Driving on highways is different wherever one travels. The US has large expanses of land, and most major cities have many miles between them, hence national highways are sort of laid out and numbered in a grid pattern. Look at national maps for even the largest European countries, like France and Germany, and it can look like that pot of spaghetti you spilled on the kitchen floor while trying to “help” your mom when you were 9 years old.
It’s OK. You felt bad when you spilled dinner, but mom made it a learning experience and you are a better person for it. Now we’re going to make a little sense of those European “spilled spaghetti” highway maps.
Although these countries individually generally do not lend themselves to a US-style grid and grid-number system, both because of history and geography, they do indeed have patterns. These are not very useful, if you want my biased opinion. Well, perhaps useful for rote memorization.
European countries all have several “levels” of highway, just as in the US. And each level will carry different amounts of traffic, depending on demand and the level. For example, in the US, the Interstate Highway system has very high demand, and has the highest standard. Although comprising only about 1% of all US highways by mileage, the Interstate highways carry 25% of highway traffic by vehicle miles. That’s astounding. A little more on this later.
I’ll use the two largest European countries, France and Germany, as examples here (um, “largest” not counting Russia). Each also, naturally, has multiple levels of highway. Or Classes. Each has an “A”, or top level “motorway.” In Germany the A stands for Autobahn. Of course. In France it is A for an Autoroute. These are limited access, high speed, and high standard roadways; in France there is often a toll involved – and they are quite expensive.
Each has a second-tier highway as well. In France, it’s the N highways, or Route Nationale. Germany’s second-tier are “B” (which makes more sense, B following A), for Bundesstraßen – or Federal Roads. These are often quite nice as well.
Speaking of expensive. Beware of radar speed detectors, especially on the B or N roads. Speed limits rise and fall rapidly around mid- and smaller-sized cities. Where it falls suddenly – often with scant warning – there is almost sure to be an automatic radar speed detector. If you flinch when you see a sudden flash (usually blue), you’ve been nicked. Your car rental company will make sure you get all of these resulting traffic tickets, while the ticket processing fees are inevitably pinned to your credit card. Sneaky European bastards. You can generally ignore the tickets themselves; they make nice wallpaper, or fire starters, tools to study another language, whatever. (I hear Italy is the absolute worst). The money grabbers, er, ah, traffic officials will try to collect for about 6 months. Ignore them. They will give up…eventually. But the processing fees for the car hire company are unavoidable. Those cost about $25 a pop.
As much of the highway patterns initially look like spilled spaghetti to an American European-car-vacation beginner, one cannot imagine at first that there is a numbering pattern. The routes generally link larger cities and often follow – or run roughly parallel to – centuries’ old trade routes. Often newer, higher standard “A” routes run near the “B” or “N” routes, but bypassing the snarled urban areas. But … an actual numbering pattern?
Well, of course there is a pattern. We are talking Germans here. How could Germans not have a pattern? And the French would hate to be outdone by their European rival brother.
In both countries highway number sequences are assigned by region. It’s that simple. In France, the major highways near Paris seem to get most of the lower numbers; and they sort of radiate out from there, like crooked spokes on a banged up old bicycle wheel. In Germany the single digit “A” autobahn highways have single digit numbers if they run across the entire country – border-to-border, so to speak. The rest are assigned by region: for example, any Autobahn in Bavaria has an ID number in the 90s.
Yet, the Europeans have demonstrated a sort of “Highway-Pattern-and-Numbering-Envy”. “Envy of whom?” you ask. Of course, the United States. ___________________________________________________________________
In September 1925 – nearly a century ago – a small committee of national highway officials met at the Jefferson Hotel in downtown St. Louis. One of their tasks? To assign numbers to the new federal highway system. Other related tasks involved national highway standards: e.g. widths, grades, surfaces, signs and markings. This would become the US Highway system.
Until then, as in Europe, major roads – and later highways – followed older trails: in the US either old Amerindian, pioneer or fur trade routes. And, to make it complicated, each state had their own system for numbering highways (sometimes letters or names), even if they “linked up” with a highway in an adjoining state. They were twisted too; they often directed motorists on less than efficient paths, in order to promote commerce in remote, but politically well-connected, towns and villages. [many US highways retain these rather anachronistic vestiges, wandering through downtown and business sectors of towns, villages and cities].
Well, in what seems to have been accomplished in a single day, September 25th, a small committee of five Chief State Engineers (from Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Carolina) devised the US Highway numbering system. With few exceptions, it’s still in use today.
Ah, the beauty, power and efficiencey of small but powerful committees. China, anyone? Anyhow …
These mighty five decided that highways leading mostly north/south would be assigned odd numbers, with the lowest starting along the east coast. These odd-numbers would increase as you moved west, with the highest odd-numbers being along the west coast. The longest and/or most important N/S routes would end with the number five.
Routes that went mostly East/West would be assigned even numbers; with lower numbers in the north, and increasing to larger numbers in the south. The longest and/or most important E/W routes would end with the number zero. For example: the first transcontinental highway, also called the Lincoln Highway, was US Highway 20.
The beloved and ballyhooed highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, which we know as “Route 66”, was originally to be numbered Route 60. But Kentucky governor William Field wanted the more important sounding 60 to run through his state. Route 66 is officially retired, but signs and the famous song still commemorate “66”, and its representation for our attraction for the open road.
This is the US Highway numbering system still in use today.
A few decades later, in the 1950s, when President Eisenhower got the nationwide super highway system approved (the so-called Interstate Highway System, officially called the “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”) the numbering scheme for the new system was kept more or less intact. With one major twist.
To avoid number confusion with the US Highway numbers, the lower numbered North/South Interstate routes would be in the west, instead of the east, increasing as the numbering moved east. And the lower numbered East/West routes would be in the south, instead of the north, increasing as the “grid” progressed north. [They wanted no number ambiguity or confusion, which was possible in the middle of the country: fly-over country. So they made a rule that there are no duplicate US numbers and Interstate numbers within the same state. This is the main reason there is no Interstate 50 or 60. And the north/south number confusion was solved by having so many highways in the more densely populated east.]
Although mainly sold as something to facilitate national defense, the Interstate system by far has had its greatest effect on commerce, and next tourism. Up to 80% of the nation’s commercial product (by value and mile) is moved to market, or between suppliers and factories, along Interstate highways. Its effect on individual or family travel: Driving across many states, or the entire nation, has been a summer vacation right-of passage in many families for decades. Many commuters use it as well.
A few asides on the numbering systems. [Recall there is a difference between US Highways (often called “Routes”) and Interstate Highways.]
(1) The US coastal highways do not follow the “5” designation for major N/S routes: US 1 runs along the entire east coast, with US 99 and 101 running along, or near, the west coast. Neither end in a 5. [See add’l map in footnotes].
(2) Three-digit US highway numbers show highways that are sort of alternates to the original: for example, US 287 which passes through my neighborhood, goes north/south through the same regions as US 87. Both go from the CAN-US border in Montana down to the Texas gulf coast. Both US 85 and US 285 also pass near our home. 85 goes from the US-CAN border in North Dakota all the way to the Mexican border in El Paso; 285 branches off from 85 in Denver and winds down to dusty west Texas as well.
(3) For the Interstate system, three digit numbers generally indicate loops or by-passes if the first digit is even (I-405 loops around Seattle, but otherwise is on the I-5 path) or, if the first digit is odd, it denotes spurs that shoot out to facilitate transport and commerce (I-190 in Chicago connects I-90 to O’Hare airport).
The United Nations was formed in 1945 at the close of World War 2 to help countries peaceably work together. Well, in short order the UN had a commission for pretty much everything. One of those was the UN Economic Commission for Europe (or UNECE).
Around 1950 the UNECE looked first at the many highways in Europe, noting that they – like in the US before the 1925 St Louis Commission – often changed identification as they crossed boundaries. National boundaries in the case of Europe. They noticed the numbering systems were messy and inconsistent. They also anticipated economic growth as recovery from war progressed, which would require more and better roads. The vision was vast, eventually reaching from the UK and Ireland (island nations!) to Central Asia, and beyond … almost to China. A potential for a vast grid and simple, consistent numbering based on the cardinal directions! To wit: Copying the US approach.
These are the “E” highways shown on maps. It is a separately numbered set of highways, much more often than not simply using existing highways. The “E” numbers were just placed alongside the “A” — and in some cases the “B” or “N” — numbers on signs and maps.
With some exceptions, they followed the US example for the “E” highways. Generally North/South are odd; East/West are even. They have secret codes for loops and spurs and local funkiness, just as in the US. The “E” highways are generally “A” class: that is, limited access and high speed. Yeah, there are exceptions, and lots more tedious details, but it’s kinda cool that this system extends from Ireland to Kyrgyzstan. In fact, the E 80 goes from Lisbon to Tokyo!
E highways even span the the North Sea (although the UK refuses to implement them; the M, for Motorway, system is quite satisfactory — you know: Brexit, not using the Euro and all that).
A consistent and logical numbering system for a huge grid of highways. Says the US: You’re welcome. Bitte sehr. Prego. De nada. Molim. Hey, have fun with it. It’s working for us. Hope it continues to work for you.
Until next essay, I wish you safe travels with simple and uncomplicated maps and highways. Yes, even with simple easy to understand highway numbering, keep your GPS/SatNav on and up-to-date.
The first thing we should address, given contemporary sensitivities, is if this is even an appropriate term.
The sports teams of my undergrad alma mater, Arkansas State University, used to carry the nickname “Indians.” ASU started out as an A&M (Agriculture and Mechanical) school and thus were known for some time as the “Aggies.” They changed to “Warriors” in 1930, then to “Indians” the next year. They remained the Indians until 2008. They then changed to the Red Wolves.
Nominally one could argue that the name was not insensitive. However, the mascot was known as Jumpin’ Joe (see figure), usually portrayed as a hideous visual parody of a native Amerindian. I was always uncomfortable with this, but as a young man finding my way in the world – and coping in the South as a native Yankee – I never made much fuss about it.
So, Arkansas State became the Red Wolves. The Red Wolf is an endangered species, and – if ever seen – is usually in the southeast US. It’s a mixed beige-reddish/copper colored subspecies of the gray wolf , and also evidently quite modern in its evolution, having a genealogy that is only about 50-400,000 years; so not that different than humans.
Interesting that the most successful college sports team in the hometown of my youth (Milwaukee), is Marquette University, and was also called the “Warriors” for decades; definitely an allusion to a supposed war-like nature of the American Native. Marquette, is a smallish Jesuit run school. Yes successful: they won the NCAA Basketball Championship as the “Warriors” in 1977. In time, the nickname was deemed a negative portrayal of native Amerindian culture. Marquette’s sports teams have been called the Golden Eagles since 1995.
The Golden Eagle is a very successful species. It’s one of the most widespread birds of prey across all of the northern hemisphere. So that was probably a good choice by Marquette. Pick success.
And let’s not forget the team that can be called “That team formerly known as the Washington Redskins.” Or maybe the official name is just the “Washington Football Team.” Or something like that. Not following sports much lately.
In any case, Indian Summer is a wonderful time. Typically, it refers to a period of pleasant weather late in the year. It could also be a wonderful period of time late in one’s life. I may be having my own Indian Summer right now, in early retirement, and before Old Man Time tatters and frays my neurons and sinews even further.
The term might have even originated with “Indians”, as some oral traditions tell of how American Natives explained the phenomenon of this weather to new arrivals: fear not, an unexpectedly nice time of year will arrive. You can hunt, and sometimes even fetch a late harvest of berries. Northern Europeans would likely have expected no such thing after a blast of Jack Frost and wintery chills.
The thing about Indian Summer is you don’t actually know if, or when, it is going to arrive. It’s kind of a “bonus summer.” An end of year “bonanza.” A happy surprise.
The US Weather Service prefers to apply the term to a stretch of summery weather that occurs in the autumn after a killing freeze. Annuals have all perished. Budding has ceased. Perennials are into dormancy. Deciduous trees are shutting down. It’s best if there is even some snow; a warning of the deep dark nights and short days to follow.
And then: bam! Sun. Warmth. Hope you didn’t put those shorts away, or that sunscreen.
Colorado is Not currently in Indian Summer, although one could be forgiven for thinking that. The temperatures are back into the 80s – and might even soon touch 90. Yet last week we had three days of freezing temperatures and even several inches of snow in most places.
But it’s not autumn yet. Fall has yet to fall.
It’s just one of those things. One of those crazy Colorado things.  Even though we were over 100 degrees just a few days before the snow and freezing temperature. It’s not Indian Summer, yet. I hope we get one again this year.
Anyhow, should we call it Indian Summer? As opposed to Bonus Summer, or Extra Summer? The Cajuns of Louisiana have a cute term: Lagniappe (Lan-yap), for an unexpected pleasant little add-on. 
I rather like Indian Summer, both the event and the term. But Lagniappe Summer works fine, too. All so multi-cultural.
Wishing you a lovely rest of summer and a blissful Indian/Bonus/Lagniappe Summer as well.
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 The taxonomy of the Red Wolf is much debated – sort of like whether the names Indian, Warrior and Redskin are insensitive or not. Many believe that it is a cross between the Gray Wolf and Coyote. Others say it is a blend with an additional wolf species.
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.
Halley’s Comet – named for Sir Edmond Halley, the English bloke who used Newton’s new art of calculus to surmise that frequently seen comets in history were, in fact the same comet – returns to the inner solar system once every 76 years or so, on average.  When this occurs, it is usually quite visible with the naked eye for weeks at a time.
76 years is quite a short period for a comet that can be so
easily seen. It is the only one that can
be seen twice in a single human lifetime.
Alas, the only appearance during my lifetime – in 1986 – was far less than spectacular. Earth’s and Halley’s orbits were sort of “out of synch” and thus minimized earth’s view of the comet when it was brightest. I was most disappointed, since I had read about it so much and had been very let down by the “flame out” of Kahoutek in 1973-74.
Such has not always been the case.
In 1066 the Comet portended the defeat of English King Harold II to William, the conqueror from Normandy at a battlefield near Hastings. [2A] So important was this astronomical sign that its significance and image are captured on the magnificent 70 meter (230 feet) long tapestry that that tells the story of conquest, and still survives in Bayeux, Normandy. [2B]
Over the millennia, many other occasions of Halley’s
return and sighting have been recorded in several cultures. As there was no
effective difference between astronomy and astrology, a comet’s appearance
(exceedingly rare as they are) are usually associated with some momentous decision,
or a historical event.
Could that event be the end of the world?
The year was 1910, and the comet’s return was certainly expected. Based on its path through the solar system since its 1835 appearance, astronomers and physicists predicted it would appear in spring. 
And yet, in January, a comet brighter than anything anyone had expected appeared! Was this Halley’s? Appearing early? Astrophysicists re-worked and labored over their calculations again. As they did, the comet got so bright it was visible during the day! It’s brightness rivaled that of famously bright evening and morning “stars” – Venus and Jupiter – but with a tail painted across the sky.
Soon enough scientists announced: No! This is not Halley’s.
This is an unrecorded comet, probably with
a period of 50,000 to 100,000 years! People
alive then were fortunate to see such a spectacle. That 1910 comet is often
referred to as “The Daylight Comet.”
Historians regularly call 1910 “The Year of Two Comets.” Just
a few months after the Daylight Comet faded away Halley’s made its scheduled appearance
Astronomers first sighted it in early April, and it could be seen with the naked eye starting around April 10. They tracked it, and – again – many scientists and astronomers made their calculations and observations. Those who calculate did their calculations: Each orbit of a comet is different, and everyone wanted to know how bright the comet would get, and how close it would get to earth.
On April 20 the comet reached perihelion – its closest approach to the sun – and became very easily viewable from earth with casual unaided observation. [On cue, Mark Twain passed away]. After perihelion they predicted an Earth-comet approach so close that on May 18th Earth would pass through the comet’s tail Now that’s astonishing!
What would happen then? How should this news be treated? Should they let everyone, and anyone, know? Would panic and hysteria ensue? What about the news that spectroscopic surveys of the tail suggested the tail was comprised of a high percentage of cyanogen, a precursor to cyanide?
A few scientists suggested that this could make the entire atmosphere fatally toxic! But most scientists thought that there was no danger. Yet, we couldn’t know until we actually passed through.
What do you do when the world might end? Many people just stayed home, preferring to spend their final hours with their families. Factories shut down for want of workers. Yet, in many places around the world the answer was: have a party. A big party. Get all your friends, family, food and booze together and enjoy yourselves like there might be no tomorrow. Humans around the world wondered what might happen, … while partying. It was a delicious time: while the vast majority had little or no fear of the “calamity”, they took it as an opportunity to have a good time, enjoy this singular event: a few spectacular hours of passage. And by doing so – maybe – mocking those who were in hysteria.
It might have been the last time until now (the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, March 2020) that the world has been more or less united in the same activities. Mankind united by a single set of events.
Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet. When it was over, of course, nothing happened. They had simply witnessed and experienced an event that probably no other human had! And no other human will for a very long time. 
Well, perhaps more than that happened. Quite a few probably had hangovers – and there might have been a mini-baby boom in early 1911. (There was, in fact, a few percent jump in US births in 1911 over 1910; however, (1) that was a time of such massive immigration; and (2) birth numbers jumped consistently from 1900 until 1918 [insert WW1 comment here], so it’s not clear what we should attribute this mini-baby boom to.) 
Anyhow, one way or the other, this SARS-CoV-2 thing (and
the illness it causes, COVID-19) will pass. Some of us have panicked. Nearly all of us will survive, although many
of us will be changed; maybe with larger waistlines.
Unlike extraordinary 1910 – with two brilliant comets, and with Halley’s extremely close-approach to Earth – an epidemic or pandemic will occur again. For some of us, perhaps, within our lifetime. What will happen next time? Much will depend on what we have learned. And what we remember.
I hope it’s not the end of the world. But in any case, we can have a party.
By the way: Halley’s is predicted to appear again in the
summer of 2061. I don’t think I’ll hang
around for that one. Gotta join ol’ Mark
Twain sometime. But if I do make it to then: we’re having a heck of a party!
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 Halley’s orbital period varies a bit with every orbit; and the variation is random. Why? A) The comet sheds a fraction of its mass with each inner solar system pass due to solar heating; and B) the comet is tiny and light, and thus subject to (usually) slight gravitational perturbation by planets. Halley’s once had an orbital period of many tens of thousands of years, falling from the Kuiper Belt – or more likely the Oort Cloud – but after repeated close encounters with planets, it has been captured and now strays only about as far away from the sun as the 8th planet Neptune at aphelion – it’s farthest distance from the sun.
[2A] My son Aaron and I walked the battlefield in April, 2010. It is actually quite far inland from Hastings. There is a lovely town there now, with a beautiful Abbey. The town is called, appropriately enough: “Battle”
[2B] My wife and I were fortunate enough to have time to walk along and see the entire tapestry during our Normandy tour, in May, 2018.
 Mark Twain was born in 1835, with Halley’s Comet visible
in the night sky. As he aged, he grew
weary and bitter – he had lost his fortune, three of his four children perished
before him, and then his wife went. In such a dark cloud he predicted his own
demise in 1910, concurrent with Halley’s reappearance. He was correct.
 Deaths from Halley’s.
There were quite a few deaths associated with Halley’s, almost all of
them due to the hysteria. I read a
report of a 16-year old Canadian girl falling to her death from the roof of a
building where an “end of the world” party was being held.
 Author’s note: My disappointment with Halley’s 1986 appearance
was greatly relieved by Hale-Bopp in March and April, of 1997. On a spring break trip to the Arizona desert,
with perfect viewing, Hale-Bopp was magnificent. And it’s brightest night was almost exactly
the same as a lunar eclipse and – right next to the moon – Mars in
perfect and brilliant opposition.
Dawn Wells won the title of Miss Nevada in 1959. She went on to star in TV, live theater and movies, most memorably as Mary Ann in the Gilligan’s Island TV series. Still a beauty at 81, she and Tina Louise (Ginger) are the last surviving actors in that ‘60s TV show – which continues to live on in re-runs. Wells was born in October 1938.
Also, in 1938 – just a few days after Miss Wells’ birth, on the Sunday night right before Halloween – a series of “news” flashes and reports were broadcast nationwide over the Columbia Broadcasting System. The news went out as part of a regular show: Mercury Theatre. But unless listeners were tuned in at the very beginning, they might well have not realized that the “news” was a spoof — part of an entertainment show. 
The news shocked and, briefly, terrified more than a few people – and a bit of panic broke out. (The panic was not nearly as widespread as legend has it). Even some who understood that the “news reports” were fake did not understand it was actually a radio show dramatization of H.G. Wells’ famous novel, “War of the Worlds.”
The creator and producer of the 1938 radio show? Orson Welles. (He also played several voice-roles in the dramatization.)
So, Welles produced a show based on a novel by Wells? Put on the air the same week as Wells’ birth?
Wells, Welles, Wells. These are simply coincidences. A sequence of events and names that present a
curious pattern of no significance.
But as humans, we cannot help but notice such coincidences. Coincidences look a lot like patterns. And humans have evolved to be probably the best pattern recognizers in the world – outside, perhaps, of advanced Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning Algorithms. (Such as: whatever on the internet seems to know what I might be shopping for?) As humans, we’ve used pattern recognition to help us survive and thrive, evidence of Darwin’s theory. We hunt prey, avoid predators, plant, harvest, and socialize – including finding mates – according to evolved inherited skills of pattern recognition.
One of the most important is patterns for weather forecasting. We recognize “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning. Red sky at night sailor’s delight”. It was already ancient when Jesus said “When it is evening, you say ‘it will be fair weather for the sky is red.’ And in the morning: ‘it will be foul weather today, for the sky is red.’ O hypocrites. You can discern the face of the sky, but not the signs of the times!” [Matthew, 16:2-3].
Long ago humans recognized patterns of movement in the night skies. For example, every 780 days the red-orange planet Mars appears very bright in the sky, and almost directly overhead at midnight. (This phenomenon, called “opposition”, would likely have been tracked by counting lunar months, and predictably occurred every 26 lunar cycles, plus 19 days). Such celestial movements and tracking have meager connections to our lives, try as astrologists might to make them. On the other hand, the single biggest influence on ocean tides is the moon. Plus, constellations and the north star have been trusty navigational tools that pre-date history. So, our planet and our fates are not fully disconnected from all celestial patterns.
In 1894 Mars and Earth met in their regularly scheduled dance
of syzygy. Astronomers were ready and turned their telescopes toward the planet
named for the god of war. Their
observations, sketches and conjectures helped inspire a novel: “War of the
Worlds”, by H.G. Wells.
Percival Lowell saw the great Canali on Mars and fancied that they were massive water projects, undertaken to manage water by a civilization on a nearly barren planet that was drying up. H.G. Wells’ imagination: Would they be interested in coming to water-rich earth?
Further exciting scientific speculation: great flashes of light were seen on Mars during that alignment. From the respected astronomer Perrotin in (Nice, France) to the Lick Observatory in the hills outside San Jose, California, Mars-gazers confirmed to each other that the bright Martian lights were real. H.G. Well’s imagination: Might these flares of light be the firing of a giant gun, to send a spacecraft to earth at this opportune planetary alignment?
Like most science fiction writers, Wells was pretty well attuned to scientific developments. And world affairs. Thus armed scientifically and culturally, and with a great imagination, Wells wrote “War of the Worlds.” Initially published as a series in 1897, the work was published as a novel in a single volume in 1898.
I’m not sure why the title has the word “Worlds”. In the Wells novel, per my recollection and re-perusing of the fairly short book , the only locale inflicted with invasion and destruction of the Martian “heat ray” was southeast England, in and around the London area. 
In Welles’ 1938 radio show, the Martian invaders’
destruction was mostly limited to New Jersey and around New York City, although
he does make brief passing mention – almost like an afterthought – of Buffalo,
Chicago and St Louis. 
I’ve seen the 1953 movie a few times, mostly as a kid, and the “invasion” was limited to California. Writers can be so parochial. If it were really “War of the Worlds”, the whole human race would have been affected, and united in an effort to fight (or at least survive) the invaders. 
Alas, uniting our race would have done no good in any of the versions of the story. The Martians were virtually indestructible. The annihilation from their heat ray was total. Their only weakness was that they lacked an immune system adapted for earth. At the end they all perished due to exposure to simple common germs.
Virology was not even in its infancy when Wells wrote his novel; the very existence of anything like a virus was postulated (and indirectly proven) only a couple years before that Mars-Earth alignment. Scientists and novelists knew, of course, about bacteria. But those are usually many, many times larger than most viruses, and had been observed under microscopes. Humans would not truly “see” a virus until 1931, with the development of the electron microscope.
If Wells had known about viruses when he wrote his novel, he might well have included them in earth’s “victory” over the Martians. If he wrote the novel today, he might have included a “novel virus” (ha, pun intended) as the “hero.”
Returning to patterns (like novel & novel), and the
current novel virus (AKA SARS-CoV-2 and 2019-nCoV – the “n” indicating
“novel”), we can understand a bit how the US under-reacted, at first, to this
The virus that causes COVID-19 is a “new” virus (that’s what novel means) but is closely related to the corona viruses that caused SARS in 2002-3 and MERS in 2015. From a US-perspective, these were mostly well contained to Asia and the Middle East, although a nasty outbreak of SARS occurred near Toronto.
More novel viruses will come. They mutate easily and quickly. Some will be worse than SARS-CoV-2 or even the H1N1 variant that caused the pandemic of 1918-19 … more fatal and more transmittable. Concurrent with another existential catastrophe, they might even threaten the species. Not sure when … next year … next decade or in a few generations. But they will come.
In my imagined minor and more modern re-write of Wells’ story, it is a virus that saved the Homo Sapiens species. In future, perhaps the lessons-learned from this 2020 virus pandemic will save us too.
Final thought: By the way, from way back in the ‘60s until today, I always preferred Mary Ann over Ginger. No contest. Is it because she was a brunette, or because Mary Ann was … well she was Mary Ann? Or because she was Dawn Wells?
 Backstory spoiler: Wells was disheartened by the methods and human impacts of British worldwide colonization and empire building. So, in his novel, the roles are flipped. The Brits are set upon and invaded by strange and powerful foreigners who have come to take their resources, without regard for human life, or for destruction of a civilization.
“UNESCO is the conscience of the United Nations” - Federico Mayor Zaragoza 
I will not live long enough, nor do I have enough money, to see everything there is to see in this world. Yet, I have been fortunate to visit many wonderful places and see many beautiful things. Most of them with my wife. A great blessing.
Some of them have even been awesome. Awesome. What does that even mean anymore in this age of ever-fluid language and shifting definitions? It is a bit sad that this word, “awesome”, has been so overused and misused that it has nearly lost its meaning.
Alas. Only a few decades
ago it was rarely used, and only then to declare an exceptional status:
possessing such rich quality that its beholder experienced a state of “awe.” As in “awestruck”; or to be overcome with
reverence and emotions like wonder or fear.
Nowadays a meal, a glass of
wine, a golf shot or a last second winning field goal are commonly described as
“awesome.” Pshaw. These things happen almost every day. Hardly awesome.
The Grand Canyon? Awesome. A 50-year marriage of mutual support, trust and fidelity: awesome. Landing a spacecraft on another world? Awesome. Even a total eclipse of the sun can be awesome.
Where does the history of
the United Nations begin? Can we say it
rose from the ashes of the League of Nations, whose failure:
can be ascribed to political bickering in the United States; and
led to the rise of fascism and World War II?
Alternatively, perhaps the UN rose from the thoughts and aspirations shared between Churchill and Roosevelt in a clandestine meeting off the coast of Canada, in August, 1941, aboard the cruiser USS Augusta, some four months before Pearl Harbor triggered the US entry into WW2 (and nearly two years after that war had begun). During that meeting, they wrote and signed the Atlantic Charter: a betrothal of sorts, that the US and Britain would support each other, not just in this struggle for the future of mankind, but to avert war and protect human rights forever afterward.
Soon thereafter, on January 1, 1942 – with the US now officially at war with the Axis Powers – the term “United Nations” became official, as the US, the United Kingdom and 24 other countries signed the Declaration of the United Nations. An extremely brief document, it contained the affirmation to support the Atlantic Charter, and a commitment to win the war without “separate peace.” It would grow in scope and vision to become the charter of the organization we now call the United Nations.
Regarding travel. My wife and I spent most of this past October in Croatia. That country – even though sizing up smaller than West Virginia – is more abundant in history, culture, terrain and beauty than I had imagined. Among the many locales and sights, we visited perhaps the most beautiful and truly awesome place either of us had ever seen: Plitvice Lakes. Any attempt to describe it is to fail at justice.
Here’s my attempt.
For many millions of years the region that is now the mountain ranges and rugged islands of Croatia and Italy that parallel the Adriatic coast lay under a sea. For most of those ages the earth was much warmer than today; the sea teemed with life – including fish of many sizes, as well as shellfish like oysters and clams, all feeding on the abundant micro-plant life, like phytoplankton. When each individual perished the detritus of their life, which contained calcium, collected as sediment on the seafloor. Layer upon layer. Under great pressure and through eons of time, calcium-rich rock formed tremendous amounts of dense, hard limestone (primarily calcium carbonate, CaCO3) extending over a vast region.
Eventually, more powerful and longer-term earth dynamics took over: plate tectonics. The Adriatic Plates began to drift and rotate, forcing these huge sheets of limestone to fracture and rise from the sea, sometimes reaching for the sky. This produced the dramatic mountains and islands of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, including the Velebit Range, as well as the Apennines that form the spine of Italy. While some areas are still rising, others – like Venice – are sinking into the sea due to the same dynamics, millimeter by millimeter.
Along the Adriatic, the climate and terrain of Croatia’s coastal side of these mountains tends toward the classic Mediterranean feel: rocky, warm and dry. I was quite astonished to cross the mountains, drop to the coast, and see cactus and palm trees at the same latitude as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I grew up. On the inland side, where it is cooler and wetter, many streams and rivers drain the region – all of which eventually run to the Danube – including the Korana River. 
Along the Korana River’s
path it has sculpted a lovely little canyon from the limestone. Here you will find Plitvice Lakes, probably
the most naturally awesomely beautiful place I’ve seen in my life. To walk its paths and feast your eyes is like
walking through endless postcards. [Pictures
here: hopefully this link lives a while]. <More
Within the canyon are a
series of 16 lakes, each linked to the next by cascades of countless waterfalls
of every shape and height – one lake flowing to the next. At the brink of each falls, particularly
where there are entangled roots of trees and shrubs, calcium carbonate is
continuously, slowly, steadily precipitating from solution to form new rock;
thus the crest of most waterfalls tend not to erode, but grow and change in
shape. Very. Very. Slowly.
Yes, if you go, take a full day to see it. Be prepared for crowds, even post-tourist season, in October.
Plitvice Lakes is a UNESCO
World Heritage Site. UNESCO is a United
Nations Agency that has been part of the United Nations practically since its
beginning, also going back to 1945.
(United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The mission of UNESCO is to help preserve
peace by promoting Education, Science and Culture.
Currently there are over 1,100 such heritage sites worldwide. They are recognized – and thus protected – for having great significance, either as a historic human achievement, a wonder of nature.
In the United States, you will easily identify places like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. There are some 20 more, many of human construct, such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Statue of Liberty.
There are several benefits
to such sites. Yes, they do get some UN
funding, but it is small. Being so
recognized brings attention – this means positive world recognition, and (sort
of bad news) more tourist dollars to support the site. Finally, the Geneva Convention on the rules
of warfare protect all UNESCO heritage sites.
Croatia is dense with such
sites, much more than most countries, and we were fortunate to see many. Besides Plitvice Lakes, we
walked the ancient island city of Trogir,
saw the Venetian defense walls of Zadar,
were amazed by Diocletian’s Palace in Split, there also experiencing a UNESCO Heritage Intangible: an a capella performance by a local Klapa group (example here, and we watched in the same place as this performance),
experienced the historic splendor and walls of Dubrovnik,
and we bicycled through the Stari Grad Plains on the island of Hvar, where sturdy folk have eked out an existence on the rocky ground cultivating olives, figs, grapes, lavender and pomegranate for nearly 24 centuries.
On side trips, we walked the Stari Most Bridge in Mostar (in Hercegovina) and beheld the eye-candy of Lake Bled, Slovenia. (The bridge is a UNESCO site; the latter is not, but could well be soon). 
A couple of places we visited are likely candidates to become such sites soon: the tiny village of Ston, with its most impressive wall – the longest stone wall in Europe (now that Hadrian’s has faded away) – as well as its salt beds, oyster and mussel farms. And, the fetching city of Korčula, on the eponymously named island, purported birthplace and later home of famous Venetian world traveler Marco Polo.
I won’t let it pass that UNESCO World Heritage Site status spared neither the city of Dubrovnik nor the Stari Most Bridge of Mostar from severe damage during the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the 1990s.
In Mostar, the bridge crashed into the Neretva River from Croat shelling. In Dubrovnik, thousands of buildings were damaged, many of them totally; over one hundred non-combat inhabitants were killed. Many more were injured. The city was left without power and water during the seven-month Serb “siege of Dubrovnik.” Such a cultural outrage that even Hitler’s Nazi armies, nor Tito’s national partisans, would perpetrate.
In any case, the historic and magnificent walls of Dubrovnik, built between the 12th and 14th centuries were finally used for defense of the city – and they did quite well. The city has been largely rebuilt, as has the Mostar Bridge. Each done faithfully to their original construction.
We do intend to visit
Croatia again. It is quite reasonable with regard to cost and weather, and the
people are extremely friendly and English speaking. Croatia, as they say, is
open for business.
In case you are thinking of visiting the area (and I hope you are), I’ll put in a plug for the company we used: Soul of Croatia (SoulOfCroatia.com). Robi helped us set up, and pull off, a rather complicated tour with no hitches whatsoever.
Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season and that you find peace in your lives through all components of your heritage, including education, science and culture.
notes: The US is not starved for UNESCO Heritage sites, although on a per
square mile basis, it is sparse compared to Croatia. In the US I have visited the following: Grand
Canyon, Yellowstone, Olympic Peninsula National Park, Cohokia Mounds, Mesa
Verde National Park, The Everglades, Independence Hall and Park (Philadelphia),
Redwoods National Park, Great Smokey Mountains, Chaco Canyon and Culture
Center, Monticello and the University of Virginia, Carlsbad Cavern, The
Missions of San Antonio (including the Alamo, which I wrote about here).
have about 10 to go: Yosemite, Glacier Bay are on the bucket list.
the US and Croatia, our list is larger still.
We’ve been quite fortunate …
Germany we’ve visited and seen: Aachen Cathedral, Würzburg Residenz, Medieval
town of Bamberg, and Köln Dom (Cologne Cathedral).
Austria: Hallstatt, Salzburg, Vienna, and
Belgium: Brugges (Brugge)
France: Mont Saint-Michel, a Vauban
fortified city (Neuf Breisach), and the post-WW2 re-built city of Le Havre.
Canada: Rocky Mountain Parks, and Head
Smashed in Buffalo Jump (this last one might need its own essay)
Also: Luxembourg City Center, and Sydney
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.