Wabash is about as close to utopia as you’re going find in today’s tumultuous world.

***

More About Utopia

This is Utopia? I don’t think so!

“Utopia” is a Greek word, used by Plato to describe an ideal, almost unreachable and unrealistically perfect state of communal living, especially for the ruling class. Subsequently in the European Renaissance of the 14th to 16th centuries, when dreamers reconnected with some of those ideals from ancient Greece, the French satirist Voltaire and others wrote of two kinds of idealized places – El Dorado, a “land of milk and honey” where streets were paved with gold, and a plainer Utopia in which humans are held in equal esteem and live free from worries. Both wonderlands, Voltaire realized, were unachievable. Later philosophers, including Marxists, stretched the concept to describe a utopian political system in which life’s fruits and benefits are shared but require a degree of regimentation and even totalitarianism, since too much individuality cannot not be tolerated if a utopia beneficial to all is to be achieved.

Utopian wistfulness reappeared in the 1960s, when communes returned to fashion and eastern mystics and songwriters wrote of the triumph of peace and love over cynical political power. Some say that the vegetarian and “green” environmental movements of today have utopian elements as well.

But before we drift too far off into idyllic reverie, we must remember the words of Clayton Cramer, the California author, historian, and software engineer: “Abandon all hopes of utopia,” he wrote. “There are people involved.”

***

Three Other U.S. Utopian Experiments

This is a ca. 1900 shot of the busy Amana Colonies

Amana Colonies. One of the most familiar of America’s utopian communal societies was the Amana Colonies settlement, begun in the 1850s in Iowa. Best-known today because tourists flock to Amana’s seven villages to enjoy the groaning board of homemade food still served family style, and because of the famous Amana refrigerators and other appliances that one of the society’s members began producing in the early 1930s. This settlement of dissident Lutherans, like Harmonie’s Rappists, was an outgrowth of religious persecution and an economic depression in Germany. These colonists, who called themselves “Inspirationists,” founded a communal farm and series of craft shops at a place they called Ebenezer near Buffalo, New York. A decade later, seeking more land to work, the Inspirationists shifted operations to eastern Iowa. Seven villages, including East Amana, West Amana, High Amana, and Homestead, were established to supply the colonists’ farms.

Clockmaking and the production of wool and calico augmented the agriculture, and income was shared communally. According to the colony’s Web site, “Amana churches, located in the center of each village, built of brick or stone, have no stained glass windows, no steeple or spire, and reflect the ethos of simplicity and humility. Inspirationists attended worship services 11 times a week; their quiet worship punctuating the days.” More than 50 kitchens, plus a dairy, smokehouse, ice house, gardens, and orchards kept the colonists amply nourished.

The Amana Colonies lasted a long time by utopian society standards. It was only in 1932, during the Great Depression, that the colonists abandoned communal living in favor of the private enterprise that rewards individual achievement, as practiced in the country at large. But the Amana Church survives to this day in the little Amana villages. So do the village store, blacksmith shop, an original 1858 barn, and those tables piled high with hearty food.

This is an early advertisement of the Oneida Community’s Flower de Luce artist-designed silverplate from Good Housekeeping magazine

Oneida Community. This group was founded by an American, John Humphrey Noyes, the son of a U.S. congressman from Vermont. In 1826, the younger Noyes attended a Christian revival meeting that changed him from a religious cynic to a fanatical believer. He developed a theory of salvation called “Perfectionism,” under which people might live free from sin in a perfect world. This wild-eyed notion got him kicked out of Yale Divinity School, in which he had enrolled in hopes of a career in the ministry. He hit the road in search of converts but found few. So Noyes began writing in a publication called the Battle-Axe. It brought him notoriety and generous financial contributions from a young woman whom he would soon marry. They and other followers began a commune in Putney, Vermont. Their lifestyle, including some unorthodox sexual practices, outraged the surrounding community, so the group moved to what they called “The Promised Land” in Oneida, New York, near the Canadian border. There, the community grew, even as it practiced “complex marriage,” in which every man was married to every woman. As Randall Hillebrand writes on the New York History Net, “no two people could have exclusive attachment with each other because it would be selfish and idolatrous.” While engaging in practices such as “ascending fellowship,” in which virgins were introduced to this “complex marriage,” the group farmed, cut wood into lumber, and made silk thread, animal traps, and silverware.

The Oneida Community was governed by various committees and by the righteous hand of Noyes himself. At its peak in 1878, it counted about 300 members. By this time, John Noyes had moved to an offshoot commune in Brooklyn, leaving the Oneida leadership in the hands of his son, Theodore. But the younger Noyes was anything but a true believer. He was an agnostic, and a poor administrator to boot. Even though John Noyes hurried back from Brooklyn, the community tore asunder, with many members marrying and leaving the fold. John Noyes fled town after the sheriff knocked with an arrest warrant charging statutory rape. Remnants of the community hung on, making what became world-renowned silver cutlery. The last original Oneida Community member died in 1950, and manufacturing of Oneida silverware ceased in 2004, ending a 124-year tradition.

This Shaker woman was photographed at the Hancock, Massachusetts, Shaker Village in 1935

The Shakers. About two centuries ago, followers of “Mother” Ann Lee, founder of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, or “Shakers” as they were better known, in England established communal settlements from Maine in the U.S. Northeast to Kentucky in the mid-South. One colony, in Ohio, lent its name to what is now the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. Onlookers gave the sect its name as they watched its believers twitch and clap loudly – shaking off the sins of the world as they sang and danced. Since the sect, like the Harmonists, was celibate, Shaker missionaries walked the countryside seeking converts to keep their ranks full.

Less than a handful of Shakers remain in the world, at least as of 2006, at this site in Maine

After the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s, tens of thousands of Americans headed westward in search of fortunes and a new life, and lots of Shakers left the fold to join them. It was the beginning of the steady demise of their sect. Some Shaker settlements became museums that still draw visitors, curious to find out what all that moving and shaking were about. In 2006, the Boston Globe newspaper found what it described as the last Shakers – two women, ages 67 and 79, and two men in their 40s, who were still meeting and praying though not dancing and twitching while the Globe reporter was present – in Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in southern Maine.

Thus it was a thin place, too, in quite a different sense.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

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

Accouterments. From the French, as you might have guessed, this word describes the trappings or accessories that go with uniforms or dress.

Colloquy. A conversation, especially a learned or formal one.

Gabbing. Chatting, sometimes incessantly. People who talk a lot – and have something worthwhile to say – are said to have the “gift of gab.”

Rack and Ruin. A state of total decay or destruction.

Spunky. Lively, spirited, plucky. The word is said to have devolved from an English and Scottish term for “spark.”

Wistful. Yearning, wishful, usually in a dreamy sort of way.

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San Francisco Treat

Posted May 8th, 2009 at 4:24 pm (UTC-4)
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In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck, the great American novelist, wrote, “San Francisco put on a show for me.” And it is still true much of the time, though perhaps a little less predictably, for the countless visitors to California’s “City by the Bay” today. There are still plenty of geological and meteorological curiosities, examples of iconic architecture, and delightful eccentricities. But also a growing shabbiness that I hadn’t noticed on previous visits.

Since San Francisco is a city of hills, there are plenty of good vantage points to photograph the skyline

Anyone who has spent much time in San Francisco understands its enticing ambiance: the dappled lemon light or the swirling summer fog rolling, in Steinbeck’s words, “like herds of sheep coming to cote in the golden city’; the pelting rain or the multiple rainbows that burst above at once through the streaming sunshine. And there is the city’s unique topography of roller-coaster hills and lush green parks, and the dignified and tightly packed “painted lady” houses, rouged in creams, pinks, and roses. As O. Henry, the famed short-story writer, so scrupulously pointed out: East is East “and West is San Francisco” ─ a city that, even more than star-studded Los Angeles, seems to encourage people to “do their own thing.”

While the rest of California curls around it, San Francisco is tightly compressed onto a 121-square-kilometer (46.6-square-mile) peninsula. Thus San Francisco can only go up, not out, and that’s a twofold problem:

The populace likes things as they are and doesn’t want a lot of new buildings ─ especially high-rises. And there’s the little matter of earthquakes. More about them in a bit.

This is a classic San Francisco view, showing handsome row houses against a backdrop of the cityscape

San Francisco’s compactness makes it a frightfully expensive place to live, and certainly to buy a home or rent an apartment. Yet almost no incentive could lure the city’s citizens to the suburbs. “It’s so livable,” San Franciscans say. Behind the Victorian doorways are some of the most creative living arrangements in the nation: opposite and same-sex partnerships, roommate groupings of all descriptions, and fewer nuclear families than in other American cities. Fewer than half the married heterosexual couples in town have children, and schools are relatively lightly populated. Adult San Franciscans seem especially dedicated to careers, avocations, club memberships, entrepreneurship, and cultural affairs.

It’s doubtful that these beautiful hotels and office buildings along the Embarcadero would not had risen had an ugly freeway run along the path

While most Californians drive cars that belch exhaust, San Franciscans whir about on electrified trolleys, motorless cable cars, and gliding BART subway trains. And bicycles, even on those hills. Although every house and every place of business in the city’s 20 or so neighborhoods seems to have one or more cars squeezed in front of it ─ with wheels angled to the curb to prevent run¬aways down the pitched avenues ─ trucks are a rarity, and traffic moves rather briskly. One or two freeways lurk among the city’s eucalyptus trees ─ outraged citizens scuttled another one destined for the Embarcadero, the long roadway along the Bay ─ but they use them mainly for jaunts to the airport, nearby wine country, or to Southern California’s cities and desert. In town, they dash up and down the city’s 43 identifiable hills ─ two of the hills present a 31.5 percent grade! ─ usually without much complaint.

Per capita, San Francisco has twice as many neighborhood restaurants as New York, and San Franciscans spend more money each year dining out than do residents of any other American city. One can go from high tea to dinner featuring every cuisine from Zairian to ancient Mesopotamian ─ American chain fast-food joints are rare. They also enjoy a seemingly infinite supply of laundries, corner pubs, coffee and “smoothie” bars, body-piercing parlors, and eclectic art galleries.

This is one of the newest additions to San Francisco’s museum scene. It’s the Academy of Sciences’ “living roof” with biotic domes that metaphorically lift a piece of the park and put a building underneath it

By the way, the city should always be called “San Francisco,” not “San Fran” or “Frisco,” if you want to keep peace with a native. The city and its people consider themselves too civilized to accept a nick¬name. Surprisingly for a Californian city, there are tens of thousands of indigenous San Franciscans to be found, even several generations of them. San Francisco remains the magnet, the crown jewel, the place with “character,” although surrounding Bay Area cities have added a museum here, a gallery there, a restaurant row, a glittering new skyscraper, or a hockey team. San Francisco’s ballet company, for instance, is the nation’s oldest, second-largest, and among the most enthusiastically supported and endowed. Quite simply, San Francisco is “The City” for 10 million people from California’s agricultural Central Valley to the Oregon line.

Uniquely, San Francisco is also the nation’s most tolerant urban place. The city openly encourages mixed-race and homosexual pairings. Indeed, in 2004 in a stunning act of civil disobedience by a top elected official, Mayor Gavin Newsom directed city agencies to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; that lasted a month until state courts put a stop to the practice.

The Castro Theater is more than a movie theater. It’s a center of activity in the largely gay Castro District

Beginning with its acceptance of homosexuals forced out of the military services during World War II, as well as those who had endured “gay bashings” in other cities around the country, San Francisco ─ and especially the Castro neighborhood out toward Twin Peaks on Market Street ─ became universally recognized as the nation’s gay capital. It was here that the sewing of the gigantic AIDS memorial quilt sponsored by the NAMES Project ─ perhaps the largest community art project in the world ─ began in 1987 and continues today. Estimates of the actual number of openly gay citizens in San Francisco vary, but they have become a powerful, entrenched political and social force here as nowhere else in America. The presence of 100,000 or more avowed gay individuals also accounts for the remarkable percentage of single people in San Francisco (at or above 40 percent in most surveys).

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside Asia

The clout and power of another minority group, the Asian community, is also growing strong in San Francisco. Asians outnumber blacks in San Francisco by more than two to one ─ and Hispanics by the same margin ─ and many forecasters predict that they will be the city’s largest ethnic group by 2020. In many neighborhoods outside Chinatown, Asian banks and restaurants offering “fusion” Asian-American or Asian-European cuisine are flourishing. In addition, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians have swelled the number of Asians beyond the confines of Chinatown and Japantown.

The Peace Pagota in the city’s Japantown neighborhood was a gift from San Francisco’s sister city of Osaka, Japan, in 1968

San Franciscans bemusedly tolerate an endless variety of entertainment presentations, streetcorner evangelists, motorcycle menageries, and the gaggles of beggars and sleeping-bag assemblages on the streets and in the parks. Driving through Golden Gate Park the other day, Carol and I noticed a well-dressed drummer, whacking away on a full set of snare drums, in a field far from anyone who could toss him a coin. “Only in San Francisco,” we both remarked.

Someone took an old hotel in a rundown part of town to display funky “art” out of several windows. But the street scene below, of grimy homeless people sleeping on grates, is anything but artistic

The homeless situation, however, is beginning to wear on the patience of even San Franciscans. For reasons (other than that tolerance) that no one can seem to explain, since San Francisco is no balmy place to spend a night on the street, the city is a magnet for homeless people, and the many missions can hardly keep up with the demand for beds and services. San Francisco’s own daily newspaper, the Chronicle, has referred to the situation as “squalor in the streets,” adding that the city budgets more than $200 million annually to address the problem. Tourists leaving even the finest hotels downtown find themselves stepping around and over a sad assortment of the displaced. It is disconcerting to sightsee and conduct ordinary business among people who are swilling alcohol, begging, relieving themselves, cursing and shouting and talking to their demons. “You walk down Market Street and step over comatose bodies, debris and human waste,” the Chronicle quoted a visitor. “It’s just not a pleasant experience.”

The problem only intensifies, critics say, because the city is committed to “breaking the cycle of homelessness” rather than instituting a New York City-style sweep to rid the streets and parks of people wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags. More recently, locals blame the charismatic, 41-year-old Mayor Newsom, who, they say, is spending too much time out of town, talking up his run for governor, than tending to business back home.

You’d never know that a counter-culture revolution, albeit brief, took place at this corner and in nearby parks

But San Francisco’s fabled tolerance does not always equal permissiveness. After the beatnik craze of the 1950s in North Beach (only in San Francisco could one attend a “Be-in”), the neighborhood around the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets in the 1960s became the center of San Francisco hippie “flower power.” But it was purged of most vagrants and drug dealers when the Haight’s “peace and love” devolved into decadence and violence. Tour buses still roll along Haight Street, and visitors can still spot a few “head shops” that sell hashish pipes and patchouli oil for incense burners. Otherwise, the little shops and Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream parlor look no different than stores elsewhere in town.

Most San Franciscans loathed the Transmerica Tower when it was designed and built. Now, they adore it

So many interest groups have coalesced ─ around issues, causes, ethnic groups, and sexual orientations ─ and grown in political power in San Francisco that any change can trigger paroxysms of protest, even over such minor issues as the closing of a tattered greasy spoon or the removal of a single parking space. For example, in 1971 many San Franciscans mightily opposed, then jeered as unsightly, the 260-meter (853-foot), pyramidal Transamerica Corporation building that rose on Montgomery Street ─ the “Wall Street of the West.” Of course, that tower ─ along with the city’s cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Colt Tower ─ is now one of the most treasured and photographed landmarks in San Francisco.

The Golden Gate Bridge is said to be the most-photographed structure on earth

A heavily unionized city (even body piercers have a union), San Francisco is accustomed to perennial civic and labor unrest. The people of the city accept this as a tolerable price for its numerous charms: the freshest seafood, sourdough bread, and exotic international cuisines; (nippy) ocean bathing; world-class theater and art, ballet and opera; the lushest landscaped parks west of Philadelphia; and everyday vistas that prompt even lifelong San Franciscans to gasp in amazement. In 1997 the Chronicle extolled the “glory of living anywhere in the Bay Area,” where there is always a convenient peak offering a spectacular view. “From the hilltops,” gushed the newspaper, “the congestion that makes metropolitan life maddening becomes invisible.”

San Francisco temperatures, while averaging out to a pleasant sixty degrees or so, can swing wildly with no notice. “The coldest winter I ever spent,” goes one refrain, “was a summer in San Francisco!” Spared the desert winds that can sizzle Southern California, San Franciscans swelter only in late September and early October’s Indian Summer, when the air is mysteriously still and humid. Otherwise, dressing in layers is wise advice, for a toasty day can turn dank and frigid in an instant when the fog rolls in. How foggy does it get, and how often? It’s notable that there are 26 separate foghorns and other fog signals in the San Francisco Bay alone. In wintertime, waves of rainstorms sometimes roll off the ocean, to be followed by inexplicable periods of climatological perfection.

Perfection? What about those earthquakes? Only tourists ask such questions, as natives are calmly stoical on the subject. Their attitude is: “What will be will be.” However, that has not stopped them from strengthening the city’s buildings or nailing bookcases to the wall, or staying clear of grocery stores and pottery shops when the occasional temblor turns one’s footing to jelly.

Citizens wearily admit that San Francisco lies within trembling distance of not only the great San Andreas Fault but also several parallel fault lines in the earth’s crust. You’ll sway 10 feet at the top of a downtown skyscraper during a quake. (On a previous trip to town, Carol and I stood on the roof of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, high, high above San Francisco. Carol was photographing the skyline, but all either of us could think about was earthquakes.)

The Great Quake of 1906 left little standing in the eastern part of the city. Masonry structures, including grand hotels, collapsed, and fires consumed wooden buildings

Yes, the Great Quake of 1906 killed perhaps 1,000 people (the actual number is inexact because many undocumented residents were killed in Chinatown) and destroyed nearly every structure east of Van Ness Avenue. “City practically ruined by fire,” read the last message coming from the city’s main telegraph office nine hours after the quake. “No water. It’s awful.”

But it was the fires from ruptured gas mains and fallen lanterns, not tremors or giant cracks in the earth, that produced such horrific loss of life. What about the Loma Prieta quake in 1989 that flattened part of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, darkened the city for days, and sparked fires that consumed much of the Marina District? More lessons learned, say the natives. And what about the “Big One” that many seismologists believe to be inevitable, perhaps in the foreseeable future? Would downtown skyscraper office space have quadrupled in 20 years if smart money were worried about such things?

What will he will be.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, gorgeous at dusk, wasn’t so attractive after whole chunks collapsed in a devastating earthquake in 1989

Ferries at one time carried 50 million passengers annually from one point to another across the Bay. In its heyday, the great 1898 Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street, with its familiar clock tower and steel-framed concrete piers, was the busiest transportation terminal in America. However, with the opening of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936, ferries no longer served as the only link across the Bay. And when the Golden Gate Bridge was finished a year later, a trip up U.S. Highway One no longer required a ferry crossing from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Marin County shore. The bridge, which can sway more than 7.5 meters (25 feet) in a gale, rise two meters due to expansion on a hot day, and drop five meters on a cold one, is a triumph of modern engineering—especially considering the swift currents of the 200-foot-deep water below. So popular is the Golden Gate Bridge today that one survey found it was the No. 1 attraction among foreign visitors to the United States.

This old postcard shows Mission Delores, one of a string of Catholic missions built up and down the coast when California was part of Mexico

To go back the city’s beginnings, in the 1500s, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, sailing under the Spanish flag, and Sir Francis Drake, the British explorer, both managed to miss San Francisco Bay as they poked around the California coast ─ perhaps because of the fog. It would not be until 1769 that the first Spanish galleon sailed into the bay that American adventurer John C. Fremont would later call “the Golden Gate.” Seven years later the first Spanish colonists arrived from Mexico. They established a presidio (fort), a mission (one in a string of 21 along El Camino Real ─ the Royal Highway ─ from San Diego to Sonoma), and a pueblo adobe village.

Not until Mexico gained control of California many years later did the settlement get a name, Yerba Buena (“Good Herb”) ─ not San Francisco, honoring the Franciscans’ founder. The Spanish paid the place little mind save to keep a wary eye on the Russians, who had established a thriving trading post 111 kilometers (60 miles) north at Fort Ross. Besides, the land surrounding Yerba Buena was largely covered with sand, including gigantic dunes stretching six miles from the ocean, clear across the peninsula.

By the time Mexico lost California to the United States in 1848, following a brief and disastrous war over Texas, Americans had already settled much of Northern California and changed the city’s name to coincide with the name of the bay that surrounded the peninsula.

In 1897, streetcars ─ not cable cars ─ rumbled near a new monument marking California’s admission to the Union in 1850

San Francisco became a port of moderate importance with about five hundred souls, and 150 buildings and tents. But in 1848, James Marshall, a sawmill operator, found gold on a farm owned by John Sutter more than a hundred miles (almost 200 kilometers) away in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. The discovery quickly ended the city’s days as a muddy shantytown, where one downtown corner was marked with a sign reading, “This street impassable, not even jackassable.” Gold fever, too, quickly roused interest in full-fledged statehood for California. After vigorous debate over whether the territory should enter the Union as a free or slave-holding state, California was admitted as a free state in 1850. In the two years that followed, 125,000 more Americans left their homes in search of the Spanish Conquistadors’ elusive City of Gold, making the arduous journey across the continent, by ship around Cape Horn, or over the swampy Isthmus of Panama and then by ship to San Francisco. Ironically both Sutter, the owner of the mill on which gold had been discovered, and Marshall, the discoverer, would die penniless after the frenzied prospectors overran the goldfield.

Though not a nugget of gold was ever unearthed in San Francisco, it was the City by the Bay that was transformed into the true City of Gold. San Francisco supplied the transportation, foodstuffs, clothing ─ including Levi Strauss’s blue-denim work pants with copper buttons and rivets ─ tools, whiskey, bawdy entertainers, and financing that fueled the boom.

These were raucous times, during which the city’s abundance of singular characters and unconventional lifestyles was most likely born. Boom times, too, from which emerged a self-confident, world-class city that could afford to create Golden Gate Park, a giant horticultural showcase atop those dunes in the western part of the city. In 1894, Golden Gate Park was the site of the first of three great San Francisco world’s fairs.

One of San Francisco’s favorite tourist attractions, the cable car, turns around prior to another ascent of one of the city’s steep hills

Mobility around the city was greatly enhanced with the development of the cable car ─ the ingenious invention of Andrew Hallidie, a transplanted Englishman who was already making cable for use in the mines. After he successfully demonstrated that streetcars might traverse the city’s hills by simply grabbing on to an endlessly moving cable running beheath the street in 1873, eight separate cable-car companies sprang up, and the idea was copied in cities from Sydney to Washington. Not just the middle class benefited from the cable cars. So did the wealthy who built mansions on Nob Hill and financed housing developments in what would otherwise have been inaccessible hillside areas.

The stunning building that houses the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit opened in 1905 and survived the Great Quake a year later

These were the days when San Francisco was by far the dominant city of the West Coast ─ Los Angeles was little more than a sleepy citrus center. The early years of the 20th Century in San Francisco were marked by the explosive growth of unions, built upon resentment of the city’s capitalist elite. Strikes, rioting, wild newspaper wars, and waves of reform swept the city. Then came the terrifying ’06 Quake that would destroy four-fifths of the city and leave an estimated 250,000 residents homeless. But within three years thousands of homes and businesses were rebuilt, and as a symbol of its rebirth, San Francisco’s flag features a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Alcatraz Island, whose federal prison was deemed “escape proof” because of the cold, fast-moving waters of the bay, looms behind Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill

Along came the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, and the art deco Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Offshore, Alcatraz Island ─ long a military prison ─ was turned over to the Federal Government to house the “worst of the worst” federal prisoners. Such infamous criminals as Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Baby Face” Nelson, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and Robert Stroud were among the new inmates.

This is one of 20 or so murals painted on fences and garages in a Mission District street called “Balmy Alley”

The years since World War II have solidified San Francisco’s reputation as a cultured, comely, and occasionally kooky place. The beatniks were followed, in the 1960s, by the New Left protesters ─ centered, actually, across the Bay in Berkeley ─ the hippies, and the psychedelic “San Francisco Sound” rock groups like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. Writer Joan Didion wrote that San Francisco was the flash-point of the nation’s “social hemorrhaging” during the hippie years. Then in 1978 came citywide disquiet following the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay supervisor, by Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor. White and Milk seemed to embody the fractiousness of San Francisco politics, as each represented a different ward and vocal constituency. ‘William Saroyan once described San Francisco as “an experiment in living.”

This is San Francisco new and old. Both are beloved

San Francisco might give Paris and Venice a run as the world’s favorite city. No visit seems to cover it all. When one must leave, it’s with the feeling of privilege at having met this unforgettable grande dame. Suave yet naughty, winsome yet brawling, seagazing as well as seagoing, courtly yet avant garde, San Francisco seizes the senses. Tony Bennett, the great crooner, in his famous rendition of the song about this city, left his heart here. It’s little wonder, for, even in its current run of frowziness, San Francisco is a siren, whose song once heard is not forgotten.

***
Red Rockin’

On one of our stops heading east from San Francisco, Carol got the chance to snap some lovely photographs in and above Sedona, Arizona, an increasingly popular resort area tucked in a valley below some stunning red-rock formations. I thought you might like to see some of her images, so Internet guru Anne Malinee has replaced Carol’s slide show in the column to the right with her Sedona photos.

***
Got Some ID, Bud?

Finally, in my last opus about the evils of air travel, I forgot to mention a brief but charming moment during our layover in Los Angeles. While Carol was tapping away on her computer, I strolled down the concourse to a little burrito joint and ordered a beer. The perky waiter, about my age, looked at me with what I thought was a twinkle in his eye, and said, “See your ID?” “Yeah, right, sure,” I replied with a chuckle, since it’s been a couple of generations of time since I’ve been “carded” to be sure I was old enough to buy alcohol.

“Seriously,” the waiter replied. I pointed to my gray hair and his, but he just shrugged his shoulders. “Policy,” he said. “Everybody shows ID. Saves us the hassle.” I fished out my license, he gave it the most cursory examination in alcohol-regulation history, and I got my beer. And it put perhaps a bit more spring in my step the rest of the day.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

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

Frowziness. Shabbiness, down on its luck.

Hippies. A youth subculture, originating in San Francisco in the 1960s. These “flower children” sang of peace and love, but much of their utopian innocence was lost when drugs infested the movement.

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Airborne America

Posted May 1st, 2009 at 2:13 pm (UTC-4)
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I’m writing from crisp, clear, cool San Francisco, after a day’s slog by air ─ yes, as you’ll see, it is possible to slog via airplane ─ from muggy, cloudy, hot Washington, D.C. Once I’ve poked around a bit and reacquainted myself with the distinctive “City by the Bay,” I’ll give you a report and some history in my next posting.

In the meantime, I suggest a name change for the blog ─ this time only ─ from “Ted Landphair’s America” to “10D’s America.”

Jet
To you, this is a jet airplane or “big bird.” To me, a high-flying, fast-moving stress machine

Humans with names are reduced to alphanumeric characters in today’s world of air travel. Carol was 10A, and I was 10D, not just at the airport and on the jumbo flying shoebox into which we were stuffed for more than five hours in the air from Washington to Los Angeles, but also from the moment we booked the flight and got our “seat assignments.” (Carol wanted a window; I wanted an aisle, and I ended up across the aisle in the same row.)

From the moment the reservations and seats were confirmed until we landed in San Francisco, we lost a good chunk of control of our lives.

What took over that control, for me more than Carol, was STRE$$.

(The $$ of air travel accrues from the cost of tickets, transportation to the airport, a growing array of booking and baggage fees, various gratuities, meals that used to be free, headset rental charges, and more.)

My stress level elevates according to the air travelers’ axiom, borrowed from “Murphy’s Law”: “What can go wrong, will.”

Carol, bless her, is possessed of an annoyingly sunny outlook best summarized with another cliché. Unfailingly she “makes the best of a bad situation.”

At least she agrees with me about the “bad” part.

What’s so tough, you ask, about waking one day on America’s right coast and drifting off to dreamland that same night in a comfortable hotel bed on the left one?

Everything in between, that’s what. Let me count some of the ways:

• The up-and-at-‘em-at-4 a.m. routine for a 9 o’clock departure. Why so ungodly early? Because paranoia about missing the flight strikes deep. There are pets and self to be fed; final packing and last-minute computer work that you meant to finish the night before but didn’t because, gracious, it was midnight already. And since one always “wants to come home to a clean place,” time must be found for light laundry and dishwashing and pick-up-around-the-house duty before the taxi or kind friend is tooting the horn in the driveway in “plenty of time” to get you to the airport.

My preferred plenty of time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Carol’s: 30 minutes.

Cab
So you have to catch a flight? No hurry, no worry. Take your sweet time

• The knuckle-gnawing ride to the airport, sure to be in rush hour, when a single closure or fender-bumper or drop of rain (Washingtonians drive like sniveling cowards in the rain and severe catatonics in snow) sends the blood pressure to alarm-bell levels.

Why not take trusty public transit?

Because there’s nothing “trusty” about it when you’re in a hurry. Repeat after me: What can go wrong . . .

Case
This fellow is obviously watching one of Carol’s smaller bags for our next trip

• Packing. You have not traveled with Ms. Highsmith, whose photo endeavors require a safari-worthy assortment of steamer-sized trunks. Luckily, she’s an all-digital “photog” these days. Oh, how I remember the days when we’d set off with 13 elephantine cases bulging with lenses, tripods, battery packs, cords, filters, special umbrellas and backdrop cloths, 200 or so packs of 4”x5” large-format film, 300 boxes of Polaroid film, plus whatever clothes and cosmetics and mosquito repellent could be stuffed in between.

In the years since, the parsimonious airlines have whittled their world down to one permitted checked bag per person, and it had better be a little featherweight thing or EL$E.

Luggage
Do you think all these bags can fit in the overhead luggage bin? Of course they can, with a little ingenuity and the ruthless scrunching of every purse and hat and backpacks that get in their way

That has prompted the flying public, otherwise known as sardines with boarding passes, to cram three lifetimes’ worth of possessions into the “one carry-on item” and one additional backpack, purse, or briefcase permitted on board. Thus, passengers lining up to board resemble stevedores tugging freight containers that onboard, they are repeatedly warned, “must “fit securely in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you.”

Bag limits, bag sizes, bag bins. Bag stress, as I’ll explain.

Security
Yeah, getting through security may take you a few extra minutes (or days). And yes, those folks up on the walkway are in line. But be patient, and you’ll be just fine

• “Clearing security” at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, or is it Washington National Ronald Reagan Airport? Since its name was changed from just plain Washington National over a decade ago to honor the late president, I can never get it straight. Sometimes I call it “Washington Ronald National Reagan Airport,” just to be ornery.

Imagine the confusion up the road at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport. And I didn’t even scramble that one.

I won’t belabor the security ordeal ─ the shoeless, belt-less, have-your-boarding-pass-ready-for-inspection, hands-out-in-front-like-an-undead-zombie pass through the magnetometer under the watchful eye of Mr. or Ms. Uniformed Personality. It’s the same in any large airport. Sometimes the scowls and reproaches for packing a shampoo container larger than a thimble are surlier, sometimes they’re not. Depends on how long the security agents have been on their feet and how many people with belt buckles the size of Rhode Island have set off the scanner that day.

• Arrival at the departure gate. Naturally, in our case, approximately half of the passengers at Washington Ronald National Reagan had booked a single departing flight ─ ours, to Los Angeles. It was the usual assortment of grumpy “night people” who are grouchy any time before noon, plus what must have been 800 teenagers, chattering to each other or into their cell phones about J Lo and Brangelina, and a little bit about their big trip to SoCal.

(Don’t know from J Lo and Brangelina and SoCal? Like, you’re totally unclutch.)

Departure
Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be boarding Flight 6787 in just a moment. I’m sure we’ll get most of you on. The rest of you can meet your luggage in Oshkosh if we can fit you on our next flight

• Getting aboard first. Even though everyone has an assigned seat, it’s important to elbow one’s way to the front of the line to be sure you’re a winner in battle for space in the overhead bin. One doesn’t want to have that maniacally packed carry-on bag banished to the cargo hold. Least of all Carol, who, you’ll recall, had crammed a small fortune in camera equipment, plus one-fourth of our other worldly possessions, into one unpleasantly plump bag.

Recognizing the likelihood of seating stampedes, airline computers now herd passengers into “groups” ─ numbered 1, 2, 3, sometimes up to 8 ─ so that the airplane can be boarded back to front. This makes some sense, since without such a plan, the stampeders would clog the aisles while trying to lift their overstuffed luggage into the bins.

First class
In case you had any doubts, this is not the “back of the airplane” in coach

But the smooth boarding system never works, because the airline also sets aside early, “priority” boarding for a variety of people with potentate status, including the rich and famous in first class, plus “gold-medallion members,” “super-plus” frequent fliers, those who’ve earned points from the airline’s “travel partners,” people “needing assistance” or traveling with families, undercover security agents, and deadheading pilots and flight attendants.

For our flight, by the time all of these special folks had boarded, only those 800 chattering teenagers, Carol, and I were left to straggle onboard.

Making that Carol-like best of a bad situation, I was able to wedge 10A’s bag into the bin. Telling you how I did it would earn me a place on the airline’s “watch list” for future lights. 10A settled into her seat next to an empty middle seat, leaned her head against one of those brick-like airline pillows, and fell fast asleep. I, old 10D, could have moved over to 10B. But come on! Only contortionists, racetrack jockeys, and those who forget to get seat assignments take a middle seat for a five-hour flight.

• Traveling “neighbors” in the sky. You can guess who ended up in 10E and 10F to my right: two of those teen chatterboxes ─ hand-holding boyfriend and girlfriend who, it too quickly became clear, had given adorable pet names to each other. Pookie and Boo, or something. Hour after hour, save for the half-dozen times I “stretched my legs” in the slit they call an aisle or in the phone-booth-sized lavatory at the rear of the plane, I was regaled with sagas of teenage loves lost, found, and dreamed of; loyal and disloyal friends; good parents, bad parents, wicked stepparents, bratty brothers, sisters who get all the attention, and stepbrothers who, you know, are like weird; teenagers who are dorks and teachers who are hunks; and spring break binges and barfs. All this before the lovebirds opened a laptop computer and began aiming the built-in camera at themselves and at me. This produced an hour of giggles, possibly at my expense.

• Reading material. I had brought, but mistakenly stuck in a checked bag, an old-fashioned reading instrument called a book. So I bought one copy of each newspaper that the concourse kiosk offered for sale, save for one in what looked like Yiddish.

Sunset
This is the kind of place the in-flight magazines want to send you. Right. I’ll pack my flip-flops and snorkel and be right over

The only onboard alternative would be the “in-flight magazine,” which obsesses on exotic or adventuresome destinations on the airline’s route. That would be engrossing if I were into touring lush villas in lusher rain forests or scuba-diving with piranha. I’m not, though, so I was left to read about airport gate alignments, the selection of cocktails and snacks for purchase, and advertisements for zirconium jewelry, golf clubs, and vibrating chairs.

Still, after the six papers, zirconium ads, emergency landing instructions, and T-shirt on the back of an enormous man in 8B, there was nothing left but further adventures of my traveling companions, Pookie and Boo. And this was just to Los Angeles. The dreaded “change of planes” lay ahead there before we could even aim for San Francisco.

Catch a nap like my wife, 10A? Not when the seat reclines only about seven centimeters, the hours are punctured with turbulence and seat-belt warnings from “the cockpit,” note is made on the speaker system of every location “on the right (or left) of the aircraft” of every natural wonder and community larger than Sheboygan, and Pookie and Boo are taking turns stretching their legs.

Fortunately, the layover in Los Angeles and flight up to San Francisco were nearly unremarkable.

Nearly.

The exception was the number of people on the flight whom we observed wearing surgical masks. We counted 20, compared with just 1 on the cross-country flight. Californians, already sensitive to airborne pollution and more attuned than easterners to good health, have been quick to note the recent spread of swine flu; as of this writing, 12 confirmed or suspected cases have been reported in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. Perhaps it was my imagination, but when a man several rows to our rear erupted into a coughing fit, the normal buzz of conversation dipped to an uncomfortable murmur.

Flu fear: one more stressor in the air.

All of this mitigates in favor of nice, sanely paced, drives across America, any time we have a choice. We’ll be driving, not flying, all the way back home over ten days, nabbing stories and photographs. No 10A and 10D going east. No Pookie and Boo, either.

***
‘Hello, Curly? This is 04582”

The front page of my San Francisco Chronicle shows the surprising fruits of recent searches of inmate cells in California’s biggest state prison in Vacaville.

Not guns or homemade knives, called “shanks,” fashioned from bedsprings or sharpened spoons. Not drugs or girlie magazines. Not contraband cigarettes or booze.

No, something thoroughly modern: cell phones! 1,800 of them confiscated since 2006. Plus another thousand discovered in the cells or on the grounds of California’s other prisons.

Cell phones in more ways than one.

Needless to say, easy contact with the outside world is not the ideal “perk” for incarcerated bad guys and gals. Not only can they merrily continue their criminal enterprises, such as ordering “hits” on the judges, jurors, prosecutors, and witnesses who put them away, but they can also use their cell minutes to plan such recreational activities as jail breaks.

You’d think it was girlfriends, boyfriends, gang pals, or shady lawyers who smuggled in most of these mobile phones. Naw. In more than half the cases, it was the prison staff ─ cooks, medical personnel, even guards, if you can call them that ─ who sold the phones to “cons” for $100 to $400 apiece.

This raises a question: How many cigarettes or extra bars of soap does a convict have to sell to earn $400 to spend on a cell phone? Apparently cash, as well as electronics, is finding its way behind bars.

Right now, the penalty imposed on a prisoner found hiding a cellular phone in California is the loss of 30 days’ credit for “good behavior.” That’s not exactly throwing them in “the hole” for a month like the good-old days. (Just kidding, prison reformers.)

Seeing the photo of the cell phone pile, the California legislature is springing to action. Bills have been introduced to make the smuggling, sale, or possession of a mobile phone in a state prison illegal.

That’ll put the fear of the law in those cons.

***
Boys in the Hoods

On my last trip, to Ohio and Indiana, I visited and wrote a VOA story about the small Indiana city of Kokomo, an industrial place that is battling economic gremlins. Kokomo’s largest employer is Chrysler Motors, which, after teetering for months on the edge of collapse, filed this week for bankruptcy protection. The gist of my story was that while Kokomoans are worried, naturally, they’re also in the early stages of re-inventing themselves as a model “green” city of biodiesel reactors, algae ponds, rooftop wind turbines and the like.

While there, I came across a fascinating historical oddity that I did not report because it has no relevance to the economic crisis or, that I can see, to the city today.

Kokomo sits in the northern part of a northern state ─ a good 270 kilometers (170 miles) from Kentucky, which was a “border state” between North and South in the American Civil War of the 1860s, and 850 kilometers (525 miles) from former slaveholding, Deep South states like Mississippi.

But it was not in Mississippi or Georgia or Kentucky but in Kokomo, Indiana, in 1923, where history’s largest gathering of the Ku Klux Klan took place. Klansmen were white bigots who paraded in white robes and conical white masks when they were not terrorizing, and sometimes lynching, African Americans, Jews, and other minorities. More than 200,000 Klansmen marched in that record-setting rally in Kokomo that year.

Ku Klux Klan
Ku Klux Klansmen couldn’t have been too proud of what they were doing, considering the lengths they went to hide their identities

An itinerant salesman named David Curtis Stephenson who had settled in Indiana also happened to be the Klan’s “grand dragon.” He spread hate while making a fortune for himself, selling Klan robes and hoods. Stephenson organized the big Kokomo rally at the apex of the Klan’s power. Two years later, he was off to prison for life after a conviction on a rape charge. And subsequent prosecutions of other Klansmen sapped the Klan’s appeal. Estimated membership in Indiana fell from 350,000 to 15,000 in a single year.

I asked the county historian, Fred Odiet, about all this, and he noted that Klan membership was a not-so-secret secret in many northern towns in the early 20th Century. Business leaders in Kokomo and elsewhere were not virulent “night riders,” he says. But they hired some, and they collaborated to keep Catholics, more than the few blacks in the area, in their place. Just about everybody knew who was Klan and who wasn’t, Odiet says, but nobody talked much about it. Some townspeople identified Klansmen by carefully observing their shoes, unhidden by the white robes, then matching the footwear against what “reputable” businessmen would wear to work or civic gatherings.

Kokomo today is still a “white bread” place ─ 87 percent white and just 10 percent African American. But there are countless signs of racial harmony in town, and nobody pays much attention to other people’s shoes any longer.

***
White Light
Grand Central Station
There are no chandeliers in this section of the massive, refurbished Grand Central Terminal, but there are still plenty of light bulbs to change

A quick thought about a clever New York Times story pegged to the old jokes about how many people of one sort or another it takes to change a light bulb. Six, it turns out, at the city’s Grand Central train terminal. There, just 10 gilt chandeliers alone carry almost 700 incandescent bulbs, and officials are replacing them and thousands of others with compact, screw-in fluorescents that, together, are expected to save the terminal $200,000 a year in energy costs.

Carol and I are sad to see this latest example of the switch away from incandescent lighting. She, as a photographer, because of the beauty of many traditional light bulbs and the sheer ugliness and sickening patina of fluorescent bulbs. And I because, in one motel and restaurant and streetlight after another, the warm glow of Thomas Edison’s invention is being replaced by an institutional, cool-blue sheen better suited to outer-space movies or those mobile-phone-equipped cells at Vacaville.

True enough, money and energy will be saved in the brave new, paler, sickly-looking fluorescent world. And one day, the warm glow of an old-fashioned light bulb will have gone the way of the floppy disk.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

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

Gremlin. A mischievous fairy. The word also has a more modern application to electronic and mechanical devices that develop inexplicable glitches, blamed on mysterious gremlins or “bugs.”

The hole. Prison jargon for cells to which convicts are sentenced to solitary confinement.

Parsimonious. Not just frugal but downright cheap. Tight with a dollar and not inclined to part with one.

Sniveling. Whining and tearful. Another vocabulary-building word, obsequious, also fits someone who snivels.

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National Road, American Treasure

Posted April 24th, 2009 at 6:40 pm (UTC-4)
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Carol and I just got back from a fascinating drive along an interstate highway, parts of which are barely wider than a pickup truck!

It’s a highway, all right, just not a new one. And it was an interstate – in fact, the very first federal highway, begun in 1811, about 140 years before land was cleared for what we now know as America’s Interstate Highway System.

George Washington, the nation’s first president and a surveyor by trade, had fought French and Indian forces in western Pennsylvania, where the woods are as thick as bulrushes. Firsthand, he saw the difficulty of moving armies into the frontier, and he pressed for better roads than the old animal and Indian trails along which travelers struggled to move at the time.

America's Road
Travel on America’s early roads was, as the innkeeper Thenardier said in “Les Misérables,” “a curse”

Several short, earthen toll roads, or turnpikes, which were mired in mud each winter and spring and choked with dust much of the rest of the year, were cut between the port city of Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay and Cumberland, Maryland, in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. But far beyond those dense mountains beckoned the new “Northwest Territory” that began in Ohio. So in 1806, Congress authorized construction of what it foresaw as a sort of portage road between the Potomac River near Cumberland in the east, and the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), far to the west.

Westward, Ho!
Cumberland cabin
George Washington commanded, if not slept, here, and this cabin in Cumberland is ground zero of The National Road.

Beginning in a triangular park in downtown Cumberland at a little log cabin that had once been Washington’s headquarters, workers blazed westward along the old Nemacolin or Braddock Trail. Nemacolin was a Delaware Indian chief; Edward Braddock, a British general who had tramped that way, hoping to capture French forts.

But the “National Road,” as everyone soon called this remarkable pathway west, kept right on going, past Wheeling onto Zane’s Trace, a barely improved wilderness footpath to Zanesville in eastern Ohio. The target terminus, far to the west, was the mightiest river of all: the distant Mississippi. The National Road almost made it, stretching about 1,000 kilometers to Vandalia in central Illinois in the 1840s before funding ran out and enthusiasm waned. That’s because speedy, capacious new railroads stole the road’s thunder as well as most of its people and freight.

Doug
Here’s Doug, ready with a story about rudimentary early travel on The National Road

Carol and I learned a lot of this from Doug Smith, our enthusiastic guide and traveling companion on an exploration of remnants of The National Road in Ohio. Unlike the many train freaks and vintage-car enthusiasts, Doug, who’s a real-estate broker, Licking County commissioner, and auctioneer – you should hear him speed-talk through an auctioneer’s call! – just loves old roads. Until he and Glenn Harper, a founding member of the Ohio National Road Association, came along, most of the romantic stories of America’s historic byways had been lavished upon U.S. Route 66, which was created in the “roaring” 1920s from a string of state roads out west. Connecting Chicago to the Pacific Ocean via quirky crossroads and scenic desert byways, 66 has come to be known as “the Mother Road.”

If that’s so, The National Road, begun 110 years earlier, is wiry old Great Grandma.

U.S. 66
The National Road doesn’t yet have as many trinkets, slogans, or fan clubs as U.S. 66 out West. But folks in Ohio are working on it

“John Steinbeck and [the Great Depression novel] The Grapes of Wrath didn’t hurt the nostalgic craze over Route 66,” Doug Smith reminded me. Doug and Glenn Harper aren’t (yet) in Steinbeck’s league, but they have produced an exceptional little travelers’ guide that is a treasure trove of stories, vintage photos, and maps that help visitors locate, then enjoy, the many, though often hidden, delights to be found on The National Road in Ohio.

Travel guide
Doug and Glenn’s travel guide spans many generations of “The Road That Helped Build America”

Carol and I wore out our copies, even as Doug told us stories and pointed out spots that we’d have never found on our own. And we ended up in one of the most curious, intellectually nutritious museums in America. Curious, as you’ll see, because of the odd combination of themes presented there.

All Aboard for Time Travel

I hope you like history as much as I do – and the wind in your hair as you drive with the top down! We’re gassed up and ready for a trip down The National Road. A smidgen of it, at least.

As I mentioned, The National Road winds from the ancient mountains of western Maryland to the pancake-flat plains of Illinois. Doug Smith’s neck of the woods in eastern Ohio is just a microcosm of an old road that teems with stories dating as far back as the opening of the American frontier.

Signs
Signs old and new adjoin each other along the venerable road in eastern Ohio

Much of the way as you whiz past red, white, and blue signs for The National Road, you’re driving U.S. 40, a two- or sometimes four-lane federal highway that was given its number during the same era that Route 66 was strung together out West.

But those colorful signs reflect fiction as well as truth. U.S. 40 does follow the general path of the old National Road, but many of the most compelling remnants of the original, historic highway are little more than offshoots – driveway-size, even – running off that road into the woods or right up to somebody’s farm. If you didn’t have Doug Smith in the car with you, you wouldn’t know the real National Road was there. The original, narrow road twisted and

National Road pavement
This is a piece of the original National Road, as first paved with concrete about 1916. Driving along U.S. 40, you’d never see it

turned, loped straight up gentle hills, and curled around steep ones. Come U.S. 40, the highway engineers of the 1920s were determined to proceed as straight as possible from Cumberland west, and they proceeded to widen, cut, fill, and pave over the old road to do it – chewing up, disguising, and discarding much of The National Road as they went.

Allow me to present nuggets from Doug and Glenn’s travelers’ guide, Doug’s genial tour, and my own peeks at roadside markers and overlooks.

Connections
Wheeling Suspension Bridge
The Wheeling Suspension Bridge, over which The National Road still runs, looks its age, for sure

Doug likes to tell about the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, across which The National Road finally spanned the Ohio River in 1849. Originally the world’s longest suspension bridge (at 308 meters), it twisted and torqued and finally collapsed into the river one day five years later, during a frightful storm. Everything but the structural engineer’s reputation survived. When it came time to rebuild, John Roebling, renowned for his Brooklyn Bridge across the East River in New York City, got the job. But the new Wheeling bridge got built only after city burghers upriver in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, stopped bellowing. They were worried that the workhorse steamboats of the period would not be able to pass under Roebling’s creation and deliver goods to Pittsburgh. Clever inventors averted the problem by figuring a way to tilt steamboat stacks backward on hinges, even at full steam, low enough to glide safely under Roebling’s bridge.

The National Road had first reached Ohio via smaller bridges, igniting a human flood so profound that, by the 1840 census, “frontier” Ohio had become the nation’s third-most-populous state.

Going in Cycles
Bikes
Safety bikes were all the rage, even among the nation’s “new women,” in 1895, when this poster was produced

And The National Road became its most popular thoroughfare. In their guide, Glenn Harper and Doug Smith include this note about the “safety bicycle” – the low-riding kind with wheels of equal size that we know today – that replaced scary, bone-shaking (and occasionally -breaking), 1.5-meter-high models that had been in vogue. The safety bike, the authors report, “brought new life to the old Road. To prove their physical prowess, young men would sometimes ride one hundred miles or more. Sherman Granger established a record in 1897 by riding his bicycle from Zanesville to Cumberland [337 kilometers] in four and one-half days. Such enthusiasts organized the League of American Wheelmen and in their quest for appropriate places to ride helped champion the ‘Good Roads Movement.’ Advocates for the movement increased dramatically with the invention and increased use of the automobile. In just ten years from 1900 to 1910, the number of automobiles increased from 8,000 to 468,000.”

That’s more than 58 times as many “horseless carriages” in a decade. And an awful lot of them rolled along The National Road.

Zane Grey's Museum
Site Manager Mary Ellen Weingartner near the end of the National Road/Zane Grey Museum’s meticulously accurate diorama

I mentioned a most unusual museum. Called The National Road/Zane Grey Museum, it’s tucked up on a hill in little Norwich, Ohio. That’s enunciated as “Nor-wick,” not “witch,” in these parts, for reasons known only to denizens of the town. The museum, supported by the state historical society, displays three almost completely unrelated sorts of artifacts. One set, pertinent to our visit, explains The National Road. It includes a superb 41-meter-long diorama, displaying hundreds of tiny, hand-carved natural features, human figures, animals, wagons, tools, and road-building equipment – each individually crafted – plus other treasures and photographs related to the first federal road. The Zane Grey portion tells the story of America’s best-known Old West adventure novelist; he grew up nearby and was a great-grandson of Ebenezer Zane, whose “trace” we mentioned earlier. And there’s a wing devoted strictly to art pottery, which was once a thriving business in eastern Ohio.

Site manager Mary Ellen Weingartner pointed out three artifacts, in particular, that caught my fancy:

One was a “Gunter’s chain,” named after a 17th-Century British mathematician. Its 100 links, precisely, stretch exactly 66 feet (just over 20 meters). The men who blazed The National Road used Gunter’s chains to hew a uniform right-of-way as they went. The traveling portion was usually far narrower, as shallow drainage ditches and space for markers ate up part of the width.

The second notable artifact was an actual Conestoga wagon, which Mary Ellen described as the “semi truck of its day.” This was the pioneer freight wagon that you see in film “westerns” – the sort with billowing white canvas affixed to its high, arching

Shoe
That’s an ordinary shoe, all right, between the pieces of wood in the braking device of an old Conestoga wagon

ribs. Conestoga wagons, named after the Pennsylvania valley in which they first appeared, carried no drivers or passengers. They were pulled by 6 to 12 horses or oxen, but the drovers rode or walked alongside. The only seat was a short, hard, retractable “lazy board,” sticking out from the wagon’s side, on which an exhausted person could catch what must have been a short, incredibly uncomfortable ride. When these heavily laden “prairie schooners” headed downhill, a lever engaged a brake shoe to prevent the wagon from rolling over the dray animals that were pulling it.

I note this because a Conestoga wagon’s brake shoes were, in fact, real shoes! No doubt hand-me-downs that already had holes in their soles.

Look Out Below

Downhill travel on The National Road was indeed an adventure. Approaching a steep decline, a drover would sometimes stop, cut down a large tree, and tie it to the back of his wagon to slow the heavy, rolling loads. There’s even a slightly macabre marker along the Ohio portion of the road that pinpoints the spot where Christopher Baldwin became Ohio’s first known traffic fatality. On August 20, 1835, Baldwin, a Massachusetts antiquarian en route to central Ohio to study prehistoric Indian mounds, was riding “up top” with his stagecoach driver when they passed a pack of grunting hogs. The horses reared, the coach tipped over, and poor Baldwin broke his neck.

Madonna of the Trail
In 1912, Congress ordered several “Madonna of the Trail” statues, including this one on the National Road in Ohio, erected along historic roads to salute westward-bound pioneers

That third item of note at the National Museum/Zane Grey Museum is a series of rings that Mary Ellen Weingarten uses for school-group demonstrations. The rings fit around stones of various sizes, gathered in the area during an early upgrade of The National Road. It employed a mélange called “macadam,” developed in Scotland by John McAdam about 1820. A frame was laid ahead across the terrain, into which layers of carefully sorted stones, large ones underneath up to pebbles at road level, were spread, then compacted by a heavy, horse-drawn roller. No adhesives or fillers held these millions of stones together, Mary Ellen told me. The road was no longer a muddy path. It was all rocks, smooshed by that roller, then further compressed by passing wagon wheels and the feet of travelers and livestock.

That’ll Be 27 Cents
Toll Booths
This was one of the first toll booths travelers would have encountered on The National Road, near La Vale, west of Cumberland

Both Mary Ellen and Doug pointed out The National Road became a toll turnpike once the federal government turned over jurisdiction to the states in 1835. Tollhouses popped up along the “turnpike.” (The word derives from the days when real pikes, or sharpened rods, across the road kept non-paying travelers from passing.) Travelers “coming down the pike” with those Conestoga wagons paid no toll at all, because the freight wagons’ wide wheels helped tamp down the road. Sheepherders were assessed 3 cents a score (20 head) for their herd; cattle – though nice and heavy – had sharp hooves that tore up the road, so their toll was 7 cents a score. Drovers took respite, and enjoyed a drink or two or ten, in roadside inns or in “pike towns” that sprang up along the road. Animal pens and barns corralled their animals.

Brick road
Here’s a short stretch of the Old National Road that had been paved in brick. Note how narrow it was!

In the 19-teens, engineers introduced still more new paving materials to The National Road. In places where brickyards abounded, row after row (after row after row after row!) of brick were laid. In fact, prison convicts completed an 80-kilometer stretch of brick from Zanesville eastward to Wheeling. Elsewhere, crews tried out various early forms of concrete. On some of those original road offshoots that you find off in the brush next to U.S. 40, you can walk on

Railroad engine
You can see the narrow-gauge railroad engine at work alongside highway workers as The National Road was repaved in the 19-teens

95-year-old concrete and break off a stone or two where the surface has crumbled. To lay all that concrete, Doug Smith explained, narrow-gauge railways were created just for that job. They hauled sand and gravel and stones alongside the pavers, and as work moved on down the road, the rails were pulled.

Rest Only if You Must

Doug noted that there were rest areas along The National Road, just as you’ll find on today’s Interstate Highway System. There were certainly no information kiosks or giveaway maps, vending machines or men’s and ladies’ rooms, however. These turnouts offered only shade, a water well and pump, maybe a hard bench or two, and pit toilets.

The Eagle's Nest
This is part of the inscribed rock at “The Eagle’s Nest” along the National Road

Sometimes various layers of history converge along The National Road. Near the little town of Brownsville, for instance, a granite boulder at a place called the “Eagle’s Nest” was engraved in 1914 with the outline of a covered wagon and an early roadster automobile, as well as a written notation about the repaving of the highway. But attention is also drawn to the valley below, where the world’s first demonstration of contour farming was taking place at the same time.

Marker
And this is a look at another old marker on site

Congress stipulated that markers be placed once in every mile along the road. Crews used their Gunter’s chain for that task as well; stretch one out exactly 80 times, and you had a mile. The sandstone mile markers, buried deep in the ground, carry a surprising amount of information, starting with the distance to Cumberland and including the names of, and distances to, the nearest towns. When these markers were broken by wayward vehicles or malicious vandals, concrete ones replaced them.

Strip motels
Here’s what’s left of one of those old strip motels that sprouted along The National Road in the 1940s

Other less formal sentinels of the old road are harder to find. Most period gas stations have been razed, turned into junk shops and the like, or modernized. Most, but not all, of the dreary little tourist courts, such as the “Nighty-Night Motel,” with their rows of identical rooms facing right onto the highway, are gone or empty relics. The clever Burma Shave shaving-cream ads that unfolded in four-line couplets plus a tag line on crude wooden signs . . .

Don’t stick your arm
Out too far
It might go home
In another car
Burma Shave
Rustic barn
An old, but photogenic, rustic barn along The National Road

. . . are nowhere to be seen. But Carol was thrilled when Doug led us to a couple of classic, extant “Mail Pouch” barns, on which the chewing tobacco company’s distinctive logo had been carefully hand-painted.. In fact, Doug and Glenn Harper note in their travelers’ guide, a fellow named Harley Warrick from nearby Belmont, Ohio, painted hundreds of those signs on barns throughout the Midwest for half a century.

S as in Bridge
Postcard
Here’s an early postcard view of an S-bridge in eastern Ohio

It’s hard to drag a “favorite favorite” National Road site out of Doug Smith. He loves every sign and pebble. But he’s awfully partial to the “S-bridges” that you can still see in a few places off U.S. 40. The bridge structures themselves are not S-shaped; that would be engineering folly. Like every bridge I’ve ever seen, save for one that I’ll tell you about in a moment, they shoot straight across the water at a neat 90-degree angle to the shorelines. But remember all those twists and turns of the original roadway? They brought The National Road up to many rivers at odd angles. So the early engineers had to maneuver the connections

S-bridge
And here’s the approach to one of the S-bridges as it looks today

from the road to the bridge this way or that in order to line them up for a perfectly straight shot across. Taken together, the wiggly approaches and the ruler-straight bridge have the look of a big, snaky S. (You can see what I mean in the adjacent photos.)

My favorite stop was a pretty park, high above Zanesville. Below sat not just the town, in postcard splendor, but particularly a bridge over the intersecting Licking and Muskingum rivers.

Y-shaped bridge
Zanesville’s world-famous Y-bridge

That’s right: one bridge over the confluence of two rivers! It’s Y-shaped, the only one in the world, by Doug’s reckoning. For sure, it’s the only place we know of where you can go to the middle of a bridge and turn right! Early versions of Zanesville’s Y-bridge were even covered, like the quaint, though conventionally straight, covered bridges you see in Vermont or Indiana.

Ohio Capitol
Here’s the Ohio capitol, past which U.S. 40, successor to the National Road, still runs. No, they didn’t run out of money to finish the dome. The roof is flat, but there’s a rounded dome inside it!

The National Road runs through two state capitals: Columbus, Ohio; and Indianapolis, Indiana, though you have to work to find it in both of those cities. Carol and I were both places on this trip but didn’t try very hard.

One of the treats of our ride along the old National Road occurred at a few spots where it was possible to stand on a fragment of the original pike, look across a field or up a hillside, and see two more generations of the road: U.S. 40 and today’s ultramodern, ultrafast Interstate 70. Not surprisingly, I-70 was the only busy one of the bunch.

View
I was standing on part of the old National Road when I took this shot of U.S. 40 in the distance. My eye could also see I-70 farther away, but it doesn’t show up very well here

In 2002, The National Road added a name when Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta designated it as “The National Historic Road.” That was rather a waste of effort. The “historic” part, as I hope Doug and I have demonstrated, goes without saying.

[Glenn Harper and Doug Smith’s The Historic National Road in Ohio: The Road That Helped Build America was published in 2005 by the Ohio Historical Society.]

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

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

Capacious. Large in capacity.

Denizen. Strictly, this means any inhabitant of a place. But the word also gives special status to animals and those of mystical powers, as in “denizens of the deep” or “denizens of the fields.”

Smidgen. A little bit. Sometimes shortened to “smidge.”

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Sad Times in Slavic Village

Posted April 17th, 2009 at 1:46 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

If you’ve been with me from the start of Ted Landphair’s America, you’ll remember that I began with some memories of a pleasant childhood in the first suburb to the west of bustling Cleveland, Ohio. When I was a lad of 8 in 1950, the big city next door was at its apogee – pushing a million in population and humming with smoky industry.

Since then, Cleveland has lost most of its industrial muscle and half its population. More than 100,000 people have died or left since 2002 alone. Only New Orleans, Louisiana, which was slammed by an epic, deadly hurricane, has shed more population since 2000.

Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster. Cleveland’s disaster, just as tragic though more elongated, is manmade.

You may know the term “perfect storm.” It’s taken from a 1997 book by Sebastian Junger, later made into a movie starring George Clooney, about the fluke convergence of three storm systems in the North Atlantic that doomed a Massachusetts fishing trawler and its crew.

Cleveland has been slammed by a devastating convergence of economic and demographic storms.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Cleveland rocks! At least at this popular museum

As I said, Cleveland was rocking in 1950. That’s not a reference to what is now the city’s most famous tourist attraction, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which arrived several decades later.

But in the 1980s, Cleveland’s steel industry virtually collapsed, a victim of widespread inefficiency in its aging mills and aggressive price competition from foreign steelmakers. With it went hundreds of smaller factories that fed the mills, and thousands and thousands of jobs. Giant ore-carriers that once tied at the city docks on Lake Erie rarely called. As poor African Americans moved into neighborhoods abandoned by “ethnics,” as they were called, who had worked the mills, “white flight” to the suburbs became a stampede. That left Cleveland a largely poverty-stricken, crime-ridden, industrially fallow shell of its former self. Like its cavernous, creaky, pigeon-filled downtown stadium that people called “The Mistake by the Lake,” Cleveland became a synonym for crumbling Rust Belt. “You’re from Cleveland? outsiders would say when they met people from the region, as if they were miraculous tsunami survivors.

In a way, they were.

The Comeback City
Manhattan
The Terminal Tower was my idea of a skyscraper until I made a high-school trip to New York and, mouth open, stared up at those in Manhattan

Yet a decade later, Cleveland fooled everyone. Mills reopened as specialty operations, making things like aircraft landing gears. “Urban pioneers” of all races took advantage of bargain housing prices and repopulated many depressed neighborhoods. A huge skyscraper, the first to ever compete with the city’s 65-year-old iconic symbol, the 52-story Terminal Tower, in Public Square, rose downtown. Economists marveled, and reporters poured in to get a look. Even Cleveland’s usually inept baseball team, the Indians, got a new, downtown stadium, Jacobs Field – puckishly dubbed the “Jake by the Lake” – and won four division titles in the 1990s, another in 2001, and appeared twice in the grand World Series.

Cleveland made magazine covers as America’s “Comeback City”!

Little Warsaw
This sign in Slavic Village translates as, “Little Warsaw”

And Slavic Village, a compact neighborhood south of downtown in a sooty industrial valley, was a microcosm of it all, including the manmade disaster to come.

Duplex
A home that was demolished stood next to this duplex

Textile and steel mills once thrived in the heart of Slavic Village. Polish and Czech immigrants, who had followed a generation of Welsh and Irish blue-collar workers, toiled in the mills, walking from their tiny, crowded cottages to work each day. Many of their homes were duplexes housing two families, or two generations of a single one, in just 90 square meters of space.

Saint Stanislaus
This is the doorway to “Saint Stan’s” ─ properly Stanislaus ─ the biggest church in Slavic Village

There was a rejoicing air about Slavic Village from the mingling of accents and strains of polka music, the smells of cabbage and kielbasa sausage, filled dumplings called pierogi, and rich pastries produced by more than 20 bakeries in the neighborhood. Eight large Catholic churches, including St. Stanislaus, the shrine and mother church for Poles throughout the region, filled the pews on Sunday and the streets on numerous festival days. Polish and Czech were spoken in banks, craft shops, restaurants, and other mom-and-pop stores throughout the neighborhood.

Everyday Supermen
Tony Brancatelli
This is Tony Brancatelli ─ in front of a genuine Polish bakery in the neighborhood

Anthony Brancatelli – like his Italian father and Polish mother – was reared in Slavic Village. Educated there, too, until he went off to college out of state. But he would return with the wave of third-generation Americans who took a chance on life in a warm but challenging neighborhood where the average annual income – about $27,000 today – barely exceeded the national poverty level.

For a decade, Brancatelli would lead the community development agency that has tried, like the little Dutch boy with his finger in a leaking dike, to stem an economic torrent that I will shortly describe.

Eagle emblem
There are problems, but still plenty of pride, in Slavic Village. This is the Polish imperial eagle

Four years ago, Brancatelli ran for City Council, representing the ward whose footprint covers Slavic Village, and he won. Since then, he, Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka, and a few other city officials have almost matched the mythic hero Superman’s exploits, battling for “truth, justice, and the American way” against real estate swindlers and predators. Along with further declines in the neighborhood’s industrial base, an increase in crime, the aging of an ethnic population that hasn’t the education or youthful vigor to slide comfortably into the 21st-century Information Age, these unscrupulous “subprime” lenders would prove to be a killer tempest in Cleveland’s perfect storm.

Fire
This house has been burned as well as ransacked

Brancatelli doesn’t come across like a hero or an oily politician. Remarkably self-effacing, a mid-level executive by training who’s had to learn the handshake-and-a-beer ethic of ward politics, he never once used the word “I” in our two hours together in the village. Instead, it was ‘we” who faced off against mortgage brokers, foreclosure agents, and scavengers who have turned three or four (or more) of the little houses in nearly every block into boarded-up open invitations to squatting, vandalism, drug dealing, and arson.

What they brought, too, was a prelude to a foreclosure firestorm that would sweep across the nation.

Scamming, Selling, Scavenging

Freelance mortgage brokers for banks, which could deny culpability since they didn’t directly employ these people, swooped into Slavic Village and offered cheap refinancing rates to homeowners, many of whom had lost jobs or insurance at an age when they could not keep up with expensive medical bills. “This was not some cycle of greed, with homeowners looking to make a fast buck as their properties appreciated,” Brancatelli told me. “They were good but gullible people, unschooled in even basic economics. They did not grasp that low payments that helped them out one day would balloon beyond what they had any chance at all of paying.” Many times, the councilman told me, flimflam agents would get their victims to sign the last page of a sheaf of quite legal documents, then switch all but the signatory page to paperwork filled with hopelessly unachievable payment terms.

Foreclosed homes
Two of the “dots” on Cleveland’s foreclosure map

Unable to keep up, these people would be kicked out of what for many had been the only homes they’d known, forced to move in with relatives or leave Cleveland for good. They left behind so many red dots on a map of neighborhood foreclosures that, as an incisive New York Times investigation revealed, the map looked like it was splattered in blood.

Every Monday downtown, the Cuyahoga County sheriff would sell these foreclosed properties, most of which were scooped up by speculators, to be “bundled” and sold to another layer of speculators. Investors out of state bought them sight-unseen, and why not? Who could resist 100-year-old homes on the market for $10,000, $15,000, when some housing prices nationwide were doubling and tripling in value in a matter of months?

Sometimes the investors put the proverbial “lipstick on a pig,” sending out crews to slap on some paint and straighten loose boards, expecting to “flip” the properties for quick profit. Other times, long-distance buyers trusted that they could simply “hold the paper” and wait for even richer returns as the properties appreciated in value.

Scavenged home
The scavengers have left nothing of value in this foreclosed, and stripped, Slavic Village home

Little did they realize that in home after home, scavengers – or “midnight plumbers,” as Michael Schramm, an analyst at Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty & Community Development on Cleveland’s east side, calls them – were prying loose the plywood and stripping the places nearly bare, carting off every fixture, length of copper pipe, and fireplace. Scrapyards, paying good money for these stolen remnants, popped up all through the shadows of Slavic Village. That left some blocks looking like the aftermath of Katrina, without the hurricane.

Tearing Down American Dreams
Condemned sign
This would be the fate of many homes that many people far away thought might make a tidy investment

Some home purchasers who sincerely thought they were getting a bargain and would fix up a place to live in found the destruction so complete, or the back taxes and cost of correcting housing-code violations so steep, that they write the whole experience off as a loss. Each time, that left one more empty house of horrors on one more block.

Citywide, the sheriff sold about 2,000 foreclosed homes in the year 2000. According to Michael Schramm, almost five times that many “sheriff’s deeds” were recorded each week in 2007, the last year for which numbers are available. Overall this decade, more than 1 in every 12 residential properties in the county has ended up in the sheriff’s hands.

Bulldozer
The bulldozer is about to take the last bite out of an abandoned home

And, Schramm says, the city is tearing down about a thousand “O.V.V.’s” a year – sometimes blocks at a time. O.V.V. is short for “open, vacant, and vandalized.” “They’d like to ‘mothball’ more of them,” he says, keeping them intact until the economic malaise passes and the homes can be refurbished. But the scavengers are ripping apart abandoned houses beyond salvation.

Sometimes the foreclosed family itself wreaks the destruction, out of fury and spite, or just to pull a fragment of value out of their ill-fated home.

Meanwhile, mortgage predators took advantage of a federal voucher program intended to give poor, often African-American, people a shot at home ownership. The government paid a good chunk of the cost to get voucher recipients into homes that they simply could not afford. These voucher recipients, like older white “ethnics,” became easy pickings for the pack of real estate wolves.

In the last, interim census count, Slavic Village, was 30 percent African-American. Brancatelli figures it will be 50 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic, and just 35 percent non-Hispanic white when figures roll in from the 2010 census. The total population, if the number of abandoned houses – “dead carcasses,” Tony Brancatelli calls them – and churches that are closing (three of the eight big Catholic ones) are an indication, is sure to be way down.

Cries For Help Fall on Deaf Ears
Vandalism
This home won’t be fixed any time soon

The Cleveland police cannot keep up with the vandals and scavengers. In a perverse irony, they have had to release many of those they caught because no bank or mortgage agent would claim ownership of the property. “That’s [banks’] mantra, Judge Pianka told the New York Times. “‘We don’t own it.’ It’s handy for them to say, ‘Oh, it’s not us.’ It’s part of this big shell game they’re playing.”

The original homeowner was long gone, so there was no one left to press charges. The only crime for which the scavengers and squatters could be charged was trespassing, a trivial misdemeanor.

And thus “a cycle of abandonment” would blight a proud but already fraying old neighborhood.

Even the “good guys in the white hats” like Brancatelli’s former redevelopment agency, inadvertently contributed to that cycle by paying top dollar for properties on which they would build new homes and condo developments. That boosted valuations of the entire neighborhood, including distressed and empty houses, making them even more enticing to quick-sell property buyers called “flippers.”

Sausage
This butcher shop is one of many in Slavic Village that have sold their last kielbasa

Cleveland prosecuted many predatory speculators, driving some companies out of town. The FBI and federal housing authorities raided the offices of mortgage agents and real estate appraisers, some of whom had been complicit in grossly inflating paper value of modest homes and lots throughout the city. Brancatelli and others even testified in Congress and got strong anti-predatory-lending legislation passed in City Council. But in an atmosphere in which home values were still skyrocketing nationally and President George Bush was extolling the free market and home ownership, Ohio’s State Supreme Court struck down the Cleveland law. As County Treasurer Rokakis would tell the U.S. Congress in testimony early in 2007, when Fleet Avenue – one of Slavic Village’s main thoroughfares – cried out for help, no one listened. But when Wall Street screamed from the pain of the housing crisis, and massive foreclosures hit neighborhoods in fashionable California and Florida and Nevada, the nation and its government sprang into action.

Home
A family once loved this humble place they called home

“Selling somebody a loan they don’t need or can’t afford should cost mortgage brokers their license,” Rokakis told the lawmakers. And when a family cannot make the payments loses their home, “you will never be able to put a dollar amount on the heartbreak, pain, and distress – never.”

“We Love This Place”

Surprisingly, you don’t see many “FORECLOSED” signs in Slavic Village. In fact, Carol and I found not a one. What’s the point, Tony Brancatelli told me. Everybody knows those boarded-up homes have been foreclosed. Instead, you see signs that say, “We Buy Cheap Houses,” or “$750 Flat Fee, We’ll Sell Your Home.”

New development
This new development took the place of ruined and foreclosed homes

In Slavic Village, the City Council, and the nonprofit redevelopment agency are doing what they can to keep up appearances and spirits. “We’re revising the neighborhood,” Brancatelli says. The city is demolishing house after derelict house, replacing them with new one-family homes, blocks of condos, and clean, modern senior centers. They’re clearing out boarded-up homes next to factories that are still viable, offering the companies attractive rates to expand. They’re putting in parks and football fields, running trails on old rail spurs, and starting urban gardens. And where a gutted house stands between two that are intact and occupied, they’re sometimes even tearing down the eyesore and deeding half of the newly vacant property to each of the two neighbors for free.

This year, for the first time in most people’s memories, there won’t be a Polish Festival in Slavic Village. It’s not so much because of the foreclosure crisis or demographic stresses, Brancatelli says. “We have peacefully integrated.” The problem, he says, is that these events are beginning to cost too much to put on and to insure. And besides, there aren’t many carnival-type vendors of good quality left that will bring their rides and game booths into small neighborhoods.

Carnegie Avenue
This is Carnegie Avenue, a block off the heart of downtown Cleveland, an hour or so before what would be a nonexistent weekday afternoon “rush hour”

The city as a whole was a shock to me. The heart of a large American city at 4 o’clock on a weekday afternoon should be frantic with activity and honking horns. That was certainly my memory of Public Square and surroundings long ago. The adjacent photograph shows a hardly occupied Carnegie Avenue, one block off Public Square, on a Monday at 4 today. Not yet tumbleweed territory, but a sad reflection of urban distress. The department stores of my childhood are empty or occupied – ground level only – by tacky nightclubs, cheap wig shops and the like. We counted just one big ship in port. Only the outlines of once-regal bank names appear on what were thriving bank branches.

Monument
This is a piece of a truly grand Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on Public Square. It’s a vestige of days when no P.R. campaign was needed to describe the city some called “The Greatest Location in the Nation”

A lot of people in town think it’s time for a new civic-pride campaign to perk up a city that is depressed physically, economically, and psychologically. No matter one’s own circumstances, just living next door to a gutted house where a vibrant family once cut the grass and brought over some beer for a cookout or flour for a recipe is daunting. And just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a falling one in the form of abandoned houses all around you lowers your property value and your spirits, no matter how well you keep your own place up.

I can’t see people in this gritty city embracing hollow public-relations sloganeering. Already, save for the government and hotel workers and those who work in the few banks and stores that remain, many Clevelanders and most suburbanites had stopped going downtown. There are pockets of life in the old, industrial sector called the “Flats” along the lake, which is now an entertainment district popular with young people and tourists. And the ballpark and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame get respectable traffic from locals and tourists.

Slavic Village, far from the tourist district, struggles on as boards cover so many home windows, and heavy brown paper the windows of so many stores. Resolve, rather than optimism, defines the neighborhood mood. Tony Brancatelli says, “We love this place too much to give in.”

A Breeze

Over the dozens of times I’ve headed northwest out of Washington, D.C., including this time on my trip to Cleveland, I’ve passed through and marveled at a little town called Breezewood in the middle of Pennsylvania.

I say “town,” but it’s a one with no downtown, no Main Street, no hardware store or small-town grocery store, not even a mayor. Yet it’s pulsing with activity 24 hours a day!

Breezewood is a crossroads. Not the old, countrified kind with a gas station and a little store on the corner, but a point where two mighty interstate highways converge. They are the east-to-west Pennsylvania Turnpike, which crosses that state, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and beyond toward Ohio, and Interstate 70, which begins at Breezewood and winds south to Baltimore, Maryland, with a spur to Washington. Wikipedia says a “breezewood,” in “road geek,” is a place where two big highways meet, though I’ve never heard it used that way. Since I-70 does take travelers southward out of the Appalachian Mountains and into lower and warmer climes, Breezewood is sometimes called the Gateway to the South.

Breezewood
This is not-so-beautiful “downtown” Breezewood, which doesn’t have a downtown at all

But it has another, more apt nickname: the “Town of Motels.” I’d lengthen it to read “Town of Motels and Countless Gas Stations and Lots of Fast-Food Restaurants and Plenty of Cheap Souvenir Shops and Noisy Truck Stops and Not a Whole Lot More.”

But that wouldn’t all fit on the Welcome sign.

Steelers
You name it. If it has a Pittsburgh Steelers’ football insignia on it, you can probably get it here

The location has long been an east-west stop, first for Ohio-bound stagecoaches, then buses and adventuresome auto enthusiasts traveling U.S. 30 – the Lincoln Highway – and finally, for millions of Americans traversing the Pennsylvania Turnpike. In 2003, when a Pittsburgh newspaper came up with the last estimate I’ve seen, 3.4 million vehicles exited the turnpike through Breezewood. These days, even with travel reduced a bit during the economic slowdown, probably 4 million or more drivers and their passengers take a food, gasoline, and bathroom break each year in this notch in the mountains.

Motel
This is one of the newer hostelries in the City of Motels. Note the farm just behind it. You’re in the country ─ and in a maze of commercial places beckoning tourists ─ all at once in Breezewood

Carol and I were two of them, and she snapped a few photos. Looking at them, I think you’ll concur with a New York Times description of Breezewood from almost 20 years ago: It is, said the Times – and it goes double today – “perhaps the purest example yet devised of the great American tourist trap . . . the Las Vegas of roadside strips, a blaze of neon in the middle of nowhere, a polyp on the nation’s interstate highway system.”

A “polyp on the highway” that’s also plenty good for business in Bedford County, Pennsylvania.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

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

Apogee. Informally, the word is used to mean the high point of something. Technically, it’s the point at which a moon or artificial satellite is at the most distant point in its orbit from the earth’s center.

Extol. To praise or laud someone’s virtues, sometimes lavishly.

Flimflam. A swindle, especially one that convinces others to buy worthless or overvalued property.

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Culturating

Posted April 9th, 2009 at 7:18 pm (UTC-4)
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This time out, I want to explore some aspects of American culture. Not the flute-recital kind, though I’ve long thought of culture in that regard. Rather, a glance at several other aspects, some of which aren’t cultured at all.

Culture
Pop culture’s not quite like this. Although, come to think of it, sometimes people in it don’t wear many clothes, either

There’s also something called “popular culture” that, we’re told, appeals to “the masses.” We’re definitely not talking flutes there. Pop culture is hard to define, but it certainly embraces escapist movies and hit music, fan magazines and ever-expanding varieties of sports, plus some activities that are neither elevating nor especially enlightening. Soft and hard-core pornography, for example; violent, misogynist urban music; and insipid television shows. All the while pop-culture diversions consume our attention and dollars, sources of at least moderate erudition are diminishing in influence. Newspapers, for instance. They even covered the occasional flute recital.

When I first switched from print journalism to broadcasting, it was explained to me that television, in particular, wasn’t a highbrow medium, and I shouldn’t expect it to be. “The tube’s” programming was sugar and spice, not fiber – filling but hardly nutritious and aimed at the “lowest common denominator” among us. Whatever generates the highest ratings, slips even just a whisker above the bar of good taste, and attracts the most advertiser dollars is fine with us. Interesting concept, that “lowest common denominator.” The term comes from mathematics, where the lowest common denominator is “the least common multiple of the denominators of a set of vulgar fractions.”

If vulgarisms are good enough for arithmetic, they’re good enough for the “Morning Zoo” on the radio and “comedy” shows on TV.

Television
Television was going to be a great educational tool. It’s teaching us things, all right

Standards have been diminished to the lowest level that will reach a palatable, unremarkable, “common ground” of interest among the most possible people. And the level of what’s acceptable keeps falling. Since everybody stares at highway wrecks, we’ll program police chases and car crashes! Since everybody on cable has a potty mouth, but there are certain words we can’t say over the air, we’ll joke about bodily functions and sexual dysfunctions instead. We’ll put on the overwrought love stories that we call “soap operas” day and night. Hey, opera is cultural!

Go ahead, say the producers and their financiers. Demean “trash TV.” But you’ll watch it.

America's Funniest Home Videos
This was an early set of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Fun! Balloons! $100,000!

“Pop culture” and “culture culture” sometimes converge. This was evident the other day when the National Museum of American History, one of the storied Smithsonian Institution museums that line the National Mall here in Washington, welcomed into its collection priceless objects from the 20-year-old TV reality show “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Yes, my tongue was in my cheek about the “priceless” part.

Juggler
Juggler. Dog on head. Could be a winner!

What a concept that show introduced to the country! You make “home movies,” but not boring stuff like Cousin Sue’s passing the potato salad at a picnic. No, you wait for the kids or the pets or visiting relatives to act stupid or go wild. Stage something if you have to. Pratfalls are good. Wet cats and eating contests work. Dogs running into things. Then rush us the tape. Who knows? You could get on TV and win money! Disastrous developments involving weddings, animals and pets, and babies are such sure-fire laugh engines that they have their own categories. “Baby farts a cloud” of talcum powder was one illustrious example. What mirth that brought the nation! And mom and dad got on TV and won money!

Cannon
Is it worth lighting the powder to get on TV?

So what if an amazon.com compilation of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is entitled, “Nincompoops and Boneheads.” We weren’t getting on TV and winning money being Ma and Pa Homeowner alone. Let’s have Uncle Martin catch his pants on a nail and run down the street in his underwear! Then we can be famous nincompoops getting television face time and cash!

Lowest-common-denominator stuff, dumbing down both television and the “culture.” Not just ours. “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is now seen in more than 70 countries and produced in 15 international versions. Who says we have an export problem?

Castle
The first of many Smithsonian Institution Buildings, called “the Castle,” once held the whole collection, from elephant tusks to everyday ephemera

The United States Congress created the Smithsonian Institution in 1846, naming it after the British scientist James Smithson, who had died 20 years earlier. Smithson, who had never visited America, mysteriously left his estate to the United States to establish an institution that would, in the words of his will: “increase and diffuse knowledge among men.”

America's Funniest Home Videos
Here are some of the items that will become part of the American History museum’s “Funniest Home Videos” collection

That knowledge, the Smithsonian now wants us to believe, was “increased and diffused” by the addition of an “America’s Funniest Home Videos” camcorder, the first winning video to be shown on the show, a machine that the studio audience uses to pick winners, and more. The items were presented to the Americana museum by Vin Di Bona, “Funniest Home Videos’” creator and executive producer, whose other TV triumphs include “Battle of the Network Stars” and “Entertainment Tonight.”

Pavement
Believe it or not, the Smithsonian’s American History museum’s holdings include a small stretch of Old U.S. Route 66 – concrete, cracks, and all

To be sure, the National Museum of American History has never been terribly stuffy. Its collection does include U.S. First Ladies’ gowns, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore when Francis Scott Key scribbled the words to our national anthem, World War II ration books, plus early automobiles, clocks, engines of various sorts, and household appliances. But it also houses daredevil Evil Knievel’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a Kermit the Frog puppet from the children’s show “Sesame Street,” the ruby-colored slippers worn by Judy Garland in the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” a gumball machine featuring a likeness from the early Pac-Man video game, and Archie Bunker’s easy chair from the TV show “All in the Family.” Bunker was the bigoted, loudmouthed, but warmhearted lead character.

Fall
Band member falls offstage. This could be big. Did anybody catch it on camcorder?

Now, at last! tourists visiting the museum can see the first episode of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” in which a man tumbles off exercise parallel bars, a bride falls on her face while dancing, and a baby licks the camera lens! The show hadn’t found its oeuvre yet. The genius of inadvertent kicks to the groin and baby farts with talcum powder was yet to come.

“One of my thrusts has been to collect artifacts of comedy,” noted Dwight Blocker Bowers, the museum’s curator of music, sports, and entertainment. “We’re very interested that part of the American character is laughing at ourselves.”

Don’t get me started on the “American character.”

Newton Minow
Of late, Newton Minow, now 83, hangs out in Chicago, where he’s honorary consul general of Singapore

In 1961, Newton R. Minow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates television and other broadcast media to a minimal degree, delivered a speech for which he is still remembered. That’s because the relevance of his remarks has intensified with time. That day 48 years ago, he said:

“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

“But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

Wasteland
Ah! The substance of much TV fare, captured in one photograph!

Wasteland then. Source of carefully cultivated refinement today. Consider the 10 top-rated U.S. TV shows for the week ending April 5::

(1 and 2): The Tuesday and Wednesday airings of “American Idol,” in which thousands of unknowns sing, some get savagely ridiculed, and the winner gets a big recording contract. (3) “Dancing With the Stars,” in which celebrities – often sports notables – sashay around a ballroom with professional dancers. (4 and 8) “NCIS” and “CSI,” two shows involving scientific investigation of dastardly deeds (5) “The Mentalist,” in which a psychic helps the white-lab-coat crowd solve crimes (6) “ER,” a rather bloody emergency-room drama (7) a country-music awards show (9) “Two and a Half Men,” a comedy about a “freewheeling,” hedonistic bachelor, his divorced brother, and his “underachieving” nephew, and (10) a college basketball tournament game.

Some day, if he’s still at his post, curator Bowers can add artifacts from these shows to the nation’s Americana collection.

***

We Don’t Want No Knowledge

For about a year I’ve held onto a New York Times clipping whose content seems to fit perfectly here. Entitled, “Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?” it’s a story about Susan Jacoby, a scholar of American intellectual history, and her book, The Age of American Unreason.

Budapest
Magnificent Budapest, the capital of Europe!

The story’s writer, Patricia Cohen, described two truly humiliating examples of the woeful ignorance that many Americans exhibit when it comes to events beyond their noses. In one, a contestant from “American Idol” appears on the TV game show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” – a risky premise if there ever was one. She was asked, from a third-grade geography book, “Budapest is the capital of what European country?” Her answer: “I thought Europe was a country.”

Guffaw.

Then in the Times story, Jacoby described overhearing a conversation in a New York bar on September 11, 2001, the day that terrorist-piloted planes leveled the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” she heard one of the men say.

Pearl Harbor
The Pearl Harbor attack did occur in a harbor. But half an ocean away from Vietnam

“What is Pearl Harbor?” asked the other.

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” came the reply.

Ignorance used to be bliss. Now it’s just ignorant.

Nattering Nabob of Negativism?
Spiro Agnew
Spiro Agnew, who needled the media with zippy putdown lines, once said, “If you’ve seen one city slum, you’ve seen them all.”

The ‘nattering’ quote was uttered by President Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, who was speaking in 1970 about “eastern effete” members of the media. Agnew, a former Maryland governor, was a rumpled and, we all soon learned, corrupt man who had also opined that an intellectual is “a man who doesn’t know how to park a bike.” He did not share his views about women and bikes.

De Tocqueville
De Tocqueville expected to find a backward country but came away from his trip stunned by Americans’ drive and grit

A VOA colleague with whom I shared some of my disillusionment about popular culture did not call me a nattering nabob or a poor bike-parker to my face, but she did remind me that cultural pessimism is hardly new or revolutionary. Nineteenth Century French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville, after a long expedition across the young United States, concluded that we were a shallow, restless, ever-changing, money-driven lot. And my friend pointed out that our newspapers once produced sensationalist and scurrilous “yellow journalism” of little substance, our early television brought us such classics as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” Elvis Presley was denounced in his day as someone whose pelvic gyrations might bring down the republic, and whose rock-‘n’-roll music would ruin the entire world.

Some of today’s rappers have demonstrated keen insight into the human condition, she pointed out. Television has hundreds of channels whose intellectual fare would impress a Rhodes Scholar, and the Internet has put us in contact with concepts and cultures that some of the smartest among us never knew existed.

Cultures like you find in that country over there. Europe.

***

We’re On Our Own

Washington Post columnist John Kelly recently profiled what surely must be one of the last elevator operators in the area. Charlie Patterson was retiring after 44 years of manually closing the elevator door and yanking the control lever that directed the cab to various floors. Most Americans over 60 remember nattily attired elevator operators in big office buildings and department stores. They were virtual tour guides: “Six! Ladies’ apparel, sportswear, costume jewelry,” they would cry out.

Elevator operator
This elevator operator in Washington’s Barr Building was caught on film in 1941, the very year VOA’s elevator ops began their work across town

Here at the Voice of America’s headquarters building, just off the National Mall in Washington, some old-timers dimly remember operators on duty inside our nine gleaming, polished-brass elevators. I found two women who worked as clerks in the building shortly after it opened in 1941 as the temporary home of various War Department branches and commissions. One of them, Marjorie Downey, remembers these “lift” operators – along with cafeteria workers – as some of few black faces seen in the building in those highly segregated days, when we also had separate sets of bathrooms for whites and “Negroes.” These operators wore crisp, maroon uniforms with white shirts and ties, Marjorie recalls. She can even quote what she calls “their standard phrase”: “All the way to the back and face the front!”

And since the building was full of military types, people no doubt did what they were told.

What really caught my eye was Kelly’s aside that, in the years since Charlie Patterson first ran elevators in Washington’s Ring Building, “we’ve gotten used to doing things for ourselves – things that others once did for us.” Besides running our elevators way back when, he noted, someone pumped our gas, bagged our groceries, and “rang up” our purchases at the store.

Kelly’s list can be greatly expanded. While Americans think of ourselves as pampered, speed, convenience, and, especially, cost-saving have imposed self-reliance upon us. My Miami friend, Marc Kuhn, helped me compile some examples:

Gas pump
Note the relaxed driver, foot on the rear bumper, watching as someone besides himself pumps his gas

• We pump our own gas. I can’t remember the last time anyone spoke these words: “Check your oil?” Forget cleaning the windshield. You’re lucky to find your own vat of dirty water and a torn squeegee wedged between the pumps. This may be the one and only reason I love the State of New Jersey. There by law, only attendants may pump gas, yet the price somehow manages to be cheaper than in the surrounding states.

Operator
Sometimes it took three or four switchboard operators to get your call from one part of the country to another

• Where an elite corps of “long-distance operators” once placed all of our out-of-town telephone calls, we now do our own with the push of 12 or 13 buttons. Delivery people used to bring us our milk, bread, pastries, clean laundry, and, to some houses, coal. Now we schlep out and get these things ourselves. And of course we make our own ice; no one that I know of hoists blocks of it on his shoulder, using unwieldy tongs, any longer. If we get a hankering for a sweet ice confection called a “Popsicle” – or a Creamsicle with a dab of filling or an “Eskimo Pie” ice-cream bar – only a drive to the supermarket or “convenience” store will satisfy it. The white trucks of “Good Humor men,” with their tinkling bells and freezers full of treats, are a rarity, although I’ve heard there are some “Mr. Softee” trucks still around.

• Most of us book our own airplane reservations and buy and print our tickets, rather than relying on airline or travel agents. Airlines, in fact, charge us extra if we ask them to do it. We scrounge for most of our own motel and rental-car reservations, maps and directions, and theatre and sports tickets online as well.

• We mostly pick out our own clothes, including shoes, on the Web or from piles on tables in stores, rather than enlisting the counsel of suave sales personnel and tailors. And if we find a grocery-store clerk who knows where to find the peas, or someone in a work apron in a home-improvement store who can navigate through 400 kinds of screws, we’re giddy with joy.

Checkout
Not only do scanners “ring you up” at the checkout counter, but now there are devices that customers carry down the aisles to record purchases as they go

• There are still checkout cashiers, but more and more store lines lead to unmanned machines. Like dutiful ants, when we reach them, we scan our own crackers or minestrone soup or fresh avocados, and then bag ‘em ourselves. I, for one, defeat the store’s best labor-saving intentions. Staring at the evil, blinking, beeping beast of a machine, I grow hopelessly confused, mistaking arugula for bibb lettuce and entering entirely the wrong code, thus requiring the assistance of an understanding clerk after all.

• Physicians – and TV repairmen – used to come to our houses! Now it takes an executive order, or two weeks’ notice, to get an appointment at the doctor’s office, there to wait another hour next to other sick people, beneath the scowls of the office staff, who must not be disturbed while they enter various billing codes for the “treatment” other patients have been privileged to receive. By the time you get in, you’re well! As for TV service, when a set breaks down we mostly junk it, go to a “big box” electronics store, buy a bigger one, somehow lift it into the trunk, tie it down with a piece of greasy rope we found under the tool kit we’ve never opened, and lug it home.

Lemme tell you: This doesn’t look like the lunch places across from VOA. They’re strictly pay-up-front and pick-up-your-food joints

• Waitresses or waiters used to bring us our coffee or sandwiches at lunch counters or diner booths. Now we stand in line to pay $4 for a barista-brewed Cup of Joe, buy sandwiches out of a machine or from a vendor, and, as often as not, eat lunch at our desks. Lunch places still have tables, but increasingly you go get your own food and beverage at a counter, pay for them, and bring them there.

• And speaking of service, I’d like to know the last time anyone found a strolling cigarette girl, a nightclub photographer, or a shoeshine boy. (Never saw a shoeshine girl.) Now we bring own tobacco products, take our own photos – on our cell phones! – and polish our own shoes.

• Tellers took our money, or gave us some, at the bank. Now, “automated teller” machines do most of this, and different machines count and deposit our loose change. We don’t tote our paychecks to the bank. One computer at the office whisks our meager earnings via still more computers straight into our accounts.

• Not just top executives but also mid-level professionals used to employ the services of their own secretaries or, at a minimum, clerks in the “typing pool.” Now the word “secretary” is an epithet, beneath the dignity of the boss’s “executive assistant.” Call her – or him, he said, enlighteningly – a secretary, and you’ll be brought up on charges. We type our stuff, do our own research using computer search engines, and buzz our own way into buildings that long ago eliminated their “front desk” personnel. Usually, too, we open our own doors – “doorman” being another fast-disappearing occupation.

Freak
Do this! Do that! And don’t expect me to do it for you, bud

So we’re not so pampered after all. And one of the results is that we sometimes feel like the ball in a pinball machine, whacked here and there amid a lot of noise. If we’re lucky, we schedule some contemplation, maybe on a vacation whose arrangements we make for ourselves. I don’t mind pressing my own elevator button, or opening my own door, or typing this blog for myself. But writing about all this makes me want to pack the car and hit the road. For New Jersey, where someone might ask me, “Check the oil?” once again.

***

Vision of Things to Come?

One of the recent “Bizarro” cartoons by the brilliant Dan Piraro showed a reasonable likeness of New York City’s central library, with its lofty set of stairs, regal columns, and sentinel lion.

Out front, Piraro drew an ornate stone tablet into which is chiseled:

MUSEUM OF THE INTERNET
Formerly the New York Public Library

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

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

Cup of Joe. A cup of coffee. The term could relate to the average American – the “average Joe,” or perhaps it dates to World War I, when U.S. admiral Josephus Daniels broke with naval tradition by banning alcohol, including wine in the officers’ mess, aboard American ships. Thereafter coffee – deridingly called a ‘cup of Joe – was the strongest brew on board.

Guffaw. A boisterous laugh.

Highbrow. Having or demonstrating culture, refinement, and taste.

Nabob. Originally a Mogul high official, the term came to be associated with executives of the British East India Company and, later, of any highly placed – and perhaps a tad pompous – individuals.

Nattering. Chattering, usually about things of little importance.

Oeuvre. A work, or life’s work, of art, music, or film. This word is often used somewhat pretentiously, since “one’s oeuvre” sounds terribly cultured.
Pratfall. An often humiliating slip or fall, fast, onto one’s backside. “Prat” was an Old English term for one’s buttocks.

Schlep. From Yiddish: to tediously drag oneself someplace.

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Ted Landphair

About

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

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

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

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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