The Avenue of Presidents

Posted January 5th, 2012 at 12:11 pm (UTC-4)
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Have you ever seen one of those clever little historical markers that says something like this?

On October 23rd, 1846 At This Location, Nothing Happened.

I could write something like that about the place we call “America’s Main Street.”

Night falls on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Night falls on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Not much is going on right now on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Of course, a whole lot has happened there, and will again next January, when the outgoing U.S. president and the incoming one will leave the White House together, ride up the avenue to the Capitol for the swearing in of the 44th president of the United States.  The 45th if you count Grover Cleveland twice.  He was elected two different times, with Benjamin Harrison serving in between.

Next year about this time, the new president and his wife will keep with tradition by proceeding back up Pennsylvania Avenue to a reviewing stand to watch the remainder of the Inaugural Parade.

That president, of course, could very well be the current one, in which case Barack Obama won’t have anyone to ride with when he heads to the Capitol to be sworn in.

Pennsylvania Avenue stands out clearly in Currier and Ives' 1880 depiction of Washington.  (Library of Congress)

Pennsylvania Avenue stands out clearly in Currier and Ives' 1880 depiction of Washington. (Library of Congress)

While everything’s pretty quiet a block or two away from us at VOA’s Independence Avenue address, I thought I’d tell you a bit about the street we sometimes call the “Avenue of Presidents,” which was designed by the city’s planner, Pierre-Charles L’Enfant,[1] to be one of his featured, Paris-style arterials.

In other words, a pretty big deal.

The very first inaugural parade did not occur until the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, rode his horse up to the Capitol for his second inauguration in 1805.  The first two chief executives, George Washington and John Adams, had been sworn in up in New York and Philadelphia, respectively, while the new capital city was being built.

Jefferson had also been in town for his first inauguration in 1801, but it was such a humble affair that he simply walked over to the Capitol from his nearby boarding house, took the oath of office, said a few words to a crowd of dozens, and walked back home.  There was no inaugural parade.

Phillip Brooks, a historian who coordinated the National Archives’ collection of papers and artifacts from several inaugurations, told me Jefferson’s second inaugural was a bit more of a public event.

He rode up to Capitol Hill with a couple of friends on horseback.  He didn’t have any particular sort of escort.  But there was an escort leading him back that was made up of mechanics and artisans from the Navy Yard.  And they constituted the first inaugural parade, actually.  It drew a good crowd for the day.  There weren’t all that many people in Washington, of course.  It was a brand-new city.

This is just the Center Market Building.  There were stalls out front, too.  (Library of Congress)

This is just the Center Market Building. There were stalls out front, too. (Library of Congress)

Not long afterwards, Pennsylvania Avenue became Washington’s business corridor.  Presidents-to-be and other notables often stayed at the Indian Queen Hotel, which had slave quarters in the basement.  People came from all over Maryland and Virginia to shop at Center Market, [2]which filled an entire block where the Archives Building stands today.  The famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady set up his portrait studio overlooking it.

But this was well after one of the most raucous inaugural parades, for Andrew Jackson in 1829.  The former army general was the first president elected from what was then “the West” …but was actually just over the Appalachian Mountains.  Phillip Brooks says Jackson’s rough-and-ready supporters flocked to Washington to see their hero take office.

Jackson didn’t want an inaugural parade, Brooks told me . . .

. . . because his wife had just died.  So all of his supporters just followed him and his little procession back to the White House — thousands of them.  And they barged right in.  There had been a reception planned, with big kegs of orange juice, huge wheels of cheese.  And the White House staff expected a very orderly gathering.  Oh, no.  Jackson’s supporters just marched right up the steps and in, muddy boots and all, climbed up on top of the sofas to see the president, generally trashed the place, broke windows to get some air.

Robert Cruikshank titled his 1828 illustration of the Jackson inaugural, in part, "All Creation going to the White House."  (Library of Congress)

The revelers had brought something quite a bit stronger than orange juice.  Tennesseans, including Jackson, liked their whiskey.  He owned several distilleries back home.

Things got so far out of hand at his inaugural melee that his aides had to rescue him, lifting the big man out a window to safety.

William Henry Harrison’s inauguration in 1841 is remembered because the new president spoke to the crowd for one hour, 35 minutes in the bitter cold.  Within a month he was dead of pneumonia.  That inaugural is notable, too, because it featured the first highly choreographed parade.  Floats included a log cabin on wheels.

Other memorable sights in early inaugural parades included a scaled-down model of “Old Ironsides” — the frigate U.S.S. Constitution [3]— on wheels, dressed up as President Buchanan’s “ship of state” in 1857; a grandiose temporary arch built over the avenue for William Garfield’s parade in 1881; and a procession of American Indian chiefs and army “Roughriders” in Teddy Roosevelt’s inaugural parade of 1905.

Montie Montana gets his man.  (Associated Press)

Montie Montana gets his man. (Associated Press)

In 1953, a cowboy named Montie Montana, riding in the inaugural parade, guided his horse over to the presidential reviewing stand while twirling his lasso.  He thrust the lariat forward and perfectly caught the right arm of President Dwight Eisenhower.  The president — though not necessarily his Secret Service bodyguards — delighted in the rope trick.

Pennsylvania Avenue had changed radically by the time John F. Kennedy rode up the Avenue in 1961.  On the south side, a row of neoclassical government buildings called the “Federal Triangle” — massive enough to blot out the sun on the street — had replaced a tough and tawdry neighborhood called “Murder Row.”  But much of the north side had deteriorated into a jumble of liquor stores, pornographic movie houses, and seedy bookstores.

The president’s wife, Jacqueline, was appalled.  She said, “Something really must be done.”  And Kennedy replied, “We’ll see about that.”

A wholesale revitalization of Pennsylvania Avenue began after Mrs.  Kennedy called on President Lyndon Johnson a few days after the funeral of her assassinated husband in 1963.  Her one request of the new president was that he follow through on Kennedy’s plan to spruce up the once-grand boulevard.

The Carters take to the street.  (Library of Congress)

The Carters take to the street. (Library of Congress)

There was plenty of heartburn for the president’s security force in 1977, when Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter hopped out of their limousine and proceeded to walk about half the Inaugural Parade route up the Avenue.

When they got out of the car, just east of the Archives Building, the place went wild:  “He’s walking!  He’s walking!  He’s gonna do it!” people screamed.  It set a precedent.  Every new president and his wife since have taken a stroll during their inaugural parades, at least for a couple of blocks. Read the rest of this entry »

Splitsville on the Net

Posted December 28th, 2011 at 2:56 pm (UTC-4)
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Matchmaking and marriage services on the Internet have brought millions of Americans together.  But the Net has also become a helpful tool when people want marriages to END.

Wait a minute! You mean there's a real place called 'Splitsville'?  (Bob B. Brown, Flickr Creative Commons)

Wait a minute! You mean there's a real place called 'Splitsville'? (Bob B. Brown, Flickr Creative Commons)

Splitting from a spouse is rarely easy emotionally, but in many divorces, the Internet has made the process quicker, more efficient, and cheaper.

Lindsey Short, Jr., a past president of the Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, is a partner in the largest family-law firm in Houston, Texas.  He says that thanks to the Internet, the firm, which handles many high-profile divorce cases, has all but done away with its library of law books.  And you’ve seen enough photos or courtroom dramas showing law libraries to know how many expensive, leather-bound volumes that must have entailed.

Simply put, Short says, “We do our research online.   We hire experts through Internet resources — investigation analysts.  We use the Internet dramatically, daily.”

The dapper Canadian actor Raymond Burr played Perry Mason on TV. (Wikipedia Commons)

The dapper Canadian actor Raymond Burr played Perry Mason on TV. (Wikipedia Commons)

Picture Erle Stanley Gardner’s classic defense attorney, Perry Mason, entering a search term.

Until firms like Lindsey Short’s learned to use the Internet, he says, only wealthy, or what he calls “silk-stocking” law firms could afford to hire the teams of experts and private investigators that are sometimes required, especially when rich, prominent people divorce.

“The ability to investigate assets and their existence and where they are — you can do that sittin’ at your desk today,” he told me.   “These days, a solo practitioner can compete with a thousand-person law firm.”

While some marriages end amicably, other divorces are bitter, especially those in which one spouse has been unfaithful.  Lindsey Short believes the Internet has contributed to this problem, increasing marital infidelity by offering straying partners many temptations, including websites catering to sexual fantasies that some spouses turn into reality.

Now there’s an opportunity not only to have what’s come to be called “cybersex” but to go further than that and actually establish personal relationships that would have been difficult, impossible, risky.  These relationships are easy to find, and they translate to an extremely dangerous sort of situation.

Sometimes, or actually a LOT of times, unfortunately, marriages end badly.  (DrJohnBullas, Flickr Creative Commons)

Sometimes, or actually a LOT of times, unfortunately, marriages end badly. (DrJohnBullas, Flickr Creative Commons)

When one spouse is suspicious of the other, or thinking about divorce and eager to discover what monetary assets a spouse may be hiding, divorce attorneys turn the Internet into an investigative tool.  They hire quite a different kind of private investigator, or “private eye,” than the Hollywood version of the “gumshoe” detective — you know, the guy in the fedora, chain-smoking in the shadows — who follows people, still calls women “dames,” and knocks on doors, seeking information.

Curt Bryson, a San Antonio, Texas, computer security consultant and former U.S. Air Force investigator, says that today many private eyes are instead sophisticated Internet sleuths.  The time they spend — and therefore the costs they can bill to a client — are often a fraction of what detective work would have cost in the past.

Bryson says cheating spouses or those who may be engaged in criminal behavior are usually careful about leaving a paper trail, but it’s not so easy in cyberspace.

Folks tend to open their mouths a lot more than they probably should on worldwide Web online chats, social-media posts, that kind of thing.  They leave a plethora of information there.  Now there are tools out there that are used to hide your tracks.  But typically those aren’t a hundred percent effective.  There’s still a lot that an investigator can do, or a forensics person can do.

Allan Pinkerton, left, was one of the first and most famous private eyes.  He founded a detective agency and served as the Union's, and thus President Lincoln's, chief intelligence officer during the U.S. Civil War.  (Library of Congress)

Allan Pinkerton, left, was one of the first and most famous private eyes. He founded a detective agency and served as the Union's, and thus President Lincoln's, chief intelligence officer during the U.S. Civil War. (Library of Congress)

Indeed, many private dicks — now I’m really dating myself to the James Cagney era — advertise their services on the Internet by calling themselves “computer forensics experts.”   Forensics, meaning the use of science or scientific techniques to solve crimes.

Or in this case, to find people or “get the goods” on cheating or corrupt spouses.

Curt Bryson says it’s usually not necessary any longer for a suspicious spouse to sneak an investigator into the house to tap into the other spouse’s computer in search of evidence of infidelity or wrongdoing. “It’s not just the bad guy’s machine that has evidence,” he says.  “We have computers on the corporate side or out in the government arena.  That’s where evidence may lie as well.”

And sophisticated technology now permits snoops to access computers from the street, without connecting to any wires.

Dan Cohn, an officer of the Docusearch investigative service, based in Florida, put his company online in 1996.  Almost overnight, he told me, it changed from a small firm looking for clients near its Virginia office, to a nationwide company offering about a hundred different kinds of searches.

“If you find a telephone number, and you don’t know who belongs to that telephone number, we can find out.  If you have an address, and you want to find a telephone number that goes with that address, we can find out.  If you’re trying to locate somebody, we can find that person for you.”

Just by clicking the keys on a computer and knowing where to look and what to look for.

What’s the secret, say, to tracking down a spouse who has departed suddenly, perhaps with the children and almost certainly with some family assets?  Once again, even carefully conniving people overlook things.  They may have phone service or electric service that they are canceling, for instance.  They will give those utilities their forwarding address to receive their final bills or get a deposit back.  Utility records are a snap to access for skilled cybersleuths.

Cheap is not always best when it comes to divorces.  Quick, on the other hand, is a good thing.  (banjo d, Flickr Creative Commons)

Cheap is not always best when it comes to divorces. Quick, on the other hand, is a good thing. (banjo d, Flickr Creative Commons)

But Internet-savvy detectives caution even avid Internet users to watch out for a multitude of “quickie” investigative services that have sprouted on the Net.  Says Curt Bryson:

The majority of those, you know, where it’s saying, ‘Be your own Internet detective,’ those kinds of things, they’re not giving you a whole heck of a lot you can’t do with about 15 or 20 minutes’ worth of research using something as simple as Google.

Lest one think that the Internet is valuable only for couples who are going their separate ways, family lawyer Lindsey Short in Houston points out that the Net is also a jackpot of Web sites that can SAVE a marriage.  He points out that there are sites for counselors, religious advisers, cruise-line companies, chocolatiers, furriers — and sex therapists.

 

'Incompatibility' masks a lot of specific gripes in divorces.  (irina slutsky, Flickr Creative Commons)

'Incompatibility' masks a lot of gripes in divorces. (irina slutsky, Flickr Creative Commons)

Scout’s Honor

Posted December 23rd, 2011 at 12:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Not too long ago, I visited the old southern city of Savannah, Georgia.   It’s a fairy tale place, whose seven large city squares, dating to the American Revolution, are shaded by giant oaks draped with Spanish moss.

And Savannah is even more special to millions of America’s women and girls.  It was in this hot and humid coastal city, 100 years ago this coming March, that the Girl Scouts of USAwas founded and the organization’s first members sent off to do good deeds.

Many Girl Scouts are not just good citizens but also good artists.  (Carla216, Flickr Creative Commons)

Many Girl Scouts are not just good citizens but also good artists. (Carla216, Flickr Creative Commons)

In Savannah I discovered that much has changed about girl scouting — and much remains the same.

Girl Scouts still raise their right hands and swear:

“On my honor, I will try:

“To serve God and my country,

“To help people at all times,

“And to live by the Girl Scout Law.”

This pledge, and the “law” to which it refers, were written by the scouts’ founder, a remarkable woman named Juliette Gordon Low.

“Juliette, our guiding star,” the scouts sing to this day.

Shining down from where you are.

For every girl who follows on the stardust of your dreams.

 

A Brownie named Nanette.  (Vagabond Shutterbug, Flickr Creative Commons)

A Brownie named Nanette. (Vagabond Shutterbug, Flickr Creative Commons)

Scouts ages 10 through 17 (and younger members called “Brownies”) visit Low’s 1720-vintage mansion in Savannah as a pilgrimage to the cradle of Girl Scout values, including self-reliance, self-confidence, and community service.  Katherine Keena, program manager at the Low birthplace, told me that the woman who framed those values was all the more inspiring because she spread the Girl Scout gospel in a world that was nearly silent to her.  She lost the hearing in one ear after a doctor injected silver nitrate into it to treat an infection.

“And then a grain of the good-luck rice thrown at her wedding was caught in her good ear,” Keena continued.  “And the doctor, when he tried to remove the grain of rice, punctured her eardrum.”

“Daisy” Low, as her family liked to call her, was the adventuresome daughter of a wealthy cotton broker.  But the fun stopped when she married a rich Englishman, William Mackay Low, and moved to his home in London.

Juliette Gordon Low, painted by Edwrd Hughes in 1887.  (National Gallery of Art)

Juliette Gordon Low, painted by Edwrd Hughes in 1887. (National Gallery of Art)

In stuffy Victorian fashion, he not only wanted her to stay at home hosting socialite parties, he also forbade her even to venture out of the house to do charity work.

“I have a wasted life,” she wrote in her diary.  “My life brings forth nothing but leaves.”  So she began making regular and prolonged visits back to America, in part to see friends and in part just to explore the country.

In 1911, six years after her husband died, Daisy Low met Robert Baden-Powell, a British military officer who had founded a scouting organization for boys.

“Well, 6,000 girls showed up at the first rally of the Boy Scouts,” Katherine Keena told me.  “Up to that point, when he was asked, ‘Can girls join, too?’ he said, ‘I don’t see any reason why not.’

“But he didn’t really understand that girls were going to love it.  And in fact, in England, love it better than the boys did.”

So Baden-Powell urged his sister to start an organization called the “Girl Guides,” and Daisy Low quickly got involved, leading Girl Guide companies in England and Scotland.  There would be no more “wasted life” for her.

Then Low sailed home, arriving in Savannah on March 12th, 1912.  She immediately got on the telephone — not an iPhone, I assure you  — and called a cousin.

As Keena relates it, Daisy Low said, “‘Come right over.  I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah and all of America and all of the world.  And we’re going to start it tonight.”

Not that evening, but a few days later, the first 18 Girl Scouts were sitting around Low in her home, chattering about the hikes, camping trips, homemaking projects, and good works to come.

Juliette Low and two scouts, about 1914.  I hope it was winter in Savannah when this was taken!  (Wikipedia Commons)

Juliette Low and two scouts, about 1914. I hope it was winter in Savannah when this was taken! (Wikipedia Commons)

Juliette Gordon Low believed that girls should have fun, but that they need to grow strong and confident and to explore fields of study beyond homemaking and nursing.  Master a trade, she advised girls, so that you will be independent.  This was heady stuff for 1912, when cultured southern girls, especially, were “delicate flowers,” taught to obey their fathers and husbands.

The Girl Scout idea exploded into the fabric of American culture.  In less than a month in Savannah, there were more than 100 girls in troops called patrols.  And thanks to Daisy Low’s contacts — and incessant travels throughout the nation — the idea spread quickly beyond Georgia.

Part of the reason: the girls were being trained to be self-sufficient, and along came World War I, when many fathers were off to war, mothers took their place in factories and fields, and the nation needed girls — and boys —  to be self-reliant.

By 1920, eight years after their founding, the Girl Scouts could claim more than 168,000 members.  Today, they count 2.3 million girls and 880,000 adult volunteers of both sexes.

The Low house, a scouting shrine.  (Eric Prine, Attic Fire)

The Low house, a scouting shrine. (Eric Prine, Attic Fire)

When Carol and I were in Savannah, so were Girl Scouts from across the nation, visiting the Low birthplace.  Among them, 14-year-old Brittany Lesher from Casper, Wyoming.

“We do a lot of service projects with the community,” she told me. “Like we did a Meals on Wheels thing, delivering meals to shut-ins in the Casper area.  And we helped out at the Salvation Army.  We do that, like, twice a month.”

I asked her what had interested her in Girl Scouts.

“I wasn’t really interested,” she told me.  “My mom kind of made me be in it.  But I’m glad she did.”

Early Girl Scout service projects in the days of Daisy Low — this was more than half a century before the women’s liberation movement — included babysitting so that older women could go to vote, often for the first time.  In those days girls learned prudent skills such as telegraphy, cooking, and baking.

Girl Scouts and their tasty wares.  (Brad L. Owens, Flickr Creative Commons)

Girl Scouts and their tasty wares. (Brad L. Owens, Flickr Creative Commons)

Ah, yes, baking!  The scouts’ famous Girl Scout Cookies were baked as early as 1917 to support troop activities.  They were simple sugar cookies back then, sold door to door for 25 or 30 cents a dozen.  Now, they come in a host of decadent flavors, some drizzled with caramel and coconut and chocolate.

Girl Scouts once earned badges for such domestic accomplishments as keeping their clothing in good repair, going to bed by 9:30 on school nights, and avoiding parties that might interfere with schoolwork.

And they learned about a “healthy lifestyle” and “healthy habits.”  Squeaky clean ones, you can be sure.

Katherine Sullivan views the earth from the Shuttle Challenger in 1984.  She looks a lot like Amelia Earhart, doesn't she?  (NASA)

Katherine Sullivan views the earth from the Shuttle Challenger in 1984. She looks a lot like Amelia Earhart, doesn't she? (NASA)

The leadership skills to which they once aspired, however, are no longer an abstract concept.  As an example: Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, who had been an avid Girl Scout as a child, became not only an astronaut but also the first American woman to walk in space, in 1984.

But Daisy Low might have needed smelling salts if she encountered some of today’s Girl Scouts — the ones with tattoos or purple hair.  None of her charges was African American, either.  Girl Scout troops were originally segregated by race in the southern states, and there wasn’t a single “colored” troop there until one was formed in Richmond, Virginia, in 1932. Read the rest of this entry »

The English Bear

Posted December 20th, 2011 at 5:34 pm (UTC-4)
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The English bear that confronts newcomers to our land isn’t entirely English.  And it isn’t big and brown.  But it can be an unruly beast.

English is a mystery, almost impossible to explain rationally.  (Blyzz, Flickr Creative Commons)

English is a mystery, almost impossible to explain rationally. (Blyzz, Flickr Creative Commons)

It’s the American strain of the English language, a sort of functional gibberish that must sound, at first, as comprehensible to the foreigner as would obscure Tagalog, Oriya, or Igbu.  Our version of English is part hoary, having been carried through the ages from Old and Middle English.  It’s part crass and crude and commercial, as you might expect from a rambunctious lot like us.

And a whole lot of it is borrowed — and often corrupted — from other tongues.  Gumbo from Bantu.  Polka from Czech.  Ketchup from Cantonese.  Blink from Dutch.  Amen from Hebrew.  Mammoth from Russian.  Flannel from my Welsh ancestors.  Even cooties — and yo-yos — from Tagalog.

So trust me — or rather, ask any immigrant who arrived with few or no English skills — American English is a challenge and a half.  You soon learn that it has rules, but that the rules often don’t apply.  Even the simplest little English word — “in” or “on,” perhaps — that you think you couldn’t possibly misuse, doesn’t always fit where it logically should.  Why else would we ride in cars but on trains, buses and streetcars?  Words we use all the time can mean completely opposite things, as I’ll show you in a bit.

First, though, a tangent from my own experience.

The terror that foreign-born learners of English must face reminds me of my own nightmare in high school, not with English but with German.  Don’t ask me why I studied it and not one of the easier romance languages, many of whose words bear some similarity to English.  It wouldn’t have taken me long, for instance, to figure out what the French magnifique or the Spanish básquetbol is all about.

This is one of the SHORTER German words.  It means "Connecting Road."  (riverofgod, Flickr Creative Commons)

I think I picked German because I was a budding (but bad) chess player at the time, had just read about Freud and Jung, and liked my mother’s sauerkraut and pork.  My grandmother spoke a little German, and it sounded vaguely intellectual, even from a poor Pennsylvania farm girl.

But I soon found out that Germans do maddening things when they start sprechen sie-ing Deutsch.

They take an adjective and a noun, sometimes a LONG adjective and a LONGER noun — stick the noun BEFORE the adjective, and then combine them into a single word that seems to run across the entire page.  And not always seems to.  Does.

Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, for instance. I defy you to say that out loud.  It MEANS, I am told, “law dealing with the supervision of beef labeling,” all in one word!

Meet Frau Meuller.  (Vectorportal, Flickr Creative Commons)

Meet Frau Meuller. (Vectorportal, Flickr Creative Commons)

But even simple words were mystifying.  My teacher, Frau Meuller — as strict and starchy as the stereotype you might imagine — quickly set about terrorizing her students, except those lucky enough to be named Ludwig or Gretchen, by drilling us in gender forms.  It seems that in Germany and Austria and such places, intoxicated on alpine ozone, not just men and women, boys and girls, and bulls and cows are masculine or feminine.  So are inanimate things such as desks, street lights, and beer steins.

Objects take the masculine (der), feminine (die), or neuter (das) article form.  But just because something is frilly and soft doesn’t mean it’s feminine.  Or because it’s big and brawny that it’s masculine.  And all sorts of things, for reasons lost in Germanic horde lore out of Central Europe, are neither.

If Frau Mueller knew why, she wasn’t sharing.  “Ve [she said her “we’s” mit a “v”] vill learn zem,” because she said so, quite sternly.

Take the German words for bodies of water.  The really big ocean is masculine: der Ozean.  A somewhat smaller one is neuter: das Meer.  And if you’re talking, less precisely, about the sea, it’s feminine: die See!

You know the proper article form for this German U-boat, from the movie of the same name: Das Boot.  (Paul Adams, Wikipedia Commons)

You know the proper article form for this German U-boat, from the movie of the same name: Das Boot. (Paul Adams, Wikipedia Commons)

Speakers of a few other languages, such as Spanish, waltzed into that German class thinking they had a leg up on such things.  The Spanish also stick masculine and feminine articles on things.  But the Spanish word for “sun” is masculine, and the German word is feminine.  And the words for “moon” are the other way around.  So the Spanish speakers were soon humbled by Frau Mueller as well.

But German and Spanish don’t borrow from as many other languages as American English does.  Give us your tired, your poor words, you other cultures, and we’ll mix them together in ways that make no sense whatever.

Here are some wonderful (or ghastly, if you’re struggling to learn English) examples from an unknown author, which have been floating around the Internet in poetic form, more or less, for years and years:

 

We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,

But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.

One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,

Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,

Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

Read the rest of this entry »

Time in a Capsule

Posted December 15th, 2011 at 7:28 pm (UTC-4)
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In 1973, troubadour Jim Croce wrote and sang about “Time in a Bottle.”  If he could seal time in one, he explained in song, “The first thing that I’d like to do/ Is to save every day ’til eternity passes away/ Just to spend them with you.”

There have been plenty of similar love notes and other messages corked inside bottles and set adrift on the world’s seas, including those cast by the proverbial wretches stranded on desert islands.

The edifice of what looks like a mighty sturdy time capsule in Versailles, Pennsylvania.  Hope that's not a chimney coming out of it, though!  (daveynin, Flickr Creative Commons)

The edifice of what looks like a mighty sturdy time capsule in Versailles, Pennsylvania. Hope that's not a chimney coming out of it, though! (daveynin, Flickr Creative Commons)

But the rest of us typically choose something bigger and sturdier to catch time in a carefully sealed capsule.

These caches of memories, messages to future earthlings, and sometimes consumer devices representative of the day, are typically interred at cornerstone layings, topping-off ceremonies for great memorials, and the kickoffs of world’s fairs.

Then, usually, the time capsules just lie there, minding their own business, until some appointed day decades or centuries hence, when dignitaries eagerly retrieve them and pry them open.

It was at the 1939 New York World’s Fair that public-relations man George Edward Pendray, an amateur rocketeer and vice president of the American Interplanetary Society, is said to have coined the term “time capsule.”

Pendray's rather ominous-looking time capsule, or lozenge! (Westinghouse Electric, Wikipedia Commons)

Pendray's rather ominous-looking time capsule, or lozenge! (Westinghouse Electric, Wikipedia Commons)

Into the long, rounded metal cylinder on display at the Westinghouse Pavilion, he packed such items as a doll, a newsreel film, a vial of seeds, a microscope, and microfilmed copies of documents such as a Sears Roebuck department-store catalog.

Don’t bother to hang around for its opening, however.  The 1939 fair folks set that date for 5,000 years later, in 6939!

And what curiosities the items inside the capsule are likely to be then.

One of the most famous time capsules was fashioned out of an old swimming pool!

Contents of the Crypt of Civilization.  I imagine they'll seem kind of weird, even frightening, in 8113.  (Oglethorpe University)

Contents of the Crypt of Civilization. I imagine they'll seem kind of weird, even frightening, in 8113. (Oglethorpe University)

That’s right; it was a room-sized swimming pool with a roof, all lined with enamel and pitch, created in 1939 at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia.  Assorted artifacts representing 20th-Century life were placed inside the stainless-steel door of what was called the “Crypt of Civilization.”  You can see a photo of the contents to the left, but you’re also unlikely to see them in person at the capsule’s grand reopening, since it’s scheduled for A.D. 8113.

On that one, my money’s on the worms.

You’ll have to wait only a mere 1,000 years or so for another capsule, sealed in a helium-filled tube, somewhere beneath Amarillo, Texas.  It was buried there in 1968 to mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery of helium nearby in West Texas.

This is one of 10 “incredible” time-capsule projects selected by the Listverse history and trivia Web site, whose unnamed writer reported having made and buried one in his or her own backyard as a child.  Pretty sure the worms and voles have had their way with that one, too. Read the rest of this entry »

The Internet: Ever With Us, Like It or Not

Posted December 13th, 2011 at 12:17 pm (UTC-4)
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It came as no surprise to me that 28 percent of Americans shopped online on “Cyber Monday,” the day after Thanksgiving weekend at the end of November. That was up from the 21-percent figure a year ago. More and more of us are concluding that it’s easier to cruise the Internet than to fight traffic in a shopping mall parking lot.

Laptops, and now tablets and handheld devices, go where we go.  (ElverBarnes, Flickr Creative Commons)

Laptops, and now tablets and handheld devices, go where we go. (ElverBarnes, Flickr Creative Commons)

People surf the Web all day long, or so it seems. Thanks to the new “cloud” technology of private internet-based file storage about which I wrote a few postings back, we can carry many aspects of our lives with us on the Internet and check them out whenever we feel like it.

The files on our home desktops, enough financial information to make paper receipts obsolete, even the TV shows and movies we’ve loaded onto our home entertainment systems, can be uploaded to our cloud account and then accessed from whatever computer we happen to be using. Any time. Anywhere.

Nerd alert, complete with pocket protector!  (dizfunkshinal, Flickr Creative Commons)

Nerd alert, complete with pocket protector! (dizfunkshinal, Flickr Creative Commons)

Up until about 20 years ago, the Internet was mostly the domain of scientists and computer programmers we sometimes call “geeks” or “nerds.” Since then, it has become an almost necessary part of everyday living in many parts of the world. So much so that many experts believe the Internet rivals the printing press in its impact on civilization.
Wild exaggeration? After all, the printing press ushered in an era of intellectual advancement called the Enlightenment.

But if you ask John Perry Barlow, the Internet is even MORE revolutionary. Not that what we have now is always enlightened.

Barlow is a former Wyoming cowboy and lyricist for the Grateful Dead, of all things. But he also founded an important cyber-rights organization called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And he calls the Internet “the most transforming event since the capture of fire!”

He made that statement 16 years ago in 1995, when an estimated 16 million people around the world were using the Internet every day.

By 2002 the number of users was calculated to have grown to half a BILLION worldwide. That’s 31 times as many people utilizing the global computer network, in just seven years.

And the Net was just limbering up. On one day, March 31, earlier this year, an organization called Internet World Stats counted 2,095,006,005 people using the Internet around the world. (Please don’t ask me how it counted these heads!) That’s 2 billion people connecting to the world through their computers and tapping away each day.

I wouldn't be surprised if this fellow had his own Internet domain.  (kevinzim, Flickr Creative Commons)

I wouldn't be surprised if this fellow had his own Internet domain. (kevinzim, Flickr Creative Commons)

Some math extrapolator will have to tell us when the last person on earth who had never used the Web finally logs on, but I’d guess it’s not an unbelievable number of years away. If the Discovery Channel can get cameras into the Amazon rain forest to video the last, lost tribe of the Americas, can laptop computers for every tribe member be far behind?

Already in the United States, at least 80 percent of the population has Internet access at home, not even counting terminals at work or neighborhood libraries, or wireless hookups at Internet-friendly cafes.

Daily use of the Net here is the norm, not the exception. We give no more thought to jumping on the Internet than we do to brushing our teeth, driving a car, punching a microwave button, or clicking the TV remote.

“Cyberlife” has many implications — and they’re not all good. One negative that has people worried is the growing digital divide between those who comfortably bop around the Internet and those who don’t even have Net access. Another is the gulf between fluent speakers of English — the language of nine-tenths of Internet Web sites — and those whose English is weak or nonexistent. What is the latter group missing, and how far is it putting them behind?

There are also issues of “information overload” that many feel the Web has created; computer users’ seemingly insatiable need for instant gratification through more and faster information; smut around every cyber corner; and the Internet’s effect on family and community life. Is the Web driving us into separate, antisocial worlds of our own, as some critics believe?

John Horrigan, the associate director of research at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, says Americans as a rule don’t even bother writing to government agencies or health-care providers any more when they want information. They don’t call or visit, either, because just about everything they want to know is available in a flash on the Net. So is less critical information about every casual interest under the sun.

You rarely need to physically clip these things any more.  Just download 'em.  (La Piazza Pizzeria, Flickr Creative Commons)

You rarely need to physically clip these things any more. Just download 'em. (La Piazza Pizzeria, Flickr Creative Commons)

In short, Horrigan says, the Internet has become “America’s go-to tool.” We pay bills with it, read books with it, shop with it on Cyber Monday and many other days of the year, connect with people of like — and differing — minds, and even check out things that we didn’t know existed until we hit a couple of keystrokes.
Imagine what would happen if someone tried to take the Internet away!
The Internet is both a mass medium — dispensing everything from videos to newspaper articles — and a personal, one-to-one facilitator.
“One of the Net’s assets is what you might call ‘one-to-many communications,’” John Horrigan told me. “People can e-mail one another or many people at once. Another asset is its ‘information utility.’ The Internet in some people’s cases has completely supplanted the telephone or other kinds of information tools.

And that’s where search engines come in. People love to go online to scratch a little informational itch.”

That's where a lot of us are, all right, every day: in Search Engine Land!  (dannysullivan, Flickr Creative Commons)

That's where a lot of us are, all right, every day: in Search Engine Land! (dannysullivan, Flickr Creative Commons)

They love it to the point that the name of the dominant Internet search engine — Google — has become a generic verb. We google things, even on Yahoo.
I love to ask it questions that 20 years ago might have taken an entire staff of reference librarians hours to research. Google gives me answers in seconds. Here’s a goofy one I just made up for no reason at all. It just popped into my head:
Is there copper pipe in Malaysia?

Not only did this inquiry produce about 1,500,000 results almost instantly, some of the ones that showed up on the first page demonstrate that a good deal of copper pipe is actually made in Malaysia.
Another exercise that I enjoy is typing in a few words to start a search. The Internet fills in a search phrase with what it thinks will be question you’re about to ask.
For example, I typed “How many people . . .”
Here are the first three questions that the computer filled in:
How many people have my name?
How many people are there in the world?
And How many people died on 9/11? — the infamous month and day in 2001 when terrorists struck targets in the United States.
None of those was the question I had in mind, but one of the charms of the Internet is that it widens the scope of our curiosity. I never wondered, or cared, how many people have my name until the Internet it brought up.

I'd wager that there's a Theodore or two in this crowd.  But no Landphairs.  (Jason Bagley, Flickr Creative Commons)

I'd wager that there's a Theodore or two in this crowd. But no Landphairs. (Jason Bagley, Flickr Creative Commons)

If you’re interested — and again, don’t ask me how this was determined — HowManyOfMe.com told me instantly that there are 192,259 “Theodores” in the United States, but just 116 “Landphairs.”

The “Theodore” count seems kind of low to me, and the “Landphair” total about right. I’ve found only 10 or so in the whole country who spell it my way, rather than “Lamphier” or “Lanfair” and such. But I still don’t know from this Internet inquiry how many “Theodore Landphairs” might be running around.
“Oh, you’re one of a kind,” you’re supposed to say here.
Eight years ago, I remember writing about a lighthearted e-mail going around VOA. It said, “You Know You’re Living in the Year 2003 when . . .” and it listed some of the technological realities of everyday life in America. You knew you were living in 2003, for instance, when “you get up in the morning and go online before getting your coffee.”
I’d update the e-mail now with something such as, “You Know You’re Living in the Year 2011 when . . . you pay all your bills online, do all your banking online, work from home online one or two days a week, research 95 to 100 percent of your term paper online, create your own greeting cards — message and illustrations — online, and do much of your dating online.”
A few years ago, Caroline Haythornthwaite — and there can’t be too many Caroline Haythornthwaites — who runs an information technology program at the University of Illinois, edited a book called The Internet in Everyday Life. She told me that the average American Internet user was on the Net 11 hours a week — experienced users 16 hours a week.

Computer addiction can have that effect on you.  (Aaron Jacobs, Flickr Creative Commons)

Computer addiction can have that effect on you. (Aaron Jacobs, Flickr Creative Commons)

That’s two typical workdays’, or nights’ sleep, worth of time — time once spent on other things.
What do we lose during those two days? Human contact, perhaps.
To the contrary, Hawthornthwaite countered. “That’s how I connect to people.” She explained:
If you think we’ve gone away from the telephone to e-mail, have you lost anything there? Some of the real changes that seem to show up in the statistics are less TV and less sleep. The sleep business could be the fact that the people who are using the Internet are also the same kind of people who are wired into being active and ambitious. It’s their time of life for getting a lot of work done.
And Hawthornthwaite hadn’t even discovered texting!
She told me that studies had detected a difference in the ways that men and women tend to use the Internet.

Make you ANOTHER bet, that a male downloaded this site.  (wjarrettc, Flickr Creative Commons)

Make you ANOTHER bet, that a male downloaded this site. (wjarrettc, Flickr Creative Commons)

Young, white males were the first ones on it. Their culture became the early culture, some of the early ways of talking on the Internet and ways of behaving through e-mail. Lot of programming stuff. When women started getting on, the tone became slightly different — softer, more family communication. So they’re talking on the Web about different things. Some studies show women have always been the ones looking for medical information. They’re the caregivers in the family, and they’re doing that.
A wild guess that more men than women check sports scores, and more women than men search for celebrity gossip. There’s a bottomless well of each on the Web.
The Internet is also used to get divorced, make reservations, copy songs, shop for gifts, form clubs with unseen cyberfriends, tell the world about ourselves and what might previously have seemed our obscure lives . . . and, oh, perhaps to read and listen to “Ted Landphair’s America” blog and podcast on the Voice of America Web site.
In fact, I just googled “Ted Landphair’s America” and got 170,000 results. Maybe I’ll use my two days’ time on the Web to see what entries 169,001-170,000 are all about.
Or maybe not.

A Man’s Castle is His Home

Posted December 12th, 2011 at 1:31 pm (UTC-4)
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“I’m Jim Bishop. I’m the castle builder.” Those were the first words from the man I believe may be the strangest in the United States, for sure the strangest I’ve met.

He lives in the mountains of Colorado and over the past few decades has, indeed, single-handedly built himself a castle. It leaps out of snowy mountains, an abstract stone and iron edifice that evokes a cross between Medieval Europe and the artist Salvador Dali.

It’s over 160 feet high, with iron walkways, giant stained-glass windows, an elevator and even a dragon that breathes fire.

Jim Bishop

Why did he build it?

“I just used my God-given talents best I know how.”

OK, but why?

I asked him that about 20 times and each response was different.

“Every man wants a castle.”

“I’m newsworthy!”

“Kings and pharaohs don’t use their hands, they use slaves. I’m better than a king.”

I think it’s safe to safe that his ego plays a part. But it’s also something more than that. He calls his castle a “political castle” and the whole project is part of his world philosophy. He doesn’t want the state meddling in his business; he doesn’t pay taxes and doesn’t believe in social security; he doesn’t believe in drivers’ licenses and says religion is nothing but politics. He wants to prove he doesn’t need the state, all he needs is himself.

Bishop: a unique American.

This was our first conversation:

Jim: “What would you say if I told you 9/11 was an inside job?”

Selah: “I’d say that is your opinion.”

Jim: “That’s not an opinion — It’s a fact.”

Jim is 67 and petite but built like an ox. He seems calm and pleasant until he gets onto a subject that really bites him – like 9/11 – then he yells, gesticulates wildly, and even kicks things.
Don’t even think about mentioning FOX news or Barack Obama.

I wanted to strike a lighter note with him so I asked him what he does in his free time.

“I go dancing with my wife.”

“What kind of dancing?”

“Me and my wife, we made up our dance. It’s sort of a fast swing to disco music.”

The man doesn’t do anything by the book.

Even though he seemed a bit unhinged I had to respect him. It’s what we hear about a lot when it comes to Americans: individualism, can-do attitude, pioneering spirit. Jim Bishop’s got all that in spades.

The Washington That Wasn’t

Posted December 8th, 2011 at 10:32 pm (UTC-4)
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Most museum exhibits are about things that are, were, might be down the road, or are just imagined.

But I just toured a yeasty one about things that very well could have been but never were.

It’s Unbuilt Washington, a new exhibit at the National Building Museum that will run through May 28th next year.

You can see three classics in Carol's fireworks shot: The U.S. Capitol (left), the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial.  (Carol M. Highsmith/PhotographsAmerica.com)

You can see three classics in Carol's fireworks shot: The U.S. Capitol (left), the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial. (Carol M. Highsmith/PhotographsAmerica.com)

Possibly you’ve passed by our capital city’s iconic buildings and memorials.  Or almost surely seen fetching photos of the White House; the U.S. Capitol; the Washington Monument obelisk; memorials to notable presidents; and the grand museums that line the vast National Mall.  They are idealized, and realized, visions that have come to symbolize American democracy.

But Unbuilt Washington points out that vastly different structures — some even grander, others kind of kooky — were in the running for these and other treasured places.  And, in three or four rooms, it displays the sketches and plans and models to prove it.

Here's a sketch of George, atop a stump: all that had been built of the Washington Monument about 1877. (Library of Congress)

Here's a sketch of George, atop a stump: all that had been built of the Washington Monument about 1877. (Library of Congress)

A huge statue of George Washington, for instance, right atop the partially completed Washington Monument, which had sat as an ugly stub on the National Mall for more than 20 years in the 19th century.

And a walking bridge across an inlet of the Potomac River, complete with shops and outdoor cafes, looking a lot like Florence’s Ponte Vecchio — or a gaudy Atlantic City ocean pier, depending upon your point of view.

And a “National Sofa” just outside the White House!

Yes, a National Sofa!  I’ll tell you about it in a bit.

Would Parisians feel as passionate about a modernist spiral as they do about the Eiffel Tower?

John Russell Pope, architect of the National Archives Building and main building of the National Gallery of Art, struck out with his pyramidal Lincoln Memorial idea.  (National Archives)

John Russell Pope, architect of the National Archives Building and main building of the National Gallery of Art, struck out with his pyramidal Lincoln Memorial idea. (National Archives)

 

 

And would a tiered pyramid be as evocative to Americans as the Abraham Lincoln figure that gazes between majestic pillars down the Mall?  It’s hard for me to imagine that it would, since a standing figure of Lincoln was planned as what one Web site called the “cake topper” at the pinnacle of the proposed stepped pyramid.

Would we have gotten used to a span of London Bridge proportions, complete with Tower of London-sized turrets and castles, where the low, dignified Memorial Bridge crosses over to Arlington National Cemetery?  It certainly would have been way out of scale with what’s around it.

Smithmeyer & Pelz's 1887 idea looks a LOT like the London Bridge.  (Library of Congress)

Smithmeyer & Pelz's 1887 idea looks a LOT like the London Bridge. (Library of Congress)

The building museum’s senior vice president, Martin Moeller, Jr., himself a noted architect who took great delight in curating the Unbuilt Washington exhibit, told me that there are a dozen good reasons why some of these schemes for updating the capital never got built.

Some were beaten out by other plans in design competitions, or quashed by the many arts commissions that pass judgment on public-building design around here.  Sometimes money ran short before construction could start.  Wars and depressions thwarted others.  Local outrage smote projects such as the proposed Capitol Hill Expressway that would have thrust two elevated freeways right through the monumental core of the city.

And some plans were viewed as simply too frilly, not frilly enough, or even “too French.”  “Yeah, there was heavy French envy for awhile,” Moeller confirmed.

Sometimes the families or descendants of the intended memorial honorees objected, even to plans that had been approved.  Take the original design for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial along the Tidal Basin of the Potomac River, okayed in 1964.  It visualized a series of tall, closely bunched slabs, rising as high as 57 meters into the air.  The Roosevelt family and others squelched this idea as too competitive with the nearby Washington Monument and not in keeping with Roosevelt’s desire for a modest memorial, “no bigger than this desk [to which he pointed]” if one was to be built at all. Read the rest of this entry »

Retribution, American-Style

Posted December 5th, 2011 at 1:28 pm (UTC-4)
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When suicidal hijackers crashed airliners into targets in New York City and Washington 10 years ago, killing almost 3,000 people, U.S. Senator Charles Hagel of Nebraska was in Florida with President George W. Bush. “This is the second Pearl Harbor,” Senator Hagel exclaimed when he heard the news.

The U.S. Navy's base at Pearl Harbor, and the U.S.S. Shaw, aflame on December 7, 1941.  (Library of Congress)

The U.S. Navy's base at Pearl Harbor, and the U.S.S. Shaw, aflame on December 7, 1941. (Library of Congress)

It’s an analogy that has been repeated many times since.  But does the sneak attack upon the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii that pulled the United States into World War II — an event whose 70th anniversary our nation will mark with solemn ceremonies on Wednesday — really equate with those terrorist assaults?

With smoke still billowing from the rubble at the World Trade Center, three outer wings of the West Block of the Pentagon, and a crater left by a hijacked passenger jet that crashed into a rural Pennsylvania field, the Washington Times newspaper rushed out a special edition. Splashed in startling type across its front page was a single word:

“Infamy!”

Many, perhaps even most, adult Americans instantly understood the significance of that word. It took the oldest of them back to another sunny and quiet morning almost 60 years before, when they had had an uneventful Sunday seared into their memories by this bulletin on the radio:

“The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President Roosevelt has just announced.”

A day later, as Congress declared war, Franklin Roosevelt spoke to a shocked and outraged nation.  In some of his most famous words, delivered in his clipped, cultured, upstate New York accent, he told the country what it already knew:

"FDR" addresses the Congress, and the nation, the following day.  (National Archives)

“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. With the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God.”

It wasn’t long before Americans were marching off to war, and singing their defiance of the Imperial Japanese — and soon enough, Nazi Germany as well — in songs such as “We Did it Before (And We’ll Do It Again).”

We’ve got a heckuva job to do

But you can bet that we’ll see it through.

We did it before, and we can do it again.

And we will do it again.

The World Trade Center's Twin Towers, about a month before terrorists brought them down.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The World Trade Center's Twin Towers, about a month before terrorists brought them down. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Similar expressions of resolve would follow the carefully orchestrated attacks on an unsuspecting nation 60 years later, in 2001, leading to inevitable comparisons with Pearl Harbor.

Do these parallels stand up?

In many ways, yes, Donald M. Goldstein, a public-policy historian (now emeritus professor) at the University of Pittsburgh, told me shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks.  Dr. Goldstein, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who has written four books on Pearl Harbor, said there were immediate indications that those stealth attacks would unite a nation.

The Japanese assault 60 years earlier certainly had, he said, more than any other event.  “Even in the American Revolution, one-third were against it, one-third were for it, and one-third fought it,” he told me.

And Professor Goldstein found an unfortunate link between the 2001 terrorist attacks and the terror from the sky over the American naval installation on Oahu.

Seamen at Kaneohe Naval Air Station in Hawaii decorate the graves of their fellow fallen sailors.  (Library of Congress)

Seamen at Kaneohe Naval Air Station in Hawaii decorate the graves of their fellow fallen sailors. (Library of Congress)

Pearl Harbor was an intelligence failure if there ever was one. Lot of messages out there.  Lot of things we should have known about.  Lot of “would-a, should-a, could-a’s.”  This [9/11 attack] is the same thing. We got caught short and cannot figure out why.  After Pearl Harbor, we created the Central Intelligence Agency, which was going to be the thing that was going to save us from these intelligence problems.  Well, after this one [on September 11, 2001], I think we’re going to have to create a new agency to really get our intelligence back in shape.”

No new intelligence agency would emerge, but there was plenty of second-guessing about our readiness for the terrorists’ onslaught.

University of Florida historian Michael Gannon published a book about Pearl Harbor called A True Story About a Man and a Nation Under Attack.  The man was Admiral Husband Kimmel, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.  He was vilified for the loss of more than 2,400 men and several battleships at Pearl Harbor.  Professor Gannon predicted that an angry nation would again look for someone to blame for the breakdowns in intelligence that may have contributed to the astounding success of the Islamic terrorist missions.

A collapsed wall at the Pentagon.  (U.S. Navy)

A collapsed wall at the Pentagon. (U.S. Navy)

For example in the trial of the men who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, it was developed that these men had a more extended plan than just bombing one of the towers of the trade center. They had a plan that incorporated the flying of aircraft into those towers. And people just passed over that as, I guess, dreaming.  Similarly, Senator Warren Rudman and others presented a report to the United States Congress in February of this year [2001] in which they predicted that within a short amount of time there would be a major terrorist attack on some installation in the United States. Now were those warnings of sufficient clarity and force that we can blame somebody for not taking heed?  I’m not sure. Read the rest of this entry »

American High School

Posted December 2nd, 2011 at 4:46 pm (UTC-4)
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It's the season for high school football across America

 

I don’t know if there’s anything in the world that quite compares to a high school football game in the smaller towns of America.

I went to Macomb, Illinois the other day and the first thing I noticed when we drove into town were signs saluting the local high school foot ball team, the Bombers. “Good Luck, Bombers!” signs were in all the shop and house windows.  Even a major U.S. food chain, Pizza Hut, had one.

We headed over to the game on a Saturday afternoon and the whole scene was straight out of some teen film: a lovely blue autumn day, a food stand with smiling parents selling hot dogs and hot chocolate, bright green football field, players all bulked out in their jet black jerseys, and pretty teenage cheerleaders in black track suits tossing miniature footballs to the crowd. There was a brass band squeezed into the bleachers, along with what looked like the whole Macomb community.

Before the game started, everyone stood and faced the U.S. flag as it blew around above the field. As they sang the national anthem, I was sort of transported through time, wondering how many decades this very scenario had taken place and in how many towns across the country. I later found out high schools have been playing football against each other since the late 19th century, so I guess it’s pretty much embedded in the American high school experience.

 

The good news — for Macomb, at least — is the that Bombers won – in fact they annihilated the other team. The score was something insane, like 49-7.

After the game, we talked to star player of the Bombers, a 17-year old boy named Chris Jackson. He was totally charged up. He said in Macomb he’s a local celebrity and everywhere he goes people give him a slap on the back and cheer him on.

The coach said he’d promised the team that if they won, they could shave his head (the coach’s) into a mohawk haircut – bald on the sides, a strip of hair on top. So that’s what Coach was off to do after the game.

I don’t follow American football so I had pretty much no idea what was going on during the game but it didn’t really matter. I was there for the vibe and to be honest, I think most of the other people were there for the same reason. I asked a few people why they liked coming down and they all said pretty much the same thing: “to be part of the community.”  Putting on a Bombers sweatshirt once a week, heading down to the stadium, and cheering on the local team seems part of the glue that holds the town together.

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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