“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 did miss their sticks). 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 most 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 shows, roll up your pants and take a forbidden dip, or – more scandalously – fish out those coins.
Words change. They come and go. Regions are particular. Pop or Soda? But the name “bubbler” lives stubbornly
in its homeland – that is, much of southern and eastern Wisconsin – as well as
pockets of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Well, that was a mouthful.
Now I need a drink of water.
Where’s the bubbler?
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.
Recently the brand new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom,
Boris Johnson, suspended parliament at a moment in history that portends a
possible keyhole event: a “Hard Brexit” is
about to occur. Technically the term is prorogue. That is to say: “Johnson has prorogued
Parliament.” He simply sent them home
for a few weeks. Although not
all that uncommon for a new government – it comes shortly after his
placement as PM – the timing has made many
Brits uncomfortable, to say the least.
One supposes that my writing has been sort of prorogued of
late – not much publishing anyhow. I don’t
think many readers are uncomfortable about that.
I have a pair of terms for events that are
so transformational that things can never return to the way they were; not even
ways of thinking can return: Wormholes and Keyholes. Either way, when we pass
through them – either as individuals, families, communities, cultures,
countries or the entire world – a new reality emerges.
A possible alternative to keyhole and wormhole is “Rubicon”; or the full phrase “crossing the Rubicon.” Way back in 49 BCE, a Roman general named Gaius (of the patrician clan “Julia”) took his powerful and famously successful army across the River Rubicon. When he did, he also created a keyhole through which he, his army, and Roman culture passed and could never return.
Rubicon: Reality was irreversibly changed. A civil war ensued. At its conclusion, there was no more Roman Republic, although it had endured nearly 500 years with a slight flavor of democracy. It was replaced with the Roman Empire, to be led by a sovereign head of state named “Caesar” (the first one being the aforementioned general).
“Crossing the Rubicon” is a term that means total commitment, and no turning back. You’ve gone through the keyhole. Although, for Julius Caesar, there was an strong element of personal choice in the matter. That’s not always the case.
Using the theme of keyholes, I will touch upon many a quaint
and curious story of forgotten lore , including brief
biographical glances at the lives of three individuals.
These are but three people among countless. Passing through the same keyhole in history. An entire nation of millions was transformed by that keyhole, through which nothing – no person and no part of American culture – could return to their previous state … forever transformed. These three people made history because of their transformations – and society’s – brought about by a major disruption to American national culture.
Hattie had a sweet personality and an even sweeter voice. And she had a quality of magnetic personality mixed with pizzazz, or panache. Today the name “Hattie” is rather obscure – in fact, it almost completely disappeared in the 1950s and ‘60s. It was not an uncommon name at all across American cultures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hattie Caraway (ARK) was the 1st woman elected to the US Senate, in 1932. Our Hattie was born in Wichita, Kansas, to parents who had been slaves. Although the name Hattie would later virtually disappear, her own name would not.
Born and raised of pure German descent, Henry hailed from the German neighborhoods on the southside of the great beer-making city of St Louis. But he usually went by the nickname “Heinie” (or “Heine”), since it was German and rhymed with his last name: Meine. Of course, it was Americanized to “High-nee My-nee”; you can’t get a much more memorable name. Nonetheless, he’s virtually forgotten, although Heinie came through the keyhole and left his name in the record books.
A first generation Italian-American, he preferred to go by “Al” rather than his given “Alphonse.” Born and raised in Brooklyn, he’d make his name in Chicago. Known for many things – including feeding over 100,000 Chicagoans each day during the Great Depression’s early years – Al was not known for being very faithful to his wife. That’s too bad, because she was extraordinarily faithful and loyal to him. At least he was loyal: he treated her well and never spoke poorly of her. That, and his Depression-era food lines, are among the few good qualities we can credit to him. ___________________________________________________________________
On a geological scale, the biggest disruptor to life on earth was almost certainly when the 12-mile diameter Chicxulub Asteroid slammed into the earth at 40,000 kilometers per hour, near the Yucatan peninsula (modern day Mexico) about 66 million years ago. Scientific estimates of the energy released approached one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) Hiroshima atomic bombs.
The asteroid event is probably the biggest reason, among many, that between 99.9% and 99.999% of the all species that have ever lived are now extinct.
Dinosaurs had ruled the earth; they had for some 250 million
years through advanced evolution which tracked the earth’s warming climate. (Consider
how far humans have evolved from advanced apes in less than 1/1000th
the time). For most of those many millions
of ”dinosaur” years, the earth was generally a very warm, even rather tropical,
CO2 rich environment. Literally, in a very
few years (perhaps a handful) all had changed.
The world, relatively speaking, became a frigidly cold “ice box.”
The asteroid, as agent of disruption, had altered reality so suddenly, and so irreversibly, that the world and its reality was forever immediately changed. We should be thankful. That stupendously, mind-boggling cataclysmic event permitted the survival and prominence of tiny mammals – and eventually to us: we humans and our many friends like horses, dogs, cats – over dozens of millions of years.
I should hesitate to even suggest candidates for
“disruptors” in the human era – especially in our post-industrial age era. But, eventually we must get to our three
protagonists: Hattie, Heinie and
Alphonse. Therefore, I submit some
examples, starting with —ta da – the internet.
It has spawned on-line commerce and “the sharing economy.”
The “sharing economy” starts with the simple idea that we, as humans in a free-market economy, have assets that are lying dormant. In economists’ terms: non-performing assets. Our houses. Our cars. Our time. The sharing economy idea suggests we can put those assets to work. Over just a very few years, this simple idea has disrupted how we consume, travel, commute and vacation. Many of us now think of Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, CrowdFunding as powerful and preferred alternatives to “traditional business models.” The value of Taxi Cab medallions in New York City has fallen by some 85% since their peak value of $1.3 Million in 2013. Entire industries must now behave differently – or die.
The sharing economy has been co-joined on the internet with
our lust for connectivity and ease. Amazon has put booksellers out of business.
Thanks to the internet, we often now shop in the comfort of our homes, in front
of our computers – often clad only in our underwear (if we are dressed at all –
sorry for the visual).
Merchandise is delivered to our front door, sometimes within hours – while many old and drab strip malls slowly, silently go vacant and “turn-over”, their dull slots replaced by the equivalent of pre-human mammals that are mostly just cheap “creature comforts”: nail salons, micro-liquor stores, tattoo and/or piercing parlors, micro-breweries, tobacco-friendly stores, massage parlors, pot shops (where legal), second-hand and antique shops, etc. And that’s if the vacant spaces are filled at all. There is no telling which will survive to coming generations, if at all: evolution, disruption and their effects have their ways of being unpredictable… that is their very nature. 
In American culture, looking back over the past 125 years,
or so, I cannot think of any more forceful disruptor – outside of the Internet,
the Depression, and the Great Wars – than Prohibition.
Prohibition. The 18th Amendment. The Volstead Act. The culmination of decades of effort by the Temperance Movement, the Women’s Movement, and Cultural Conservatives.
I’m sort of a fan of Prohibition. Why? It was, in effect, a vast significant social scientific experiment. It made being anti-government-control very cool. It made counter-culture cool. It made “shoving it in The-Man’s-face” cool. For many cultural icons and movements – from the obvious, like craft beer brewing and craft alcohol distilling, to the Beatniks, to Elvis, to The Stones, to Jay-Zee, to tattoos, to piercings, to sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll, sexual licentiousness, the prevalence of Sugar Daddies, and even NASCAR, (America’s most popular spectator sport) – Prohibition helped paved the way.
To me, on balance, those are good things. But every die comes with many sides: it also gave more profit and respectability to the mafia and the underworld.
Our protagonists: In order of how famous they are today:
#1. In 1913, Young Al dropped out of school at 14, after slugging his teacher. He then worked odd jobs while falling in with various young gangs of hoodlums. Eventually, he got connected to the local mobs, and began working his way up the mob ladder – getting a nasty razor gash across a cheek in one episode – before finally getting in so much trouble that he was sent off to a different “branch of the business” in Chicago, along with his wife (the one he was not quite “totally committed” to) and young son.
Propitious timing: Prohibition was about to start. Chicago is where Alphonse – Al Capone and Scarface to us – made it big. Really big. Prohibition provided almost unlimited opportunity to make money … either through booze itself or through protection schemes. Capone inherited the top position of a major Chicago crime syndicate, at age 26, when boss Johnny Torino retired and went home to Sicily.
After various deals and “take outs”, like the 1929 Saint
Valentine’s Day Massacre, Capone’s gang ruled supreme in Chicago and Cook
“Scarface” (a nickname he hated) escaped criminal conviction many times. But Prohibition Agent Elliot Ness and the government finally got him on income tax evasion; his lifestyle and braggadocio were just too conspicuous during a time such as the Great Depression. Yes, he daily fed many thousands in the early years of the Depression. But everything ended on October 17, 1931, when Capone was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.
While in prison – eventually at Alcatraz – Capone’s old cronies in the Chicago mob did quite well. But he didn’t fair so well himself, even though he was released for “good behavior” after serving only about 7 years of his term. It turns out his good behavior was probably because he developed advanced dementia caused by syphilis. Evidently it had been attacking his nervous system since his teens – considering that his only son, Alphonse Jr, was born with congenital syphilis.
Capone’s wife, Mae, remained loyal, and took great care of him until his demise, in 1947, only one week after his 48th birthday. He was probably not aware of that or much else, as he was given to talking to inanimate things and people not present. Their son Al Jr, an only child – who lived quite deaf since infancy on account of surgery for syphilis-caused infections – changed his name to “Albert Brown” in 1966, to distance himself from the infamy of his father. “Brown” was an alias his father had sometimes used.
2) In 1895 came Hattie McDaniel into this world. She was the
13th and last child born to Susan and Henry McDaniel, both former
slaves. Her father was a freed slave, who fought in the Civil War and suffered
the rest of his life from war injuries.
Originally from Wichita, Kansas, the family moved to Ft Collins, then Denver, Colorado seeking opportunity – as Henry had a difficult time with manual labor on account of his war injury – about the time young Hattie was 5 or 6. There, in school and in church, her phenomenal musical skills were discovered.
By age 14 she had a professional singing and dancing career
… and she also dropped out of Denver East High School. As feature vocalists for various bands, mostly
Blues, Hattie had made something of a name for herself.
In 1930 she found herself in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as part
of a traveling theatre troupe on the Show Boat production. Then,
disaster: The Depression struck. The
show and tour were abruptly canceled, leaving Hattie and the rest of the cast
abandoned … and nowhere near home.
Club Madrid was famous for great entertainment, as well as a great stash of alcohols. It was a place to visit and be seen for politicians, high rolling businessmen and other wealthy gangsters.
Word had gotten around Club Madrid that Hattie was extremely talented; but Madrid was a “whites only” establishment. They kept her in the restroom. Until one night when an act didn’t show. Desperate to keep the lubricated and influential guests engaged, Sam brought out Hattie. She brought the house down … and did so for over a year. Her income and notoriety soared.
Whereupon her skills as a performer were noticed by
Hollywood. She’d go on to a rich film career
of over a decade, most notably as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. In perfect Hattie pose and poise, she was
virtually “playing herself” as the only truly likeable and reasonable person in
the entire saga.
For that performance she was justly awarded an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Hattie McDaniel was the first Black to receive an academy nomination, and the first to win an Oscar. Bravo Hattie.
She remained popular, and used that popularity to serve in
World War II, entertaining troops and performing at War Bond rallies.
At the end of the war the role of blacks in America was about to dramatically change. Truman integrated the military with a stroke of his pen. There was a loud popular cry to end the stereotyping of black characters as obsequious, simple-minded submissives in movies. The cry was heard. Unfortunately for Hattie, she had already been well typecast into such roles, and her Hollywood career faded.
Not so for radio, and Hattie signed on to play a maid on the nationally popular regular radio show Beulah. Another first: she was the first black to have a weekly appearance on any media.  Her years were running out, however. Too young and too late she was discovered to have breast cancer, and she succumbed in 1952, aged only 57.
And #3. Henry “Heinie” Meine is surely the least famous of the three who actually achieved a significant level of fame. Born in Saint Louis in 1896, he was a sports enthusiast who took to baseball well. He played a lot of local sand-lot and then semi-pro ball as a young man, mostly as a spit balling pitcher.
By 1920 word got around that he was pretty good – especially with his favorite pitch: the spitter. He’d been noticed by legendary scout Charles “Charley” Francis Barrett, and he was signed to a minor league contract with the St Louis Browns of the American League. In 1922 he was called up briefly to his hometown Browns and pitched in one single game — a mop up effort in a late season blow out. Unfortunately for Heinie, the spitball had been outlawed as an unfair pitch; and was now being enforced. His major league career seemed over.
He bounced around the minor leagues for a while, gaining a reputation for a “rubber arm”; he was kind of an energizer bunny, as he regularly pitched 250-300 innings a season during those years in the minors. Finally, Meine just gave up, retiring at the end of the 1926 season after learning he’d be demoted to the Single-A level for the 1927 season. It seemed he had no path to the majors, especially without his spitball. There were other options: he intended to make money in his beer-happy hometown of Saint Louis running a Speakeasy. Prohibition provided opportunity.
Like Pick’s Club Madrid, Meine’s “soda bar” was located just outside
the city limits, in a German neighborhood that was known for some reason as
Luxemburg. His drinking establishment was so popular, he got the nickname “Duke
When other major league teams came to Saint Louis (the city had two teams then, so it was often), Luxemburg was a frequent stop for refreshment. After a few drinks the players often teased him about being a good minor league pitcher, but not being good enough to make it in the majors.
This was motivation. He’d show them! After a layoff of nearly two years, Meine returned to baseball. He was determined to make it as a “control pitcher”, one who could make the ball move any direction, who could constantly change speeds and hit any spot on the edge of the strike zone. He became an early effective “junk” pitcher. He didn’t strike out many batters; they just hit soft grounders and popups. After a couple minor league seasons, he was eventually acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
As a 33 year-old rookie, Heinie Meine made his major league debut in 1929. Unheard of even in those days. After two moderately successful and contentious seasons with the Pirates (including missing much time with a bad case of tonsillitis) he set the baseball world on fire in 1931, leading the league in wins and innings pitched. A phenomenal record for a Pirate team that managed only 75 wins against 79 losses that year.
Meine was a holdout for the 1932 season – one of the first
to successfully do so – demanding more money.
Starting the season over a month late, after a contract renegotiation,
he still managed 12 wins and nearly 200 innings.
But Meine was now approaching 37 years old. His rubber arm was wearing out. Still, he managed 15 wins and 207 innings in 1933, impressive totals for any age in any era. All the league’s pitchers with more wins than Meine were aged 31, or younger.
The next year, 1934, would be his last, as Meine was getting past his prime. He still put up a winning record, at 7-6, but he knew the end of his career had come. If he’d stayed for just a small part of the next season, he’d have seen a national superstar who was well past his prime have one last unlikely and very dramatically successful day at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. A very wobbly 40-year old Babe Ruth hit three home runs in one game in late May … the last three he’d ever hit. Then promptly retired a few days later.
But by then Meine had already retired to run his saloon business full time. With Prohibition over and his reputation for Gemütlichkeit, Meine’s career as saloon keeper was safe for years to come. And with some thanks to Prohibition and the customers who teased him, he had made his place in baseball’s record books.
Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing me at Joe@Girardmeister.com.
 With apologies to Edgar Allen Poe fans. Lifted almost verbatim from verse #1 of “The
 Strip Malls have a rather interesting history in the US
(and Canada). Briefly: The preponderance
of Strip Malls exploded in the 1950s in North America, along with the expanding
post-war economy and our love affair with cars. Ubiquitous on the edges of urban areas, and within
the new suburban areas, they were a “strip” of available business spaces in a
single building with parking in front. Sometimes
“L-shaped”, they lined major and semi-major roads, near residential areas, but seldom
near central business districts.
They provided convenient, if not “drab”, space for respectable
businesses like pharmacies, butcher shops, barbers, and sellers of fresh
produce and groceries … where everyone seemed to know everyone else and friendly
chit-chat was interwoven with business. In an America that no longer exists.
But cars got bigger and ever more plentiful. Available parking for strip malls was too small. So then came the “Big Box” strip malls, with huge parking lots anchored by one or two major retailers, like Walmart, or Home Depot. The small strip malls lost business, tenants and most public interest. Also came the super malls … and strip malls were just so-o-o 1950s and ‘60s.
If not already scraped away, strip malls still exist, but ever more with spaces that are vacant, or populated by the likes of businesses I listed above. Always drab. Always an eyesore.
 At about this time, only about 10% of US homes had televisions. Nearly 100% had radios, and people built their daily schedules around radio shows. By 1960, this had reversed: nearly 90% had TVs, and Americans lives revolved around their favorite shows, on only 3 networks.
Regarding Strip Mall history: One of the better sources I
found was here.
“Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead” – Davey Crockett
Any American kid who grew up in the 1950s or ‘60s knows that
line from the theme song to the Davey Crockett television series. Davey Crockett, played by Fess Parker, was the
quintessential American Frontiersman – self-reliant, painfully honest, honorable,
and capable at every conceivable skill. The line was taken from a supposed direct quote
by Davey Crockett.
Perhaps unusual for a frontiersman born and raised in the rugged,
untamed Appalachian Mountains: Crockett became an early vocal defender of Native
Amerindian rights. First as one of
America’s most celebrated “western” heroes, and then as an elected member of
the Tennessee state legislature, and finally as a Congressman in Washington, DC.
Crockett had little success in promoting his beliefs or recruiting others to
share them. Amerindians have inalienable rights, too; yet no government instituted
by man was able to secure them. The “Indian Wars” and westward relocations of
tribal nations continued.
As congressman, Crockett was twice defeated for re-election, mostly because of fellow Tennessean Andy Jackson and his Democratic Party’s anti-Amerindian views. [Aside: it is awfully shameful that the image of such a racist man is on one of our most commonly traded pieces of currency: the $20 bill. I say: get Harriet Tubman on there ASAP]. Shortly after his second Congressional defeat, Crockett abandoned his native country and went to Texas where he hoped to help build a more free and liberal country from the ground up. It was time to fight another revolution. He probably wanted to get land, too.
He was sure he was right. He went ahead. In early 1836 Crockett found himself in the Texas frontier, at a compound that had long ago been a Catholic mission called Mission de San Antonio de Valero – a place that came be known as The Alamo. One of America’s most loved heroes and admired adventurers did not make it to age 50. ______________________________________________________________
I thankfully still have many memories of growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin besides simply watching TV shows like Davey Crockett. Some memories are of the many place and street names. I was recently reminded of the prevalence of the name “Mitchell” during a trip to Milwaukee, on the occasion of a class reunion for the 45th anniversary of our high school graduation.
I probably first became aware of the name “Mitchell” when
the domes at the Mitchell Botanical Gardens, near Mitchell Park, were completed
in the 1960s. Along the Menomonee River,
south of the I-94 corridor and just a few miles from downtown, the domes are a
beautiful landmark as you make your way through the area, easily visible from
It was probably about the summer of 1968 when my folks took my siblings and me there, sometime shortly after the domes were were completed. There were six of us kids, the youngest born in January, ‘68; my parents were quite brave. I remember being so very impressed with the huge glass dome structures. They seemed enormous! I wandered off from my family, trying to read all the labels … eventually getting very bored and sleepy.
Before moving away in 1974 I don’t recall noticing any Mitchell name prevalence: but there is also Mitchell Street, Mitchell Boulevard, the Mitchell Street Neighborhood and, of course, Mitchell Field Airport, which serves as Milwaukee’s commercial and international airport. There are probably more.
The Michell Domes, Botanical Gardens and Park are named for the donor of the land upon which the park, and later Botanical Gardens, were built: John Lendrum Mitchell.
John L. Mitchell was born and raised in Milwaukee in a very wealthy family, owing to the business success of his father, Alexander Mitchell. The elder Mitchell had immigrated to Wisconsin from Scotland, becoming the wealthiest person in Wisconsin principally through his ownership and leadership success in banking and The Chicago, St Paul & Milwaukee Railroad (AKA “The Milwaukee Road”), one of the most successful and far-flung railroads from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.
John served in Wisconsin’s 24th Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, alongside Arthur MacArthur, Jr.
Awarded the Medal of Honor during the war, MacArthur, Jr later fathered Douglas MacArthur … a curious coincidence, we will soon see. Well, John Mitchell made his way into politics, first holding the Congressional seat his father had held (Wisconsin’s 4th CD) and later representing Wisconsin in the Senate.
In December, 1879, while living in Nice, France, John Mitchell
and his wife Harriet welcomed their first child into the family – a son whom
they named William. He would be the
first of ten.
Described as small, wiry and fearless, young “Billy” (as he came to be known) grew up speaking French as well as English, and also was able to communicate in German, Spanish and Italian. He had his own nannies, but they could not keep up with his high energy and antics. Always bright and ambitious, his education took him to the nation’s capital in DC (where his father was serving as a Senator), to Columbian College — later renamed to George Washington University. But, he dropped out in 1898 to join the Army and fight in the Spanish-American War.
Billy took to the military life well and made it his
career. His intelligence and
capabilities always caught the attention of higher officers, and, in 1913, that
resulted in a chance appointment to the US Army General Staff. This is where Mitchell really got exposed to
Aeronautics … the art of flying.
Seeing the almost infinite potential of flight, especially in combat and for reconnaissance, Mitchell “caught the bug,” and it seems at this point his tendency toward brash behavior started to manifest itself. In 1916, Mitchell, anxious for action and opportunity, quit the General Staff and simply assumed command of Army Aviation until a commander could be appointed and placed in command.
He desperately wanted to pilot himself, but the Army would not train him. He was too old, they said, at 36. So, he took lessons on his own, at his own cost, and on his own time. Now flight qualified, and with a war going on in Europe, Mitchell was anxious for adventure and bristled at being under anyone’s command who did not see the future as he did. In 1917 he asked for leave to visit the front as an observer. It was granted. Four days later the United States entered the Great War.
Mitchell continued to learn as much as he could about flight and its uses in warfare, constantly pressing British and French pilots for intelligence, able to discuss technology and tactics in their mother tongues. Although denied overall generalship of US air flight, it was he who discovered from the air the size and direction of the last great German attempt to win the war in July, 1918. And he led the largest air force in the world up until that time – some 1,500 aircraft – in fighting back that salient.
The war soon ended. Mitchell, now a war hero and with a field promotion to Brigadier General, returned to the States more convinced than ever of the significance of air power. The Great War was certainly not “the war to end all wars.” There would be more great wars, and his country must be prepared.
He pestered everyone he could think of – from military brass to politicians – to get more emphasis on developing the science and technology of flight. The way he saw it: the significance could not be underestimated; its potential was endless. Literally, the sky was the limit.
He maintained this enthusiasm despite losing his brother John L Mitchell, III in a plane crash in France, during the war. He used it as a selling point: planes could have been made better, thus they had to be.
Mitchell was sure he was right. And went right ahead … finally getting an opportunity (through congressional intervention) in the spring and summer of 1921 to demonstrate the ability of aircraft to sink naval craft. The climax of the demonstrations was the aerial attack on the seized German battleship, Ostfriesland. During the “exhibition”, Mitchell and his men violated the rules of engagement by flying lower and dropping larger bombs than permitted. Nonetheless, Mitchell won the day and the argument, much to the chagrin on Navy staff and military brass. The Ostfriesland, defenseless and immobile the entire time, went to the bottom of the sea.
Despite the contested “successful” demonstration, the
development of American military flight technology – for speed, altitude, payload
capability and safety – languished.
Mitchell continued to pester everyone.
Finally, at his wits’ end due to a series of deadly military flight accidents, he decided to go dangerously ahead. He was sure he was right. By this time, September, 1925, Mitchell was now only a Colonel (he had permanently lost his wartime General rank) and had been “put out to pasture” at a Texas Army base … coincidently located in San Antonio, not far from the Alamo.
What did Mitchell do? He publicly and openly defied military leadership, and in statements to the press, he called them “incompetent, criminally negligent and nearly treasonous.” The bodies of many of his fellow military aviators, he said, were buried because of “official stupidity.” Mitchell was sure he was right, and he had simply run out of buttons to push. He went ahead with open defiance of his superiors.
The military is all about obedience. And such acts of insolence cannot go unprosecuted, or unpunished. The court-martial of Billy Mitchell is the most famous court-martial in United States history, and one of its most famous trials, too.
Mitchell’s jury included General Douglas MacArthur, the son of his father’s Civil War army friend. Some further irony and coincidence:
MacArthur considered Milwaukee his hometown, did two years of high school there and gained his West Point appointment via recommendation from Theobald Oljen, the Congressman from Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional District, the same seat Mitchell’s father and grandfather had held.
MacArthur is said to have voted to acquit Mitchell, although this is unverifiable, and his own memoirs are cryptic. But we do have this public quote:
“ … a senior officer should not be silenced for being at variance with his superiors and with accepted doctrine.” – Gen’l Douglas MacArthur, jurist in the Court Martial trial of Billy Mitchell.
Mitchell had already prophesied many fantastic things, many
of which he repeated at his trial. For
The use of aircraft to fight forest fires
The importance of air control in battle
Transcontinental flight in mere hours
The end of naval battleships, since they could be sunk with a tiny fraction of the cost to build them (via air power)
The significance of aircraft carriers
The creation of national military Air Forces totally separate from the Army and Navy
Indeed, he even foretold of Japanese aircraft surprising and sinking American battleships in Pearl Harbor at dawn someday, perhaps just a few years hence.
Many testified on his behalf during the 7-week trial, which became rather a media spectacle. This included America’s most famous “ace”, Eddie Rickenbacker, and one of its most recognized congressmen, Fiorella La Guardia.
Despite all the testimony and a strong defense that substantiated the veracity of Mitchell’s claims, he was found guilty. For sentence, he was suspended from active military duty for five years without pay (which President Coolidge, as Commander-in-Chief and President amended to half-pay). Nonetheless, Mitchell resigned from the Army a few months later, spending the rest of his life – free of military chain-of-command – attempting to promote air power.
He died ten years later, his visions largely still unrealized, in 1936, aged only 56, from heart ailments and flu complications … after having some success persuading FDR to begin investing in national air power. He is buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee, near his father and grandfather in the Mitchell family plot.
“On March 17, 1941, the Milwaukee County Board voted to change the County airport’s name to Billy Mitchell Field. It is a source of pride for Milwaukeans that our main airport is named in honor of General William Mitchell, who, though impatient with those who did not share his beliefs, nevertheless retained until his death his boundless faith in aviation’s future which he so unerringly visualized.” (Mitchell Airport History Website)
Just outside the Mitchell Field terminal is a retired B-25 bomber. Design and development of the B-25 began in 1938, more than three years before the US entered WW2, thanks mostly to Germany’s growing belligerence and Mitchell’s earlier lobbying of congress and the president. The plane was named the “Mitchell” and flew in every theater of operation during WW2; most famously, 16 Mitchells took off from the deck of the carrier Hornet to bomb Tokyo in The Doolittle Raid of April, 1942.
The name of the airport, with its Mitchell B-25 out in front, is testament and monument to Milwaukee’s pride in her visionary native son. Mitchell is considered the “Father of the American Air Force.”
My wife and I made a stop by the Mitchell Domes while in Milwaukee earlier this summer. To the domes that are named for the park, that is named for the father of Billy Mitchell. I hadn’t been in them in about 50 years, back when they were brand new. While inside, a large thunderstorm moved over the area as we looked at flora from around the globe. It got very dark. It rained very hard. Water came dribbling in, through cracks in the domes, and the leaks collected in many dozens of puddles. Sadly, the domes are in serious disrepair.
Dark gloomy clouds and uncontrolled rain puddles are a fair metaphor for the domes themselves. Milwaukee is in a crisis over what to do. I imagine that Billy Mitchell fought feelings of despair, too, but then rallied to the very end. I hope Milwaukee can rally and “go ahead” to save the domes. They were visionary in their time, too.
While strolling through the domes – dodging drips and
puddles – thinking about the amazing Milwaukee Mitchell family, I couldn’t help
thinking about my own family and the sunny Sunday my parents took me there, so
long ago, when they were shiny and new.
Thanks mom and dad for taking us there.
You were good parents in countless ways.
You even let us watch Davey Crockett on TV… after our homework was done.
Cole had perhaps the sweetest and smoothest voice of all the 20th
century American male singers. His voice easily evokes feelings of warm,
genuine love. I’d vote him to the top of
that class of crooner. After all, I’ve admitted before that I am a hopeless,
Some people attribute his tone and resonance to a rugged life that spared neither alcohol nor heavy smoking (he died of lung cancer, in 1965, shortly before reaching age 46). That is simply not true. Cole was truly gifted and worked hard at his craft. For evidence I submit the sweet and professional voice of his daughter, Natalie Cole.
I have a Pandora station that I like to play at low key get-togethers and quiet evenings that include, among other genres, some harmonica-based blues, ‘70s soft rock, ballads, bossa nova, and love songs. Cole’s voice comes up frequently. I’m never disappointed.
The year 1911 stood at the twilight of the Edwardian Era, ‘twixt the death of King Edward and the outbreak of The Great War. That year an amateur musician named Charles Dawes composed a little instrumental tune for violin and piano that he called, simply, “Melody in A Major.” Dawes was a self-taught pianist and flautist who composed merely as a hobby. The tune become somewhat popular in his lifetime.
That Dawes should have success in far-flung fields would not come as a surprise to anyone who knew him. Born in Ohio in 1865 just after the close of the Civil War, he was the son of a hero and general of that nationally tragic and transforming war. After college and then law school Dawes went off to Nebraska – a frontier land of opportunity. There, in Lincoln, he established himself as a successful lawyer and made friendships with both John “Black Jack” Pershing (who would go on to command all US forces in WW1) and Williams Jennings Bryan (who would go on to promote Free Silver – i.e. liberal monetary policy— and thrice secure the Democratic Party nomination for president of the United States, eventually serving as both Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, and, later, as prosecuting attorney in the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial”).
got interested in business. An
opportunist, he moved to Evanston, Illinois (just north of Chicago) during the
1893 Panic, and began acquiring interest in various companies at bargain
prices, beginning with a slew of gas companies. Success gained him attention,
and in 1896 he managed the Illinois presidential campaign of William McKinley
(against his Nebraska friend, Bryan). From McKinley’s win, he was rewarded by
being named Treasury Department’s Officer of the Currency. In this roll he was
able to recover many millions of dollars that banks had lost during the ’93
Dawes resigned from the administration in 1901 to set up a run for Senator. He believed the timing was right, since he had McKinley’s support (who had been recently re-elected and was hugely popular). But McKinley was assassinated at the World’s Fair in Buffalo in September of that year. The new president, Theodore Roosevelt, would not be supporting Dawes (this was before direct election of Senators). Dawes fell in his attempt to become Illinois’ 16th Senator to fellow Republican Albert Hopkins.
to business, expanding into banking and investment management, forming the
Central Trust Company of Illinois.
When Dawes wrote “Melody in A Major” in 1911, he was already a successful lawyer, businessman, banker and government official.
June 1, 2019 – It’s late evening and my wife and I are relaxing in the Colorado mountains. She’s doing a little work on her computer. I’m reading Le Ly Hayslip’s autobiographical book, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (subtitled: A Viet Nam Woman’s Journey from War to Peace).
to the aforementioned Pandora station, when a beautiful and well-arranged father-daughter
duet comes on: When I Fall in Love (it will be forever), sung by Nat and
Natalie Cole. That duet, which won a
Grammy in 1997, was made possible by the magic of technology, since Nat had
passed away some 30 years earlier.
if it’s true. Does “falling in love” last forever? It makes a nice tune, but ….
I put the book down. Le Ly had mostly terrible luck with men. And more than just a few. Can someone be simultaneously in love with more than one person? Like Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Berman) in Casablanca? Or Dr Zhivago (Omar Shariff) in the eponymous movie? What about falling in love multiple times? Does that count? What does falling in love even mean? It’s June 1, the birthday of the young lady I fell for in 1978. I still remember so many details, even her birthday, and I still have many fond memories and a small place for her in my heart. Does that count? Probably not. No matter how far, or hard, you fall, it’s not love if it can’t be returned.
My one forever love is Audrey.
Why do I even ponder these things? Is it because I’m a hopelessly sentimental romantic?
A half dozen
songs later and Nat comes on again, this time with “It’s All in the Game” –
with the great lyrics “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the game”— as
in the “game” of falling in love. No one
said it would be easy.
Cole’s smooth voice and recording is one of many covers – and perhaps the best – of a 1958 hit song by Tommy Edwards; others had recorded it as well, but the Edwards version made it to #1 on the charts in both the United States and England.
The song (often simply called “Game”) had actually been lying around since 1951. That’s the year that songwriter Carl Sigman put lyrics to a decades old melody with no words. It was a tune that had been lying around since 1911; a tune called “Melody in A Major.”
as a successful banker and businessman with a can-do attitude, Dawes was made
chief of Procurement and Supply Management for “Black Jack” Pershing’s American
Expeditionary Force during the Great War.
He achieved the rank of Brigadier General by war’s end.
After the war, he returned his attention temporarily to private business, only to be appointed to be the first ever Director of the Budget, in 1921 by President Harding. This is now called the Office of Budget Management. Dawes helped grow the bureau into one of the most important serving under the president: producing the president’s budget, tracking expenses against the budget, and monitoring and tracking the efficiency of the many agencies that serve every president’s administration.
By 1923 Germany was in great economic distress: hyperinflation, vastly diminished industrial capability, unable to pay reparations. Dawes was assigned to a commission to figure out what to do for Germany. Excessive war reparations and allied occupation of industrial districts had ruined the economy. The situation led to social and political – as well as economic – instability; it inspired Hitler to attempt the Beer Hall Putsch.
The commission’s plan, which came to be known as the Dawes Plan, called for complete re-organization of the German national bank (Reichsbank) and a reset on their currency, to be anchored by a loan from the United States. Re-industrialization was begun as was acceleration of France’s de-occupation of the Ruhr district. Concessions from the French also allowed for slower, more gradual, and less painful reparations.
As a result
of the Plan’s success, Charles Dawes was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in
was shining. At the Republican convention
in June, 1924 he was chosen to be the running mate to Calvin Coolidge in that
fall’s election. He then served as Vice
President of the United States (and president of the Senate) for the next four
Dawes also served in the Hoover administration that followed, first as ambassador to England and, later, as head of the newly formed Reconstruction Finance Corporation to help fight the depression.
After leaving the Hoover administration he served on many industrial and bank boards and continued running his own banking businesses from his home in Evanston, until his death, in 1951.
Not coincidentally, Sigman was inspired by Dawes’ lifetime of accomplishment and wrote the lyrics to complete Dawes’ “Melody in A Major” shortly after he learned of Dawes’ passing.
Charles Dawes had a remarkable life. And if you remember him for one thing, well, here’s something that might help you in a trivia contest: Dawes is the only person in history to have co-written a song that made it to #1 on the charts, served as Vice-President of the United States, and been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
This sentimental romantic wishes you all a lifetime of fulfillment and fully requited love.
Something has definitely changed. Or maybe it’s just me. Outside of a funeral or memorial service (of which I’ve attended far too many lately), when was the last time you heard about, read about or discussed the topic of Life After Death?
Wasn’t this an infatuation of humans about their temporary condition for – oh, I don’t know – forever? Maybe it’s me and the change is that I haven’t been paying attention. If this topic is much less of a curious passion of our attention than it used to be, then that is probably one of the few good things to come out of the recent decades of self-awareness and self-absorption: living the life we have now – and doing it right – rather than for the life we don’t know about.
Personally, I profess to harboring a sense of ambiguity – or perhaps a resigned agnosticism – on the subject. I don’t know a thing about it (Greek: a = not/non; gnosis = to know) and yet accept that there is probably some form of post-death existence that defies human description. Can God completely and eternally allow something – someone – He loves to be destroyed for evermore?
In a less spiritual sense, can we deny that the world is changed by the existence of each and every one of us? And once changed, the world is irreversibly changed. It can’t go back. Each of us affects the others in our life, who in turn affect and change the experience of others in their lives. Is that not a form of Eternal Life? The memories of our ancestors is carried on in our descendants … if we take the time to pass along their stories.
A few such stories surpass those of all the rest. The names and stories of some people become part of everyday life, become part of everyday thought and become part every person’s consciousness –- and thereby bring a form of not only life after death, but eternal life.
I bring you three short stories, each very different.
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1. Is it Life after Death if your name is spoken nearly daily by every English speaker hundreds of years after you die?
John Montagu was born in the early 18th century in the flats near the coast of the English Channel in northeast Kent, England. Born to the large land-owning upper classes of British society, he was well educated at the renowned schools Eton and Trinity College. He went on to distinguish himself in service to His Majesty’s government. He was a delegate to the Congress of Breda  and Ambassador to the Netherlands. Returning home, he served as First Lord of the Admiralty (in effect the civil head of the Navy). Later, he also served as Secretary of State for the Northern Department and also as the Kingdom’s Postmaster General.
John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich
Though impressive, it is not for any of these achievements or services for which Montagu has become immortal – and for which his name is spoken virtually daily by every English-speaker. Montagu’s father was an Earl, and Montagu inherited his title. That flat region of northeast Kent is called Sandwich.
Montagu was the 4th Earl of Sandwich. One evening at a social engagement (some say a session of gambling) the Earl is said to have asked his orderly to bring him a slice of meat between two pieces of bread – as a matter of convenience to keep from getting grease on the cards. Although the facts of the story – in fact its very occurrence – are often contested, the Earl’s name was eternally lent to an emerging fad: The Sandwich.
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2. On Christmas Day, there was born to us a wonderful gift. A gift direct from heaven. For on December 25, 1821 a tiny girl was born in a simple house on a farm in rural south central Massachusetts. From a young age she developed the knack – and the love – of caring for others in medical need. First her family, and then the people of her community.
When the Civil War first broke out, she began tending the wounded near Washington DC, especially after the Confederate rout of Union troops at Bull Run (Manassas). As the war continued its deathly spiral she was able to get medical supplies directly to the bloody front lines herself — a task that, disappointingly, no man was able to conceive and achieve.
After the war, she traveled the country, speaking about her experiences and the need for proper and better medical care. She explained that it wasn’t just wars and battles that led to the need for medical care on a massive scale. Disasters of all sorts bring this need. We could be prepared for such disasters and the human need they bring. Finally she was heard, and in 1881 the American Red Cross was founded.
Clara Barton’s name graces schools and streets and communities across the United States. In 137 years the American Red Cross has provided unmeasurable support to people in every sort of disaster, in every sort of way. From wild fires, to earthquakes, to floods – and from hurricanes to HazMat spills – the Red Cross provides medical service, housing, food, transportation and counseling to those in great need. Foresightfully, the Red Cross also helps prepare communities for disasters well before they occur.
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3. For a complete change of pace we look to Annelies Marie, born in Frankfurt, Germany. She was indeed a very precocious child. Like many intelligent, witty and maturing pubescent girls, she was quite a handful for her loving parents, who were trying to steer her through the awkward years from gangly youth to comely young lady. She acted up and acted out as she experimented with her self perception and with her outlook toward the world and her family (parents and one older sister).
To help cure her of what her parents perceived as an over-developed attention to herself, they gave her an autograph book as a gift on the occasion of her thirteenth birthday. Autograph books, considered quaint and old-fashioned today, were used at the time to collect autographs of friends, family, acquaintances and any famous people you could get to sign it. In addition, it was customary to collect their writings, quips, quotes and even poetry.
But Annelies would turn even the autograph book into an ongoing investigation of herself. No, she decided. It would not be an autograph book used to focus on others; instead it would be her diary. In it she shared everything about herself and her life: from the most mundane details of her life as a frustrated teenager, to her unabashed desire to metaphorically live forever – to create or do something so majestic and so wonderful that, even after she died, the world would not (could not) forget her.
Annalies Marie died tragically young, just before her 16th birthday. Yet, her name and her life are known the world over. And always will be. Annelies and her Jewish family left Frankfurt in 1938, due to the severe oppression imposed by the Nazi regime. They relocated in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, where young Annelies wrote not in German, but in a beautiful expressive Dutch. Her father’s family took its name from the ancient tribe of Charlemagne (Karl der Grosse), a tribe that also gave name to the city of her birth: Frankfurt. The Franks. …. Yes, that Frank. Yes, that Anne Frank.
We cannot forget you. We must not.
The Earl of Sandwich. Clara Barton. Anne Frank. Like everyone else who has ever lived, they have a sort of earthly life after death.
Live large my friends. Think big. Do the right thing. Don’t spend much energy wondering what others think. Any Life After Death may give us a form of eternal life. But our physical life here is short. Very short.
1967: It was found in the south part of the city, in the attic of the oldest part of a mid-19th century mansion. Thanks to a grassroots groundswell, the mansion survived the routing of the new Interstate Highway – I-55 – but just barely.
During restorations to preserve this structure representing local history, and to make it into a museum, an electrician found a large bundle of buffalo leather. Something was preserved inside, wrapped carefully in the skins. Miraculously, the contents were nearly perfectly preserved – despite six score years – as they were otherwise unprotected from the wild temperature and humidity swings of the mid-Mississippi basin climate.
1846: America’s vast western plains
Her name was Mathó-shina (Bear Robe), short for “She who wears a Bear Robe.” She was the daughter of one Lakota chief and sister to another. She was young – probably mid-20s – a mother and a wife; with bright, dark piercing eyes that hinted at great intelligence and determination.
There, on American wind and storm-swept western plains, in a large tipi made of buffalo skins and lodge pole pines harvested by her father, she lay dying of a lung infection. Witness accounts that have reached us today say that there is no reason she should be alive, lingering among her people and family for so many, many days … breathless, not even speaking. Yet she did. She tenaciously clung to life … waiting … waiting. Her father had sent out a search team; she was waiting for their return.
Henri Chatillon was one of those adventurous souls who had roamed the west for nearly twenty years since leaving his home in Carondolet, Missiouri (now a neighborhood on Saint Louis’ most south-eastern extent) where he had been born to a famous French family. He left home at age 15 to trap and hunt for furs. He worked for both himself and eventually for large enterprises like the American Fur Company.
Over that time, he had learned the languages of many of the plains’ tribes; and there was enough cross-over that he could communicate and be friendly with virtually all of them. Never underestimate what a determined, yet largely illiterate person, can accomplish.
That year, 1846, two young easterners, Francis Parkman and Quincy Adams Shaw – both recently out of Harvard – were passing through Saint Louis en route to “the west.” They wanted to see the buffalos, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Who knew how long the buffalos would survive, or the west would remain pristine? It was the sort of a “rite of passage” journey that two young twenty-somethings who had a privileged life and zest for adventure might undertake. It was also ignorant. They had no idea what they were doing or getting into.
Fortunately for them, Chatillon was briefly back home and they crossed paths in St Louis. Probably out of mercy – or pity – Chatillon agreed to be their guide. And off they went, mostly along the Oregon Trail, toward the great Rocky Mountains.
Somewhere out on the plains a young Lakota man on horseback found them. He had an urgent message for Chatillon. Your wife is dying.
The small group immediately terminated their tour and headed off, toward eastern Wyoming, to find Bear Robe’s tribe.
They arrived to find her still struggling for each breath, struggling for life … and still lacking the energy to talk.
Chatillon was tired and very sad – upon arrival he also learned that their young child had just died. Strengthened by love, devotion and duty, he spent that entire night awake with his wife. Inexplicably, she regained the strength to speak with him.
They spoke of many things that night, but all of it we cannot know. The next morning, Parkman and Bear Robe’s father came into the tipi to find Chatillon holding her … and just in time to see the death rattle of her final breath.
I’ve long thought that death, for many people, can be pushed off until some special event is reached. And, as a corollary, that people who have nothing to look forward to (or have to wait a long time for something “special”) might experience a higher death rate.
It turns out there has been some research to suggest that this is true. I’ve listed a few citations. The most likely days to die are: your birthday  ; right after Christmas (or New Years’)  ; and I postulate other major family events, like weddings.
With regard to special relationships – like courtship and marriage – I suspect that if our experience is a valid data point, then having something to look forward to is just as important to the relationship as it is to life itself.
Looking forward. It means a lot.
During a whirlwind courtship (49 weeks from first date to engagement) Audrey’s and my relationship fell to tatters at least twice. Each time it was resurrected by having something to look forward to.
First, we had committed (both financially and training) to climb Mount Rainier together. Although we had fallen on rough times, the fact that we were looking forward to the climb – and achieving it – brought us closer together, even if only for one more time. Neither one of us would back out. It was a time of re-connecting.
Audrey and Joe atop Mt Ranier, July 31, 1982. Ignorant of the eventual long term significance of this event and picture, I am so-o-o-o glad that I had the presence of mind to lean close and put my arm around the love of my life.
Second, a few months later, in November, I needed a knee surgery and “wisely” scheduled it the day before Thanksgiving, so that I could recover with minimal time off work. OK – not so wisely. Not wise at all: when you have surgery, you need someone to drive you home. Every friend I contacted had conflicting commitments.
I needed Audrey, even though we were on the “outs.” So, I called her and we had something to look forward to, even if it was post-surgery rescue. Yes, she rescued me – and our relationship. Picking me up from the hospital and taking me to her parents’ house for the turkey and stuffing festivities. Again, it was a time of re-connecting.
Thinking back, it’s always been that way. There have always been “rough patches” here and there. But we endure. And largely because we always have had some major event or trip to look forward to. For that, almost all the credit goes to Audrey.
When things are rough, there’s no sense looking around – or looking backward – to find where any blame might lie. Best to keep your eyes and attention forward.
My suggestion is to make whatever you are looking forward to not general (like retirement, or take a trip), but specific: Climb a certain mountain, bicycle a specific location, make a specific person feel special on a specific date, tour a special place.
For a long and rewarding life anyhow.
Here’s looking forward to many more adventures and uplifting life experiences for all of us. It’s a simple thing we can do to keep us going.
After Bear Robe died, Chatillon returned to St Louis and settled down. In gratitude, Parkman gave him his Hawken rifle – a true prize possession.
Chatillon commissioned a painting of Bear Robe. It was soul-piercing. It showed a handsome sad-eyed man in quiet, mournful reflection gazing into space – and a beautiful squaw looking down, trying to offer consolation.
Henri Chatillon found a new wife, and had a house built on the main road half-way between St Louis and Carondelet.
Chatillon’s new wife had no interest in his past life, including his past wife. Now having a full life to look forward to with his new bride … Chatillon tenderly wrapped the painting and the rifle in his best buffalo leathers. He “buried” the bundle in the attic of his new house; and he buried the memories of his past life in his heart – only to be brought out in private solitary moments, and never to be spoken of again. With some anguish, he let go of his past.
“Bear Robe’s Death” — I believe the artist is unknown.
Parkman wrote of his adventures out west in a book that became wildly popular: “The Oregon Trail”, published in 1849. It provides much of what we know of Chatillon and Bear Robe. It’s still in print and available for a reasonable price.
About 10 years later, Chatillon sold the house to the DeMenil family, who enlarged it into a magnificent mansion. You can get a guided tour of the Chatillon-DeMenil mansion — and learn some fascinating St Louis, mid-west and western history — March 1 through December 31 most weekdays and weekends.
To contact Joe just email him at email@example.com
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