First, a quick look back. Presidentially, Trump lost. Period. Yes, of course there are many “couldas”, “shouldas”, “wouldas”, and “yeah-but-what-abouts”, but he lost. A large percentage of Trump voters think it was rigged; and a large percentage of Hillary voters still think 2016 was rigged. Nonetheless, it’s over. Like it or not, Joe Biden is your president, for now.
We’ve been hearing the “not my president” chant for decades now. First under Clinton, then growing ever louder with Bush 43.
I will throw a bone (or perhaps chew toy) to that crowd of howlers and doubters and concede that it looks like there were more than a few voting anomalies, such as sketchy absentee ballots and ballot-curing oddities, in populous counties of states that were extraordinarily closely decided: e.g. Maricopa in AZ and Fulton in GA. Regardless, it’s also evident that none of those were enough to swing a state, let alone the entire election. Gonna take that bone away: this happens every election. Every – single – pelection. There are always anomalies and sideways glances. Nothing is perfect, even democracy. Or perhaps, “especially” in a democracy.
This is one reason that I remain (slightly) in favor of the Electoral College (EC) over the National Popular Vote movement: it may be possible to corruptly swing a single state or two. But even if an entire state was so messed up (or amoral) that 100% of the vote went for one candidate (or, even 110%), it does not sway the EC outcome much at all. It’s simply more difficult to fraudulently sway a large number of states without detection.
Built into this is a second reason: the EC usually (not always) gives a pretty clear indication of just who won. For example, in the last two (very tight) elections the winner won by identical 306-232  votes. Fairly convincing majorities (yet Trump labeled his 2016 win a “landslide” despite losing the popular vote 46-48%).
 note that so-called “faithless electors” changed this 306-232 outcome slightly in 2016. Per a recent 2020 Supreme Court case (Chiafalo v. Washington, which was combined with Colorado Department of State v. Baca, we will likely see an end to such faithless electors soon — a situation I do not agree with)
One last thought looking back at 2020 and the presidential race. I assert that without two things Trump wins, hands down.
Number one: obviously, the novel corona virus. The pandemic, our collective responses to it, and the consequences thereof completely pushed what was an almost certain Trump win into the gray area that columnists and the news media love. Pre-pandemic the economy was roaring with record low unemployment as well as record high employment (and salaries) for minorities (especially blacks) and women. Oh my, how that flipped.
Number two: Trump is an ass who broadcasts whatever undisciplined thought floats into his maze-of-a-brain without any filter whatsoever. Very unpresidential. Of course, he said stuff like “one day the virus will just go away.” He didn’t do himself any favors. I score it an unconvincing 2-1 loss with an own goal.
Ok, enough looking back. Now forward.
The US decennial census results are finally in, some four months late. (Late, owing to the pandemic, and a few court battles about whether the census can legally count non-citizens as non-citizens).
The results are only a tad surprising, and there are some golden nuggets and poison pills for both Dems and Reps, although long term it looks better to me for Dems.
First, the population only grew about 7.4% over the entire decade; that’s the slowest growth since the Depression and Dust Bowl-cursed 1930s. Still, 47 of the 50 states (48, including DC) recorded population growth; the losers were West Virginia (-3.2%), Mississippi (-0.2%) and Illinois (-0.1%).
Looking forward: Reallocation of Congressional District Seats, and thus Electoral Votes have been determined. The “winners” are Texas (+2), and the following at +1: Colorado, Florida, Montana, Oregon, and North Carolina. The “losers”, all at -1, are: California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. [this is the first time California, the nation’s most populous state, has ever lost a congressional district; for New York it’s just the second: they lost two seats in 2010].
Nominally this looks like a slight win for Republicans, as more generally Rep voting states get additional congressional seats and Electoral Votes, drawing away from solid Dem states like CA, NY and IL.
If one thinks the presidential contests of the past were dirty or tainted – think of the angst following both ’16 and ’20 – then one hasn’t ever paid attention to re-drawing of Congressional Districts and state legislative districts, which has been, and is going on, under our very collective noses. It’s a terrific example of “polite fiction.” [“Terrific” is etymologically related to “terrible”, in this case for good reason]. The “Fiction” being that this is all fair, balanced and representative. This has been historically, and still is, the unseen dirtiest of dirty businesses – classic smoke-filled room stuff that we don’t get to see much of; something that is supposedly based on balanced and fair representation. In reality it’s highly partisan in most states, and the process will take its toll on anyone’s faith in the notion that the drawing of district boundaries is fair and independent.
For example, Illinois, which is hard left leaning, at least state-wide (voting 55% and 57% for the Dem presidential candidate in ’16 and ’20 and only having Dem US senators since 2010) currently has 18 congressional seats: disproportionately 13 Democrat and 5 Republican. The new state CD map managed to squeeze an incumbent Republican out of his seat, Adam Kinzinger; this, despite the state losing a seat and having a solid majority of Dems in the current tally, so it will be even more disproportionate. Not sure how this plays out long term, since Kinzinger has been a critic of Trump, especially his bitching about the election.
On the other hand, one can be sure that the heavily Republican-leaning Texas legislature will ensure that the two “new” districts will lean Republican as well. More on Texas in the footnotes.
This all has to be done quite quickly, as the campaign season for the 2022 mid-terms is already underway. The 4-month census delay has not helped map drawers meet deadlines. [By the way: since 1935 the sitting president’s party has lost seats in congress in all but two mid-term elections. Because the Dems currently hold a very narrow 220-212 edge – with 3 vacancies – we can count on the drawing of CD boundaries and campaigning to be very contentious.]
And, probably about as important, each state must now re-draw their state’s legislative and senate districts (except Nebraska, which is unicameral, and only draws one set of district maps). Again, these must be drawn very soon. Haste makes waste, so be careful.
Back to census-based demographic trends, most of which look to be favorable to Democrats.
America continues its over-one-century migration away from its wide swaths of rural regions, and toward the urban, suburban and exurban centers. Urbanites, and those close to urban areas, tend to vote Democrat; Rural dwellers tend to vote Republican. Covid might have changed this, as it hit right in the middle of the census; so it will take a decade to see what the impacts are.
Racially, there are actually fewer total Whites than in 2010; Whites tend to be more likely to vote R than D. [Trump got 57% to Biden’s 42% of White votes in 2020].
One demographic that I noted could slightly favor Republicans. America is aging. The Average age in the US is up 1 year, from 37.2 to 38.2. Mostly this is due to longer lives among Baby Boomers and older (those born before 1964). Older people have a slight tendency to vote Republican, and they definitely get higher voter turnout. It’s also partly due to a falling birthrate.
Regarding voting patterns. People tend to vote how their friends, neighborhood, and fellow community members vote. This has become kind of a closed-loop feedback system, as people now tend to socialize and associate mostly (or only) with those who think like them politically. I don’t think this happened nearly as much before, say 2000. We are very polarized now.
For Republican patterns and densities, one would need to look at county population numbers; I can’t think of a single urban center that leans Republican. I suspect that two major factors here are: the higher the density the more the propensity to perceive benefit from bigger and more active government (efforts to de-fund police notwithstanding), and urban areas tend to have higher populations of people of color, who generally vote Democratic.
Re-districting and the associated “food fights” are almost inevitable. Highly political gerrymandering is not a necessary outcome every decade. Although states like Texas and Maryland (and several others) seem doomed, for now, to their grossly distorted Congressional District maps, several states have recently taken map-drawing out of the hands of their politically-motivated legislatures (and even state courts) and put them in the hands of supposedly non-partisan commissions. 
My home state of Colorado is one of these; we voted for two such special commissions back in 2018: one for US congressional districts, and one for state legislative districts. Kind of a big deal, especially since Colorado has an additional congressional seat starting in 2022 – now up to eight.
Other states that are now drawing maps via “independent” commissions are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, New York and Washington. I can’t help but be skeptical of the “non-partisan” rating each commission would get, but I’m also optimistic that increased fairness and representation will result. (AK and MT have only one CD, but this applies to their state legislatures as well). I’ve heard some squawking about preliminary maps from all sides already.
A few elections to look forward to besides the November 2024 Presidential and General Elections – when we will no doubt be told, yet again, that “this is a matter of life and death”, and “this is the most important election in our lifetime.” (Insert breathless, feverish inflection as you wish).
I touched on the mid-term races in 2022, but special congressional elections will be held to fill vacancies as well in November, 2021. With a Senate split at 50-50 there are several 2022 Senate elections to watch closely, wherein Reps must defend 20 seats, the Dems 14. The likely close races to watch here look to be: Georgia (again), Arizona, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Of these likely close races, Reps are defending 3 seats, Dems 4. Be prepared for an extra onslaught of advertising and “persuasion” if you live in those states.
And coming sooner, this year in September: (1) the nation will watch the recall election of Gov Newsome in California on the 14th, and (2) Europe – indeed, the world – will pay attention to see how Germany reshapes itself in the post-Merkel era, as they hold federal elections on the September 26th.
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 Fewer Whites than in 2010. This might party be attributed to several factors. (1) more mixed-race couples and people-in-general who identify as non-racial, (2) mixed race people who identify as a person of color (e.g. Barak Obama who is exactly ½ White and ½ Black definitely identifies as black; people like Tiger Woods, who at ¼ Black would identify as Black), and (3) a reluctance — or even rebellion — by Whites against identifying people by race; e.g. some identify as Native American. Why? They were born here, as were their parents and grandparents. They identify as Native. Hmmmm.]
 Gerrymandering is named for early Massachusetts politician, Governor, and 5th VP of the nation, Elbridge Gerry, who helped draw and then approved a political map of his state that was so distorted (in order to keep his party in power) that a district looked like a salamander. Thus the word is a sort of portmanteau of his name and the amphibian. Many states have outdone him today. As Gerry was one of the nation’s founding fathers, it’s sometimes interesting to think that many modern jurists should divine to understand the thinking of founding fathers, and then seek, anachronistically, to incorporate such into modern judicial decisions).
Not all of Texas is severely gerrymandered, as much of it is rural and undividably safely Republican. It is too large of a state to easily show all of the congressional districts at once in much detail, but the generally progressive counties containing cities like Austin and San Antonio have been chopped up and districted so that Dem Congressional representation is diminished. Politics, it is said, is a full contact sport.
Shown is current Texas CD 21, in which fragments of San Antonio and Austin are lumped in with an enormous swath of rural-dom. Alongside is Texas CD35, which is more of a salamander and ridiculous.
1900. The Games of the II Olympiad are underway as part of the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The Track and Field events are being conducted in the stadium of the Racing Club de France Football. It is not the fancy stadium or field we would come to expect of Olympic Games decades hence – Racing Club plays in the 5th tier of French national soccer (football). But, it is conveniently located close to the fairgrounds. Not far away, just under a mile, and across the historic River Seine, the 1,000-foot-tall Eiffel Tower – built as an awe-inspiring eye-catching fascination for the 1889 Fair – is in view.(1)
June 16. Ray stands beside the bar as required for this event: the standing high jump. No running approach or adjustment of feet position is permitted. He takes a moment to gaze at its World Record height; so prodigious a height that, if cleared, it would have sufficed to earn a medal in the regular running high jump in the previous Athens Olympics. He begins his unique routine, breathing slowly and deeply, focusing his attention, gradually folding his lanky legs into a deep squat, stretching his powerful quad, calf, and glute muscles. As his squat deepens, he begins to swing his arms, farther and farther, back and forth. Then – suddenly! – he explodes almost straight up.
Standing High Jump, Ray Ewry
Would it be Ironic that a man who came to world prominence labeled as “The Human Frog” would have the most life-altering circumstance of his entire life crash upon him during a silly race involving frogs? Because, after Ray Ewry’s performances in the II Olympic Games – winning three Olympic Championships in all three standing jumping events in a single day – that’s what the French media and fans called him: La grenouille humaine. And the name stuck.
I have found that a firm definition of the word Ironic is difficult to pin down, although many English speakers use the word often. As Merriam-Webster states: “The word irony has come to be applied to events that are merely curious or coincidental …” Best fit might be when a word’s, or a phrase’s usage – or a real-life outcome – is far different than what one would expect. Or as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said (of something completely different): “I know it when I see it.”
Ray Ewry was that man of world prominence.
Standing High Jump, Olympics, Ray Ewry
He was born in October, 1873, in Lafayette, Indiana. That’s the seat of Tippecanoe County, lying along the Wabash River, and contains its companion waterway: the Wabash Canal. The river, the canal, and even the county fair and fairgrounds provided entertainment for young Ray. But his life wasn’t even close to easy.
Much of America and Europe went through a canal building craze in the early 19th century. These ambitious waterway constructions facilitated the transportation of goods and product. In America grain went from the breadbaskets of the heartland to oceanic ports and thence to other American cities and to the world. Canals also facilitated the flow of all sorts of necessities to the heartland: forged machinery, stoves, clothing, boots, even sawn lumber and fine European clothing and furniture. (One tip-off regarding canal building and its significance is the number of inland US cities with the suffix “-port” in their name, such as Logansport, Gasport, Middleport, Brockport, etc. There are at least 4 Lockports, of course all near canal locks: one each in Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, and New York states).
US Major Canals, circa 1853
Thousands of miles of canals were constructed. The Erie Canal is probably the most famous and enduring. It opened in 1825 and traversed northern New York state for some 360-plus miles, connecting the four Great Lakes above Niagara Falls to the Atlantic Ocean … and thus helped make many cities along those Great Lakes become commercial and transportation hubs (Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, etc.), and also helped make New York City into the gigantic hub of commercial trade. That’s a status it enjoys to this day.
Of the significant but lesser-known canals we consider the longest North American canal at nearly 500 miles: the Wabash & Erie Canal. This canal network connected Toledo’s Maumee Bay, at the western end of Lake Erie to Evansville, Indiana, on the right bank of the mighty Ohio River. From there transportation to and from the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico was possible.
With construction beginning near Toledo in 1832, and finally reaching Evansville in 1853, the canal’s long-term future (as for many other canals) was doomed before it was completed, even though it had been in use since the first few miles of the big ditch were dug. The steam powered “Iron Horse” was the next transportation rage. Fueled with coal and using rapidly developing steel technology for engines, wheels and rails, the railroad would almost immediately surpass and suppress the potential of canals for convenient transportation.
1904 Saint Louis. The Games of the III Olympiad are underway, again as part of a World’s Fair. The Track & Field events are occurring on the newly constructed Athletic Field of Washington University (now known as Francis Olympic Field). Again, the field lacks much of the glamour and size we’d grow to expect in future decades. The University is in the process of moving from downtown Saint Louis to just across the city limits. Its many buildings and grounds are still works-in-progress. Just a few yards away from the Athletic Field, the World’s Fair is using the University’s new Admin Building as headquarters for its massive spread of 1,270 acres of exhibitions – the largest Fair until Shanghai over a century later, in 2010. And just a bit further away the Ferris Observation Wheel, at 264 feet tall with a capacity of 2,160 passengers is clearly visible.
August 29. Ray stands at one end of the Long Jump pit. His feet are on the ground; this is a standing jumping event. He’d need one of his better jumps to secure 1st place and a gold medal (the 1904 Olympics were the first with gold, silver and bronze medals). He gazes out to a spot well over 3 meters away, to world and Olympic record distance. Fellow American Charles King has already broken Ray’s Olympic record at 3.21 meters. Ray quiets his pensive, disciplined mind and begins his now well-known routine. When he leaps, his explosiveness surprises no one. When he lands – properly not falling backward – the crowd roars its appreciation. Ray has set a new World and Olympic Record at 3.47 meters (11 feet, 4.6 inches) – and won himself another Olympic championship.
Ray Ewry, Standing Long Jump, 1904 Olympics, Saint Louis
Unlike Paris, the Olympic events are spread out over several months; yet like Paris, most of the athletic (track and field) Olympic competitions were crammed into just a few days. In Paris, all of Ray’s events were held on a single day; in Saint Louis his events spread out a bit. Yet, Ray won three golds again, sweeping the standing jumping events, between August 29 and September 3. Although he set a record in the Long Jump, his other numbers were off from his personal best – a trend he had begun to notice in his training.
Not much detail is known of Ray Ewry’s early life in Lafayette, except that it was profoundly difficult. I found little. He had one sibling, a sister, Mabel, a few years younger. His father, George, was prone to drink. His mother, Lizzie, died of “consumption” (now known as tuberculosis) when he was only 5-½ years old, and his sister was still a toddler. Sodden with alcohol and sorrow, Ray’s father was unable to deal with the duties of sole parent, household management, and employment – so he turned to his friends and neighbors, the Elisha family, to raise his children. Mary Elisha became Ray’s and Mabel’s mother. Mr. George Ewry then vanished forever. Ray was an orphan.
Little was known about diseases – including hygiene and sanitation – even late into the 19th century. And little could be done for what was known. Thanks to Hooke and van Leeuwenhoek, the prolific lives of bacteria were certainly known, yet Fleming’s discovery of penicillin was decades away, and widespread use of it even further. Viruses were unknown, although they were proved to exist in the 1890s; yet they were so small they were little understood until well into the 20th century. ____________________________________________________________________________
In Lafayette Indiana, like many other places, children frequently played in, and splashed about in, fetid waters. Ray Ewry often did such when he was not off playing at the county fairgrounds. He’d jump and swim in the Wabash Canal or River. All the kids did. No one really thought much of it.
2021. It’s still the time of coronavirus, or Covid-19, although – hopefully – the end is nigh. Or at least major relief. Tokyo will host the Olympics with essentially zero spectators. Of the countless types of viruses, there are a tiny fraction that can have horrible effects on humans. But a tiny fraction of a very large number is still a large number. Among this vile fraction are a set of three that can cause conditions that terrify anyone: the polio viruses.
These are three similar but distinctly different polio viruses. Call them variations on a gene. All are highly contagious and are different enough that vaccines must contain three different antigen triggers. Thankfully two types are considered to be fully eradicated from the earth, and the other is found only in remote places – mostly Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Much as with Covid-19, the vast majority of people who got infected with a polio virus suffered very mild-to-no symptoms; some medical sites say 95-99%. Of those with symptoms, most might have felt like they had a mild cold, or flu, and feel achy for a few days, or maybe a week. Perhaps a slight fever. And then it was gone. [Also, like Covid-19, these asymptomatic infections can spread the virus]. What history and imagination conjures up for us is the one-in-two hundred or so who suffered some sort of paralysis. The onset of paralysis was usually some time – several days, or even a week, or more – after the body had seemingly “beaten” the virus. Overwhelmingly such paralysis victims were children: from very young to adolescents.
The odd adult case has a most memorable example. Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the US, was stricken with polio paralysis at age 39 – the year after he had unsuccessfully stood for Vice-President as the Democratic Party nominee. About 75% of such polio paralysis victims eventually get most, even all, capability back in their stricken limbs and muscles. Roosevelt was among the minority who did not.
Sadly, for those who do recover, there is a high incidence of PPS – Post Polio Syndrome. After many years, even after decades, the previously afflicted muscles begin to slowly weaken, and may eventually fail altogether. The biological mechanism is not understood, as the virus itself is long gone from the body, and – now that Polio is nearly totally eradicated thanks to diligent vaxxing of all children – the phenomenon may never be understood. Perhaps the aging body just “remembers” the condition and reverts back to it.
There are other infectious diseases that can have long-lasting effects, long after the infection is beaten. One is caused by the genus of streptococcus bacteria. Bacteria are much larger than viruses, but just as devious. They are frequently “opportunistic”: the body generally fights them off well, but they still strike hard when the body is run down, perhaps fighting another infection (often viral), or there is a large cut or scrape to the skin, as often happens to young boys.
Strep bacteria have distinct proteins on their cell coating which the human body’s immune system identifies as antigens: something to attack and kill. But sometimes the body is too run-down to fight the bacteria off quickly, or perhaps, after the age of Fleming, the use of antibiotics is delayed. When strep hangs around the body for a while, the immune system gets over-programmed to attack the marked bacteria’s protein in its cell coating. Unfortunately, that protein is very similar to other proteins that the body needs, such as in the muscles of the heart. And tissue in the joints. The result is Rheumatic Fever. It is usually a life-long struggle. It’s an auto-immune disorder: the body attacks itself.
It was probably not uncommon to suffer such an infection along with a viral infection … like polio.
1906, Athens. The International Olympic Committee has decided to hold another Olympic Games competition to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the first modern era Olympics, also held in Athens. Dubbed the “Second International Olympic Games of Athens”, they were the first clear forerunner to the much spot-lighted and hyped-up Olympics we know today. Well planned, highly promoted, and separate from a World’s Fair. The track and field events are held near the center of ancient Athens, in the Panathenaic Stadium, a magnificent edifice, fully worthy of the Olympics, which remains today the only stadium built entirely of marble. So magnificent, in fact, that it was used as a main venue for the 1896 and the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, as well as 1906.
Olympic Stadium, Athens, Olympiakó Stádio Athinon
Ray Ewry successfully defends his Olympic Championship in two events, the standing high jump and standing long jump. After the 1904 games, the standing triple jump was removed from the Olympic event list, for which Ray and his aging body were grateful. A tad discouraged by failing, yet again, to reach the height and distances of his previous performances, Ray nonetheless takes the time to scoop up some soil from the Athenian Olympic field and take it back to America.
June, 1881. School is out. Ray and his friends spend many muggy days playing in and around the old horse and wagon trails, taking time to splash about to cool off and “rinse off” in the fetid waters of the nearly abandoned Wabash Canal, part of the lengthy Erie & Wabash canal system. Catching a few frogs was not out of the question. Such “boy things” were commonly done, and no one thought much about it.
In June Ray caught a bad cold, perhaps a flu, with fever, chills and aches. His greatest fear was missing the Tippecanoe County Fair. To him the Fair’s highlight would be the Wheelbarrow Frog Race, to be held on July 4th.
Such “Frog” races were rather new to America, and especially Tippecanoe County. Apparently the highly entertaining, laugh-a-minute race idea came along with immigrants from Italy. The general idea is that each contestant gets a wheelbarrow (with low sides, or even no sides) and a frog. Place a frog on each wheelbarrow and run. Race distances were from a few hundred yards to a mile. You must complete the race with both a wheelbarrow and a frog upon the wheelbarrow to win.
Frogs are generally placid and stay put … until the slightest bump or turn occurs. Whereupon they jump off, and the unfortunate contestant must discard their wheelbarrow, stop running the race, and start running after their frog – hopefully retrieving it quickly. It was not uncommon, and considered within the rules, that contestants would bump each others wheelbarrows.
Fortunately for Ray, he recovered from his summer “bug” after a few days, and Mary Elisha allowed him to participate in this hilarious half-mile race. A bunch of young boys with small wheelbarrows and frog aboard (perhaps caught in the canal) took off from the starting line. Along the dirt race path each participant, of course, had his frog escape from time-to-time: that’s the whole idea and the source of the fun. Sometimes boys would catch each others’ escaped frogs (rules say one needs “a frog” to win, not “the frog you started with”). It was such fun for all of them and for the spectators!!
While chasing his escaped frog Ray began to feel tingling in his legs, like something he’d never felt before. Each time the frog escaped and he chased it down, the tingling experience was of short duration; yet, each time it was longer and more intense; and each time he ignored the funny tingling and began running the race again once he had his frog aboard his wheelbarrow. Coming down the home stretch Ray felt like he had a chance to win. The leader was just a few strides ahead. He ran and pushed as hard as he could. No sense risking losing his frog now. At full stride, the tingling returned. It turned to weakness. The faster he tried to run the weaker his legs became.
With what seemed like the whole county watching, Ray fell face first onto the race path. Had he stumbled? Horrified, Mary Elisha and others watched as he tried to get up and complete the race. But Ray couldn’t get up. His legs were completely paralyzed. At 7-½years old.
1908, London. The Games of the III Olympiad are again, and for the last time, held as part of a World’s Fair. The IOC had found, from experience in 1900 and 1904, that holding the games concurrent with such a grand Fair was not consistent with their vision for the future of the games… especially after the success of the 1906 games in Athens, which stood alone, and shone greatly.
The 1908 games were awarded to Italy, to be hosted in Rome. Unfortunately, the catastrophic 1906 eruption of Vesuvius had stressed the Italian government greatly, and they backed out as host of the games. London, which was to host another grand World’s Fair in 1908 (they had hosted what is arguably the first modern World’s Fair, in 1851) would now host the Olympics for the first time. [Rome finally hosted the Olympics in 1960, and the achievements of Wilma Rudolf there are not without remarkable parallels to Ray Ewry. London hosted again in 1948 and 2012].
At the astonishing age of nearly 35 (for a track and field athlete) Ray Ewry again defends his Olympic title in both the standing Long and High jumps, eking out height and distance just barely ahead of 2nd place. Quietly both proud of his achievement and also a tad disappointed in his slipping numbers, Ray takes home the last two of his ten Olympic first place awards. He is 10 for 10, winner of 10 events and undefeated in his Olympic career. Unheard of even today for a multiple gold medal winner.
1881-1891. Young Ray is distraught and discouraged by his condition: Paralyzed and bed-ridden. Mary Elilsha refuses to give up, reaching out to doctors and medical centers far and wide. There is full consensus: this is a life-long condition. Ray is forever paralyzed. But one doctor provides a glimmer of hope: perhaps some physical therapy could possibly help. It might well have just been a simple kind thing to say to a grieving “mom” like Mary. No sense heaping more grief on her, and Ray.
Mary runs with this advice. She finds a woman with a therapy background willing to spend time with Ray. Some research suggests her name was “Kate”, but the source is not firm. Nevertheless, she quickly moves past massage and assisted range-of motion stretches; she improvises with a peach basket, cutting two holes in the bottom and hanging it from a rope suspended over a pulley on the barn. Ray, wheelchair-bound, was lifted into the basket, its height adjusted with the pulley so that his feet barely touched the ground.
“Push Ray, Push!”
Day after day, month after month, year after year, Ray spent endless hours in the basket.
“Push Ray, Push!”
Slowly, incrementally, almost imperceptibly, the basket was lowered – first by Kate, then after she had left, by Mary Elisha. As it was lowered, although unknown to Ray for some time, he could support ever more weight, and this allowed him to flex his legs, exerting his muscles over greater range of motion.
By the time Ray reached his senior year in high school, he was still using crutches. But he could get himself into and out of the basket, raise and lower it himself, and he was growing in several ways. Ray was growing stronger – much stronger. He was also growing to be quite tall, now reaching 6 feet. And he was a superior student.
By the end of his senior year he was walking. After 11 years of paralysis. He enrolled at nearby Purdue University and started participating in the track club. He continued his own training and therapy, keeping careful notes, and training with the club.
In 1894 Ray completed a degree in engineering, and moved on to a few years as an Associate Engineering Professor at Purdue. His intellect and his physical prowess were catching a lot of attention. Since freshman year, Ray began winning track events, although at a club level and against mostly regional schools.
Ray Ewry and the Athenian Olympic Stadium. At right his Olympic shirt bears the Winged Foot insignia of the New York Athletic Club
Later in the 1890s, Ray got the opportunity to move to the New York area, with a position designing and building ships for the US Navy. As a coincidental bonus, he was also offered a sponsored membership at the exalted New York Athletic Club, where he could continue training and competing. It was they who sponsored his participation in the Olympics. And provided a training site for him.
1910-11. Despite his age, Ewry had every intention of competing in the 1912 Olympic Games, in Stockholm. He continued his training and kept meticulous notes. Outwardly upbeat about his chances of qualifying to be on the US team, inwardly and in his notes his mood was a bit darker. His joints ached; not just his knees and not just when he trained. It was everywhere. And he could feel his leg muscles weakening, despite his disciplined workout and training regimen.
It’s hard to tell the difference between the effects of aging and the combined effects of Post-Polio Syndrome and Rheumatic Fever.
In 1911, aged 38, while training for the Olympic tryouts, he suffered a knee injury. These had occurred before, and he always recovered and worked through them. Not this time. He just could not get through it this time. After a few months of further training and therapy Ray decided it was time to retire from competition (although he remained active in the sport for decades, both coaching and judging at events).
After a very distinguished career with the Navy (as a civilian) Ray was recruited by the city of New York City to help further develop their water supply infrastructure. The large city was still growing, and they would soon need not only more water, but better systems to deliver it. Ray spent a lot of time over the next decades touring the state, inspecting and directing implementation of his designs, many of which are still providing steady, faithful service today.
Along the way, Ray married a local Lafayette girl, a lass named Nelle Johnson, several years younger than he, who had taken kindly to him when he was young, shy and struggling with polio paralysis. They had only one child, a girl named Mary Elizabeth, who usually went by Betsy or Bets. Sadly, Betsy got very early Alzheimer’s, and all of her memories of her father were lost. Her only son (I think, and thus Ray’s only grandson) Thomas Carson, a music industry professional, compiled much of Ray’s lesser-known history through much personal research. His work was a great resource to me in writing this essay. 
Ray passed away in 1937 just before his 64th birthday. One would normally think that is quite young for an athletically accomplished man who attended faithfully to his health. I can’t find the circumstances, but it seems it was a quick slide at the end and might well have been negatively affected by the health issues of his youth … which followed him through most of his adult life.
In 1928 Ray Ewry was invited back to Purdue to be present at the dedication of the new Ross-Ade Football Stadium. As Purdue’s most accomplished athlete ever (and perhaps most accomplished engineer), he was the guest of honor. For the ceremony, and unknown to almost everybody, Ray brought with him a small jar of soil from the Olympic Field at Athens, still untouched after more than two decades. For the surprise highlight of the dedication ceremony, Ray spread the hallowed ancient Olympic soil upon the stadium field of his Alma Mater.
Ewry’s Olympic record of ten championships held up for many decades. In fact, so far, it has only been broken once, by the superhuman Michael Phelps, who has won 23 gold medals. He broke Ewry’s record of 10 when he won his 7th through 14th Olympic Gold Medals at the Beijing Games, in 2008. However, Phelps is not undefeated, as he won zero medals in 2000 (at Sydney, age 15) and has 28 overall medals (also the most ever) against “only” 25 golds.
It should be noted that several decades later, in 1949, the IOC decided that the 1906 Games were not “Real Olympic Games” and purged all records of those games from their official list. Most historians of athletics disagree, however, and they do indeed count these games and awards, since they were highly attended, highly promoted as Olympics, and set the trajectory for how the games evolved. So, officially, I suppose, per IOC (and Wikipedia and others) Ray Ewry has only eight Olympic championships. But I am with the consensus of historians: we emphatically say ten!
Thank you, Ray Ewry, “The Human Frog”, for showing us that anything is possible if we keep pushing our boundaries and continually try to better ourselves, even in times of strife, viruses, and disease… and beyond.
Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Footnote (1) Today, the Tower is only visible from this site if one peers carefully between trees growing in the park and new buildings built later in the 20th century. Here is a painting of an aerial view of the 1900 fair, which was likely made from a sketch that was made by an artist aloft in a balloon. The athletic field is the green space across the river. It is possible that the old Theirs city wall, which was quite close to the park and fields, could have obscured the view, despite being heavily damaged during the siege in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
Footnote  Thomas E Carson V, Ray Ewry’s grandson, wrote a biography about Ray, called “Unsung.” It was the culmination of decades of work in which he interweaves Ray’s bio with his own nearly epic pursuit of the details of Ray’s life, as well as his medals. There are many, many sources on Ray. But, to the benefit of me as a writer and you readers, Mr Carson’s book provided much of the rich contextual detail about Ray that made his story much more “human.” Thank you sir!
Carson is also a published fiction writer, and I believe you can find his works (including some serials based on a main character named Drum Bailey) on Amazon and elsewhere.
Mr Carson may not be Ray’s only grandson, but some genealogy searches turned up no others.
I haven’t written about Major League Baseball (MLB) this year until now. I’m still a bit discouraged by all the new rules for covid, and those that have carried over. The game drifts farther and farther from the one I learned and loved as a child. Strikeouts are now matter-of-fact; those numbers continue to soar. Batting averages sink. There is a controversy about this being linked to many pitchers illegally applying various substances to the balls to improve their grip. Is it that, or that every swing seems to be a “home run” swing?
But it’s still America’s game. America’s great past time. Old games stay in our memories, and in the record books. Just as new stars and events make their ways into the same places.
Consider the phenom playing for the Los Angeles Angels, the once-in-a-century supremely talented Shohei Ohtani. The Japanese star hits for extraordinary power and is also a starting pitcher. His home run rate rivals that of Babe Ruth, the other most-famous pitcher-and-hitter; and, depending on how one calculates, Ohtani hits HRs more frequently than the Babe. Both over his career and especially this year.
Like the Babe in the earlier part of his career, Ohtani is also an exceptionally good pitcher. Stuck with a mediocre team, his win-loss record doesn’t accurately reflect his talents. He has one of the fastest fastballs, and regularly throws at, or over, 100 miles per hour. With a full assortment of pitches and deliveries – cutters, sliders, splitters, curves – he’s dropped his ERA this year to 2.70 and strikes out one-third of batters he faces; both are among MLB leaders.
Ohtani will be at the All-Star Game in Denver next month. Many fans are looking forward to his participation in the Home Run Derby.
I’ve written about amazing pitching performances in MLB history a few times, for example Can’t Touch This and Last At Bat. 104 years ago today, on June 23, 1917, an amazing pitching performance occurred that is sorta-kinda one of the most amazing No-Hitters and Perfect Games that don’t get recorded as such.
The man was Ernie Shore, a teammate of Babe Ruth’s on the Boston Red Sox. He is linked to the Babe in other ways besides this particular game against the (first) Washington Senators. Both were earlier sold by the Baltimore Oriole organization to the Boston Red Sox in the same transaction.
[Later, before the 1920 season, the “BoSox” would sell Ruth, known at the time as “The Bambino” to their rival Yankees – even though he had helped lead them to three World Series wins. He was just too expensive and demanding. This became known as “The Curse of the Bambino”, since the BoSox, who had won 5 of the first 15 World Series, did not win another until 86 years later. Meanwhile, the Yankees won 26 championships, or so, in the same time period. They had won zero before acquiring Ruth.]
Ernie Shore was a farm boy from the foothills of North Carolina, near North Bend. He was the 2nd of five boys born to Henry and Martha Shore; Ernie arriving in 1891. (My essay about farm boys in MLB here]. Ernie compiled a very respectable record during his four years alongside Ruth on those Red Sox teams, going 58-33. He also went 3-1 in four World Series starts, helping the Braves win back-to-back WS victories in 1915 and ’16.
[The Sox won another World Series in 1918, this time without Shore, as he had enlisted in the military to fight in World War 1. When Shore returned, he too, like Ruth, was dealt to the Yankees].
Fenway, pre-Green Monster
The day was June 23, 1917. Exactly 104 years ago as I write this. World War 1 raged in Europe. Bodies fell and blood flowed across Flanders. Fenway Park, the now famous home of the Boston Red Sox, was barely 5 years old. Its iconic “Green Monster” left field wall was in place, but that nickname came later. Then, it was just “The Wall”, put up to keep fans and freeloaders off the field. There were rows of fans in front of the wall.
The woeful Washington Senators were in town for a 5-game series against the Sox, which would include two double-headers. Such long multi-game series and double-headers (especially on Saturdays) were more common back then, since travel was very inconvenient. One of those double-headers might have been a makeup from a weather-caused postponement earlier.
On this fine Saturday, Babe Ruth was the starting pitcher for the Red Sox in the first game of a double-header. The game’s first batter walked; he was the Senators’ Ray Morgan, a swift-footed second baseman. Ruth thought both balls 3 and 4 should have been strikes, and he let the umpire know how he felt in no uncertain terms. In fact, by many reports, the dispute came to blows. Ruth was ejected from the game. So was the Red Sox’s catcher, Pinch Thomas.
Without warmup or warning, Ernie Shore, who was likely scheduled to pitch the backend of the double-header, was called in to pitch. Sam Agnew, a part-time catcher, substituted for Pinch Thomas.
The situation seemed rather frenetic, and thus opportunistic, to Morgan. What with the dustup between Ruth and home plate umpire Brick Owens, the sudden pitching change, and the sudden catcher change, this seemed like a good time to try and steal second base as soon as possible.
He did try. The new catcher, Agnew, fired the ball across the diamond to second baseman Jack Barry, who then tagged out Morgan. It was not a good opportunity.
Morgan was the last baserunner the Senators had the entire game. Ernie Shore retired every batter; 26 up, 26 down. The Red Sox went on to win, 4-0. By the way, substitute catcher Agnew went 3 for 3, and knocked in two of the Red Sox’s runs.
This game used to be listed among MLB’s individual no-hitters and perfect games. But the rules for such things were “shored up” (sorry, pun intended). It’s now just an interesting game and one of those baseball oddities. Maybe it wins you a few bar bets. It is listed now as a “combined no-hitter.” Babe Ruth steals the headline again.
After World War 1 Shore resumed his career, now with the Yankees. However, during the winter of 1918-19 he caught a bad bug from his Navy roommate. Perhaps it was the Spanish Flu. He was bedridden for weeks. It greatly weakened him. He had a subpar 1919 season by his standards. He rested and trained for 1920, but the arm strength just wasn’t there. He was sent to the minors in 1921. He languished there a few seasons, then retired. He then tried coaching for a while, but Shore didn’t have the body or the heart for baseball anymore.
He moved back to his native North Carolina. He got married, raised a family, got involved in local youth sports and politics. He was even sheriff of Forsythe County for 36 years.
Ernie, Thanks for the memories. We might forget you, but the history books will not.
My wife and I are very blessed and fortunate. Our enterprises have afforded us the opportunity to travel rather extensively, compared to our compatriots, mostly in the US and North America – and, to a degree most others have not, across much of Europe and even much of Australia: New South Wales, Canberra, Victoria, South Austrailia … and even Western Australia, which even most Ozzies have not seen..
Renting a car for most or part of the trip is often part of the overall calculus, including the financial aspect. Yes, non-automotive transport is often efficient and quaint – whether by buses or various types of train – and we have certainly made use of that opportunity. But there’s nothing like the good ol’ American feel of independence and flexibility you get from a car. The call of the open road, where you can get to really out-of-the-way places on your own schedule. And to have travel flexibility and independence. Pull over to take in a seductive, attractive random hamlet, or a park, or scenic overlook, or ancient castle.
One thing that has struck us is the variability in car rental costs. Particularly at airports. Prices can be eye-watering. Especially at airports like Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport. Holy cow! The special add-on fees and taxes there are often more than the raw cost of renting the car!!
This is, I reckon, largely the result of two major factors. First, there’s the cost to the car rental company for space at, or near, an airport; it’s often quite high. Airports are usually run by local Port Authorities, Transit Authorities and/or host municipalities. They charge very high rates for space because … well, because they can. It’s part of why a sandwich, a coffee or a beer in an airport is so expensive. Companies must pass this cost along. No sense being in business if you cannot make money.
The second is the almost unavoidable urge to make someone else pay for your own needs. Need money? Easy: just charge special fees and taxes to out-of-town visitors. The same occurs in another hospitality industry: Hotels. Let’s have “Joe from Colorado” pay for our fill-in-the blank need (roads, water treatment, schools, ramps, lights).
One way to see a lot of the world without a lot of extra fees and surcharges is to join the military. Especially the US Navy. Most sailors get to see quite a lot of the world, even if it is often by peering over endless seas.
My father-in-law was a Navy man during World War II. Radioman, 3rd class. He indeed got to see much of the world as a young man, from the Mediterranean to the far-flung atolls of the Pacific. He also got to see and experience Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. A regret we descendants all have is that we didn’t encourage him to talk more about this. But he just never seemed to want to be open about it, … and we respected him, keeping a safe distance from the topic, only probing once in a while. He always stayed guarded and reticent on the topic of war experiences. That’s a trait that many of that Greatest Generation Era shared. So many memories – not just Pearl, but things like seeing the bloodied Marines coming back from Saipan and Tarawa – would lie largely suppressed for decades, until his final years. Unfortunately, that’s just as his mind began to cloud. We cherish the few stories and memories we could get from him.
Well then. Join the Navy. See the world. Jack C Taylor, of St Louis, Missouri, was just such a fellow. In 1942 he quit his enrollment at Washington University (in neighboring Clayton, abutting St Louis’s western boundary) and got himself into the Navy, where he became a fighter pilot – flying Grumman F6F Hellcat Fighters off the decks of aircraft carriers.
Assigned to the USS Essex in 1943, Taylor participated in many confrontations, including dogfights. Most notably is the famous and crucial battle of Leyte Gulf in late October 1944. There, his squadron provided daring and critical strafing cover for torpedo bombers, all targeted toward sinking the Japan’s Imperial Super Battleship: the Musashi.
Taylor also flew sorties as the Essex supported attacks and victories at Guam, Wake Island, Peleliu, among others. Credited with only two confirmed “kills” himself, Taylor is not an Ace. However, he was wingman on many “kills” – including during the Marianas Turkey Shoot. So, his military decorations – including two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Navy Air medal – were well earned.
Shortly after Leyte, the Essex put into port in the Caroline Islands (Ulithi Atoll). She was simply short on supplies, having been at sea and in battle for four months (heck of a way to “see the world”).
Taylor was moved over to the carrier USS Enterprise. [Speaking of Pearl Harbor and Infamy: The US Navy was extremely fortunate that the USS Enterprise, along with the two other operational Pacific Fleet carriers – the USS Lexington and the Saratoga – were not in port when the Japanese arrived at dawn that fateful December Sunday morning].
Taylor stayed with the Enterprise for most of the rest of the war. The focus of the fighters’ value changed, as the Japanese turned more and more toward use of the Kamikaze. The Enterprise itself, in fact, took several Kamikaze hits … can’t shoot them all down. Along the way the Enterprise supported many coordinated Naval efforts, from Luzon to Iwo Jima.
A genuine decorated war hero, Taylor returned to St Louis and tried to pick up his civilian life. A natural adventurer ( … adventurer? Well, he did land fighter planes on the decks of aircraft carriers as they pitched and rolled upon the open sea) he started his own business from scratch: a delivery company. Too early for the needs we now see fulfilled by Ubereats, Grubhub and DHL, he then moved over to selling cars, Cadillacs mostly.
Successful at that, he planted the idea to the car dealer (Lindburg Cadillac) to get into the car leasing business. That is: leasing really nice cars to business executives. His employer agreed. In exchange, Taylor took a 50 percent pay cut and dumped $25,000 of his own money to bootstrap the operation. He ran the business out of the dealership, still selling cars on the side. He expanded over a few years to three locations in the Saint Louis area. The company was called Executive Leasing.
The quality of cars was good, the clientele loyal, and Taylor ran a tight financial ship. The company was making money within a few years; Taylor was soon the primary owner and principal. Customers began pestering him to rent them cars for short periods of time. This is not something he wanted to do; he had a very simple business model that he was not eager to relinquish (leasing to executives for 2-3 years); it was stable and making profits. The pestering continued: short-term rentals. After a few years, he relented. He would add short-term car rentals alongside his long-term lease business.
Taylor and Executive Leasing began the short-term car rentals business in 1963. Within a year the rental business grew to be much larger than the leasing business. One reason is that Taylor creatively partnered with auto insurance companies. When clients needed a rental (because of repairs needed after a crash) Taylor would rent them quality cars at low rates. His business boomed. He had outlets not just in St Louis, but now in several other cities.
It grew wildly, mostly by word of mouth and Taylor’s growing network of connections.
It was time to face the truth, something Taylor had denied from the beginning: he was in the car rental business, not the leasing business. And he had a new improvised business model that was simple and efficient: small rental sites scattered around cities. And mostly not at airports.
The company couldn’t be called The Executive Leasing Company anymore. What should the company be called now? He reached into his past and pulled up the glory of the USS Enterprise.
And that’s how the vast Enterprise Car Rental company got its name. The overwhelming majority of its sites are off-airport. All across America, over 10,000 of them … tucked into business parks and strip malls and low-cost locations in neighborhoods of medium to large sized cities.
Mr. Taylor was very enterprising. He went coast-to-coast. He expanded into Canada and Europe. Enterprise acquired National and Alamo car rentals. It became a huge enterprise, and remains so to this day. It is usually ranked #1 among car rental companies for volume and quality. [Ref here]
We have rented off-airport cars in Canterbury (UK), Freiburg, Landau and Munich (Ger), Wollongong (Aus) and, yes, even in Saint Louis, Missouri (actually Clayton, the original and current hometown of Enterprise Car Rentals). Most of those are quite convenient, as you can usually take public transport to near the rental site from the airport or train station. If not, Enterprise will usually drop the car off — if you are within 5 miles or so. And pick the car up when you are done!
Since these are not at airports, not only are the surcharges and extra fees quite low to non-existent, but they also usually also have lower drop fees; which is great if you want to end your car rental adventures in a different city than where you start.
Honesty here: Although many of these off-airport experiences were with Enterprise, some were through EuropeCar, which seems to have a similar business model, and the same logo colors: Green and White. [I know we used EuropeCar in Saint-Lô, Normandy, and Landau (twice). BTW, The folks at the Enterprise in Canterbury were just lovely; on that trip I dropped the car far away: in Edinburgh.]
Taylor and Enterprise were very generous with their fortune. By himself, and through the Enterprise Foundation (his company’s charitable arm), he donated several hundred million dollars to philanthropic causes. Geographically, these recipients and donations were widespread, going into the communities where his neighborhood rental offices were located, often to provide assistance to underserved children.
He also donated very generously in the St Louis area. He donated millions and millions to the St Louis Philharmonic, to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, and to local youth organizations and colleges. [Including Rankin College, where our dear friend Max Storm taught for almost three decades]
Jack Taylor ended up having a wonderful and successful life by any measure. His enterprises were successful, and he left us and his family with terrific stories. We and future generations will have at least two more reasons to remember him. (1) The US Navy has just completed the Jack C Taylor Conference Center, at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis (a truly beautiful campus in a beautiful city). And (2) the Missouri Botanical Gardens in his hometown of Saint Louis is currently building a new visitor center, to be named for Mr. Taylor.
Jack C Taylor passed on in 2016, aged 94. Thanks for all you did, sir.
“There! That’s the one!” A celebrated famous movie director and producer is shouting at his television. He’s also famously morbidly obese. He’s watching NBC’s Today Show, when up comes a commercial for a diet nourishment drink, one of scores of Ultra-Slim-Fast-type products of the day.
But he’s never been interested in dieting or health. He is one of the 20th century’s great story tellers and film makers. He’s been looking for someone. Someone special. And now he’s captivated by the lithe and pretty blond pitching the diet drink. She has the beauty, the poise, the elegance, and the charm to play the characters in some films he’s been itching to make. She’s the one.
You’re never too old to change.
I’ve been biting my fingernails since my earliest memories. My parents tried every way possible to help me stop. It’s such a disgusting habit in several ways. If nothing else, it’s atrocious hygiene; and people will – unconsciously or not – often judge your character poorly for it. And it looks terrible.
But I couldn’t stop. As Sluggo said to Nancy when asked about it: “But they’re so convenient. They’re right at my fingertips!”
I worked for a few decades with a fellow who gnawed his nails constantly. Way worse than even me. Every digit’s nail bitten right down to the quick. Catch him thinking about work stuff (another aerospace engineer) and his saliva covered fingers were jammed into his mouth.
“Well”, I could tell myself, “at least I’m not that bad.”
But, I did even disgust myself.
I tried many times to quit. Eventually, about 10 years ago, I started making great improvement and finally was able to cut back to almost never.
But a new problem arose. When nails grow long, they crack and split. Then what? Back to biting? I never replaced nail biting with a proper new habit, which – one would naturally think – would be to regularly trim my nails. So, even though I’ve mostly quit biting, my nails still look like a mess, as I will nervously pick at the splits and cracks, or maybe trim them with my teeth, or resort to a deep gash with clippers to remove the nick.
Nails, Nails, everywhere
During the 2007-2009 economic recession, I found myself looking at what was going on in brick-and-mortar businesses. Who’s closing? Who’s staying open? What businesses are resilient? I’ve been doing this ever since.
One curious thing that I noticed is that our urban and suburban areas are absolutely loaded with Nail Salons. They are everywhere. Even now, I can’t help but scan strip malls and shopping centers to find the almost-always-present *NAILS* marquee signs. Usually in neon.
One reason, I suppose, is that people (mostly ladies) like to have very nice looking nails. I appreciate that. It’s a fairly inexpensive splurge (for most) that allows them to feel good about themselves, a bit feminine, and attractive. Any more reasons?
Go inside a nail salon and … wait!!, I don’t go in those. Maybe I should. Probably could use a good manicure occasionally (but no fake nails for me).
Anyhow …. look inside and you’ll very likely observe that the professional manicurists are Asian ladies. And if they are Asian, they are almost certainly Vietnamese ladies. [Yes, I’ve peered in the windows, and peeked through the doors to verify this. I usually don’t get pleasant looks in return.]
Nathalie Kay Hedren was born in 1930, in New Ulm, Minnesota, the second child (and daughter) to first generation immigrants. New Ulm, probably with the closest hospital, is about 10 miles from her first hometown, the tiny hamlet of Lafayette, lying in the fertile south-central breadbasket of Minnesota. There, in Lafayette, her Swedish father ran a small general store. She was small and precocious, so her father called her “Tippi”, Swedish for “little girl”, or “sweetheart.” Tippi: The nickname stuck for life.
When Tippi was four, the family moved to Minneapolis, probably because of the impact of the great recession on her father’s farmer-customers. Genetically blessed with good looks, naturally blonde hair and bright hazel eyes, Tippi started appearing in local fashion shows and advertisements in the Twin City area when just a lass. When she was 16 her parents sought a gentler climate, as her father’s health was slipping. Upper Midwest winters will do that. They settled in San Diego, where she finished high school.
She then began studying art, at Pasadena City College, and also developed an interest in modeling. Soon, her good-looks, grace and aplomb would take her to New York. And on to a very successful decade in modeling. Over those years her face (and lean figure) graced the covers of Life, The Saturday Evening Post, McCall’s, Glamour and other magazines.
A failed marriage and one child later (she is actress Melanie Griffith’s mother), Tippi was back in southern California, making commercials for various brands, including Sego, a meal-replacement drink of only 225 calories. Thin was “in”, even then.
Alfred Hitchcock’s wife and film-making partner, Imelda Staunton, noticed her first. A brilliant blond, on a diet drink commercial. She knew “Hitch” was looking for another blond to cast in a movie he was hoping to make. And she knew he had an eye for beauties, especially blonds, and putting them in terrifying situations; as in Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest) and Janet Leigh (Psycho).
An interview was set up. That paved the way to screenings. Hedren was no actress. But she worked very hard on her lines, which were generally from earlier Hitchcock hits. She impressed him with her determination; plus she had grace and class. Hitchcock intended to make her a star. He’d be her coach.
Hedren starred in the 1963 thriller “The Birds”, generally regarded as a top Hitchcock classic. Hedren went on to make one more movie with Hitchcock: the not-so-popular “Marnie” (1964, with Sean Connery) which was met with mixed critical reviews. Then they had a falling out (lots there, maybe watch the movie “The Girl”, a Hedren/Hitchcock biopic). 
She then floated in-and-out of acting the next few decades, mostly spot appearances on several TV series. She appeared with her daughter in an ’80s Hitchcock TV episode. Nothing so significant as “The Birds.” But she had developed new interests along the way.
The late 1960s found her in Africa for filming. There she became enchanted by exotic cats and she grew concerned about their exploitation and mistreatment. Inspired to act, in the early 1970s, Hedren began what would become a mission for the rest of her life: working with wildlife charities to assist in the rescue and protection of such beautiful animals. Land was bought north of Los Angeles to establish the Shambala Preserve as a wild feline sanctuary. Later, she established the Roar Foundation to further support this charitable activity. In fact, she lives at Shambala now, aged 90, with her beloved big cats.
For the United States, the Vietnam war ended in 1973, when the treaty known as the Paris Peace Accord was signed in January. Although the US was out, the war continued. Treaty or not, North Vietnam bore down on South Vietnam. The South’s capital, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), fell in April, 1975.
Fearing for the fate of so many who had been loyal to South Vietnam and the US, the US government evacuated over 130,000 refugees and brought them to the United States. They were put in camps around the country: to be fed, clothed, and trained for employment and integration into the US society and economy.
Hedren was moved to act. She visited the first non-military camp for refugees, Hope Village, near Weimar, CA, along I-80 in the foothills about 40 miles outside Sacramento. This was a humanitarian visit to encourage them and find a way to help. She came with typists and seamstresses, hoping to find careers the refugee women could connect with. 
Now 45, Hedren was still a strikingly beautiful blond. At 5’-5”, she was tall to them. Blond and tall: that’s not all they noticed about her. They noticed her beautiful nails. They were long, perfectly shaped, … and painted. They had never seen anything like that. They all wanted nails like that. How do you do that? They wanted to become manicurists!
Trying to find employment: why not work with what you love? Hedren flew her personal manicurist to Camp Hope, to help train them. Then she recruited a local beauty school to work with them. In that first class, they trained a group of about 20 Vietnamese women. She guaranteed them all jobs, when they graduated, mostly in southern California. And she flew them to LA too. And they continued to train more refugees who wanted to become manicurists. Not pure coincidence that LA county has the highest population and concentration of Vietnamese of any place in the world, outside Vietnam. [Many other refugees from nearby Camp Pendleton eventually settled there, too].
And from there the nail phenomenon exploded. In the US, the nail salon industry grosses over $8 billion in sales annually. There are about 55,000 nail salons in the US – you can see them in almost any strip mall and shopping center – and about half of them are owned and operated by Asians. And over 95% of those are Vietnamese. Of these Vietnamese professional manicurists, most are only one or two degrees of separation from Tippi Hendren and her nail salon school for Vietnamese refugees. 
 the veracity of Hedren’s sexual harassment claims against Hitchcock are much disputed, including by actors and stage hands who worked with them on “The Birds” and “Marnie.” I tend to concur with the skeptics. At 5’7″ and 300 pounds, one can hardly imagine that the rotund 61-year old Hitchcock thought he had any romantic chance with the 5’5″ 110-pound 30-year old blond bombshell. But, stranger things have happened (ahem: Harvey Weinstein). Plus, she returned to work with him, briefly, in the ’70s on a TV show.
 Hope Village is now the home of Weimar Institute, a health oriented college.
 US Nail Salon sales, staff and salary stats here
“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.
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.
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.
“Without a doubt, chain of command is one of the most durable concepts in military organizations.”
Clarity: It is critical that each warrior be responsible to a single set of orders; and that those orders ultimately flow through a single person: a designated leader. Often, it is likewise with briefing and council of such leaders: well considered, well delivered and filtered information is better than too much information; it must come through a single responsible person.
“Red Sky at night: sailors’ delight. Red sky at morning: sailors take warning.”
Not long ago. ‘Twas before weather satellites. Before weather apps sent us instantaneous forecasts and updates – for free. Before flocks of powerful computers, powered by speedy powerful, parallel processors, loaded with forecasting programs and access to over a century of meteorological data. Before all that, people relied on little bits of wisdom, like that captured in this poem couplet, to help foretell the weather.
The insight of this this poem has been used for millennia. One of the earliest written records is this reply to a demand for a sign from heaven:
It is one thing to gage likely weather for smallish things like picnics and hikes, and larger things, such as if a ship should leave the safety of port. It is something completely different when the future of the world depends upon predictive correctness. Yet, decades before the space age, satellite imagery and the internet, a small group of people – led by an enigmatic man – made the most important and unlikely, yet correct, two-day weather forecast in the history of the modern world. Working with similar information, teams of weather scientists only a few miles away made different forecasts. The world-changing consequences were immeasurable.
The enigmatic man was James Martin Stagg. He was born to a plumber and a homemaker at the dawn of the 20th century, June 30th, 1900. His first name was that of his paternal grandfather; his middle name matched his mother’s maiden name. Hometown: Dalkeith, a small market town, some 15 miles south-southeast of the big city of Edinburgh, quite near the Firth of Forth – close by the North Sea. It’s a place where one becomes accustomed to the capriciousness of weather.
His parents were stern Scots. They raised him to be disciplined, thorough, hard-working, and accountable. He was also considered rather bookish and unemotional. Humorless. These were all traits that would serve him, and the world, well.
By age 15 James had received as much local education as possible in Dalkeith. Clearly bright and promising, he was sent off to further his education, in Edinburgh. By 1921 he had earned a master’s degree from prestigious Edinburgh University. His career began as a teacher and science master at George Hariot’s School (primary and secondary boarding school), also in Edinburgh. He also began post-degree research in a field that would fascinate him for the rest of his life: Geophysics. In particular, he studied the earth’s magnetic properties.
Weather forecasting was improving steadily during the first few decades of the 20th century, well beyond simple poems, owing largely to the development of powered flight – for commercial and, later, military purposes. Reasonable forecasts – wind, precipitation, cloud cover – were invaluable to pilots and navigators. And flight gave opportunity for a bonanza of further atmospheric data collection and observation.
The century had already dealt humanity horrible calamities due to inaccurate forecasts. In the US this included deadly hurricanes (such as Galveston, 1900; and the Long Island Express, 1938) and lost aircraft: commercial, private and military.
A mixture of art and science, weather forecasting was evolving rapidly. Some schools of thought promoted using centuries of meticulous records (even Thomas Jefferson kept detailed weather logs) and then trying to fit current readings with known patterns observed over time. Others were promoting a rigorous science-based approach, with the belief that given enough data the weather could be forecast days in advance, based solely on atmospheric data and physics-based mathematical models. Without high speed digital computers and data base programs, both approaches were handicapped as World War II broke out, September 1, 1939, and continued for six years.
Even in the 1940s, Americans who dwelt in the Midwest, or in the east, would be astonished at how feeble weather forecasting was for the British Isles and much of western Europe, from the coasts of France to those of Norway.
Why? Two major factors.
Factor one: Geographic location. Americans from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast reaped some under-appreciated major benefits here. One was the mid-latitude Westerlies: a general motion of west-to-east wind and weather patterns between 30 and 60 degrees latitude. Another geographic benefit was the sheer immenseness of the continent. From across the country – from cities and towns and airports and major rail stations – weather observations were constantly wired to the National Weather Service. Usually throughout each day.
Formed in 1890, the NWS was staffed with hundreds of dedicated hands-on human data processors who would manually amalgamate an astounding mountain of data – air pressure, temperature, wind speed and direction, cloud cover and type, precipitation amounts and rates – and concoct a pretty reasonable weather forecast for the few days ahead. The country – from farmers to aircraft – relied on these forecasts.
The second fact simply is that the North Atlantic is not a continent. There were very, very few weather reports from which to synthesize forecasts in “the pond.” It is as much a weather generator as it is weather receiver. Any details gleaned from shipping vessels were invaluable. Weather reports from Maine to Newfoundland, from Goose Bay, and from Thule to Iceland, were scrutinized for every possible detail. Remote stations in Ireland, Scotland, islands in the Irish Sea and along the Welsh coast could provide, perhaps, at most, a half day’s alert. The Atlantic dynamically battles with the Arctic here: ocean currents, the Jetstream, and vagaries of high latitude weather formation over a cold swirling ocean were simply not fully understood.
Although degreed in Geophysics, James Martin Stagg’s eclectic career and training earned him high praise, and he received an appointment at Britain’s Meteorological Office (usually just called “the Met”) in 1924. His responsibilities, experiences in travel, life and career, and the respect of other scientists continued to grow. For example, in 1932 he led a one-year expedition to arctic Canada, where he gained first-hand experience of weather variability north of “the Westerlies.”
His career flourished. In 1943 Stagg was appointed the Chief Meteorological Officer to Allied forces in Western Europe. The main mission: learn enough history and patterns of north Atlantic weather sufficiently well to make predictions for an invasion – the invasion to liberate western Europe. Today we call this D-Day and Operation Overlord.
Stagg’s partner and righthand man at this task was Donald Yates, a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point. The US Military has always been great at identifying and developing potential: as an officer, Yates went on to earn a master’s degree in Meteorology from CalTech before joining Stagg. ______________________________________________________________________
Chain of Command. The allies were blessed with capable generals from many backgrounds; – yet, more than a few were prideful and bullheaded. Think Patton and Montgomery. They also had widely varying backgrounds. But only one person could be the supreme leader of all Allied military operations in Europe. President Roosevelt, counseled by eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner George Marshall, and Prime Minister Churchill chose wisely. They quickly settled on Dwight D. Eisenhower (affectionately known as “Ike”) for the singular role, even though he had only minor actual leadership experience in battle.
Ike was just one of hundreds of possible candidates. Scores were more senior and battle-hardened; and many of those looked askance at this choice – and at Ike.
But Ike was gifted. He understood logistics and intelligence; he possessed superior organizational, administrative and people skills. Above all, he showed excellent judgment. In many ways he was likeable, and considered jovial and friendly; in times of critical decision he was pensive, careful and largely unemotional.
Likewise, the allied Allied weather staffs were full of capable yet strong headed individuals from various backgrounds. But only a single person could be responsible for advising General Eisenhower. The person selected was James Stagg. Assisted by Yates – the two acted largely as equals – Stagg’s job was to assess and make recommendations based on input from three independent teams of meteorologists.
Those three teams represented: (1) the United States Army Airforce; (2) the British Meteorological Office (or the Met); and (3) the British Royal Navy. Stagg – like Ike – was seemingly unqualified for the job to many close observers. His appointment as the single person responsible for meteorological advice – like Ike’s – was unappreciated by many highly trained and more experienced meteorologists, most of whom considered themselves to be superior. Yet – like Ike – Stagg had a long reputation for exceptional judgment, and a record for careful, unemotional decisions.
Single person chain of command. Ike on the overall mission to take Normandy and western Europe. Stagg on weather forecasts presented to Ike. Simple. ______________________________________-____________________________
A quick overview on D-Day, judgment, and the weather. Since early 1942 Europe and Stalin awaited the opening of a military front on the Third Reich’s west. They would have to wait until at least the spring of ’44, before Ike and his staff thought they could pull it off. In fact, Ike was not formally in charge of European operations until January of that year. The secret chosen location was a 50 mile stretch of beaches in Normandy, west of the Seine estuary near La Havre, and east of the Cotentin Peninsula.
What were the required conditions (besides secrecy and overwhelming force) for success of the largest landing invasion in history?
First and foremost, relatively calm seas so the landing craft could navigate the English Channel and get to the Normandy coast. Upon this hung any chance of success. And this depended almost solely on Stagg and the teams of meteorologists.
Second, dawn tidal conditions to suit the Higgins Boats (landing craft): a rising tide shortly after a low tide. The rising tide would help carry the craft into shore; the lower tide would help them avoid German defense obstacles. This condition could be met with a nearly full moon, or nearly new moon.
Third, mostly clear, calm skies. This would assist pilots and their cargo – about 14,000 paratroopers and 4,000 glider troops – and give the best chance to hit drop zones. These would come in the dark pre-dawn hours; the first jumps came shortly after midnight. Again, this depended on Stagg.
Fourth and finally, as a “nice to have”, but not a requirement: a full, or near full moon; again, to help paratroopers and their pilots.
May was an extraordinarily calm month, yet Ike did not think they were quite ready yet. June 5th, one day before a full moon, was chosen. All Allied – and German – meteorologists watched the weather, collected data and daily drew hundreds of charts by hand.
The glorious, calm, balmy western Europe spring suddenly turned nasty on June 4. Stormy skies and seas, with high winds and waves, and driving rain, pelted the British Isles and the Channel.
Stagg consulted with his three teams. There was bitter debate and ridicule among and within the teams on the weather outlook. The USAAF team, led by Irving Krick – who, coincidentally, had also earned a PhD in meteorology from CalTech – was “gung ho” for June 5th. The two British teams weren’t so sure: one cautiously optimistic, the other firmly against. The situation looked unsettled.
Outside of the weather, everyone really wanted to go June 5th. To stand down could be most discouraging. The men were mentally and spiritually as ready as they could be. Many craft were already loaded and in the water. The battleships were ready, staffed and ready to cruise. The planes were all checked out. Infantry, paratroopers, coxswains and pilots wrote wills; they wrote what could well be their last letters to family, wives and girlfriends.
Ike called in Stagg. What about the weather? Quite possibly the outcome of the entire war in Europe hung on Stagg’s shoulders. On one hand, if he recommended a No-Go, i.e. a postponement, then the invasion might not occur for weeks, or even months. The weather looked to be settled in for a long stretch of ugliness. Could the Allies maintain the surprise that long? What, meanwhile, would befall the beleaguered civilians in occupied Europe? On the other hand, if he recommended a Go for June 5, it was possible that the weather could cause catastrophe for the invasion – in fact, it might self-destruct.
Stagg recommended a postponement. Ike pushed him: really? Are you sure? Yes, he was. Like everyone, Ike really wanted to go. But, he acquiesced: he’d give the order to stand down. But what about the next day, June 6? There was a likely window of a few hours in the morning when the landings would be possible. Standby.
German forecasters, with similar access to history and data – although not quite as extensive – came to a similar conclusion. There would be no invasion on June 5. The weather looked so bad, in fact, that they forecast no likely invasion for at least two more weeks. Consequently, many German officers left their posts for personal leave, or to attend war games in Rennes. Many troops were given leave also. Erwin Rommel, the famous German general (The Desert Fox) who had been made commander of all Atlantic defenses even went home for a few days, in order to surprise his wife on her 50th birthday.
Krick’s team was so disappointed in the June 5th stand-down order that they tried to go around Stagg and get to Ike through back-channels. Good thing it didn’t work: the tradition of military chain of command stood firm. That day, as it turns out, would have resulted in a tragic outcome for the Allies. The German defenses would have barely had to fire a shot. Weather would have thwarted most flights, and tossed the Allied boats and ships to-and-fro all over the Channel. Battleships in the channel, pitching and rolling, could not have shelled the German bunkers with their big guns along the coast.
Later that night, Ike called for Stagg again. So: what about June 6th? To varying degrees all three meteorological teams supported taking the chance; each with differing and various concerns and caveats – except Krick, who was still gung-ho. It seemed that a high pressure was edging up from the mid-Atlantic, with just enough relief to offer a good possibility for the morning of the 6th.
Would it be perfect? No. Mixed, intermittent clouds (scattered in east Normandy, thick in the west), ground fog, and breezes would surely make it rough on paratroopers and their pilots (most sticks did miss their DZs — drop zones). But the landing craft could probably get to the beaches. Ike considered Stagg’s and Yates’ inputs, concerns and recommendation.
Ike conferred with his top leadership team to consider Stagg’s report. The three highest ranking members of this team were all Brits: Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (British Army); Commander-in-Chief of Naval Operations, Bertram Ramsey (Royal Navy); and Air Marshal Arthur Tedder (Royal Air Force). The first two leaned toward GO. But Tedder was against June 6th — the possibility of cloud cover was too risky. Ramsey then reminded Ike that the 7th could not possibly work, as many sea vessels would have to return to port to refuel, postponing a possible attack many days.
Ike considered all inputs an opinions. Then announced: June 6th was a GO.
Had Stagg or Ike been more cautious and postponed yet again, the next possible dates were June 19 & 20. The tides, of course would cooperate, but it would be moonless.
The Allies continued to put similar effort into weather forecasting after the successful June 6th landings. Air Force sorties and trans-channel crossings with supplies went on almost daily, quite dependent on their dependable forecasts. June soon turned stormy again. Yet the forecasts for June 19 were for relatively calm skies and seas.
Had the Allies stood-down again on June 6th, then almost surely the three teams, Stagg and Yates would have recommended that Ike go ahead with a June 19th invasion. Especially after postponing twice. Ike would have accepted that and issued the invasion “Go” order.
That would have been one of the worst disasters in military history. It was called “A Storm from Nowhere.” Tremendous winds and waves lashed across the Channel and crashed into Normandy. The large temporary Mulberry harbors were damaged, one of them destroyed completely.
Sometimes you need to be good AND lucky. June 6 was a good choice. And it was a lucky choice. Ike and Stagg were the right choices for their roles. They played the odds, trusted their guts, rolled the dice and chose well. The world is better for it.
After the war, Ike of course went on to serve two terms as US President. Between the war’s end and the presidency he held multiple leadership roles, first as Governor of the American Zone in occupied Germany; here he is most noted for ordering thorough photographic evidence of Nazi death camps, as well as organizing food relief for German civilians. Ike also served as Army Chief of Staff (succeeding Marshall), the first Supreme Head of NATO, and President of Columbia University.
Yates was awarded membership in the US Army Legion of Merit, and France’s Legion of Honor. He ended up a career military man, transferring to the newly formed Air Force in 1947. Through his career he held leadership and technological positions, working in both weather and rocket research. He also commanded Patrick Air Force Base, in Florida. He retired in 1961 as a Lieutenant General (3-star).
There were many heroes and personalities from the European Theater of WW2. Some are obvious; they will never be forgotten. Here’s to some lesser known heroes, including the Scotsman James Stagg and the American Donald Yates.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ) – 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.
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. 
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.  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.  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.
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. 
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.
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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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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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 
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.
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 shoes, 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 New Hampshire, and almost all of Rhode Island.
Well, that was a mouthful.
Now I need a drink of water.
Where’s the bubbler?
And a Kohler is no longer a charcoal burner. It is a fine, respectable bathroom fixture.
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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.
“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].
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.
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 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
[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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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
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. _________________________________________________________
And brother said he recollected when he, and
Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie. You know,
it don’t seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the
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.
And mama said to me: “Child, what’s happened to
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
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.
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).
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.