Category Archives: Autobiographical

Contains events in the lives of Joe, his family and friends … as described by them.

Tony and Farm Boy Records

“It’s work, son,” Father said. “That’s what money is; it’s hard work.”

― Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy

Tony Lee was born to a farming family in rolling rural piedmont country, hidden away in North Carolina’s Lincoln County.  He grew up fast, tall, strong and lean, and went on to set a remarkable and little-known Major League Baseball record that will probably never be broken.

There are many a story of country boys making it big in baseball.  I’ll touch on three of the best known.

Mickey Mantle grew up in rural Oklahoma, along old Route 66. Who knows how many records Mickey Mantle would have set if he hadn’t taken to the bottle? Still, he hit 536 home runs in total – this during an era when baseball players, on average, hit homers only about 60 percent as often as today – and yet “The Mick” stands at #18 on the all-time home run list.  More than a few above him took steroids and should thus be disqualified.

Bob Feller grew up a farming country boy in Iowa.  Playing his entire career with the Indians, and coaching for them until his death at 92, he probably had the fastest fastball in the Majors during the 1940s. He led the league in strike outs seven times (twice in the 1930s as a teenager!). Over a stellar career, Feller amassed 266 victories.  He surely would’ve reached the magical 300 milestone had he not served 3-1/2 years in World War 2 in the prime of his career.  Or, if the Indians had had a slightly better team; they compiled mostly mediocre records in those years, but did manage to win the World Series in 1948. For the five full years of his career that sandwiched his military service he averaged 24 wins a season.  Projecting a bit, that would put him around 350 wins for his career. 

And finally, perhaps the most famous to baseball fans, is pitcher Denton True “Cy” Young.  He grew up working his family’s farm in rural Ohio.  His frame took on great strength and his mind a determined, stern discipline. When baseball found him, he could throw the ball so hard he was nicknamed “Cyclone”; or “Cy” for short.  With a career of just over two decades that spanned the turn of the 20th century, Young won an astounding 511 games at the Major League level – a record that will never be broken.  Since 1956 the Award for the Best Pitcher in each league has been named after him.

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In this time of Covid, I’m not following sports much. Heck, until recently there wasn’t much to follow. But even with this rump of a baseball season coming to its tinny crescendo I have been unable to avert my eyes from box scores and standings completely. 

It’s a lifelong habit and I guess I owe it to my dad.  I can remember him taking me to watch a Cubs game at Wrigley Field during the summer of 1961.  Billy Williams hit a home run.  I could barely follow the game – long periods of sun-drenched boredom with brief moments of athletic excitement where the players and ball moved so quickly that I had little idea what was going on.  All I knew before this was dad tossing whiffle balls to me – as I tried to make contact with a plastic bat – and a cheezy glove that he tossed balls into.  Me, thinking I could catch, or hit! Ha. God Bless him. God blessed me with him.

Within a few years he taught me how to track a game.  How to keep score.  Tricks to playing each position (‘ twas clear from early on I’d never be a pitcher) and what to anticipate what could happen on each at-bat, on each pitch.  I guess he thought I had “Mickey Mantle” potential, as he had me swing from both sides.  Eventually I took to swinging only lefty – even though I am right-handed and right-eyed – which was fine with me.  Billy Williams – who won Rookie of the Year in 1961, later won a batting title, and had become my favorite player – swung the same way, lefty, despite also being right-handed.

Back to 2020. So, I’m tracking some baseball stats this odd year-of-covid, like I always do. This, despite the fact that I’m inclined to believe that nothing about this year should even count.  But, I can’t help myself.  Reasons it shouldn’t count?  Doubleheader games are only 7 innings;  extra innings start off with a runner on second;  and the biggest reason is that even the NL is using the Designated Hitter (DH), which means that – except in the most unusual of circumstances – pitchers don’t have to bat.  Guess I’m just a traditionalist.

One thing I noticed through most of this weird 2020 season is that hitting and run production seem down.  Until a few weeks ago batting averages across both leagues were at historic lows.  And pitchers don’t even have to bat! Run production (scoring) was down only slightly, because players are still hitting home runs at nearly historically high rates.

There was a blip for a few weeks recently when scoring and hitting went way up. Teams started putting up double-digit tallies. In one single day (Sept 9) during that stretch the Brewers scored 19 runs in a game. And the Braves scored 29! In one game. During that Braves explosion, Adam Duvall hit three home runs, one of them a grand slam, and knocked in 9 runs.  This statistic, 9 RBIs, tied a Braves franchise record. Plus a grand slam. [RBI is Run Batted in].

And my mind drifted back to 1966……

Baseball recruiting started to get aggressive in the late 1950s.  For example, Tony Lee Cloninger, a lanky farm boy from North Carolina, was signed to a professional contract by the Milwaukee Braves in early 1958.  For that, he received a signing bonus of $100,000.  That was a lot of money. He had not yet graduated from high school.

Milwaukee. I lived just outside that Midwest city from Christmas week 1962 until the summer of 1974.  Even though my first love was the Cubs, I could not help but follow the local Braves, as news of them was always in the newspapers. And of course, my sports-minded friends all followed them.  So, I certainly knew of Tony Cloninger.

In fact, several superstars, future Hall of Famers, played for the Milwaukee Braves back then – Aaron, Matthews, Torre, Spahn – and I remember watching them all play at Milwaukee County Stadium.

Cloninger set several team records.  He recorded the modern-day era for most wins in a season by a Brave – 24 wins in 1965 – which matched the count put up by Johnny Sain in 1948 (when the team was in Boston), and years later by John Smoltz in 1996.  Not even the great Brave and Hall of Famer Warren Spahn ever won so many in a season.

Cloninger also threw one of MLB’s few Immaculate Innings (9 pitches, 3 strikeouts) in 1963, a feat that had only been achieved 13 times before.  (As an indicator of how the game has changed – so many more home runs and more strikeouts – it’s been done 87 times since).

1965 was a strange year for the Milwaukee Braves.  The ownership was trying to move the team to Atlanta.  Fans still loved the Braves, but there definitely were some hard feelings.  The case even went to the courts, as the city tried to keep them.  Despite a good record and performance by stars – not just Cloninger’s 24 wins; three Braves ranked in the league’s top ten for home runs: “Hammerin’ ” Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthew and Mack Jones – attendance dwindled to a dismal 555,000, lowest in the entire major leagues.  I can’t blame the fans for not supporting a team that doesn’t love its home city.

Cloninger was a bit of free-spirit, at least on the pitcher’s mound, I would guess, and his career numbers support that theory.  In his great 1965 year (and the next year too), Cloninger led the league in Wild Pitches and Walks issued. During 3-1/2 seasons in the minors he steadily averaged about 7 walks per nine innings: a horrendous ratio at almost any level, especially as a professional. But he also showed a ton of potential and promise. He was promoted to the major league club, the Milwaukee Braves, in the middle of the ’61 season, just shy of 21 years old. He was probably an early poster-child for the term “effectively-wild.”

1966.  Now the Atlanta Braves were hopeful for their prospects, based on a new location, their promising second half of 1965, and a roster full of stars, including Tony Cloninger as their #1 pitcher.  Unexpectedly, both Tony and the Braves got off to a cool start and were definitely under-performing.  For the July 4th weekend, they traveled to San Francisco, to play the first place Giants – they were also loaded with future Hall of Famers.  Prospects didn’t look good.

On a Sunday afternoon, July 3, Tony Cloninger – a much better than average hitting pitcher – pitched for the Braves.  Back then, we Milwaukee-ites all still followed the Braves rather closely – as there was no professional baseball team in Milwaukee to replace them yet (the Brewers arrived in 1970), and we still knew all the Braves’ players, and most (except me) disliked the rival Cubs in nearby Chicago. But we didn’t get a newspaper delivered on Independence Day, July 4th. What happened on July 3rd?

It was not until July 5th that I read what Tony Cloninger had accomplished.  The details were scarce, since the sports section had to cram two days’ worth of news into a single Tuesday edition, typically a publication day of diminutive size.

I first scanned the July 4th results (for some cruel scheduling reason the Braves had to fly all the way to Houston to play an afternoon game the very next day in the new Astrodome against the lowly Astros) and noted that the they had eked out a win.

Then, …  some numbers from the previous day’s box score literally jumped off the pages.  Holy cow! The Braves beat the first place Giants by a score of 17-3.  Tony Cloninger pitched a complete game for the win, and he hit not one, but two, grand slams.  I could not believe my eyes.  A late game single brought his RBI total to 9 for the game.  These are astonishing batting feats for any player, almost unbelievable!! But for a pitcher?  Typically, the lightest hitting player in any lineup.

Tony Cloninger, mid-1960s

Not sure if it was that day or the next, but I remember the Milwaukee Journal showing a grainy photo of Giants’ great Willie Mays looking up helplessly, as a ball Cloninger had clobbered soared over his head, near the fence in Candlestick’s center field. Gosh, I wish I had started saving newsworthy magazines and newspapers a bit earlier.  I’d love to have that now.

This was the first time in National League history that a player had ever hit two grand slams in one game.  And, I’ll repeat myself: by a pitcher no less.   [It has only happened only twice since, with Fernando Tatis hitting two in the same inning(!), in 1999.  It has been accomplished 10 times in the American League.] This has never been accomplished by a pitcher.  Never.  Before or since.  And it never will be done again, especially with the NL contemplating permanent use of the Designated Hitter – which means pitchers practically never, ever get to bat.

The Braves 1966 season improved thereafter, partly due to changing managers (from Bobby Bragan – loved that name – to Billy Hitchcock).  On the flip side: The Giants’ season sort of collapsed.  And the Dodgers (again, sigh) raced on to the National League pennant, with one of the better pitching  staffs in baseball history, led by Sandy Koufax (who promptly retired, aged only 30, when he was at the top of his game, after the Dodgers surprisingly lost the World Series to Baltimore, swept 4-0, at season’s end).

Tony “the farm boy” Cloninger had been experiencing some shoulder and elbow problems. He was a power pitcher, with a great fastball and nasty slider; both can be very tough on the body. 1966 was still a reasonably good season for him (he finished 14-11) and he was still the Braves #1 pitcher.  But that was the beginning of the end.  Even at age 25 his rugged farm-hardened body could not stand up to the rigors of tossing so many innings.  He pitched for several more years, posting only fair results, at best, and he was traded around a couple times.

With his bonus money and salary, Cloninger had been buying up farmland in his native Lincoln County.  He battled on for a few years, then struggled mightily through the first half of the 1972 season, whereupon he promptly retired mid-season, just before his 32nd birthday. Tony returned to his beloved rural homeland; he began settling in at his farm and its bucolic setting in the North Carolina Piedmont.

Cloninger compiled a career MLB record of 113-97. He once made the league top 10 in strike outs. Good, but not nearly good enough for the Hall of Fame.  He’s also regarded as one of the best hitting pitchers of all time.  Still not good enough to technically be in the Hall of Fame as an individual. But, photographs of him made that day in 1966 are there in the Hall.  As is the bat he borrowed from teammate Denis Menke, the one he used to hit the two grand slams.  They should be: it is a record which will never be broken by any player. Nor will even be tied, by a pitcher.

Cloninger couldn’t stay away from the game forever.  In 1988 he took up an invitation from the New York Yankees to join their coaching staff…starting in the minors and ending up with the major league team. Later he switched over to the player development staff with the Boston Red Sox.  I believe he was still with the BoSox when he passed away, just a couple years ago, in the summer of 2018, aged 77.

Tony, thanks for the memories.  You’re a good old farm boy who did well in the world.

Thanks for reading.  Cheers.

Joe Girard © 2020

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Special Summer

Indian Summer

Idyllic “Indian Summer” image

The first thing we should address, given contemporary sensitivities, is if this is even an appropriate term. 

The sports teams of my undergrad alma mater, Arkansas State University, used to carry the nickname “Indians.” ASU started out as an A&M (Agriculture and Mechanical) school and thus were known for some time as the “Aggies.”  They changed to “Warriors” in 1930, then to “Indians” the next year.  They remained the Indians until 2008.  They then changed to the Red Wolves.

Jumpin’ Joe: Arkansas State mascot when I attended in the 1970s.

Nominally one could argue that the name was not insensitive.  However, the mascot was known as Jumpin’ Joe (see figure), usually portrayed as a hideous visual parody of a native Amerindian. I was always uncomfortable with this, but as a young man finding my way in the world – and coping in the South as a native Yankee – I never made much fuss about it. 

Historic range of the Red Wolf

So, Arkansas State became the Red Wolves.  The Red Wolf is an endangered species, and – if ever seen – is usually in the southeast US.  It’s a mixed beige-reddish/copper colored subspecies of the gray wolf [1], and also evidently quite modern in its evolution, having a genealogy that is only about 50-400,000 years; so not that different than humans.

Interesting that the most successful college sports team in the hometown of my youth (Milwaukee), is Marquette University, and was also called the “Warriors” for decades; definitely an allusion to a supposed war-like nature of the American Native. Marquette, is a smallish Jesuit run school. Yes successful: they won the NCAA Basketball Championship as the “Warriors” in 1977. In time, the nickname was deemed a negative portrayal of native Amerindian culture.  Marquette’s sports teams have been called the Golden Eagles since 1995.

The Golden Eagle is a very successful species.  It’s one of the most widespread birds of prey across all of the northern hemisphere. So that was probably a good choice by Marquette. Pick success.

And let’s not forget the team that can be called “That team formerly known as the Washington Redskins.” Or maybe the official name is just the “Washington Football Team.”  Or something like that.  Not following sports much lately.

In any case, Indian Summer is a wonderful time.  Typically, it refers to a period of pleasant weather late in the year.  It could also be a wonderful period of time late in one’s life.  I may be having my own Indian Summer right now, in early retirement, and before Old Man Time tatters and frays my neurons and sinews even further.  

The term might have even originated with “Indians”, as some oral traditions tell of how American Natives explained the phenomenon of this weather to new arrivals: fear not, an unexpectedly nice time of year will arrive.  You can hunt, and sometimes even fetch a late harvest of berries.  Northern Europeans would likely have expected no such thing after a blast of Jack Frost and wintery chills.

The thing about Indian Summer is you don’t actually know if, or when, it is going to arrive.  It’s kind of a “bonus summer.”   An end of year “bonanza.”  A happy surprise.

The US Weather Service prefers to apply the term to a stretch of summery weather that occurs in the autumn after a killing freeze.  Annuals have all perished.  Budding has ceased.  Perennials are into dormancy.  Deciduous trees are shutting down. It’s best if there is even some snow; a warning of the deep dark nights and short days to follow.

And then: bam!  Sun.  Warmth.  Hope you didn’t put those shorts away, or that sunscreen.

Colorado is Not currently in Indian Summer, although one could be forgiven for thinking that.  The temperatures are back into the 80s – and might even soon touch 90.  Yet last week we had three days of freezing temperatures and even several inches of snow in most places.

But it’s not autumn yet.  Fall has yet to fall.

It’s just one of those things.  One of those crazy Colorado things. [3] Even though we were over 100 degrees just a few days before the snow and freezing temperature.  It’s not Indian Summer, yet.  I hope we get one again this year.

Anyhow, should we call it Indian Summer?  As opposed to Bonus Summer, or Extra Summer?  The Cajuns of Louisiana have a cute term: Lagniappe (Lan-yap), for an unexpected pleasant little add-on. [2]

I rather like Indian Summer, both the event and the term.  But Lagniappe Summer works fine, too.  All so multi-cultural.

Wishing you a lovely rest of summer and a blissful Indian/Bonus/Lagniappe Summer as well.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

[1] The taxonomy of the Red Wolf is much debated – sort of like whether the names Indian, Warrior and Redskin are insensitive or not.  Many believe that it is a cross between the Gray Wolf and Coyote. Others say it is a blend with an additional wolf species.

[2] The story of Lagniappe.  https://culinarylore.com/food-history:what-is-a-lagniappe/

[3] Apologies to song writer Cole Porter, and every great singer-artist who sang it, for poaching and re-appropriating these words. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOg3B9cELgQ

Indispensable Servants

It was the day before Labor Day. It was many, many years ago – when only ½ of US households had a television set, the vast majority showed only black and white, and there were only three stations to choose from.  That fateful red-letter Sunday my mother went into labor.  It must have frightened her, even though she was a woman of great faith, for this was her first child.

For me and my existence, this was essential labor.  Without it, I would not be on this earth.  I’ve expressed gratitude and praise to her – both in person and to her soul – for her countless sacrifices and many achievements.  She passed before I ever thought to thank her for this specific essential labor. 

This delivery – and those of my two sisters within the following three years – occurred at the old St Anne’s hospital, on the near north-west side of Chicago.  Well, things change, and St Anne’s was shuttered in 1988.  Over the following decade or so most of the grounds and nearby surrounding region were re-purposed; most significant among them being the arrival of Beth-Anne Residences.  This facility is dedicated to low-income and disabled elderly, many of whom require assisted living.  It is run by a 501-c-3 organization. So perhaps I can “slip the surly bonds of earth” at the same place I arrived.

Labor Day: it’s the day we honor workers in America – even though much of the rest of the world does this on May 1.  As we get out, have fun, fire up the grill, crack a beer, hike, bike, safely visit family and friends, and do the things we do on this end-of-summer holiday, we are tasked with recalling the importance of the American worker – the laborer.  And we recall the struggle of the labor movement, especially from the last decades of the 19th century through the first few of the 20th – their victories in achieving reasonable rights, among them: safe labor conditions, 40-hour workweeks, end of child labor, and yes, the right to collective bargaining.

This year I extend that to “essential labor.”  We’ll go here, as many businesses (and hence their workers in many cases) were deemed non-essential during this coronavirus pandemic.   The best synonym, I submit, is “indispensable servant”; those without whom society could not function with any sense of decency.

Of course, we all mandatorily identify those who serve in the health care industries as such.  From doctors, physicians assistants, nurses, and nurse practitioners; – to psychologists, pharmacists, emergency medical technicians.  The breadth is wide indeed: who administers hospitals, keeps the lights on, cleans the toilets, keeps ambulances and fire trucks operational, manufactures and ships drugs & vaccines, fills and drops off liquid oxygen, cleans surgical devices …? All those people who answer the phone and answer your billing and insurance questions. It is a breathtaking list.  Appreciate them all.

What would we do without food?  Grocery store workers are essential.  But so is everyone who works in the food supply chain.  Migrants who harvest food.  Fishermen. Workers who process food – often migrants as well.  How many among us raise hogs, chickens?  Collect eggs? Don’t forget the truck drivers, truck maintenance personnel, truck stop employees, truck and dock loaders and unloaders, even longshoremen who help us get our food.  I’m sure I missed some.  Appreciate them all.

What would we do without energy?  Who keeps the electric power flowing to our houses so that our food stays fresh in our refrigerators and freezers?  How many could work from home – or communicate with the world at all – without linemen, power plant workers, engineers and technicians who keep substations, transformers, and transmission lines operational.   It’s been a hot summer in much of the country: jeepers creepers, what would we do without A/C?  Even that is rather essential. Appreciate them all.

As humans, we are naturally social.  Yet we’ve had to “socially distance” (a new verb there).  To stay “in touch” is essential to our nature.  So, don’t forget telephone and cell phone employees.  And workers for internet providers.

Sanitation.  What happens to your poop?  What happens to your garbage?  We’ve been in shut down for 6 months now.  What if each one of us had to dispose of all that shit?  Thank the garbage collectors, and anyone who supports them, like landfill workers. Thank the municipal laborers, engineers, chemists and technicians who work at and support the wastewater treatment plants – ensuring that the waste we flush, and all the stuff we send down the sink, does not ruin our environment.

Clean water.  Water is essential to life.  And steady access to clean water is essential to a healthy life.  And good coffee.  Many careers are dedicated to acquiring, treating and delivery of clean water to every household. That is surely indispensable. 

Come to think of it: With clean water and wastewater disposal as essential, well, we have to add plumbers to the list of essential workers.

Protection.  Law Enforcement has been in the spotlight a lot lately.  It’s certainly not perfect.  Yet it is critical – essential – to a society that respects individual rights.  I include fire and rescue personnel here as well as in the medical section. 

Even with reduced traffic we need to get out occasionally, if just to buy groceries.  City engineers and technicians keep the traffic lights running. 

And there’s protection at the national level.  We can have a discussion about the size of our government and our nation’s defense: but we do need them.  From scanning the skies and oceans, to cyberattacks of all sorts. 

I know I missed some.  And quite a few more that are nearly-indispensable.  Child care.   The natural gas industry (by which most of us heat our water, and will soon be heating our residences). Education: teachers, professors, para-professionals and cafeteria workers. School janitors, maintenance, and IT personnel. Transportation: mass transit workers (who often help essential workers get to work, or the grocery story), road maintenance.  Even the evil banking and financial industry has kept the wheels of the economy creaking along; who maintains ATMs and answers your calls, and processes your quarantine on-line credit card purchases?

Many simply do not make the essential or nearly-indispensable list, like swaths of government and the entire entertainment industry.  And that includes professional sports.  Not gonna apologize; you all are simply not essential to life.  We don’t need you Robert Redford, DiCaprio, Duval, LeBron, ad nauseum.  

The “not even remotely indispensable” includes anyone who works for CNN, Fox, etc.  Yep, don’t need you at all; I’m talking to you Don Lemon and Tucker Carlson. I turned you all off long ago and don’t miss you one bit.  Life rolls merrily along, and much more calmly, without you.

Happy Labor Day! Enjoy, and also be grateful for those who labor. Thank the indispensable servants among us.  This year, I task you all with identifying the less obvious indispensables. Especially those who do the things we cannot do or choose not to do. Appreciate them.

And mothers, thank them too.  Thanks mom. See you someday.

Honor the American Worker

Joe Girard © 2020

note: my mom gave birth 6 times. My siblings and I are all lucky and grateful for her many labors. After the first 3, the next was delivered in Evanston at St Francis Hospital. The last two (brothers) were in Wisconsin — I think Menominee Falls.

Nibble on Wisconsin

Preface This essay’s title, Nibble On Wisconsin, is an unapologetic play on the state’s anthem, and (with a few lyrical changes) the fight song of its flagship university, the University of Wisconsin: ON, WISCONSIN.  [Disclosure: Wisconsin was my home state through most of my youth, from Christmas week 1962, until August 9, 1974 – the day Nixon resigned the presidency.

Wisconsin: 1848-present

A Michener-esque telling of the history of Wisconsin (AKA America’s Dairyland), might start a few hundred million years ago with Pangea; or even billions of years before that, including volcanoes and their flows through the Arachaen Eons, tectonic plate migrations, and perhaps even asteroid and comet impact effects. 

Or, less tediously, one of the 20th century’s best writers would commence as recently as a mere 11,000 years ago with the end of the Last Glacial Period (LGP), which itself lasted over 100,000 years. During most of those millennia much of the land we now call Wisconsin was under an ice sheet two kilometers thick.

Extent of Laurentide Ice Sheet, circa 11,700 years ago

Wisconsin, as with much of what is often called the “Upper Midwest” (and “Big 10 Country”), owes its treasured, tranquil terrain and farm-friendly fertility to repeated periods of glaciation which have sculpted and blessed the land. 
Wisconsin was bejeweled – like Minnesota – with countless lakes, rivers, and inlets: a heaven for sportsmen and a haven for mosquitoes.

Deposits near the southern extent of glaciers left fabulously fertile land. This vast field of fertility covers, approximately, the southern halves of Wisconsin and her sister states Minnesota and Michigan – as well as nearly all of Iowa, and the central-to-northern regions of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Within the story “Nibble on Wisconsin” these other states take on various “villain” roles.

Today, moraine hills – evidence of glacial activity – lie scattered across the geography. For cartographers, it was this repeated glaciation that created the Great Lakes, the river valleys of the upper Mississippi basin, and the gentle ridges and hills that separate their extensive watersheds.  This glaciation has been going on for hundreds of millions of years – billions really – and, technically, we are still in an Ice Age (humans are  currently in an inter-glacial period within the Quaternary Ice Age). 


With all due respect to Mr. Michener, and the limited time available to readers, we shall instead commence with the relatively recent year of 1783.

From there, we’ll track some historical low points to tell the story of how the extent of what would become the great state of Wisconsin got trimmed and nibbled upon – its size reduced by roughly one-half – until it became the 30th star to spangle the nation’s banner, 65 years later, in 1848.
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Preliminary notes: Should the reader at any time find this a bit tedious… Then simply stop and scan through to the pretty maps and art so painstakingly gathered and assembled herein.  A very concise history is at the bottom.

Still, I hope you can have some fun, tiptoeing with me through circumstances in the history of mid-west states from Ohio to Minnesota, and their effect on Wisconsin’s final shape and size.  

From “The Toledo Strip” (not a burlesque dance), to a war between northern states; from a continental divide to slavery; from transportation to commerce … these all contributed to Wisconsin’s smallish size and odd shape.

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Implied size and shape of Wisconsin, based on Land Ordinance of 1787

By the end of my residence in Wisconsin, my teachers had told us much about the “lay of the land” in Wisconsin, but not why or how it got its shape.  Clearly Lake Michigan to the east and the Mississippi river to the west were well defined.  But much of the remaining jiggly jumbly borders seemed … well, somewhat arbitrary.  Why doesn’t Wisconsin look more like the second “Bucky Badger Red” shape, shown here? History and geography suggest it could be so.

Well, Nixon resigned; I moved away (pure coincidence). Many decades passed. I didn’t think about it anymore… until recent research brought the topic back to mind.

Chapter 1 Wisconsin: part of The Northwest Territory

The verdant spread that would eventually turn out to be the State of Wisconsin became a possession of the United States at the close of the American Revolution through the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783. At the time, it was not really named; it was not defined; it was largely wild and only thinly settled even by native Amerindian nations, like the Menominee, the Chippewa, and Potawatomi. 

From Native peoples’ perspective, we might rephrase this by saying: some random new foreign nation — the United States of America — gained from some other random foreign nation – the Brits – the right to try and administer the region. Well, the hell with all of you. These native Nations — and let’s not forget the Sac, Fox and Winnebago — would surely say it had always been theirs … or nobody’s.

Since the US Constitution was not written until 1787 (and not effective until 1789) the nascent nation’s ruling body was still the Confederation Congress, which succeeded the more famous 2nd Continental Congress. This body governed the nation from War’s end until ratification of the Constitution.  This Congress passed several important Land Ordinances dealing with its new territories. 

Significant to us presently is the Land Ordinance of 1787, which defined an area known as the Northwest Territory. It laid out instructions for how it was to be administered and governed (for example: no slavery, land set aside for schools). As shown in this figure, the Northwest Territory was US land and water:

  • a) to the west of Pennsylvania;
  • b) north of the Ohio River;
  • c) east of the Mississippi River; and
  • d) south of British Canada.
    (Connecticut had claim to some of the land; this was resolved and dispensed with later – that’s what the Western Reserve was).

Article 5 of the Ordinance provided a path to statehood for between 3 and 5 regions within this territory. Specifically, the region was split by an east-west line that lay tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan (now known as ~41° 37’).  This is the Territorial Line: exactly east-west and tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan.  Remember this. Up to three states were to be formed south of this line, and up to two additional states north of that line.

1800: Northwest Territory split into Ohio and Indiana Territories

The three southern states — called the eastern, the central and the western states in the Ordinance — eventually came to be the states Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816) and Illinois (1818), respectively.

A quick glance back at first two Bucky Badger Red Wisconsin maps and we see that the problems are beginning to form already.  Each of these the first three states formed from the Northwest Territory have northern borders that lie north of the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan.

Chapter 2 The trouble with boundaries: Ohio snags extra territory

In 1800 the Ohio Territory was formed – split off from the Northwest Territory – in preparation for statehood, which followed in 1803. (The remainder of the Northwest Territory became, for a while, Indiana Territory).

Congress’ Enabling Act of 1802 provided the legal federal instrument for Ohio to attain statehood. Ohio’s boundaries were described in Section 2; its western boundary being somewhat of a battle owing to a feud between Federalists and Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans.  Nevertheless, the aforementioned “Territorial Line” was to be Ohio’s northern boundary, the term being a clear reference to the wording of the 1787 Ordinance.

In 1803 Ohio submitted its state constitution for review by Congress.  Here is where the “nibble on Wisconsin” saga really begins.  Article 6 makes some vague reference: since the southern extreme of Lake Michigan was not precisely known, Ohio reserved the right to draw its northern border along a line from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to “the most northerly cape of the Miami (Maumee) Bay.” Why? This bay provided an excellent harbor on Lake Erie — (it is where the city of Toledo now sets), the river’s mouth providing potential for a nice port.

Why? Since access to water for shipping and commerce was crucial to economic success, Ohio’s first politicians wanted to ensure that this harbor site was part of their new state. [In fact, lacking precise survey data, they feared that Lake Michigan might extend so far south that the east-west Territorial Line would pass completely to the south of Lake Erie, thus leaving Ohio with no access to Lake Erie at all.  Maps and surveying being immature at the time, this wording was the safest way they could ensure direct access to commercial shipping.]

The “Toledo Strip”: the southern boundary runs directly east-west, tangent to the southern tip of Lake Michigan, and is the implied northern boundary of the state of Ohio, from the 1787 Ordinance.  The northern boundary was “usurped” by Ohio for a future port city on Maumee Bay.

This odd shaped slivery quadrilateral-ish slice of land came to be known as “The Toledo Strip” – which is not a dance that involve a pole, either. It was named for the city that would soon sprout upon Maumee Bay (which was, in turn, was named after an ancient capital of Spain).  Notice how this farther north slanted not-quite-east-west line moves Maumee Bay, and its potential port, into Ohio Territory. In other words:  Ohio simply ignored precedent, and appropriated additional land in their state constitution.

The US Congress reviewed the Ohio state constitution and made no significant comment – positive or negative – with regard to this adjusted boundary. When Ohio quickly became a state after submitting its constitution (March 1, 1803 by an Act of Congress) they naturally began to administer this additional strip of land as if it were part of Ohio.

[Note: both the Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Territory refer to the Mississippi River as their west and east boundary, respectively; but the river did not extend up to British Canada (border determined later). Thus, boundary ambiguity abounded].

Chapter 3.  Michigan, Illinois, and revised Indiana Territories formed
— Indiana becomes a state and snags extra land

Michigan & Illinois Territory formed (faint state line borders only came into effect much later and are for reader reference only).

Over the next decade, via subsequent Congressional Acts, Michigan Territory and Illinois Territory were cleaved off from Indiana Territory, as shown here.  Still no mention of Wisconsin, which temporarily became part of Illinois.  [Note: Indiana’s Northern boundary is still nominally also along the east-west line tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan.]

With formal creation of the Illinois Territory we find hints of future “nibbles” on Wisconsin.  The Illinois Territory (which contained what would be Wisconsin) was split off from Michigan and Indiana Territory by an extremely arbitrary north-south line, projected due north from the, then significant, city of Vincennes, Indiana Territory, on the Wabash River. Further east is a line projected up from the Indiana-Ohio border. To the east was Michigan Territory, to the west unassigned territory.

The map shows that a small part of the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) was assigned to Michigan, most of the rest to Illinois (what would be Wisconsin) and some was left unassigned – between the northward projections of the Indiana borders.

Indiana’s 1816 entry to the union as the 19th state was clearer with regard to its boundaries. But, they had a dilemma: should their northern boundary be laid out exactly along the east-west Territorial Line and precisely tangent to Lake Michigan? If so, there would be insufficient lakeside to have a port (in fact, geometry dictates it would be an infinitesimal point). Answer: NO. To ensure access to Lake Michigan, Indiana lobbied for, and received via the Congressional Enabling Act of 1816, significant access to Lake Michigan. As stated in Section 2, its northern border shall be “ten miles north of the southern extreme of Lake Michigan …” Indiana’s lake ports were later developed here: Hammond, Gary, East Chicago, Burns Harbor and Michigan City.

So the monkey business with the Northwest Ordinance’s east-west Territorial Line through the southern tip of Lake Michigan was well underway by the time Illinois came into being as a state, #21, in its own right, only two years later.

And that Michigan Territory toe-hold on the U.P. would become the beachhead for a much larger nibble later on.

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Chapter 4 Michigan Gets its Dander up, the First Time

Michigan Territory, with official status since June 30, 1805, made a fuss when they learned of Ohio’s sneaky appropriation of “The Toledo Strip.” This dispute roiled until, finally, in 1812, Congress agreed to have the line surveyed; but this task was postponed until 1817 on account of the War of 1812.  It didn’t matter.

Ohio hired a surveyor who traced a line according to Ohio’s constitution.  Michigan hired a surveyor who mapped an east-west line according to the 1787 Ordinance. Each was submitted to Congress. They had resolved nothing, except to more accurately trace out the shape of “The Toledo Strip.”

Chapter 5 A Continental Divide provokes Illinois aggrandizement

One of the things Jefferson hoped that Lewis and Clark would find was a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. I think we have all had that smug feeling more than a few times in our life:  What were they thinking?  How could there possibly be a water passage, even with a short portage, across the continent, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans? 

In our minds’ eyes, we know of the vast arid regions and the impossibly rugged mountains.  And yet even Lewis and Clark themselves had hoped to find such a passage.

First, it’s important to note that none of them were at all certain that such a passage existed.  And second: no, they weren’t stupid.

These were all well-read, erudite men.  They would have known of the reports of earlier travelers, like the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante Expedition and their published recollections.  The west and southwest of the continent was unimaginably expansive, very dry and had many mountains.  Surely that provided no water path.

North America’s Continental Divides

But of the northwest, little was known. However … they would have known of the reports and journals from the travels of French explorer Louis Joliet (Lou-ee Zhō-lee-ay) and his traveling missionary companion, Pere (Father) Jacques Marquette, from 1673-1674.  They had found two simple water passages from the waves of the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River; thus traversing a continental divide with ease – twice.

The first passage they found near what is today Madison, Wisconsin. The location is now the town of Portage. (To portage is to carry your small boat from one body of water to another.) By carrying their canoe about two miles, they had crossed a continental divide.

The second passage is even more important.  For their return trip, Amerindians had told Joliet and Marquette of a passage up the Mississippi to the Illinois River, then up the Des Plaines River.  There, they said, was a short flat field, often filled with water, from which they could cross to Lake Michigan.

—- People say Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa are flat. Pssshaw. Those aren’t flat.  Chicago is flat.  Go there today and – except for excavations for the overpasses, the underpasses, the skyscrapers, and the buildings – there is no elevation feature to the terrain at all.

Illinois River watershed

There is no noticeable elevation change from the Lake going up the Chicago River to its South Branch.  There is no noticeable elevation going up along the sluggish South Branch to a point just a handful of miles from the Lake.  There is no noticeable elevation change going west.  This was all swamplands that the native Amerindians avoided. Because it smelled.

And yet, travel under two miles west from the South Branch, with no noticeable elevation change, and you are at the Des Plaines River, which eventually flows to the Mississippi. Here, the “divide” is merely 15 feet higher than Lake Michigan, near a Chicago neighborhood somewhat ambitiously called “Archer Heights.” This small elevation gain is attained over a distance of some 6 miles from the river’s mouth at the lake.

That is flat.  15 feet in 6 miles. And yet it is enough to form a continental divide, separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds.

During some wet seasons, Amerindians canoed without portage directly from Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines River… and then on to the Mississippi via the Illinois. So: there was a navigable water path – or with a simple portage – across a continental divide. The glaciers had formed this tiny whimpish divide. And a good thing too: the confluence of Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers, where the Illinois river starts, is 60 feet lower in elevation than Lake Michigan.  Without this most gentle of rises, much of the fertile mid-Mississippi River region would be under many feet of water.

This continental divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi basins literally hugs the coast of Lake Michigan near, what would become someday, Chicago.

With no knowledge of the areas through which Lewis and Clark would travel – areas that would become vast, parched states like Missouri, the Dakotas, Montana and Idaho – these intrepid explorers and President Jefferson had good reason to be at least be somewhat hopeful that there would be a water-borne connection from the Mississippi-Missouri watershed all the way to the Pacific Ocean. 

Chapter 6 Illinois Becomes a State: a Great Nibble

Men had long dreamed that a canal could join the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across this mild continental divide.  “In early 1814, the Niles Register of Baltimore had predicted that a canal could make Illinois the seat of immense commerce; and a market for the commodities of all regions.” [1] 

As Illinois approached its date for statehood, 1818, there was a bit of urgency.  Mississippi had been admitted in 1817, and Alabama was about to be admitted (1819). Those were slave states and there was a need to keep the pot from boiling over by preserving the number of slave and Free states at, or near, equal tallies.  

We can understand Illinois’s request to push its border north to the mouth of the Chicago River (there was no Chicago yet; however, there was a small settlement associated with Fort Dearborn, perhaps a few score in population). Here, at the mouth of the Chicago River, would be their port on Lake Michigan, with a chance to join commerce on the Great Lakes to commercial centers along the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico… if the canal would be built (the first great Chicago continental divide canal was finally completed in 1848).  Plus, construction of a much more ambitions canal – the Erie Canal – had already commenced; when it was complete, Illinois would be linked by this 2nd route to the eastern seaboard, and world markets.

Aggressively, Illinois lobbied for, and received, a 61-mile push northward of its entire northern border, all the way up to what seemed like an arbitrary but convenient latitude of 42.50 degrees. A push of only about 20 miles – and this only near Lake Michigan – would have been required to secure a potential port at the river’s mouth, and the path for the canal.

This extra aggrandizement amounted to awarding themselves an appropriation of about 5.6 million acres. Thanks to the glacial ages’ deposition of scraped fertile topsoil from Canada and nudging it along, depositing it through the region, this was some of the most fertile land God had crafted upon the earth.

It also contained a substantial deposit of galena (lead sulfide) near Illinois’ northwest corner.  Its discovery, near what would become Galena, Illinois, led to the first major mineral rush in the United States. And the first of Chicago’s major westward railroads.

Illinois becomes a state (1818). Now, all three new states had pushed across the Territorial line, running east-west and tangent to Lake Michigan’s southern tip.

But there was a reason to push to 42.5 degrees, an additional 40 miles north of the mouth of the Chicago River. Illinois needed to show they had a population of 60,000 to become a state, as required by the Ordinance. Without that extra land, they couldn’t convince Congress that they would get there by 1818.

The region’s map now looked like this, with Wisconsin part of Michigan territory.

Chapter 7 Michigan gets its Dander up a second time, becomes a State, and reaps a huge territorial bounty

In 1835 Arkansas was about to be admitted as a slave state, and Michigan prepared to follow it as a Free state.  But there was a problem. What would Michigan’s boundary with Ohio be? Michigan petitioned again for the east-west Territorial Line as defined in the 1787 Ordinance. Ohio passed legislation declaring the northern Toledo slanted line. Neither would back down.

Each raised armed militias and marched them to the Toledo Strip. The Toledo War was on! Shots were fired, but there was only one injury – a stabbing with a pen when a Michigan sheriff went into Toledo to make an arrest. Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and President Andrew Jackson helped negotiate a deal: Michigan would become a state, Ohio would keep the Toledo Strip, and Michigan would be given ALL of the Upper Peninsula (or “U.P.”), and quite a bit more. This was the penultimate nibble on Wisconsin; and it was a pretty big bite, actually: about 16,000 square miles. That’s larger than many countries; the “nibbled away” U.P is larger than the Netherlands! Larger than Switzerland!

Michigan gets the entire UP, and a bit more!

The map shows the pink area that was given to Michigan via the compromise. Note that the rest or eastern part of the U.P. had already been nibbled away by extension of the arbitrary north-south line from Vincennes, Indiana.

Even though vastly larger than the Toledo Strip (a puny 468 square miles), acquisition of the U.P. was thought a poor exchange for Michigan at the time.  Little did they know.  The rich forests and mineral deposits of iron and copper made it a tremendous economic resource in the long run for Michigan. Today, Toledo’s significance is small, and it is a sad excuse for a city.

Wisconsin Territory formed, 1836. With land across the Mississippi added, then revoked for Iowa, 1838

When Michigan’s new borders became official in the Michigan Enabling Act of 1836 (it became a state in 1837), Wisconsin finally became its own official territory – on its way to state status.  Wisconsin Territory’s boundaries looked as shown here, still much larger than today.  The area that would become Iowa territory was added in 1836, then taken away in ‘38.

Chapter 8 On (Wisconsin) to Statehood; one final nibble — the final ignominy.

With the possible exclusion of Kansas Territory (no one knew how that would turn out) there were few real possibilities to add slave states after Texas’ and Florida’s entries in 1845. To keep up with these additions, Iowa petitioned to become a Free state. Its land size was limited to far less than that shown here, so as to maintain the possibility of adding new Free states later, if required. However, the rest of the territory was not turned back over to Wisconsin Territory, which had itself in the meanwhile petitioned for statehood.

Instead, Wisconsin’s borders were trimmed much further.

The final stripping of land: Minnesota Territory formed and given access to Lake Superior

Wisconsin Territory’s western boundary reached to the Mississippi River and its headwaters, which were deemed to be Lake Itasca, in what is now northern Minnesota. And from there north to the British Canada border, near Lake of the Woods.  In other words, Saint Paul (now Minnesota’s capital) would be in Wisconsin, pursuant to over 50 years of precedent.  And also, many of those bountiful beautiful 10,000 Lakes.

Map drawers and national legislators decided that any new state must have access to the shipping and transport opportunity provided by the Great Lakes; Lake Superior in the case of Minnesota. 

There are very few harbor opportunities along the Lake’s northern shore. Still it all ended up with Minnesota.

In one final nibble, Wisconsin was reduced in size again, in order to provide the future state (Minnesota, 1858) access to the river-fed natural harbor at the western tip of Lake Superior. A small fur trading post there would become the port city of Duluth. By my calculation, this was even larger than the U.P. “confiscation.”

Finale. Wisconsinites are known for nibbling on cheese and sausage, and quaffing a few beers; the state Wisconsin (or ‘Skonsin, to locals) has been nibbled on quite enough.  If you feel like nibbling on Wisconsin, then please do: enjoy these treats.  On, Wisconsin!

[A brief pictorial summary is provided in text and maps below.]

Joe Girard © 2020

Bibliography and notes below ….

Time line of the nibbles, with maps:

Bibliography:

[1] Nature’s Metropolis; Chicago and the Great West, Cronon, William –

Note on the canal: the Illinois-Michigan Canal was completed in 1848.  By 1892 it was deepened, thus reversing the flow of the Chicago River. At the same time, it was being replaced with the deeper and wider Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal, which opened in 1900.

[2] Minnesota Territory Map, Minnesota Historical Society, Accessed April 1, 2015, http://education.mnhs.org/northern-lights/learning-resources/chapter-6-land-changes-hands/minnesota-territory-1849%E2%80%931858

[3] Illinois Watershed map attributed to USGS

[4] http://www.bratwurstpages.com/dialect.html

Notes:

[1] Near the east bank of the Des Plaines River, at about 4700 South Harlem Avenue in Chicago, is the Chicago Portage National Historical Site.  Not recommended for late evening or nighttime visits.

[2] Wisconsin, current size, square miles: 65,556
      Michigan, Upper Peninsula, sq mi:        16,452
       Minnesota, east of Mississippi:             27,191
       Illinois*
      (from ~41.62 to 42.50 deg, or 60.7 mi x 125 mi = 7,590

Approx. land re-appropriated = 49,458 sq mi

Map showing Illinois counties in 1820, 2 years after statehood.  Note Indian territory and also non-existence of Cook County (Chicago).  1820 census shows all of Clark county with just a few hundred residents.

Bloody Ramble: from Typos to Chaplin

I am not a hematologist. Nor an immunologist or a virologist. Just an aspiring amateur writer who has recognized that typos fall into two dominant categories. Regular readers have no doubt spotted more than a few.

The first kind of typo comes from stream of consciousness – such as just getting the initial thoughts and sentences tapped in.  Misspellings, poor grammar, dreary or ambiguous word choice, double words, lazy punctuation.  The long list continues: verb/noun mismatch; change of tense within a paragraph; chronological inconsistencies; using “their” or “your” for “they’re” and “you’re” …

These are all forgivable, and relatively painless. Many make it to draft status, when well over 90% can be cleaned up by a few proofreading passes.

It’s the second kind of typo that is really painful.  These result from late edits.  The eleventh-hour flash of brilliance that results in a “catastrophic improvement.”  At the final moment, with the cake fully iced, the product is ready for a la mode, and full reader enjoyment! 

But no! Those last flourishes require just as much proof reading as the original drafts.  Yet, it is so easy to skip. I’ve done it many times. Slow learner.

To my readers: Thank you.  Many of you have gently suggested improvements and corrections to my typos and “facts.”  The rest of you have kindly ignored them; or, perhaps in your brilliance, merely read what I intended, not what I wrote.  Exhibit A: My last essay enfolded references to (a) a famous bathroom fixture company, (b) its founder, (c) the label for a common convenience, and (d) my regular tapestry of  history, factoids, and observations.  During some post-published proof-reading I found a few major hiccups. It’s better now, but only after some help and a couple of paragraph re-writes.
 

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Not only are there two kinds of typo; there are two kinds of Type-O.  Positive and negative.  We’re talking blood here.

I am O-positive.  That’s the most common blood type, nearly 40% of humans have it, despite O’s transmission on a recessive gene.  About 85-90% of people in need of transfusion can accept my blood. If I didn’t carry the Rh-positive antigen, 100% could take my blood.

Through the magic of genetics and natural anti-bodies, I am quite valuable to blood banks.  There is a virus connection here.  How appropriate for this time of novel coronavirus, SARS CoV-2 and international tumult.

Most adult humans have, at some point in their lives, contracted the Cytomegalo Virus (or CMV). As much as 80%.  Of those affected, nearly 100% who contract it suffer from only mild symptoms, if any. Except infants. CMV can cause severe long-term damage to new arrivals – especially “preemies” – as their immune systems are just waking up. 

Of the many scores of herpes viruses discovered, only eight are known to regularly affect humans.  Once infected, our bodies almost always eventually mount a swift and decisive victory, driving the virus from the battlefield – our homeland: tissues, organs, blood.  Better, our well-evolved immune systems retain intermediate and long-term immunity via anti-bodies (of the five main types Immunoglobulin-M and -G antibodies are of the most interest here).

Like many types of virus, the herpes family is insidious.  Even though thoroughly thwarted by a superior foe, they execute a strategic retreat, never quite leaving the body.  They “hang out” in nerve cells. Lying dormant for long intervals, they occasionally “wake up” to see if their host – us! – is healthy enough to fight them off for another round of battle.  If the response is “yes”, they retreat again to the sanctuary of our nerves, a place a proper immune system has been trained to not attack.

This happens over and over again, until we die, as sufferers of HSV 1 and 2 can attest (Herpes Simplex 1 or 2); that is, repeated blistering around the mouth, or even in the mouth.  Those episodes of re-occurrence are only mildly annoying when compared to what can happen with the Chicken Pox virus (Vicella Zoster Virus, or VZV); later in life it can manifest as what’s commonly called “Shingles” – with an agonizing and often debilitating rash accompanied by stabbing pains.

Since CMV is in the Herpes family there is always a likelihood it is in someone’s blood; that is, if they have ever had it in their life. Hence, their blood must never be used for transfusions to infants.

My blood always tests negative for CMV anti-bodies, both IgM and IgG. This means it is not lying dormant somewhere and I am a safe donor for infants.

I donate blood as often as practicable.  I am of some use to society. We Type-Os are also delicious to mosquitoes. My wife says that having me around is better than using insect repellant.

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Until the previous turn of the century, blood types were unknown.  The micro-biological processes of transfusions and outcomes were a mystery, so it was practiced sparingly and as a last resort. Sometimes with spectacular success.  But more often with horrible, painful, fatal results.

At that time Austrian scientist Karl Landsteiner was wondering about this. He hit upon the idea of simply mixing blood from various people together to see what happened. No chemistry. No microscopes. In hindsight, this seems most unsophisticated – even elementary; but no one had done it. 

What he found was rather amazing. Some samples got along well together, and most others did not; they made globules: which was the observable effect of one blood trying to obviate the other; or each other.  Landsteiner had discovered blood types!  For this he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, decades later, in 1930.

At first he identified 3 types: he labeled them A, B and C.

Red Blood Cells

In the scaled down world of micro-biology and microbes, red blood cells are like titans. Thin and disk-like, they average about 7 microns in diameter, with a thickness of 2 microns, which “squishes” down to about 1 micron at the center, not unlike Life Saver candies. [From now on, I will give sizes in microns, with no units, for simplicity]. This topography gives the red cell a very large surface area compared to its mass and size, which is useful for its main duty: ferrying oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules around the body and passing them across its surface membrane.

A CMV virion’s size is about 0.2. The SARS nCoV-2 is probably smaller than that: about 0.1.  Bacteria, like staph and strep are bigger, but still smaller than a reddie: size, on average, about 1.

Cytomegalovirus CMV, a DNA-type virus from Herpesviridae family. 3D illustration. CMV mostly causes diseases in newborns and immunocompromised patients

A and B blood types were found to carry antigens on their surface. Antigens are anything that triggers an “attack” from antibodies. These red blood cell antigens are, surprisingly, sugars of the D-galactose family, size about 0.0005 (or 1/2000th the average thickness of a red blood cell). 

A blood type which has no sugar antigens, C, was re-named O, which basically means zero, or none. A little later it was discovered that some types carry both A and B antigens, so they were naturally named “AB” – pretty rare.  These 4 types (A, B, AB and O) comprise 99.9+% of all blood types.

Now it’s not at all complicated to tell who can take whose blood for a transfusion. Since my O has no sugar antigens, anyone can take my blood.  But my body will “see” the A, B, and AB cells as invaders. We Type-Os are picky. Although anyone can take my blood, I can only take Type-O.

But wait, not quite so simple. There were still problems.

Rh markers were found a few decades later, around 1940 (also, sort of, by Landstein [1]) – just in time for most of WW2, resulting in fewer multiple-transfusion complications … and a better understanding of baby-to-mother Rh mismatch for the baby-boom that followed WW2.

The Rh markers are proteins (there are actually about 49 of them; the most common is type-D), about size 0.003.  About 90% of people have Rh-positive blood.

Floating nearby in the plasma are anti-bodies.  For mammals these are about size 0.1 – quite small.  In Rh-negative people, these little workers are always “on the ready” to identify Rh proteins as “bad guys.”  And also to identify foreign A and B antigens.

People, especially prospective mothers, with no Rh proteins (i.e. Rh-negative) must be careful with donations and pregnancies.  The first time the body encounters the Rh antigen the process or pregnancy is usually OK.  But the body is stirred up, and it remembers. The next time it’s “attack.” If a Rh-negative patient gets more than one Rh-positive transfusion — or a Rh-negative mom gets a second Rh-positive baby in utero — it can be bad news.

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Returning to the red blood cell.  It is quite large; a workhorse of the vascular system. Yet, one might wonder: why have we evolved so that its surface is laden with thousands of tag-a-longs and stowaways that seem more trouble than their load is worth?

Well, maybe those labels are a bit harsh.  Research suggests that the Rh proteins can provide a sort of osmotic-efficient pathway for the relatively large CO2 molecules (compared to oxygen) to slither through the cell membrane.  And it appeared millions of years ago – before anything like a hominoid walked on two legs. [2]

We can consider these ancient genetic tweaks as a sort of typo: a minor transcription mistake in typing out genetic text from DNA to RNA and back again to the DNA of a new cell, thus creating a new or different function for such genes.

Sugar antigens, similar to A and B, appear in the blood of all mammals. Again, these evolved in our pre-hominoid ancestors long ago. [3] Just why this is so, is a bit of a mystery.  Perhaps it was for a weird but clever type of “trick play herd immunity.”  A virus sees cell coatings as something that can provide an attach point on, or even pathway into, a cell.  If a population has a random collection of these sugars and proteins, then a single type of virus pandemic cannot wipe out the entire species.

Here I like to imagine a sports team cleverly crafted to beat any team at, say, a football match. That team is the Evil Virus. The first games for team EV are easy victories. The next several matches they stampede confidently onto apparently identical pitches, only to be confronted with rules for cricket. Or golf. And then tennis. Then speed skating.  Result?  Team EV fails. –  The species survives; the virus must go off and mutate further or die out.

All these rule changes – different cell coatings among individuals among the same species – makes our bodies suspicious of one another.  When there’s a transfusion mismatch the coatings are identified as antigens and marked for destruction by those tiny antibodies. 

Interestingly, something similar might be happening with the virus du jour, SARS CoV-2 which causes Covid-19. Early analyses of cases (and deaths) in hard hit areas of Europe suggest that those with Type-A blood are disproportionately susceptible. [6] How or why this happens is not understood but could give virologists and immunologists an understanding of the virus and our bodies’ machinations.  Perhaps the A-type sugar is a sort of 5th column for the virus; or the presence of B-type antibodies somehow distracts, diminishes, or delays the body’s defense.

I expect there will be a plethora of studies of many sorts regarding this coronavirus, its impact, and our reactions in the months and years to come. Brace yourselves.

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Classic Charlie Chaplin Photo

The improvement and acceptance of blood type science went beyond medicine and into forensics. It helped reduce Charlie Chaplin’s embarrassment, but only a little.

Chaplin, the famous actor-comedian-film maker, was married four times and a well-know philanderer, as well as a misogynist. [4] A paternity suit against him in the ‘40s resulted in blood testing, and eventually changed family law. 

In the 1940s a young actress (with whom he was “friendly” – this during his 3rd marriage) claimed he was the father of her child. She sued him for child support. Blood tests on Chaplin, the child and mother showed that he could not possibly be the father. 

Chaplin, with recessive Type-O, could not have been the father of a Type-B child whose mother was Type-A.  Case dismissed?  No. She pressed her allegation, nonetheless.

Astounding to us in the 21st century, accustomed as we are to such quotidian data as DNA matching, blood tests were not permitted as evidence at the time. Chaplin lost the court case and was compelled to pay child support.  Worse: His trysting filled the pages of the days’ print media. His reputation was trashed.[5]

The law was changed a few years later.  But not in time for Chaplin.  He was so disgraced that – combined with other bad press and McCarthy-era distrust – he was even denied re-entry to the United States, in 1952. (He was not a US citizen, although he’d lived there for over 40 years).

He resided in self-imposed exile in Switzerland for the rest of his life. He returned to America only once before he died, for a few days in 1972, then aged 83, to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars.  On stage, with Jack Lemon, he received a 12-minute standing ovation – the longest in Academy Awards history.

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Even though Type-O is recessive, it has survived. Not surprisingly, its prevalence is about the same for whites and blacks; we are one race, after all.

Recessive?  Well, we Type-Os are sometimes weak, as attested to by Chaplin’s behavior.

That’s a wrap, from typos to Type-Os. Thanks for any corrections or suggestions.

Until next time, peace to you.

Joe Girard © 2020

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Final footnote on Chaplin.  He was soon married a fourth time.  He reportedly approached the young 18-year old Oona O’Neill with the line: you look like my next ex-wife. As he was 38 years her elder (in fact nearly the same age as her father, famous playwright Eugene O’Neill) he was disgraced again. Next ex-wife?  Wrong! They stayed married for over 30 years, until his death, producing 8 children.  The eldest, Geraldine, starred remarkably with Omar Shariff and Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago: at the tender age of 20 when filmed.

[1] Who discovered the Rh factor?  http://www.rvdoon.com/rh-negative-blood-blood-feud-which-scientist-discovered-the-rh-factor/

[2] Possible purpose of Rh proteins: https://phys.org/news/2005-05-rh-protein-biological-role.html

[3] Blood Types over 20 million years ago: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-mystery-of-human-blood-types-86993838/

Could be as recent as 3.5 million years ago: https://www.livescience.com/33528-why-blood-types-exist-compatible.html

[4] Charlie Chaplin: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2597412/2-000-lovers-comedy-genius-didnt-like-women-New-book-reveals-Charlie-Chaplins-obsession-young-girls-cruelly-treated-them.html

[5] Chaplin paternity, blood tests and court case: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/63158/how-charlie-chaplin-changed-paternity-laws-america

[6] Type-A and COVID-19: https://www.news-medical.net/news/20200603/Blood-group-type-may-affect-susceptibility-to-COVID-19-respiratory-failure.aspx

Local Lexicon

Wow! I received some well-deserved corrections from you readers of my last essay: a bio on songstress Bobby Gentry and a review of her most famous song.  Thank you!  It turns out that the use of “dinner” for the mid-day meal extends through northern rural America from Ohio to Montana as well as the South. In fact, one reader who grew up in the Cleveland metro area informed me of this! I knew that some rural areas of Indiana, West Virginia and Missouri say “dinner.” Wow. Thanks all for the corrections and information.

Public drinking contraption is called a ______?

As long as we’re on regional word usage.  What do you call this common device shown in the photo?  On account of response to concern over the novel coronavirus, it has been eight weeks since I’ve seen one of these actually functioning anywhere.  Their usefulness is surely missed in many public areas.  Hydration is important! 

Some say it is a “water fountain.”  Some call it a “drinking fountain.”  As with dinner vs. lunch, what name you call this device varies by region across the country.  What do you call it?

As you ruminate on that, let’s consider the Kohler family, of Wisconsin.

_____________________________________________

Johann Michael Kohler emigrated to the United States from Austria, with his large brood of children and new bride, his second, around 1854.  His oldest son, and fourth child – Johann Jr – was 10 years old.  They settled in Saint Paul, the capital city of Minnesota Territory, some four years before Minnesota became a state. In fact, its Twin City, Minneapolis, across the Mississippi, was a mere fledgling: just a few houses, an original platting and the old Fort Snelling. St Paul was already over 4,500 souls.

St Paul was a like many new, inland, booming US cities of the era, such as Milwaukee, St Louis, and Chicago.  Immigrants from almost anywhere in Europe could easily feel at home: their native language was spoken at church services and theatrical productions, was read in newspapers, and used to discuss current events over a cup of coffee (or a glass of beer).  [OK, Catholics, constituting the vast majority of Austrians, even today, would have used mostly Latin in church]. And opportunity abounded.

The name of Kohler presents perhaps a fleck of interest here. In some cultures, particularly those with roots in Germanic and English lands, the family name often designates a skilled trade. This commenced in medieval times, as the importance of tracking families grew: recording land, taxes, and military service. In English, think of surnames like Baker, Smith, Cook, Fowler, Taylor, Mason.  Not hard to guess what those professions are.  Back in the day many families took their name from their ancestral trade, passed from generation-to-generation. 

The name Kohler probably was Anglicized upon immigration and certainly came from Köhler: a charcoal burner.  (In England, the name would be Collier. Neither that popular, but Collier did leave its name on a line of Encyclopedias.)

Charcoal burners were considered a lowly profession. They marched through their lives in exquisite solitude, collecting and piling wood, then turning it into charcoal with a careful, slow, low-temperature semi-burn, either in heaps of carefully assembled wood mounds, or in crafted kilns. It was an important profession: Charcoal was necessary as a heat source in smelting, forging, and smithing of many metals – from basic iron and copper to precious metals like silver.  It was also used in glasswork.

Schnepfau, Austria: in one of countless fertile Alpine dairy producing valleys

So, historically, the Kohler’s family ancestors would certainly have been charcoal burners.  As the Industrial Revolution matured, the significance of the role of charcoal burner decreased, even though charcoal remained extensively necessary.  This precipitated a move to industrial scale production of charcoal. At some point, the Kohler family left their namesake’s profession; Johann Kohler, the elder, is listed as a Dairy Farmer from Schnepfau, Austria; that’s high up in a valley above Bregenz, near Lake Constance (Der Bodensee).  Upon settling in Minnesota, he resumed this occupation.

From our travels and hikes, the alpine valleys of Austria are utterly drenched with countless dairy cows, almost regardless of slope; one hears cowbells ringing and echoing off every hill, dale, and ridge.  Often the isolated and remote dairy farmhouses serve double-duty as guest houses, where a trekker can rest their feet, quaff a crisp refreshing beverage – and sometimes even get a meal, or a room for the night.

Dairy farming – for those who don’t also provide respite to travelers – is quite accommodating to the less gregarious and socially-oriented person, but not so much so as charcoal burner. 

So, why leave?  Well, there was much general disappointment in Europe after the failed attempts to liberalize governments in the widespread Revolutions of 1848.  Other than that, people left for America because they could.  My mother’s ancestral male-side left Germany at this time (also for Minnesota), and a generation later, my father’s maternal-side did, too (for Chicago).  It was a good call for most who came to the US. My mom recalled her father and uncles speaking German around the house decades into the 20th century.

John Kohler, Jr — founder of The Kohler Company

In any case, a few years after settling into St Paul, Johann the younger – Johann, Jr, and now going by John Kohler, Jr – started to make his own way in the world.  His early schooling was there in St Paul. The eager and aspiring young Kohler picked up a variety of jobs there.  At 18, he moved to Chicago, to study at Dyrenfurth’s College, the first business college in Chicago, and certainly the closest to St Paul. 

The rapidly growing Chicago would be his hometown for a few years, as he took on more ambitious jobs – from merchant to traveling salesman. Kohler developed a sense of purpose, willpower and world-view that set him apart from his ancestral recluses.

The young, eligible, well-connected and well-traveled John Kohler, Jr met the acquaintance of a lovely young lady, Elizabeth “Lillie” Vollrath, some four years his younger.  Lillie, a first-generation immigrant from Rheinland, Germany, happened to hale from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, some 50 miles north of Milwaukee.  They shared a mother tongue. 

In the similarly immigrant-rich city of Sheboygan, where German and Polish were as likely to be heard on streets as English (and that, often with an Irish accent), Lillie’s father, Jacob Vollrath, owned substantial interests in local manufacturing businesses, including two iron and steel foundries.

John and Lillie were married in 1871, in her hometown, and settled there. John was given a small interest in one foundry, probably as a wedding gift, and a job there as well.

We are now well on our way to telling the story of “what to call that convenient public area drinking device.”  Many who are familiar with such water-spewers, and the Kohler name, might well know the story already. Especially those who live in, or were raised in, Wisconsin. But first we must separate fanciful fiction from the rest of the story.

A couple years later it’s 1873 and a great financial panic strikes brutally with icy indifference.  Across Europe and North America economies collapse. With weak, or non-existent, central banks the holes open deep, wide, and quickly.  It mercilessly lasted for several years.  It was so devastating that the crisis was called “The Great Depression” up until the 1930s.  Then, of course, that title was supplanted by the economic abyss of the ‘30s. With that lost decade, the numbing economic circumstances commencing in 1873 passed to the brink of historical oblivion, surviving now with the mere understated label of “Panic.” 

But the Panic was grave: It nearly ruined the implausibly colossal Krupp manufacturing empire in the newly united Germany. 

Panic. Depression. Prices collapsed. Currency depreciates. Cash flow seizes up. Businesses flounder, especially those leveraged with credit, as debt must be paid back with more valuable currency – and at a time with decreased receipts.  

With his employer’s iron and steel business staggering (coincidentally, Krupp’s major product was also steel) young John Kohler saw an opportunity.  He made an offer to purchase his employer’s entire operation.  Vollrath and his partners were ready to sell and get out with their skin. Kohler joined in ownership with a small team, led by him; but he was majority owner of the firm. Before the decade flipped to the ’90s he would own it all.

One of the reasons historical economists provide for the panic was the massive over-building of railroads. The US was on a rail building spree. With bank and investor support, based on expectations of an ever-expanding economy, and the need for transportation to support it, railroad lines and networks grew stunningly and precipitously in the years after the civil war.  This was perhaps, an example of malinvestment: money so cheap, and/or optimism so great, that capital which could have been either saved or conservatively invested chases after bigger returns, blind to risk. As railroads require vast amounts of steel (locomotives, boilers, tenders, cars, rails, depots), and capital to expand, it’s no surprise that many steel vendors found themselves in trouble.

_______________________ o _______________________ o _______________________

Initially making farming implements, Kohler’s company soon got into manufacturing bathroom fixtures: a product line for which they are still known around the world today.  What came to be known as the “Kohler Company” (now based in the adjoining community of Kohler, not Sheboygan) is one of the largest and most successful privately family-held companies in the world. Their first great leap forward came from an idea probably fetched from family members over on the Vollrath side. Vollrath’s main business concern (also in iron and steel) had been experimenting with adding enamel to the surfaces of products. Kohler began doing the same thing with items such as tubs and sinks around 1878.  Their great bathroom and plumbing business was born; and has since grown to be an extensive world-wide enterprise.

And now for the story of the drinking fountain.  Or the water fountain.  Call it what you will.

However, if you are very special – if you were raised in some very specific geographic areas, or spent many years there – you call this device a “bubbler.” 

The largest of these special locales is a sort of L-shaped region.  One leg of the “L” goes from Madison, Wisconsin, almost due east to Oconomowoc, about 2/3 the way to the Milwaukee city limits. From there the north-south leg goes up to Green Bay. The width of each leg, varies along their lengths, but is generally approximately 60 miles. Within this “band” the use of “bubbler” is nearly 100% among locals. The L spreads out into a bean shape if predominant use of bubbler is included, say over 50%; but definitely not beyond the western shores of Lake Michigan, and certainly never, never south across the Illinois state line. Say it there and, if you’re lucky, they look at you like you’re from a distant country. If you’re not lucky, you’ll be ID’d as a cheesehead and taunted with detestation, in ways that only people from Chicago-land (i.e. long suffering Bears fans) can administer.

Map is approximate, but fairly accurate for bubbler. The “heart of bubbler land” is the L described in the text.

Two other tiny US regions also call it a “bubbler”: Most of Rhode Island and slivers of eastern and southern Massachusetts, reaching in a few areas into New Hampshire.  (Actually, they probably say “bubb-lah”, but the root and idea are the same).

I left Milwaukee nearly 46 years ago; I still instinctively want to call them bubblers.  I’ve forced myself to say “drinking fountain,” for clarity (see Colorado, on map).  But in the company of other native Wisconsinites I drift autonomically: it’s a “bubbler.”

A commonly repeated legend about the bubbler moniker and the Kohler Company lives on, percolating outward from this special L-region, and re-energized with every local re-telling.  It seems that in 1888 a Kohler employee named Harlan Huckabee invented a device that would provide a small fountain of water, shooting up a few inches, from which a passerby could easily dampen their parched palettes by putting their pursed lips to the airborne stream and drawing it in.  The fountain made a “bubbling” sound, with water gurgling up and splashing back down; hence the device that made the sounds was called a “bubbler.” Kohler trademarked and patented the device. And successfully marketed it as such – a bubbler – coast to coast and then internationally.

This is oft repeated fable is largely false.  But repetition of falsehoods somehow makes them more credible.  Followed politics at all?

Yet, there is a strong Kohler and Wisconsin connection.  Kohler had been making a similar device since about 1900.  And it was indeed called the bubbler.  And it did make a bubbling sound (like a small brooklet) as the water shot up a couple inches for the quenching of thirst.  But there was no Harlan Huckabee, and no 1888 invention. The word and name bubbler were never trademarked nor patented by Kohler.

Yet, by 1900, the word “bubbler” for a drinking device had indeed already been around for a few decades. So, what happened?  As Beth Dippel of the Sheboygan Sun reports from her deep research:

“Wisconsin was filled with one-room schools in the late 19th Century, and each school had a pretty standard set of furniture and equipment, including portraits of Washington and Lincoln, blackboards, the old pot-bellied stove, maybe a globe and some type of container for drinking water. One container frequently used was the Red Wing Stoneware Co.’s ceramic water cooler or water ‘bubbler’ made as early as 1877. They came in three-gallon and five-gallon sizes and were prized possessions of schools.”

Sheboygan Press [1]

When students filled a cup for drinking, air would move up through the cooler and make a “bubbling” sound.  And kids in many schools called it just that: a bubbler.

Kohler’s product took the local popular school-children’s name for a drinking device.  By the 1910s a new design had modified the basic design.  Shooting the water straight up was considered unsanitary, since unconsumed water, which had touched lips, fell back onto the spout.  Most devices now shoot an arc of water, as shown in the first figure.  This invention was not from Kohler, but they adopted it and continued successfully selling “bubblers”, although they now didn’t make quite as much of a bubbling sound.

Kohler Family Plot, Kohler, Wisconsin — company founder, John Kohler, Jr passed at a mere 56 years old, in 1900, leaving a long-lasting family legacy

The product sold well for decades, and the name “bubbler” traveled with it, all the way to the east coast.  Hard to imagine residents of Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia being anything but confused today if you were to ask them how to find the nearest “bubbler.”  But once upon a time they did call it that.

From vernacular studies, about 4% of Americans call it a bubbler, or a water bubbler. I find that ridiculously high, but perhaps “water bubbler” bumps it up a few points. I’ve never met a single person from outside Wisconsin (or who didn’t live there a spell) have the faintest notion what a bubbler is.  Some 33% call it a drinking fountain.  The rest, a whopping 63%, call it a water fountain.  The last one, water fountain, seems silly to me; that’s a place to toss coins for wishes, or to take off your shows, roll up your pants and take a forbidden dip, or – more scandalously – fish out those coins.

Words change. They come and go.  Regions are particular.  Pop or Soda? But the name “bubbler” lives stubbornly in its homeland – that is, much of southern and eastern Wisconsin – as well as pockets of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

Well, that was a mouthful.  Now I need a drink of water.  Where’s the bubbler?

Popular T-shirt in much of Wisconsin: “Bubbler” is secret code for “I’m from Wisconsin” … in RI and Mass it would be “Bubb-lah”

And a Kohler is no longer a charcoal burner.  It is a fine, respectable bathroom fixture.

Happy public drinking.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020

Footnotes and bibliography below.

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Afterward:  Vollraths

The Vollrath name and family business remains prominent in Sheboygan, however.  One of Vollrath’s other businesses lived on and is a prominent manufacturer of commercial restaurant and food services equipment: still in the metal implement business.  Since the Kohlers and Vollraths are multiply intermarried (in fact, after Lillie died leaving Kohler 6 children; he then married her younger sister and one more: he would go on to lead the Kohler dynasty into the 20th century), the current generations sit on each other’s boards of directors.  There is a beautiful 26-acre park along the Lake Michigan shore in Sheboygan named for Vollrath, who donated the land and funded its early development.

The Kohlers are, of course, gigantic in Wisconsin.  The family has provided two state governors (not to be confused with the Kohl family, and the Kohl’s chain of stores).  In fact, founder John Kohler was once mayor of Sheboygan. Kohlers have gotten into the golf business, starting locally with two gorgeous links/dunes courses, one near and another along Lake Michigan: Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. These have hosted multiple major golf championships.  They’ve also expanded into the golf hospitality business, owning and running the famous Old Course Hotel in Saint Andrews, Scotland.
If you get to the area, drop by the Kohler museum in Kohler. And, if it’s summer, try to take in a festival in Sheboygan. It doesn’t matter what festival: there will be really good bratwurst, plenty of beer, friendly people … and bubblers.

[1] https://www.sheboyganpress.com/story/news/local/2014/10/31/sheboygan-history-bubblers/18254395/

Analysis: Bobbie and Billie Joe

“There was a virus goin’ ‘round,
     Papa caught it and he died last spring.
Now momma doesn’t seem to want to
     Do much of anything.”

– From Ode to Billie Joe, by Bobbie Gentry

Introduction. Those lyrics popped into my head – I wonder why? – during one of my recent daily social-distancing long walks and bike rides that I’ve been taking during this time of coronavirus isolation.  The lines are a couplet from the last verse of Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 smash hit, Ode to Billie Joe. [Note: if you haven’t heard the song in a while – or ever heard it – then maybe have a listen by clicking the link].

Album Cover: Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe

The tune became an earworm. I hummed it over-and-over to myself. Most of the melody and lyrics of the song came back to me – and of the story they told. The song remains as catchy and haunting as when it first came out. It mixes matter-of-fact family life in the Mississippi Delta with references to things mysterious and wrong, all packaged within a simple, non-distracting melody. The catchy, yet minimalist, musical arrangement even suggests naivety, such as an adolescent innocence. 

“The hardest thing in song writing is to be simple and yet profound”
 –
Sting, in the documentary “Still Bill”, about Bill Withers.

Well, the song “Billie Joe” is profound … if initial and sustained popularity are any measures.  It’s simple. But it’s more. It’s memorable. It’s catchy. It sticks with you. It tells a story.  It’s moving. A story that is both awkward and incomplete. As humans, we crave completeness.  Closure. But in Ode to Billie Joe it’s not there … just out of reach. And so, we always want a little more.

… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” 
–  Winston Churchill, describing Russia during WW II. 

Similarly, the mysterious story of Billie Joe McAllister, is wrapped inside the enigmatic life of author/singer Bobbie Gentry.  We don’t ever get to know the “why?” of the story of Billy Joe.  And Bobbie Gentry – reportedly still alive – simply disappeared four decades ago when she was still a culturally popular and gorgeous brown-eyed brunette.  She hasn’t been seen or heard from since. 

Tons of research and speculation about the song’s background and meaning have been published. Go ahead. Google “What happened to Billie Joe McAllister?” You’ll get a zillion hits. None has the answer.  Almost as many hits for “what happened to Bobbie Gentry?”  Again, there just really are no fulfilling answers.

Nonetheless, my analysis follows. Why? This is largely a product of this bonanza of extra time — thanks to the novel coronavirus. I’ve contemplated the details of the lyrics, in the context of Gentry’s life. The lyrics are richly textured. They reflect an uncommon authenticity, even for country songs.

The musings and reflections herein are based mostly on: my own memories from my years living in the South; my book-learnin’ for the Ag Engineering degree that I earned there; fading memories; a little internet research; as well as my thoughts and imagination.

______________________________________________________

The first Verse:

It was the third of June – another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was baling hay.

At dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered out the back door: “Y’all, remember to wipe your feet.”

Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter in northern Mississippi in 1944 (or 1942, depending on source).  Her family moved a few miles west when she was young, to Delta cotton country.  Not unlike eastern Arkansas, where I lived for four years: also Delta country. In the South, it’s not hard to imagine she was called “Bobbie Lee.”  She lived in Mississippi until age 13, when a messy divorce took her and her mother to southern California to stay with family. 

During those early years, her family reportedly had no electricity and no plumbing. It must’ve been a hard life.  One that gave heartfelt credibility to songs like “Billie Joe.”

Analysis: In Ode to Billie Joe, verse one starts out as a set up. Seems like regular, work-a-day life in a hot, dusty early June in the deep South.  I’m not a musician, but it’s neither a happy key, nor a somber key. It sets a mood of ambivalence and ambiguity. Not joy. Not sadness.  As in: I’m just here telling a story.

The song is a first-person narrative (“I was out choppin’ cotton …”). We instantly suppose that there are some autobiographical aspects in the story.  What details support that supposition?

— “Chopping Cotton”: This does not mean picking cotton. Picking is done in late summer to early fall. “Chopping cotton” is done shortly after the cotton plants begin to emerge; so, the June 3 date makes a lot of sense.  Using a manual hoe, the “chopper” turns over the weeds among the small, vulnerable cotton plants.  It takes a good eye to tell the weeds from the cotton – an eye that usually has sweat dripping into it.

Chopping Cotton: many weeds are herbicide resistant. Chopping requires a good hoe, sun protection, gloves and a strong back

Chopping also includes thinning the cotton plants if they are emerging too close together.  It is back-breaking grueling work. Bent over, in the sunny Delta humidity, hour after hour, row after row, acre after acre. It’s obviously a labor-intensive task that is physically demanding and boring. Yet, it’s an important task you can screw up with a slight amount of inattention, or clumsiness.  If Bobbie Gentry didn’t do chopping herself as a girl, one can surmise she saw others doing it. 

“Brother” is baling hay.  The June 3 date again makes sense.  “Hay” is usually a grass or a legume (alfalfa).  It is richest in nutrients when it is fully leafed, just as after it blooms; as it prepares for seed growth. Once pollinated, the plant puts ever more energy into its next generation: healthy seeds. So, it is cut, dried and baled before seeds can form, when its nutrition is dense. In fertile Delta country, “Brother” is harvesting the hay, probably the first hay harvest of the year.  It’s not clear whether this is done manually or with a mechanized hay harvester/baler.

Whether the family has farm animals to feed is not clear.  If they don’t, they would sell the hay to others in the area who do.

Mechanized cotton equipment slowly became more and more available, affordable, and prevalent in the decade or two after the 2nd World War. Since this is the 1950s, it’s likely that this family baled their hay – and picked their cotton – by hand. Perhaps with migrant workers, as in John Grisham’s novel A Painted House.

“At dinner time we walked back to the house to eat.”  Clearly, this is southern-speak.  Until several generations ago, across America, the mid-day meal was the main meal of the day, and hence called “dinner.” The evening meal was “supper.” 

In most of America, “dinner” has become lunch; “supper” has become dinner, and the term supper … has just faded away.

In many ways the south is traditional and slow to such changes. Lunch is still quite often called “dinner.”  I worked various factory jobs in Arkansas in the mid-70s; the mid-shift meal was always called “dinner break.”

[Close of the first verse, mama still speaking]

Then she said: “I got some news today from up on Choctaw Ridge.
Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Boom.  Someone they all know has jumped off a bridge. A suicide. This is a sudden change. It’s not an everyday southern thing, like the song until now.  You’re on edge the rest of the song: why?

Yet Bobbie continues in her matter-of-fact and I’m-just-telling-a-story-here tone of voice, strumming gently.

_________________________________________________________

The second verse:

And papa said to mama, as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
“Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits, please.

There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.”
And mama said: “It’s a shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.


Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.
And now Billie Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Talahatchee Bridge, Mississippi

Roberta had shown a knack for music at a young age. She sang in the church choir and learned to play piano by watching the church pianist. Her grandparents encouraged her musical interests.  They traded a milk cow for her first piano.

After the divorce, when she and her mother were in California, living at first with relatives, her life prospects improved. Especially after her mom re-married. She started writing and singing songs.  She taught herself guitar, banjo and bass.

A promising music and entertainment career took her briefly to Vegas – with a new name, Bobbie Gentry – where she performed in shows as a dancer and backup singer.  She returned to LA after a couple years and attended the UCLA Conservatory of Music, working side jobs to get herself through. There she learned, among other things: music theory, composition and arranging. She had been writing songs since she was a girl.  Now she had all the tools to do something with it.

She was completely prepared in all aspects to be a star. Mature beyond her years, she could write, sing, arrange, produce and play the music for her own songs.

Summer, 1967: Ode to Billie Joe was recorded as a demo. The session took only 40 minutes. The song immediately took off. Bobbie Gentry, an unknown country singer, crossed over to pop, and bumped the royal much revered Beatles (“All You Need is Love“) off the top of the chart. Until now, virtually totally unknown … she’d soon be awarded three Grammys. She was an instant star. Her story would be the unbelievable stuff of fancy, if it weren’t true.

Analysis: the song now mixes more everyday life on a family farm with recent news. “Papa” is very calm and unmoved.  He clearly doesn’t think much of Billie Joe (“never had a lick of sense”), then barely pausing for breath to ask for some biscuits.

“Lick of sense” is a southern and rural expression that has migrated to some other areas.  “Lick” means less than the bare minimum and is used to refer to things like “give your hands a lick” instead of a wash.  It’s merely a perfunctory effort. Less than sufficient. That’s what Papa thought of Billie Joe.

Biscuits and black-eyed peas.  Again, this is a true southern experience. The mid-day dinner is meant for a good dose of calories to replenish what’s been worked off in the morning, and for the long afternoon in the hot sun ahead. 

Black Eyed Pea stew, southern style

Black Eyed Peas are a staple of southern diets.  They are easy to grow, especially in rich Delta country, healthy to eat, full of protein, and are quite good for the topsoil.  Being a legume, they deposit nitrogen, leaving healthy and fertile earth for the next crop. So, it is often built into the regular crop rotation (as is hay). As southerners — whether share-cropping farmers or not — the Black-Eyed Pea would certainly have been a family diet staple.

And what southern meal would be complete without biscuits?  Easy to make, and so tasty (calorie rich) when smothered in gravy. 

Other thoughts and possible clues for Billie Joe’s fate. Black-Eyed peas came to the South with the slave trade. They are generally pale in color, with a small dark spot – the Black-Eye. Could there be a black-white thing between the narrator and Billie Joe? Many have surmised this. I think not. This was mid- to late-1950s Mississippi Delta country. Like “pass the biscuits”, the “Black-Eyed Peas” reference is just settling the listener into day-to-day southern life.

Whereas “Papa” doesn’t feel any pain for Billie Joe, “Mama” seems to briefly manage a modicum of pity: “It’s a shame about Billie Joe” and then she immediately minimizes even that by adding “anyhow.”

Finally, Papa must plow another five acres on the “lower forty”, meaning forty acres.  That’s a lot of land, and it implies they have quite a bit more. Whether they own it, or just work it, we don’t know. 

The lower forty is also an expression for “way out yonder.” And there’s a reason: the “lower 40” is the acreage that is on your lowest land; the house and farm buildings are built on higher ground.  The “Lower 40” would probably be the last acreage plowed in the spring, as they’d have to wait for it to dry out from the winter and spring rains.  You can plant that late in the South, in fertile Delta soil, and still get a crop.  So yes, June 3rd again fits.  And yes, it dried out: it’s a “dusty Delta day.”

In any case, it sounds like Papa has a tractor to pull the plow.  So, they are not completely destitute. 

Southern diet, southern language, southern rural farming workdays. The timing of chopping, baling and plowing. I conclude Gentry wrote from personal experience: both her own, and things she’d seen up close. This is authentic southern life. Her life. Not stuff you pick up from listening to stories and reading books. I judge this song to be largely autobiographical.  Gentry has pulled back some veils from her history.
_________________________________________________________

The 3rd verse:

And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie. You know, it don’t seem right.

I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge.
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Bobbie Gentry, on Music Hall TV, 1968

Bobbie Gentry worked her fame into a great career that must’ve been financially rewarding. She took personal control of virtually every detail of every tour, every show, every arrangement.  The lighting, the sound, the production.  And, she was very successful at it.

She returned to Vegas with her own show; she was a huge hit in Vegas. Her show ran quite a few years and always got rave reviews and a packed house of adoring crowds.  I was lucky enough to see her Vegas show, August 1974. I was not quite 18 years old.  I was blown away:  Great show, beautiful woman, really good music. Just, wow.

Analysis: Brother – and the whole family for that matter – still has no name, but a new name pops up: Tom.  I suspect this is only to give the line a more even meter. (As an Ode, it technically has minimal lyrical meter requirements — just a lick).

The “frog down my back” comment is, to me, very apropos.  The kind of light, odd, funny comment someone would make at the wake of a deceased person.  Or during a get-together after the funeral and burial. But … There is not going to be a wake, funeral, or get-together for Bille Joe. Or, if there is, no one from this family is going to attend. 

“Brother” and Billie Joe were friends once, perhaps just a few years ago.  This is a stunt one or two boys would dare their friend to do. I can imagine that Billie Joe had a crush on the narrator and his friends have figured this out – they tease him about it and eventually dare BJ to put a frog down the back of her shirt.  Wanting to fit in, he complies.  Billie Joe is a bit of an outsider.  He’ll put a frog down the shirt of a girl he likes just to show he “fits in.”

And what is a “picture show”?  It’s another phrase that left most American lexicon long ago but remains in parts of the South.  It’s just a word for “movie”, and “movie theater.”  Carroll County is not very populated.  Even now the entire county has only 10,000 scattered souls (although it has two county seats).  So, it’s not hard to imagine that in the ‘50s there was but a single “picture show” in the entire county.

No doubt: This song has a reverberant ring of southern authenticity.

Why did “Brother” see Billie Joe at the sawmill up on Choctaw Ridge?  I think this is a possible clue to the story.  “Brother” could be there for two reasons: 1) he worked there (when he wasn’t baling hay on the family farm); or 2) he was buying lumber.  #2 is rather unlikely (he’d probably go to a lumber yard in town), but in any case, he was there, at the mill.  But: why was Billie Joe there?  I suspect he was looking for a job.  And he got turned down. 

Conjecture: Billie Joe wanted a job to impress the narrator, or rather, the narrator’s father – who clearly disapproved of Billie Joe. Partly because he didn’t have a job. He’s not worth a lick.

_________________________________________________________

The 4th verse:

And mama said to me: “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning, and you haven’t touched a single bite.”
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today.
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way:

He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge,
And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Mmmmm. Southern biscuits and gravy

Bobbie Gentry started slowing her career down in the mid-‘70s.  She had a few TV specials, mostly for Canadian and BBC viewers. Appeared on some talk shows. 

In kind of an odd twist – and very fitting for the song and story – she re-recorded the song in 1976.  It was released again, and it made the charts.

But – she insisted – the title and words to the original song were incorrect.  It should have been Billy Joe, not Billie Joe.

Bobbie Gentry, 1969, Show Promo Pic [citation below, fair use here]

Ode to Billy Joe was the last song she recorded to make the charts (peaking at 46 in Canada, and 65 in the US).  That’s probably the only time in music history that a singer/songwriter’s last song to make the charts was the same as their first song to chart – and with different titles no less.

“Billie Joe” remained very popular in decades that followed. The song – and the mystery of what happened – was still so intriguing that it was made into a movie, in 1976.  In fact, the song was re-recorded for the movie (see album cover).

Cover to soundtrack album for movie: Ode to Billy Joe

The movie, also called Ode to Billy Joe (like the re-released song), was produced and directed by Max Baer, Jr. He’s better known as Jethro of The Beverly Hillbilliesnot authentic southern – and also the son of Heavyweight champion boxing champion, Max Baer.

Gentry was originally cooperative in helping with the movie.  She worked with Herman Raucher on the screenplay, which has the lead female role named “Bobbie Lee.”  If she agreed to that name (her own!), she clearly saw the song as autobiographical.

At some point Gentry pulled her support for the movie. Raucher and Baer seemed too attached to the idea of setting up the mystery, and then revealing it to the audience at the end – a la Sherlock Holmes.  She might not have liked the movie’s purported reason for Billie Joe’s suicide (no plot spoiler here). But she was most disappointed that they failed to fully present the casual and unfeeling way that the family reacted to the suicide and her situation. 

About the time of the movie’s release Gentry started to reduce the frequency of her public appearances. This, as she went through two marriages.  One was short.  The other – to another country music star, Jim Stafford of “Spiders and Snakes” and “Wildwood Flower” fame – was extremely short.  Although she and Stafford did have one son, her only known child.  I simply cannot imagine anyone who wrote and sang “Billie Joe” being married to someone who sang about Spiders, Snakes and Wildwood Flowers.

Anyhow, by 1981 she was twice-divorced and had completely vanished.

Analysis: Verse four is curious because it is all “mama” talking (as verse three was all “brother” talking).  I suspect she is babbling nervously to fill space and mask her own discomfort.

There is only one verse left.  You can tell the song’s almost over, because if it lasts much more than four minutes it would never have made it on the radio in 1967.

What can we tell here? The narrator is nauseous. She was well enough to chop cotton in the field all morning, walk up to the house and wipe her feet … but now she’s ill. Clearly, Billie Joe meant something to her. The news of his suicide has disturbed her. But even mama has missed her own daughter’s quiet emotional pain. She’s even offended that the girl isn’t eating: “I’ve been cooking all morning!”

Worse, Mama calls her “child.” This is a truly southern term, and one that – to my understanding – is usually part of the Afro-American lexicon.  Yet, whites use it too, especially when emphasizing that someone is not yet adult. Or they are a young adult, but not acting like it.  As in: “Lordy, child! What’s gotten into you? Clean your hands before you come to this table.”

We don’t know any other details, but we can guess the girl is at least mid-teens, maybe a tad older, and had done something(s) recently that made mama (and papa) think she’s sliding back into childhood.  Like maybe confiding to them that she thought Billie Joe (who doesn’t have a lick of sense) might be “the one” for her. 

The narrator is hurting, yet mama is thinking of her as a petulant, unappreciative adolescent who can’t act proper.  “Rub some salt in that wound for me, please, would you?”

Is it coincidence that the same day that Billie Joe jumps off the bridge, the “young preacher” stops by and announces he’d be “pleased to have dinner next Sunday” with the family? Dinner would be lunch to us non-southerners, and Sunday – especially in summer – is an all-day church-related series of events in many parts of the South and even Mid-South.  Church all morning, Church in the evening, with a church-congregation-centric social dinner in between. [Recall in verse three, the narrator was talking to Billie Joe “after church just last Sunday night”].

So, Brother Taylor.  He gets a name, and a title.  He’s young.  He’s nice. Does he have an interest in the narrator?  And, since mama gives him a proper title and name, does Mama have an interest in the “nice young preacher” as a mate for her daughter?  The inference is certainly there. Safe to assume that Gentry wants us to recognize it.

And what was he doing up on Choctaw Ridge?  Doesn’t he have pastoral duties?  In many small southern congregations preachers have a career outside of the church. These congregations tend to be small and poor; there’s not enough money to support a full-time preacher. Brother Taylor probably wasn’t up on the Ridge for work. Was he stalking the narrator?

Regarding the “Brother” title for a preacher: this is a form of address that many Christians, especially in the South, address each other with.

And the second biggest question of the whole song, besides “why did Billie Joe jump?”  — What were they throwing off the bridge?  Is this a clue to their relationship, and, hence, a clue to the whole mystery?

Ruminate on that while we tackle the final verse; the one that first popped into my head during that lovely spring afternoon.

__________________________________________________________

[5th and final verse]
A year has come and gone since we heard the news about Billie Joe.
And brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going ’round. Papa caught it, and he died last spring.
And now mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything.

And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

So many flowers to pick

Well, papa died.  Mama, sensitive soul that she is, has fallen despondent and unable to do anything. The narrator is left alone; her older brother got married and moved away. Who could blame him?  This family is emotionally detached from each other. — Besides: farm work (and sawmill work) are hard labor.  So, brother’s gone, probably after getting a small inheritance.  It’s easy to surmise that “Papa” did not approve of Becky Thompson either. Given freedom by Papa’s death, “brother” marries Becky and runs away.

A little more insight into “Papa” is provided by another song on the very same album with “Billie Joe” — this one called “Papa, Won’t you let me go to Town?” [lyrics]. Papa is not a very nice man.

Oh, if Billie Joe had only waited a few more months – Papa would have been gone and then he could have courted our little darling narrator. Alas, things happen the way they do, and they can’t be undone.

The story’s narrator.  Where is she?  She’s not working the farm. Is anyone working the farm? It’s been nearly at least half a year. In fact, what is she doing?

She is up on the ridge, picking flowers.  Then she wanders over to the bridge and drops them into the water.  Apparently over and over.

Analysis: The narrator is as emotionally detached as the rest of her family, just like they were toward her and Billie Joe when he jumped.  What goes around, comes around.  With papa dead, Mama is clearly suffering; yet darling daughter is off alone, feeling sorry for herself. And Brother is off in Tupelo, with his new bride.

There’s a lot of theories about the song. What it was about.  What really happened.  The song’s real meaning – the why? – will always remain a mystery.  Bobbie Gentry – mysterious, beguiling – has never really said.

______________________________________________________________________

Bobbie Gentry disappeared.  At first she made sporadic appearances — ever the mystery woman, as if she had planned to deceive us all along. She appeared on a Mother’s Day special in 1981, then disappeared for almost one full year — until the next April, when she showed up at the Country Music Awards (CMA) in Nashville, Tennessee. [We were there during CMA week in 2018 — the town is really fun anytime, but super abuzz that week]. No one has seen or reported on her since.

Fruitless analyses of the song and her life have been going on for decades.  We’ll never really know why Billie Joe jumped to his death, what was his relationship with the narrator, or what they were throwing into the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River.  Pressed hard for an answer during an interview once, Gentry finally answered, with practiced carelessness: “Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe it was a ring.”

Endless research by inquiring reporters and fans have suggested that Gentry lives quietly in an upscale gated neighborhood near Memphis, not far from her birthplace and childhood Mississippi Delta roots.  She takes no visitors and takes no calls.  And the song? It’s meaning is left to the listener — which can change with mood and even time of day.

By many accounts, Jim Stafford is still in love with Bobbie Gentry. As a hopeless sentimental romantic, I sympathize. Alas, they simply weren’t meant for each other. In rare interviews, he is still probed about the meaning of Billie Joe.  Through a lot of digging I have found one website, wherein a reporter claims that – in an interview through an alcohol lubricated night – Stafford suggested that Gentry one time shared some dark details of her youth with him.  Details that fit with the story.

The details that Stafford recalled, and that the reporter recalled (hearsay), are all probably hazed, and the implied dark story are not worth repeating. [I lost the webpage, so I won’t tell the reporter’s text of Stafford’s take on the story.]

But I think the story/song is exquisite and sufficiently complete just the way it is.  If Gentry had told us anymore, then it probably wouldn’t have been such a hit. Let alone a long-lasting hit. That’s the genius of good song writing. We’ve been hooked for decades just trying to figure it out.  It still generates a regular healthy royalty check for her today.

Final analysis: Papa is a harsh man and stern head-of-the-household. He probably felt he had to be that way as the patriarch of a family working its own farm in 1950s Mississippi. Perhaps a WWII veteran and feeling the pain of the Great Depression. He didn’t want to lose his children (workhands) via marriage to some slackers who didn’t know the value of hard work.  He was dismissive of his children’s yearnings to find a mate.  Sadly, his emotional distancing set the tone for the family.

No one wanted to challenge Papa by expressing sympathy for Billie Joe, who’d committed suicide because of Papa. Nor did anyone dare show sympathy to the narrator, Billie Joe’s probable love interest.

Then, Papa got a virus and died. Probably between 35 and 45 years of age.  Not old. Mama fell into depression and had to sell the farm. Whatever money “brother” got, he used to buy a store in Tupelo (Elvis Presley’s birthplace). He ran away with the girl Papa wouldn’t let him court. And all the narrator-daughter got was lots of free time to pick flowers.

In the end, the children were just like their parents. They didn’t know how to console others and show compassion in difficult times. Unable to respond to Mama’s and each other’s suffering …. they just ran away.

That’s sad.  It’s a strong message.  It’s a warning, delivered by a story, wrapped in a song.

With this virus “goin’ ’round” us now, and time on our hands, let’s remember what’s really important: family, understanding and support.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020      

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Footnotes

[1] Some bio links: http://performingsongwriter.com/bobbie-gentry-ode-billie-joe/
Bobby Gentry Found?
Jim Stafford breaks silence on Bobbie Gentry for interview, 1988
[2] Photo citation: By Capitol Records – http://rock60-70.ru/albums/bobbie-gentry-%E2%80%8E-patchwork-1971-usa-folkpopsoul.php, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58064389

Afterthoughts & Things not included
Ode to Billie Joe changed country music and paved the way for new heartfelt types of music, telling stories where something is quite wrong, like Tanya Tucker’s Delta Dawn and Jeannie Riley’s Harper Valley PTA.

The Tallahatchie Bridge is only about 20 feet above the muddy river waters.  Jumping to one’s death there is unlikely. But it fit the song well, and rhymed with Chocktaw Ridge. So unlikely is fatality, in fact, that jumping off the bridge became quite common, due to the song’s popularity.  You can’t jump off that bridge anymore.  It collapsed in 1972 and was rebuilt.  Jumping was made more difficult and a fine for jumping was imposed. Other hints.  Bobbie Gentry’s original draft was said to have been eleven verses.  It was cut to five verses for marketing, so it could fit on a 45rmp record, and manageable for radio airtime.  Gentry donated her handwritten lyrics of the first page of draft lyrics to the University of Mississippi (see below).  The only new information is in an alternate verse one, which starts out “People don’t see Sally Jane in town anymore.”  Some have speculated that what they threw off the bridge might have been the body of Sally Jane.

History and Culture: A Vacation in Croatia

“UNESCO is the conscience of the United Nations”
- Federico Mayor Zaragoza [1]

I will not live long enough, nor do I have enough money, to see everything there is to see in this world. Yet, I have been fortunate to visit many wonderful places and see many beautiful things.  Most of them with my wife.  A great blessing.

Some of them have even been awesome.  Awesome.  What does that even mean anymore in this age of ever-fluid language and shifting definitions? It is a bit sad that this word, “awesome”, has been so overused and misused that it has nearly lost its meaning. 

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Alas. Only a few decades ago it was rarely used, and only then to declare an exceptional status: possessing such rich quality that its beholder experienced a state of “awe.”  As in “awestruck”; or to be overcome with reverence and emotions like wonder or fear.

Nowadays a meal, a glass of wine, a golf shot or a last second winning field goal are commonly described as “awesome.”  Pshaw.  These things happen almost every day.  Hardly awesome.

The Grand Canyon? Awesome.  A 50-year marriage of mutual support, trust and fidelity: awesome. Landing a spacecraft on another world?  Awesome. Even a total eclipse of the sun can be awesome.

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Where does the history of the United Nations begin?  Can we say it rose from the ashes of the League of Nations, whose failure:

(1) can be ascribed to political bickering in the United States; and

(2) led to the rise of fascism and World War II?

Roosevelt and Churchill, aboard the USS Augusta. August, 1941.

Alternatively, perhaps the UN rose from the thoughts and aspirations shared between Churchill and Roosevelt in a clandestine meeting off the coast of Canada, in August, 1941, aboard the cruiser USS Augusta, some four months before Pearl Harbor triggered the US entry into WW2 (and nearly two years after that war had begun).  During that meeting, they wrote and signed the Atlantic Charter: a betrothal of sorts, that the US  and Britain would support each other, not just in this struggle for the future of mankind, but to avert war and protect human rights forever afterward.

Soon thereafter, on January 1, 1942 – with the US now officially at war with the Axis Powers – the term “United Nations” became official, as the US, the United Kingdom and 24 other countries signed the Declaration of the United Nations.  An extremely brief document, it contained the affirmation to support the Atlantic Charter, and a commitment to win the war without “separate peace.” It would grow in scope and vision to become the charter of the organization we now call the United Nations.

These 26 signatories, plus some 21 more who signed during the war, became the founding members of the United Nations (notably including the USSR and China), which met for the first time to sign the Charter document, in San Francisco’s Opera House, June 25, 1945. 

_____________________________________________________

Regarding travel. My wife and I spent most of this past October in Croatia. That country – even though sizing up smaller than West Virginia – is more abundant in history, culture, terrain and beauty than I had imagined. Among the many locales and sights, we visited perhaps the most beautiful and truly awesome place either of us had ever seen:  Plitvice Lakes.  Any attempt to describe it is to fail at justice. 

Here’s my attempt.

For many millions of years the region that is now the mountain ranges and rugged islands of Croatia and Italy that parallel the Adriatic coast lay under a sea. For most of those ages the earth was much warmer than today; the sea teemed with life – including fish of many sizes, as well as shellfish like oysters and clams, all feeding on the abundant micro-plant life, like phytoplankton. When each individual perished the detritus of their life, which contained calcium, collected as sediment on the seafloor.  Layer upon layer. Under great pressure and through eons of time, calcium-rich rock formed tremendous amounts of dense, hard limestone (primarily calcium carbonate, CaCO3) extending over a vast region.

Eventually, more powerful and longer-term earth dynamics took over: plate tectonics. The Adriatic Plates began to drift and rotate, forcing these huge sheets of limestone to fracture and rise from the sea, sometimes reaching for the sky. This produced the dramatic mountains and islands of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, including the Velebit Range, as well as the Apennines that form the spine of Italy.  While some areas are still rising, others – like Venice – are sinking into the sea due to the same dynamics, millimeter by millimeter.

Along the Adriatic, the climate and terrain of Croatia’s coastal side of these mountains tends toward the classic Mediterranean feel: rocky, warm and dry.  I was quite astonished to cross the mountains, drop to the coast, and see cactus and palm trees at the same latitude as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I grew up. On the inland side, where it is cooler and wetter, many streams and rivers drain the region – all of which eventually run to the Danube – including the Korana River.  [2]

Along the Korana River’s path it has sculpted a lovely little canyon from the limestone.  Here you will find Plitvice Lakes, probably the most naturally awesomely beautiful place I’ve seen in my life.  To walk its paths and feast your eyes is like walking through endless postcards.  [Pictures here: hopefully this link lives a while].  <More pics>

Within the canyon are a series of 16 lakes, each linked to the next by cascades of countless waterfalls of every shape and height – one lake flowing to the next.  At the brink of each falls, particularly where there are entangled roots of trees and shrubs, calcium carbonate is continuously, slowly, steadily precipitating from solution to form new rock; thus the crest of most waterfalls tend not to erode, but grow and change in shape.  Very.  Very.  Slowly.   

Yes, if you go, take a full day to see it.  Be prepared for crowds, even post-tourist season, in October.

Plitvice Lakes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  UNESCO is a United Nations Agency that has been part of the United Nations practically since its beginning, also going back to 1945.  (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).  The mission of UNESCO is to help preserve peace by promoting Education, Science and Culture. 

Currently there are over 1,100 such heritage sites worldwide.  They are recognized – and thus protected – for having great significance, either as a historic human achievement, a wonder of nature.

In the United States, you will easily identify places like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.  There are some 20 more, many of human construct, such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Statue of Liberty.  

There are several benefits to such sites.  Yes, they do get some UN funding, but it is small.  Being so recognized brings attention – this means positive world recognition, and (sort of bad news) more tourist dollars to support the site.  Finally, the Geneva Convention on the rules of warfare protect all UNESCO heritage sites.

Croatia is dense with such sites, much more than most countries, and we were fortunate to see many.  Besides Plitvice Lakes, we

  • walked the ancient island city of Trogir,
  • saw the Venetian defense walls of Zadar,
  • were amazed by Diocletian’s Palace in Split, there also experiencing a UNESCO Heritage Intangible: an a capella performance by a local Klapa group (example here, and we watched in the same place as this performance),
  • experienced the historic splendor and walls of Dubrovnik, 
  • and we bicycled through the Stari Grad Plains on the island of Hvar, where sturdy folk have eked out an existence on the rocky ground cultivating olives, figs, grapes, lavender and pomegranate for nearly 24 centuries.
Stari Most Bridge, Mostar, Hercegovina

On side trips, we walked the Stari Most Bridge in Mostar (in Hercegovina) and beheld the eye-candy of Lake Bled, Slovenia. (The bridge is a UNESCO site; the latter is not, but could well be soon).  [3]

Lake Bled, Slovenia

A couple of places we visited are likely candidates to become such sites soon: the tiny village of Ston, with its most impressive wall – the longest stone wall in Europe (now that Hadrian’s has faded away) – as well as its salt beds, oyster and mussel farms. And, the fetching city of Korčula, on the eponymously named island, purported birthplace and later home of famous Venetian world traveler Marco Polo.

I won’t let it pass that UNESCO World Heritage Site status spared neither the city of Dubrovnik nor the Stari Most Bridge of Mostar from severe damage during the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the 1990s.

In Mostar, the bridge crashed into the Neretva River from Croat shelling.  In Dubrovnik, thousands of buildings were damaged, many of them totally; over one hundred non-combat inhabitants were killed.  Many more were injured.  The city was left without power and water during the seven-month Serb “siege of Dubrovnik.”  Such a cultural outrage that even Hitler’s Nazi armies, nor Tito’s national partisans, would perpetrate.  

In any case, the historic and magnificent walls of Dubrovnik, built between the 12th and 14th centuries were finally used for defense of the city – and they did quite well. The city has been largely rebuilt, as has the Mostar Bridge.  Each done faithfully to their original construction.

We do intend to visit Croatia again. It is quite reasonable with regard to cost and weather, and the people are extremely friendly and English speaking. Croatia, as they say, is open for business. 

In case you are thinking of visiting the area (and I hope you are), I’ll put in a plug for the company we used: Soul of Croatia (SoulOfCroatia.com).  Robi helped us set up, and pull off, a rather complicated tour with no hitches whatsoever. 

Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season and that you find peace in your lives through all components of your heritage, including education, science and culture.

Joe Girard © 2019

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing me at Joe@Girardmeister.com.

Notes:

  1. Federico Mayor Zaragoza, head of UNESCO for 12 years.  Bio here.
  2. The Danube River watershed is large, second only to the Volga for European River watershed size.
  3. During the Yugoslav Civil Wars, Croat shelling destroyed the Mostar Bridge in 1993.  It was rebuilt in 2004 and is regarded as one of the most elegant bridges in the world, a testament to Ottoman engineering skill of the 16th century.

Final notes: The US is not starved for UNESCO Heritage sites, although on a per square mile basis, it is sparse compared to Croatia.  In the US I have visited the following: Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Olympic Peninsula National Park, Cohokia Mounds, Mesa Verde National Park, The Everglades, Independence Hall and Park (Philadelphia), Redwoods National Park, Great Smokey Mountains, Chaco Canyon and Culture Center, Monticello and the University of Virginia, Carlsbad Cavern, The Missions of San Antonio (including the Alamo, which I wrote about here).

Still have about 10 to go: Yosemite, Glacier Bay are on the bucket list.

Outside the US and Croatia, our list is larger still.  We’ve been quite fortunate …

In Germany we’ve visited and seen: Aachen Cathedral, Würzburg Residenz, Medieval town of Bamberg, and Köln Dom (Cologne Cathedral).

Austria: Hallstatt, Salzburg, Vienna, and Schönbrunn Palace.

Belgium: Brugges (Brugge)

France: Mont Saint-Michel, a Vauban fortified city (Neuf Breisach), and the post-WW2 re-built city of Le Havre.

Canada: Rocky Mountain Parks, and Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump (this last one might need its own essay)

Also: Luxembourg City Center, and Sydney Opera House

Heroes: from Kerr to “The Man”

It’s the middle of the 2019 World Series, and things are getting very interesting.  So, as I’ve done at this time of year before, it’s time to weave a rambling essay of baseball lore – this one with lesser known threads connecting heroes, villains and an indelible splotch on baseball’s reputation – recalling that this is the 100th Anniversary of the notorious “Black Sox”.

____________________________________

I had the great fortune getting an opportunity to earn an engineering graduate degree at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee.  Among the countless benefits that sprouted from those two years (1978-80) were some that came from a forward looking realization: I might not have the chance to work a fun job that involved playing golf for many more decades. I’ve always liked golf, because, like baseball, it’s a sport that a skinny, short guy like me can achieve some success at.

So, in April 1979, I donned my most attractive, contemporary golf attire (which were a bit frayed and cheap looking) and rode my bicycle to a nearby exclusive golf and country club.  How nice was it?  The following summer it hosted the 1980 Women’s US Open.

I got a job with the pro, whose name was also Joe, after a very short interview. I worked there much of the next two summers doing a variety of golf-related tasks: in the pro-shop, selling golf paraphernalia and running the till; making deposits at the bank; running the driving range; cleaning clubs and carts; even working with the grounds crew to lay sod and build bridges.

Not a great job, at least with respect to pay (I think at $2.92/hr), but the main thing was the fringe benefits.  I was at a top-notch golf facility, where I was privileged to play at least 9-holes of golf every single day and also spend hours practicing every sort of shot.  By the end of the first summer I was a pretty fair bet to break 80 on a US open caliber course – and “from the tips”, as golfers say.  (Oh!, to be able to do that again).

Another benefit was getting tickets to high end golf related events.  For example, I attended the 1980 Music City Celebrity golf tournament at another high-end golf club for free.  This was a splashy fund-raiser for local charities.  I clearly recall following along two celebs for a several holes. 

The first celeb I followed was former President Gerald Ford.  He definitely struck me as athletic, but in a “football player” sort-of-way.  A very mechanical and muscle-bound swing.  Slight fade.  Never gonna be a great golfer, but played with the stoic, almost grim, emotionless face that you’d expect from a conservative.  He did hole a green-side bunker shot on number 9, which brought a huge roar of appreciation from the crowd. 

The other was Stan Musial.  Known to true-blue Saint Louis baseball fans as “Stan the Man”,  Musial’s marvelous baseball playing career came to an end about 17 years before … just as I was becoming a serious fan of the game.  It now occurs to me that I might have seen him once or even twice before, as my father started taking me to Wrigley Field to see Cubs games in 1961.

Stan Musial: late in MLB career

Musial was certainly one of the very, very best hitters of the 20th century, and among the best 2 or 3 left-handed hitters ever, ranking with Ted Williams and Ty Cobb.  Musial is arguably above Cobb, who never put up power numbers like Stan, and it’s tough to compare with Williams, whose overall career numbers (especially hits and home runs) are unfairly well down the list, since he lost three of the best years of his baseball career to military service, serving as a fighter pilot during World War II. 

I said that Musial’s playing career ended some 17 years before I saw him in Nashville, at the Music City Celeb.  But it nearly ended before he even made it to the majors. 

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100 years ago, it was almost impossible to imagine that the Chicago White Sox team of 1919 could lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The star-studded Sox were prohibitive betting favorites.  It’s only imaginable in retrospect, knowing that their best players intentionally played well below their skill level – pitchers tossing easy-to-hit pitches, fielders kicking ground balls and dropping flyballs. 

Books and movies have been made about that team, and what happened thereafter.  The short version is that players thought they were severely underpaid (they probably were). Owner Charles Comiskey was a man of “deep pockets and short arms” – especially stingy with his money, and player salaries.  The sports-betting community connected the dots: prohibitive betting odds and disgruntled players provided the possibility of a gigantic gambling bonanza by giving a miniscule fraction of the winning proceeds to players who cooperated.

In the end, eight players were banned from baseball for life.  There is absolutely no doubt that many players cooperated, although it’s easy to make a case for Joe Jackson’s defense.  Jackson was an illiterate simple country boy from South Carolina, famously went by the nickname “Shoeless Joe” and had the prettiest lefthanded swing that any baseball expert had ever seen.  For the series, Joe hit for a .375 average, with a .956 OPS.  Hard to say he wasn’t trying, and easy to say he didn’t know what he was signing up for.

It’s also hard to imagine that there was a hero for the Sox in that Series.  A genuine hero on a team that intentionally tried to lose. But there most certainly was: the diminutive Dickey Kerr. Mostly forgotten now, Kerr was by no means not the best pitcher on the 1919 Sox.  Considered a second-tier pitcher, behind the likes of Eddie Cicotte (“Chick”), who won 29 games that season with a 1.82 ERA.  During the series, Chick picked two games to throw poorly at critical moments.

Tiny Dickey Kerr, 1919

Kerr was a rookie that year.  He stood barely 5 foot 7 inches tall, weighed 150 lbs “soaking wet”. Yet Kerr won two games in that series, going 2-0 with a dodgy defense behind him, and with a 1.42 ERA.  In one game he went 10 innings to get the win; silly (now obvious) errors led to a critical unearned run.

So lowly regarded was Kerr, that Sox players who collaborated with gamblers never even considered including him in the plot.  Even though he was unscathed by the scandal, his career soon also ended after the 1921 season (all eight collaborators finished the 1920 season) – although he made a brief comeback attempt in 1925.

Kerr’s missing of the 1922-24 seasons was also tied directly to Comiskey the Cheapskate.  Feeling like he was owed more money for his performance (he did go on to win an impressive 40 games over the ’20 and ’21 seasons), Kerr sat out and played some exhibition games (for pay) with other teams.  For that, he was harshly banned from baseball by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis (yes, that was his name … Kenesaw Mountain … his name has direct links to a major Civil War battle … at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia).

Kerr had a good head for baseball and leadership, making his way into the coaching and manager ranks.  It was later, in 1940, while managing the minor league D-Level Daytona Beach Islanders in the lowest levels of the Saint Louis Cardinals organization, that Kerr encountered a promising young athlete.

Born in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, Stanislaw Franciszek Musial was the fifth of six children born to Polish immigrants. He impressed scouts and was signed to a minor league contract in 1938 with the Saint Louis Cardinals, at the tender age of 18, mostly based on his potential as a pitcher.

By 1940 he was learning the game at the professional level, and playing in the outfield when not pitching, since he showed hitting promise as well.  But all considered him a pitcher first, especially Stan, himself.

Musial’s vision for his future clouded when he suffered a severe injury to his left shoulder while playing outfield for Kerr’s Islanders in 1940.  As Musial was left-handed his future as a professional pitcher seemed unlikely.

Discouraged, depressed, and now with the responsibilities of supporting a wife and a child on the way, Musial wanted to quit baseball and go find a job in a different career. 

To relieve financial and professional pressure, Kerr invited the young Musial family to live with him and his wife.  And Kerr took the opportunity to encourage Musial to focus on his athletic skills besides pitching.

Re-energized and taking Kerr’s mentorship to heart, Musial took to the 1941 season with gusto. He progressed at a startling, almost unbelievable, rate.  Beginning the spring at C-Level (Springfield, WA) based solely on his hitting and raw athletic potential, he was promoted to AA Level just after mid-season.  He did well enough that he earned a brief 12-game call to the Cardinal’s major league team, where he wowed everyone, hitting .426.

Stan “the Man” Musial played his entire 22 season Major League career with the Cardinals. His career numbers – like Williams’ – could have been even better, had he not been called to serve the cause of FFF (Freedom from Fascism); he lost what surely would have been one of the best years of his career (1945) to World War II.  This is easily inferred: in ’44 Musial batted .346, second best in all major leagues; in ’46 he won the batting title at .365. 

More about Musial’s stats, life and career achievement are easily found on the internet.  It’s not just that all of these are so very impressive, it’s also that he is the most beloved, revered and honored Saint Louis Cardinal of all time. 

When I watched Stan Musial play golf in the heat of that humid Tennessee afternoon, I was kind of surprised by what I observed. 

Yes, he played left-handed just like he batted and threw, and – even at nearly 60 years old – displayed a sort of graceful flair and fluidity.  He still had large, strong shoulders and arms.  And a thick muscular neck. Clearly, he was an athlete.  He was not nearly as tall as I expected, perhaps touching six feet; but he had been a giant in my boyhood imagination.  Although he had a bit of a paunch, he insisted on walking. His shirt was mottled with sweat.  He wore no cap, allowing all to see that he still had a full – if somewhat unmanageable – head of dark hair.  He never smiled, and frequently – unconsciously – swept swaths of hair and sweat off his brow. He did not interact much with fans.

It seemed this crazy game of golf was getting to him.  Here he was, a sports Hall of Fame member, struggling with performance in front of fans, in a silly sport; fans who adored him and anticipated success with nearly every shot. 

I felt sorry for Musial. Even though he was famous, highly accomplished, and had records that would last many generations, he was not having fun.  I guess that’s what surprised me most.  He was not having fun. That’s sad.

Maybe if he’d quit baseball and gotten a job a golf country club, he’d have played better that day.  😉

Probably not.  Even I, at roughly the same age, usually mutter to myself throughout a round of golf. 

Until at least next October, that’s a wrap for World Series and Baseball History.

Wishing you all have a wonderful fall and hoping that you all have some fun every day, even if you’re playing golf.

Peace

Joe  Girard © 2019

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing me at Joe@Girardmeister.com.

Crockett to Court-Martial

“Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead” – Davey Crockett

Any American kid who grew up in the 1950s or ‘60s knows that line from the theme song to the Davey Crockett television series.  Davey Crockett, played by Fess Parker, was the quintessential American Frontiersman – self-reliant, painfully honest, honorable, and capable at every conceivable skill. The line was taken from a supposed direct quote by Davey Crockett. 

Perhaps unusual for a frontiersman born and raised in the rugged, untamed Appalachian Mountains: Crockett became an early vocal defender of Native Amerindian rights.  First as one of America’s most celebrated “western” heroes, and then as an elected member of the Tennessee state legislature, and finally as a Congressman in Washington, DC. Crockett had little success in promoting his beliefs or recruiting others to share them. Amerindians have inalienable rights, too; yet no government instituted by man was able to secure them. The “Indian Wars” and westward relocations of tribal nations continued.

As congressman, Crockett was twice defeated for re-election, mostly because of fellow Tennessean Andy Jackson and his Democratic Party’s anti-Amerindian views. [Aside: it is awfully shameful that the image of such a racist man is on one of our most commonly traded pieces of currency: the $20 bill. I say: get Harriet Tubman on there ASAP].   Shortly after his second Congressional defeat, Crockett abandoned his native country and went to Texas where he hoped to help build a more free and liberal country from the ground up.  It was time to fight another revolution.  He probably wanted to get land, too. 

He was sure he was right.  He went ahead.  In early 1836 Crockett found himself in the Texas frontier, at a compound that had long ago been a Catholic mission called Mission de San Antonio de Valero – a place that came be known as The Alamo.  One of America’s most loved heroes and admired adventurers did not make it to age 50.
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I thankfully still have many memories of growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin besides simply watching TV shows like Davey Crockett. Some memories are of the many place and street names.  I was recently reminded of the prevalence of the name “Mitchell” during a trip to Milwaukee, on the occasion of a class reunion for the 45th anniversary of our high school graduation.

I probably first became aware of the name “Mitchell” when the domes at the Mitchell Botanical Gardens, near Mitchell Park, were completed in the 1960s.  Along the Menomonee River, south of the I-94 corridor and just a few miles from downtown, the domes are a beautiful landmark as you make your way through the area, easily visible from the Interstate. 

The Domes at the Mitchell Park Conservatory [Photo courtesy of Park People of Milwaukee. Here under Fair Use]

It was probably about the summer of 1968 when my folks took my siblings and me there, sometime shortly after the domes were were completed. There were six of us kids, the youngest born in January, ‘68; my parents were quite brave. I remember being so very impressed with the huge glass dome structures. They seemed enormous! I wandered off from my family, trying to read all the labels … eventually getting very bored and sleepy.

Before moving away in 1974 I don’t recall noticing any Mitchell name prevalence: but there is also Mitchell Street, Mitchell Boulevard, the Mitchell Street Neighborhood and, of course, Mitchell Field Airport, which serves as Milwaukee’s commercial and international airport.  There are probably more.

The Michell Domes, Botanical Gardens and Park are named for the donor of the land upon which the park, and later Botanical Gardens, were built: John Lendrum Mitchell. 

John L. Mitchell was born and raised in Milwaukee in a very wealthy family, owing to the business success of his father, Alexander Mitchell.  The elder Mitchell had immigrated to Wisconsin from Scotland, becoming the wealthiest person in Wisconsin principally through his ownership and leadership success in banking and The Chicago, St Paul & Milwaukee Railroad (AKA “The Milwaukee Road”), one of the most successful and far-flung railroads from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.

One of The Milwaukee Road’s logos

John served in Wisconsin’s 24th Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, alongside Arthur MacArthur, Jr. 

Awarded the Medal of Honor during the war, MacArthur, Jr later fathered Douglas MacArthur … a curious coincidence, we will soon see.  Well, John Mitchell made his way into politics, first holding the Congressional seat his father had held (Wisconsin’s 4th CD) and later representing Wisconsin in the Senate. 

In December, 1879, while living in Nice, France, John Mitchell and his wife Harriet welcomed their first child into the family – a son whom they named William.  He would be the first of ten.

Described as small, wiry and fearless, young “Billy” (as he came to be known) grew up speaking French as well as English, and also was able to communicate in German, Spanish and Italian. He had his own nannies, but they could not keep up with his high energy and antics. Always bright and ambitious, his education took him to the nation’s capital in DC (where his father was serving as a Senator), to Columbian College — later renamed to George Washington University.  But, he dropped out in 1898 to join the Army and fight in the Spanish-American War.

Billy took to the military life well and made it his career.  His intelligence and capabilities always caught the attention of higher officers, and, in 1913, that resulted in a chance appointment to the US Army General Staff.  This is where Mitchell really got exposed to Aeronautics … the art of flying.

Seeing the almost infinite potential of flight, especially in combat and for reconnaissance, Mitchell “caught the bug,” and it seems at this point his tendency toward brash behavior started to manifest itself.  In 1916, Mitchell, anxious for action and opportunity, quit the General Staff and simply assumed command of Army Aviation until a commander could be appointed and placed in command.

He desperately wanted to pilot himself, but the Army would not train him.  He was too old, they said, at 36.  So, he took lessons on his own, at his own cost, and on his own time.  Now flight qualified, and with a war going on in Europe, Mitchell was anxious for adventure and bristled at being under anyone’s command who did not see the future as he did.  In 1917 he asked for leave to visit the front as an observer.  It was granted. Four days later the United States entered the Great War.

Mitchell continued to learn as much as he could about flight and its uses in warfare, constantly pressing British and French pilots for intelligence, able to discuss technology and tactics in their mother tongues. Although denied overall generalship of US air flight, it was he who discovered from the air the size and direction of the last great German attempt to win the war in July, 1918. And he led the largest air force in the world up until that time – some 1,500 aircraft – in fighting back that salient.

The war soon ended. Mitchell, now a war hero and with a field promotion to Brigadier General, returned to the States more convinced than ever of the significance of air power.  The Great War was certainly not “the war to end all wars.” There would be more great wars, and his country must be prepared.

Billy Mitchell: Aviation Visionary

He pestered everyone he could think of – from military brass to politicians – to get more emphasis on developing the science and technology of flight. The way he saw it: the significance could not be underestimated; its potential was endless.  Literally, the sky was the limit. 

He maintained this enthusiasm despite losing his brother John L Mitchell, III in a plane crash in France, during the war.  He used it as a selling point: planes could have been made better, thus they had to be.

Mitchell was sure he was right.  And went right ahead … finally getting an opportunity (through congressional intervention) in the spring and summer of 1921 to demonstrate the ability of aircraft to sink naval craft.  The climax of the demonstrations was the aerial attack on the seized German battleship, Ostfriesland.  During the “exhibition”, Mitchell and his men violated the rules of engagement by flying lower and dropping larger bombs than permitted.  Nonetheless, Mitchell won the day and the argument, much to the chagrin on Navy staff and military brass.  The Ostfriesland, defenseless and immobile the entire time, went to the bottom of the sea.

Despite the contested “successful” demonstration, the development of American military flight technology – for speed, altitude, payload capability and safety – languished.  Mitchell continued to pester everyone. 

Finally, at his wits’ end due to a series of deadly military flight accidents, he decided to go dangerously ahead.  He was sure he was right.  By this time, September, 1925, Mitchell was now only a Colonel (he had permanently lost his wartime General rank) and had been “put out to pasture” at a Texas Army base … coincidently located in San Antonio, not far from the Alamo. 

What did Mitchell do?  He publicly and openly defied military leadership, and in statements to the press, he called them “incompetent, criminally negligent and nearly treasonous.”  The bodies of many of his fellow military aviators, he said, were buried because of “official stupidity.” Mitchell was sure he was right, and he had simply run out of buttons to push.  He went ahead with open defiance of his superiors.

The military is all about obedience.  And such acts of insolence cannot go unprosecuted, or unpunished.  The court-martial of Billy Mitchell is the most famous court-martial in United States history, and one of its most famous trials, too.

Mitchell’s jury included General Douglas MacArthur, the son of his father’s Civil War army friend. Some further irony and coincidence:

“ … a senior officer should not be silenced for being at variance with his superiors and with accepted doctrine.” – Gen’l Douglas MacArthur, jurist in the Court Martial trial of Billy Mitchell.

Mitchell had already prophesied many fantastic things, many of which he repeated at his trial.  For example:

  • The use of aircraft to fight forest fires
  • The importance of air control in battle 
  • Transcontinental flight in mere hours
  • Trans-oceanic flight
  • The end of naval battleships, since they could be sunk with a tiny fraction of the cost to build them (via air power)
  • The significance of aircraft carriers
  • The creation of national military Air Forces totally separate from the Army and Navy  
  • Indeed, he even foretold of Japanese aircraft surprising and sinking American battleships in Pearl Harbor at dawn someday, perhaps just a few years hence.

Many testified on his behalf during the 7-week trial, which became rather a media spectacle. This included America’s most famous “ace”, Eddie Rickenbacker, and one of its most recognized congressmen, Fiorella La Guardia.

Despite all the testimony and a strong defense that substantiated the veracity of Mitchell’s claims, he was found guilty.  For sentence, he was suspended from active military duty for five years without pay (which President Coolidge, as Commander-in-Chief and President amended to half-pay).  Nonetheless, Mitchell resigned from the Army a few months later, spending the rest of his life – free of military chain-of-command – attempting to promote air power.

He died ten years later, his visions largely still unrealized, in 1936, aged only 56, from heart ailments and flu complications … after having some success persuading FDR to begin investing in national air power.  He is buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee, near his father and grandfather in the Mitchell family plot.

“On March 17, 1941, the Milwaukee County Board voted to change the County airport’s name to Billy Mitchell Field. It is a source of pride for Milwaukeans that our main airport is named in honor of General William Mitchell, who, though impatient with those who did not share his beliefs, nevertheless retained until his death his boundless faith in aviation’s future which he so unerringly visualized.” (Mitchell Airport History Website)

Just outside the Mitchell Field terminal is a retired B-25 bomber. Design and development of the B-25 began in 1938, more than three years before the US entered WW2, thanks mostly to Germany’s growing belligerence and Mitchell’s earlier lobbying of congress and the president.  The plane was named the “Mitchell” and flew in every theater of operation during WW2; most famously, 16 Mitchells took off from the deck of the carrier Hornet to bomb Tokyo in The Doolittle Raid of April, 1942.

Mitchell B-25, medium range bomber, in front of Mitchell Field Airport, Milwaukee

The name of the airport, with its Mitchell B-25 out in front, is testament and monument to Milwaukee’s pride in her visionary native son. Mitchell is considered the “Father of the American Air Force.”


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My wife and I made a stop by the Mitchell Domes while in Milwaukee earlier this summer. To the domes that are named for the park, that is named for the father of Billy Mitchell.  I hadn’t been in them in about 50 years, back when they were brand new.  While inside, a large thunderstorm moved over the area as we looked at flora from around the globe.  It got very dark.  It rained very hard.  Water came dribbling in, through cracks in the domes, and the leaks collected in many dozens of puddles. Sadly, the domes are in serious disrepair. 

Dark gloomy clouds and uncontrolled rain puddles are a fair metaphor for the domes themselves.  Milwaukee is in a crisis over what to do.  I imagine that Billy Mitchell fought feelings of despair, too, but then rallied to the very end.  I hope Milwaukee can rally and “go ahead” to save the domes.  They were visionary in their time, too.

Within the Domes: walkway with brick commemorating visionary dome architect, Donald Grieb

While strolling through the domes – dodging drips and puddles – thinking about the amazing Milwaukee Mitchell family, I couldn’t help thinking about my own family and the sunny Sunday my parents took me there, so long ago, when they were shiny and new.  Thanks mom and dad for taking us there.  You were good parents in countless ways.  You even let us watch Davey Crockett on TV… after our homework was done.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2019

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing me at Joe@Girardmeister.com.