Author: Joe

Post Election Thoughts, Part 2 – and Looking Forward

Since I wrote Post Election Thoughts 2020, Part 1 last fall, I thought I’d finally get around to a Part 2 — which is actually mostly a look forward, and not so much a look back.

First, a quick look back.  Presidentially, Trump lost.  Period.  Yes, of course there are many “couldas”, “shouldas”, “wouldas”, and “yeah-but-what-abouts”, but he lost.  A large percentage of Trump voters think it was rigged; and a large percentage of Hillary voters still think 2016 was rigged.  Nonetheless, it’s over. Like it or not, Joe Biden is your president, for now.

Is Joe Biden your president?

We’ve been hearing the “not my president” chant for decades now.  First under Clinton, then growing ever louder with Bush 43.

I will throw a bone (or perhaps chew toy) to that crowd of howlers and doubters and concede that it looks like there were more than a few voting anomalies, such as sketchy absentee ballots and ballot-curing oddities, in populous counties of states that were extraordinarily closely decided: e.g. Maricopa in AZ and Fulton in GA.[1]  Regardless, it’s also evident that none of those were enough to swing a state, let alone the entire election.  Gonna take that bone away: this happens every election.  Every – single – pelection.  There are always anomalies and sideways glances.  Nothing is perfect, even democracy. Or perhaps, “especially” in a democracy.

This is one reason that I remain (slightly) in favor of the Electoral College (EC) over the National Popular Vote movement: it may be possible to corruptly swing a single state or two. But even if an entire state was so messed up (or amoral) that 100% of the vote went for one candidate (or, even 110%), it does not sway the EC outcome much at all.  It’s simply more difficult to fraudulently sway a large number of states without detection.

Built into this is a second reason: the EC usually (not always) gives a pretty clear indication of just who won.  For example, in the last two (very tight) elections the winner won by identical 306-232 [2] votes.  Fairly convincing majorities (yet Trump labeled his 2016 win a “landslide” despite losing the popular vote 46-48%).

Speaking of “minority” presidents, the EC gave Abraham Lincoln a clear majority over three other candidates receiving EC votes in 1860, despite garnering less than 40% of the popular vote.

[1] given the closeness in Georgia (a current official difference of only about 11,000 votes out of 5 million cast for all of its 16 Electoral votes) my pre-election assessment that a presidential vote counts more in Georgia than any other states stands substantiated.

[2] note that so-called “faithless electors” changed this 306-232 outcome slightly in 2016.  Per a recent 2020 Supreme Court case (Chiafalo v. Washingtonwhich was combined with Colorado Department of State v. Bacawe will likely see an end to such faithless electors soon — a situation I do not agree with)

One last thought looking back at 2020 and the presidential race.  I assert that without two things Trump wins, hands down.

  • Number one: obviously, the novel corona virus. The pandemic, our collective responses to it, and the consequences thereof completely pushed what was an almost certain Trump win into the gray area that columnists and the news media love.  Pre-pandemic the economy was roaring with record low unemployment as well as record high employment (and salaries) for minorities (especially blacks) and women.  Oh my, how that flipped.
  • Number two: Trump is an ass who broadcasts whatever undisciplined thought floats into his maze-of-a-brain without any filter whatsoever. Very unpresidential. Of course, he said stuff like “one day the virus will just go away.”  He didn’t do himself any favors. I score it an unconvincing 2-1 loss with an own goal.

Ok, enough looking back.  Now forward.


The US decennial census results are finally in, some four months late.  (Late, owing to the pandemic, and a few court battles about whether the census can legally count non-citizens as non-citizens).

The results are only a tad surprising, and there are some golden nuggets and poison pills for both Dems and Reps, although long term it looks better to me for Dems.

First, the population only grew about 7.4% over the entire decade; that’s the slowest growth since the Depression and Dust Bowl-cursed 1930s.  Still, 47 of the 50 states (48, including DC) recorded population growth; the losers were West Virginia (-3.2%), Mississippi (-0.2%) and Illinois (-0.1%).

Looking forward: Reallocation of Congressional District Seats, and thus Electoral Votes have been determined.  The “winners” are Texas (+2), and the following at +1: Colorado, Florida, Montana, Oregon, and North Carolina.  The “losers”, all at -1, are: California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.  [this is the first time California, the nation’s most populous state, has ever lost a congressional district; for New York it’s just the second: they lost two seats in 2010].

Nominally this looks like a slight win for Republicans, as more generally Rep voting states get additional congressional seats and Electoral Votes, drawing away from solid Dem states like CA, NY and IL.

If one thinks the presidential contests of the past were dirty or tainted – think of the angst following both ’16 and ’20 –  then one hasn’t ever paid attention to re-drawing of Congressional Districts and state legislative districts, which has been, and is going on, under our very collective noses. It’s a terrific example of “polite fiction.”  [“Terrific” is etymologically related to “terrible”, in this case for good reason]. The “Fiction” being that this is all fair, balanced and representative.  This has been historically, and still is, the unseen dirtiest of dirty businesses – classic smoke-filled room stuff that we don’t get to see much of; something that is supposedly based on balanced and fair representation. In reality it’s highly partisan in most states, and the process will take its toll on anyone’s faith in the notion that the drawing of district boundaries is fair and independent.

For example, Illinois, which is hard left leaning, at least state-wide (voting 55% and 57% for the Dem presidential candidate in ’16 and ’20 and only having Dem US senators since 2010) currently has 18 congressional seats: disproportionately 13 Democrat and 5 Republican.  The new state CD map managed to squeeze an incumbent Republican out of his seat, Adam Kinzinger; this, despite the state losing a seat and having a solid majority of Dems in the current tally, so it will be even more disproportionate.  Not sure how this plays out long term, since Kinzinger has been a critic of Trump, especially his bitching about the election.

On the other hand, one can be sure that the heavily Republican-leaning Texas legislature will ensure that the two “new” districts will lean Republican as well. More on Texas in the footnotes.

This all has to be done quite quickly, as the campaign season for the 2022 mid-terms is already underway.  The 4-month census delay has not helped map drawers meet deadlines. [By the way: since 1935 the sitting president’s party has lost seats in congress in all but two mid-term elections.  Because the Dems currently hold a very narrow 220-212 edge – with 3 vacancies – we can count on the drawing of CD boundaries and campaigning to be very contentious.]

And, probably about as important, each state must now re-draw their state’s legislative and senate districts (except Nebraska, which is unicameral, and only draws one set of district maps). Again, these must be drawn very soon.  Haste makes waste, so be careful.

Back to census-based demographic trends, most of which look to be favorable to Democrats.

  • America continues its over-one-century migration away from its wide swaths of rural regions, and toward the urban, suburban and exurban centers.  Urbanites, and those close to urban areas, tend to vote Democrat; Rural dwellers tend to vote Republican. Covid might have changed this, as it hit right in the middle of the census; so it will take a decade to see what the impacts are.
  • Racially, there are actually fewer total Whites than in 2010; Whites tend to be more likely to vote R than D. [Trump got 57% to Biden’s 42% of White votes in 2020].

One demographic that I noted could slightly favor Republicans.  America is aging. The Average age in the US is up 1 year, from 37.2 to 38.2.  Mostly this is due to longer lives among Baby Boomers and older (those born before 1964). Older people have a slight tendency to vote Republican, and they definitely get higher voter turnout. It’s also partly due to a falling birthrate.

Regarding voting patterns. People tend to vote how their friends, neighborhood, and fellow community members vote. This has become kind of a closed-loop feedback system, as people now tend to socialize and associate mostly (or only) with those who think like them politically. I don’t think this happened nearly as much before, say 2000.  We are very polarized now.

There’s also a high correlation between population density and political voting patterns. Below 800 per square mile people tend to vote Republican; and below 100 overwhelmingly so.  It starts to change between 800 and 2,000 per sq mile.  From lower population densities, but still urbanite densities like Denver and Saint Louis (both just under 5,000/sq. mi.), to larger BostonSan Francisco and New York (14,000, 19,000 and nearly 30,000 sq.mi.) one sees profound diluvial pro-Democratic voting patterns.

For Republican patterns and densities, one would need to look at county population numbers; I can’t think of a single urban center that leans Republican.  I suspect that two major factors here are: the higher the density the more the propensity to perceive benefit from bigger and more active government (efforts to de-fund police notwithstanding), and urban areas tend to have higher populations of people of color, who generally vote Democratic.

Re-districting and the associated “food fights” are almost inevitable. Highly political gerrymandering is not a necessary outcome every decade.  Although states like Texas and Maryland (and several others) seem doomed, for now, to their grossly distorted Congressional District maps, several states have recently taken map-drawing out of the hands of their politically-motivated legislatures (and even state courts) and put them in the hands of supposedly non-partisan commissions. [3]

Maryland’s CD map, 2012-2020. CD 2, 3, 4,and 7 are so contorted it hurts one’s head

My home state of Colorado is one of these; we voted for two such special commissions back in 2018: one for US congressional districts, and one for state legislative districts.  Kind of a big deal, especially since Colorado has an additional congressional seat starting in 2022 – now up to eight.

Other states that are now drawing maps via “independent” commissions are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, New York and Washington. I can’t help but be skeptical of the “non-partisan” rating each commission would get, but I’m also optimistic that increased fairness and representation will result. (AK and MT have only one CD, but this applies to their state legislatures as well).  I’ve heard some squawking about preliminary maps from all sides already.

A few elections to look forward to besides the November 2024 Presidential and General Elections – when we will no doubt be told, yet again, that “this is a matter of life and death”, and “this is the most important election in our lifetime.”  (Insert breathless, feverish inflection as you wish).

I touched on the mid-term races in 2022, but special congressional elections will be held to fill vacancies as well in November, 2021.  With a Senate split at 50-50 there are several 2022 Senate elections to watch closely, wherein Reps must defend 20 seats, the Dems 14.  The likely close races to watch here look to be: Georgia (again), Arizona, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  Of these likely close races, Reps are defending 3 seats, Dems 4. Be prepared for an extra onslaught of advertising and “persuasion” if you live in those states.

And coming sooner, this year in September: (1) the nation will watch the recall election of Gov Newsome in California on the 14th, and (2) Europe – indeed, the world – will pay attention to see how Germany reshapes itself in the post-Merkel era, as they hold federal elections on the September 26th.

Enjoy the rest of your summer!

Joe Girard © 2021

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

[3] Fewer Whites than in 2010.  This might party be attributed to several factors.  (1) more mixed-race couples and people-in-general who identify as non-racial, (2) mixed race people who identify as a person of color (e.g. Barak Obama who is exactly ½ White and ½ Black definitely identifies as black; people like Tiger Woods, who at ¼ Black would identify as Black), and (3) a reluctance — or even rebellion — by Whites against identifying people by race; e.g. some identify as Native American.  Why? They were born here, as were their parents and grandparents. They identify as Native.  Hmmmm.]

Original Gerrymander cartoon

[4] Gerrymandering is named for early Massachusetts politician, Governor, and 5th VP of the nation, Elbridge Gerry, who helped draw and then approved a political map of his state that was so distorted (in order to keep his party in power) that a district looked like a salamander.  Thus the word is a sort of portmanteau of his name and the amphibian.  Many states have outdone him today.  As Gerry was one of the nation’s founding fathers, it’s sometimes interesting to think that many modern jurists should divine to understand the thinking of founding fathers, and then seek, anachronistically, to incorporate such into modern judicial decisions).

Not all of Texas is severely gerrymandered, as much of it is rural and undividably safely Republican.  It is too large of a state to easily show all of the congressional districts at once in much detail, but the generally progressive counties containing cities like Austin and San Antonio have been chopped up and districted so that Dem Congressional representation is diminished.  Politics, it is said, is a full contact sport.

Shown is current Texas CD 21, in which fragments of San Antonio and Austin are lumped in with an enormous swath of rural-dom. Alongside is Texas CD35, which is more of a salamander and ridiculous.

Tripping Out: Cross-Country to Canada

Since the world shut down in early 2020, my wife and I have undertaken some road trips of various duration and distance.  Sometimes they were made with specific destinations; but all were with the intent to just to get out of the house and experience a journey.  How American: we answered the call of the open road.  Happens more when cabin fever starts setting in.

There are more than a few good quotes about the journey and the destination. One comes from Harry Chapin: “It’s got to be the going, not the getting there that’s good.  That’s a thought for keeping, if I could.” (From song: “Greyhound”).

Our last big trip actually did have a worthwhile destination: our son and daughter-in-law who live near Toronto. Great to spend time with them, get a few projects done (or at least started), and help them settle into their “new” home; well, at least new to them.

I’m going to muse here a bit about both the journey and the destination.

We took nearly identical routes both ways to/from Ontario.  Yes, it was a shorter than alternate routes (for a drive). I think people are so interested in getting back-and-forth quickly that they easily – too easily – fall into the simple notion that all those fly-over states are boring and just full of nothing.

Simply not true.

Well, we are definitely going back to Omaha.  That’s were the Union Pacific started laying track in 1863, going westward, and finally meeting the Central Pacific at Promontory Point, UT in May, 1869.  East and West were linked by rail! The Transcontinental part was truly complete when the UP bridge across the Missouri River was complete and opened in 1873.

Omaha has an extensive river front, and we were hoping to spend some time enjoying it.  But it was all closed up, as they endeavor to complete a $300 million re-vitalization of the area.  That’s a lot of money and it is mostly private funds.  It’s due to be complete and re-opened in 2022.  The Heartland of America water-themed park will re-open in 2025.

Across the flowing water is Omaha’s river partner city: Council Bluffs, Iowa.  We stopped there for an hour on the way back.  Cute downtown area (it’s several times smaller than Omaha) with a great park. Bayliss Park has a wonderful Veterans memorial, beautiful fountain, plenty of trees, benches and tables. Speaking of which, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum is there in CB; so that’s on another future stop. [We passed through on a Monday, when it was closed].

Moving sculpture at War Memorial, Council Bluffs, Iowa

The downtown areas of both cities are set well back from the river.  One presumes the historical reason is to avoid flooding of the big Missouri, which surely occurs from time-to-time.  There is a pedestrian bridge across the river, connecting the two cities and states: The Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge.  Good for views and stretching your legs.

Rock Island, IL was another pull-over place, and I’d like to spend more time there in the future.  It’s historic for sure: that’s where the first bridge across the Mississippi was completed, in 1855, leading directly to greater westward expansion, and Chicago’s leaping to the fore as the great economic and commercial capital of America’s heartland.

Returning, we stopped for a “leg stretch” in Kearney, Nebraska.  That’s the former site of Fort Kearney, built in 1848 as a base of protection, provisions and refuge for western emigrants traversing over the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, California Trail (think: gold rush), and Overland Trail… all of which passed through Kearney along the Great Platte River Road.  The short-lived but never forgotten Pony Express also passed through Kearney. There is a wonderful little museum built in an archway that spans across Interstate-80.  Takes about an hour to tour the whole thing; great way to get a “walk about” and learn a lot about America in the mid-19th century.  Even has a bit about the Donner Party.

Kearney Archway Museum

While in Canada, I learned a few more things about differences between “their” culture and “American” culture, at least so far as what we experienced in Ontario.

When at restaurants and bars, they have no “Rest Rooms.”  They have “Wash Rooms.”  Same thing, different name.  I like it: “Wash” seems more appropriate than “Rest.”  Does anyone actually take a nap in there?  I’d like to think that, at a minimum, people actually wash themselves while in there.

They have little quibble when US citizens refer to themselves as “Americans”, or their home country as “America”, even though Canada is certainly part of America (as is Mexico, etc.).  One thing that bugs me about “Americans” is our propensity to refer to any room or facility that has a toilet as a “bathroom.”  Really?  Does anyone really bathe in there?  I do rather prefer the simplicity of the Brits and Aussies, who call it “Loo”, “Public Toilet” or “W.C.” for water closet. (Toilette and WC work in Germany, too).

They seem to have little use for the pesky Phillips head screws.  And they are annoying.  There’s a strong preference for the square tipped screws and driver tips, which are far less likely to engage poorly, and – worse – strip.  They prefer to call these “Robertson” screws and tips.  Very useful.  I’d certainly seen square tips before, but never heard of Robertson.  And, it seems they were invented by a Canadian, named, of course, Robertson.

The Roberson tip

Southern Ontario is fairly low lying, rather flat, and has waterways that are often quite close together.  Such locales are dotted with little land links that separate the waterways, some of which have come to be called “portages.”  The word “portage,” which comes to us through French, shows up quite a bit in US history and geography as well.  One way to tell a Canadian from an “American” is how the word is pronounced.  In Canada the -age is pronounced as in “Massage”.  In the US it rhymes with “Porridge.”

I think I’ve mentioned other pronunciation differences before (e.g. the words: about, produce, product), but portage was new to me.

Canadians, at least Ontarians, are quite relaxed about units of measurement for many things.  They are fine with ounces (as fluid ounces or even pints) in place of liters – say for getting a beer –  but petrol (gasoline) is always in liters. Er, ah, litres. Same with pounds and kilograms, say if one is purchasing produce (“Prah-duce”) or meat.  That’s unofficial.  Officially, purchases in brick-and-mortar stores are made in kilos.

But mention Fahrenheit to anyone born after, oh, about 1975, and you’ll get a blank look.

You: “It was hot today, eh.  At least 90 degrees, eh. “ [Add the “-eh” to a statement when trying to fit in.]

Canadian: “ ——–”

You: “That’s 90 Fahrenheit”

Canadian: “——–”

To me, and in my unhumble opinion, Fahrenheit is a far better unit than Celsius, at least as relates to humans and weather.  I really don’t care what temperature water boils at (nominally 100C, which varies based on elevation/air pressure anyhow). Or where it freezes (0C). What could be simpler than 0 (zero) is really cold, and 100 is really hot??  Tip of the hat to Fahrenheit.  [However, 20 is really a quite comfy temperature as good reference point].

Final thoughts. This might well be biased by my long-term residency in Colorado, typically one of the very leanest and fittest states in the US, on average.  Canadians are every bit as fat – even obese – as we Americans are.  Plenty of waddlers and dunlap syndrome going on.  Guess it’s a common first world problem.

Oh by the way, try to buy your gas (and booze and cigarettes, if either of those are your poisons of choice) in the US before crossing the border.  Taxes on those things are pretty eye-popping “north of the border, in the great white north.”  We were scoffed at and chided a bit by the Border Officer when we claimed only half a case of beer.  “We need to train you better, eh.  <smirk>”.  I would have taken a picture of him and the border crossing, but that is definitely frowned upon. [1]

Be well, and may your travels be safe and interesting.

Bonus section: Sitting is the new smoking.
I’ve long known that sitting for long periods of time is bad for one’s health in so many ways.  And I’ve long thought that I knew everything that could go wrong with knees.  Well, put them together and I have a new super painful knee condition to share.  Those many, many hours of sitting on my butt took a toll.  Yes, I knew it was bad for the hamstrings and glutes.  So, I got out of the car every chance to walk, do jumping jacks (50-100 is the norm), even run 100 yds ,or do step-ups on benches.  But sitting all the way to Ontario, then doing hours of landscape work for several days really did a number on my ITB (Iliotibial band).  That thing tightened up just awful and left me crippled and crying for a while.  Moral: never, ever stop moving.  ITBS (syndrome), is real, is painful, and not to be taken lightly.

Iliotibial Band (ITB) and pain

 

Joe Girard © 2021

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

[1] Each adult can bring  the following across the border into Canada: up to one case of beer (24 standard 12 oz cans or bottles), 1.5 liters of wine  (2 standard size bottles) and 40 fluid ounces of hard liquor.  In most of Canada, one is considered adult and of drinking age at 19 years old, except where it is 18, such as Alberta and Quebec. I think you can bring more, but either (1) don’t mention it, i.e. lie, or (2) be prepared to pay some tax on it.  I think they wink and nod at the first, and really don’t want the hassle of the second.  

Ray of Resolution

1900. The Games of the II Olympiad are underway as part of the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The Track and Field events are being conducted in the stadium of the Racing Club de France Football. It is not the fancy stadium or field we would come to expect of Olympic Games decades hence – Racing Club plays in the 5th tier of French national soccer (football). But, it is conveniently located close to the fairgrounds.  Not far away, just under a mile, and across the historic River Seine, the 1,000-foot-tall Eiffel Tower – built as an awe-inspiring eye-catching fascination for the 1889 Fair – is in view.(1)

June 16. Ray stands beside the bar as required for this event: the standing high jump. No running approach or adjustment of feet position is permitted.  He takes a moment to gaze at its World Record height; so prodigious a height that, if cleared, it would have sufficed to earn a medal in the regular running high jump in the previous Athens Olympics. He begins his unique routine, breathing slowly and deeply, focusing his attention, gradually folding his lanky legs into a deep squat, stretching his powerful quad, calf, and glute muscles.  As his squat deepens, he begins to swing his arms, farther and farther, back and forth. Then – suddenly! – he explodes almost straight up.

Standing High Jump, Ray Ewry

Would it be Ironic that a man who came to world prominence labeled as “The Human Frog” would have the most life-altering circumstance of his entire life crash upon him during a silly race involving frogs? Because, after Ray Ewry’s performances in the II Olympic Games – winning three Olympic Championships in all three standing jumping events in a single day – that’s what the French media and fans called him: La grenouille humaine. And the name stuck.

I have found that a firm definition of the word Ironic is difficult to pin down, although many English speakers use the word often.  As Merriam-Webster states: “The word irony has come to be applied to events that are merely curious or coincidental …”  Best fit might be when a word’s, or a phrase’s usage – or a real-life outcome – is far different than what one would expect. Or as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said (of something completely different): “I know it when I see it.”

Ray Ewry was that man of world prominence. 

Standing High Jump, Olympics,  Ray Ewry

He was born in October, 1873, in Lafayette, Indiana. That’s the seat of Tippecanoe County, lying along the Wabash River, and contains its companion waterway: the Wabash Canal.  The river, the canal, and even the county fair and fairgrounds provided entertainment for young Ray.  But his life wasn’t even close to easy.


Much of America and Europe went through a canal building craze in the early 19th century.  These ambitious waterway constructions facilitated the transportation of goods and product.  In America grain went from the breadbaskets of the heartland to oceanic ports and thence to other American cities and to the world. Canals also facilitated the flow of all sorts of necessities to the heartland: forged machinery, stoves, clothing, boots, even sawn lumber and fine European clothing and furniture.  (One tip-off regarding canal building and its significance is the number of inland US cities with the suffix “-port” in their name, such as Logansport, Gasport, Middleport, Brockport, etc.  There are at least 4 Lockports, of course all near canal locks: one each in Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, and New York states).

US Major Canals, circa 1853

Thousands of miles of canals were constructed. The Erie Canal is probably the most famous and enduring.  It opened in 1825 and traversed northern New York state for some 360-plus miles, connecting the four Great Lakes above Niagara Falls to the Atlantic Ocean … and thus helped make many cities along those Great Lakes  become commercial and transportation hubs (Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, etc.), and also helped make New York City into the gigantic hub of commercial trade.  That’s a status it enjoys to this day.

Of the significant but lesser-known canals we consider the longest North American canal at nearly 500 miles: the Wabash & Erie Canal.  This canal network connected Toledo’s Maumee Bay, at the western end of Lake Erie to Evansville, Indiana, on the right bank of the mighty Ohio River.  From there transportation to and from the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico was possible.

With construction beginning near Toledo in 1832, and finally reaching Evansville in 1853, the canal’s long-term future (as for many other canals) was doomed before it was completed, even though it had been in use since the first few miles of the big ditch were dug.  The steam powered “Iron Horse” was the next transportation rage.  Fueled with coal and using rapidly developing steel technology for engines, wheels and rails, the railroad would almost immediately surpass and suppress the potential of canals for convenient transportation.

1904 Saint Louis.  The Games of the III Olympiad are underway, again as part of a World’s Fair.  The Track & Field events are occurring on the newly constructed Athletic Field of Washington University (now known as Francis Olympic Field).  Again, the field lacks much of the glamour and size we’d grow to expect in future decades. The University is in the process of moving from downtown Saint Louis to just across the city limits.  Its many buildings and grounds are still works-in-progress.  Just a few yards away from the Athletic Field, the World’s Fair is using the University’s new Admin Building as headquarters for its massive spread of 1,270 acres of exhibitions – the largest Fair until Shanghai over a century later, in 2010.  And just a bit further away the Ferris Observation Wheel, at 264 feet tall with a capacity of 2,160 passengers is clearly visible.

August 29.  Ray stands at one end of the Long Jump pit.  His feet are on the ground; this is a standing jumping event.  He’d need one of his better jumps to secure 1st place and a gold medal (the 1904 Olympics were the first with gold, silver and bronze medals).  He gazes out to a spot well over 3 meters away, to world and Olympic record distance.  Fellow American Charles King has already broken Ray’s Olympic record at 3.21 meters.  Ray quiets his pensive, disciplined mind and begins his now well-known routine.  When he leaps, his explosiveness surprises no one.  When he lands –  properly not falling backward – the crowd roars its appreciation.  Ray has set a new World and Olympic Record at 3.47 meters (11 feet, 4.6 inches) – and won himself another Olympic championship.

Ray Ewry, Standing Long Jump, 1904 Olympics, Saint Louis

Unlike Paris, the Olympic events are spread out over several months; yet like Paris, most of the athletic (track and field) Olympic competitions were crammed into just a few days.  In Paris, all of Ray’s events were held on a single day; in Saint Louis his events spread out a bit.  Yet, Ray won three golds again, sweeping the standing jumping events, between August 29 and September 3.  Although he set a record in the Long Jump, his other numbers were off from his personal best – a trend he had begun to notice in his training.

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Not much detail is known of Ray Ewry’s early life in Lafayette, except that it was profoundly difficult.  I found little.  He had one sibling, a sister, Mabel, a few years younger.  His father, George, was prone to drink. His mother, Lizzie, died of “consumption” (now known as tuberculosis) when he was only 5-½ years old, and his sister was still a toddler.  Sodden with alcohol and sorrow, Ray’s father was unable to deal with the duties of sole parent, household management, and employment – so he turned to his friends and neighbors, the Elisha family, to raise his children. Mary Elisha became Ray’s and Mabel’s mother. Mr. George Ewry then vanished forever. Ray was an orphan.

Little was known about diseases – including hygiene and sanitation – even late into the 19th century.  And little could be done for what was known.  Thanks to Hooke and van Leeuwenhoek, the prolific lives of bacteria were certainly known, yet Fleming’s discovery of penicillin was decades away, and widespread use of it even further.  Viruses were unknown, although they were proved to exist in the 1890s; yet they were so small they were little understood until well into the 20th century.
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In Lafayette Indiana, like many other places, children frequently played in, and splashed about in, fetid waters.  Ray Ewry often did such when he was not off playing at the county fairgrounds.  He’d jump and swim in the Wabash Canal or River. All the kids did.  No one really thought much of it.

2021. It’s still the time of coronavirus, or Covid-19, although – hopefully – the end is nigh. Or at least major relief.  Tokyo will host the Olympics with essentially zero spectators.  Of the countless types of viruses, there are a tiny fraction that can have horrible effects on humans. But a tiny fraction of a very large number is still a large number. Among this vile fraction are a set of three that can cause conditions that terrify anyone: the polio viruses.

These are three similar but distinctly different polio viruses. Call them variations on a gene.  All are highly contagious and are different enough that vaccines must contain three different antigen triggers.  Thankfully two types are considered to be fully eradicated from the earth, and the other is found only in remote places – mostly Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Much as with Covid-19, the vast majority of people who got infected with a polio virus suffered very mild-to-no symptoms; some medical sites say 95-99%.  Of those with symptoms, most might have felt like they had a mild cold, or flu, and feel achy for a few days, or maybe a week. Perhaps a slight fever. And then it was gone.  [Also, like Covid-19, these asymptomatic infections can spread the virus]. What history and imagination conjures up for us is the one-in-two hundred or so who suffered some sort of paralysis. The onset of paralysis was usually some time – several days, or even a week, or more – after the body had seemingly “beaten” the virus. Overwhelmingly such paralysis victims were children: from very young to adolescents.

The odd adult case has a most memorable example.  Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the US, was stricken with polio paralysis at age 39 – the year after he had unsuccessfully stood for Vice-President as the Democratic Party nominee.  About 75% of such polio paralysis victims eventually get most, even all, capability back in their stricken limbs and muscles.  Roosevelt was among the minority who did not.

Sadly, for those who do recover, there is a high incidence of PPS – Post Polio Syndrome.  After many years, even after decades, the previously afflicted muscles begin to slowly weaken, and may eventually fail altogether.  The biological mechanism is not understood, as the virus itself is long gone from the body, and – now that Polio is nearly totally eradicated thanks to diligent vaxxing of all children – the phenomenon may never be understood.  Perhaps the aging body just “remembers” the condition and reverts back to it.

There are other infectious diseases that can have long-lasting effects, long after the infection is beaten.  One is caused by the genus of streptococcus bacteria.  Bacteria are much larger than viruses, but just as devious.  They are frequently “opportunistic”: the body generally fights them off well, but they still strike hard when the body is run down, perhaps fighting another infection (often viral), or there is a large cut or scrape to the skin, as often happens to young boys.

Strep bacteria have distinct proteins on their cell coating which the human body’s immune system identifies as antigens: something to attack and kill.  But sometimes the body is too run-down to fight the bacteria off quickly, or perhaps, after the age of Fleming, the use of antibiotics is delayed.  When strep hangs around the body for a while, the immune system gets over-programmed to attack the marked bacteria’s protein in its cell coating.  Unfortunately, that protein is very similar to other proteins that the body needs, such as in the muscles of the heart. And tissue in the joints.  The result is Rheumatic Fever.  It is usually a life-long struggle.  It’s an auto-immune disorder: the body attacks itself.

It was probably not uncommon to suffer such an infection along with a viral infection … like polio.

1906, Athens. The International Olympic Committee has decided to hold another Olympic Games competition to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the first modern era Olympics, also held in Athens.  Dubbed the “Second International Olympic Games of Athens”, they were the first clear forerunner to the much spot-lighted and hyped-up Olympics we know today.  Well planned, highly promoted, and separate from a World’s Fair. The track and field events are held near the center of ancient Athens, in the Panathenaic Stadium, a magnificent edifice, fully worthy of the Olympics, which remains today the only stadium built entirely of marble. So magnificent, in fact, that it was used as a main venue for the 1896 and the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, as well as 1906.

Olympic Stadium, Athens, Olympiakó Stádio Athinon

Ray Ewry successfully defends his Olympic Championship in two events, the standing high jump and standing long jump.  After the 1904 games, the standing triple jump was removed from the Olympic event list, for which Ray and his aging body were grateful.  A tad discouraged by failing, yet again, to reach the height and distances of his previous performances, Ray nonetheless takes the time to scoop up some soil from the Athenian Olympic field and take it back to America.

June, 1881.  School is out.  Ray and his friends spend many muggy days playing in and around the old horse and wagon trails, taking time to splash about to cool off and “rinse off” in the fetid waters of the nearly abandoned Wabash Canal, part of the lengthy Erie & Wabash canal system.  Catching a few frogs was not out of the question.  Such “boy things” were commonly done, and no one thought much about it.

In June Ray caught a bad cold, perhaps a flu, with fever, chills and aches.  His greatest fear was missing the Tippecanoe County Fair.  To him the Fair’s highlight would be the Wheelbarrow Frog Race, to be held on July 4th.

Such “Frog” races were rather new to America, and especially Tippecanoe County.  Apparently the highly entertaining, laugh-a-minute race idea came along with immigrants from Italy.  The general idea is that each contestant gets a wheelbarrow (with low sides, or even no sides) and a frog.  Place a frog on each wheelbarrow and run.  Race distances were from a few hundred yards to a mile.  You must complete the race with both a wheelbarrow and a frog upon the wheelbarrow to win.

Frogs are generally placid and stay put … until the slightest bump or turn occurs.  Whereupon they jump off, and the unfortunate contestant must discard their wheelbarrow, stop running the race, and start running after their frog – hopefully retrieving it quickly.  It was not uncommon, and considered within the rules, that contestants would bump each others wheelbarrows.

Fortunately for Ray, he recovered from his summer “bug” after a few days, and Mary Elisha allowed him to participate in this hilarious half-mile race.  A bunch of young boys with small wheelbarrows and frog aboard (perhaps caught in the canal) took off from the starting line.  Along the dirt race path each participant, of course, had his frog escape from time-to-time: that’s the whole idea and the source of the fun.  Sometimes boys would catch each others’ escaped frogs (rules say one needs “a frog” to win, not “the frog you started with”). It was such fun for all of them and for the spectators!!

While chasing his escaped frog Ray began to feel tingling in his legs, like something he’d never felt before.  Each time the frog escaped and he chased it down, the tingling experience was of short duration; yet, each time it was longer and more intense; and each time he ignored the funny tingling and began running the race again once he had his frog aboard his wheelbarrow.  Coming down the home stretch Ray felt like he had a chance to win. The leader was just a few strides ahead. He ran and pushed as hard as he could.  No sense risking losing his frog now.  At full stride, the tingling returned.  It turned to weakness. The faster he tried to run the weaker his legs became.

With what seemed like the whole county watching, Ray fell face first onto the race path.  Had he stumbled?  Horrified, Mary Elisha and others watched as he tried to get up and complete the race.  But Ray couldn’t get up.  His legs were completely paralyzed.  At 7-½years old.

1908, London.  The Games of the III Olympiad are again, and for the last time, held as part of a World’s Fair.  The IOC had found, from experience in 1900 and 1904, that holding the games concurrent with such a grand Fair was not consistent with their vision for the future of the games…  especially after the success of the 1906 games in Athens, which stood alone, and shone greatly.

The 1908 games were awarded to Italy, to be hosted in Rome. Unfortunately, the catastrophic 1906 eruption of Vesuvius had stressed the Italian government greatly, and they backed out as host of the games.  London, which was to host another grand World’s Fair in 1908 (they had hosted what is arguably the first modern World’s Fair, in 1851) would now host the Olympics for the first time.  [Rome finally hosted the Olympics in 1960, and the achievements of Wilma Rudolf there are not without remarkable parallels to Ray Ewry.  London hosted again in 1948 and 2012].

At the astonishing age of nearly 35 (for a track and field athlete) Ray Ewry again defends his Olympic title in both the standing Long and High jumps, eking out height and distance just barely ahead of 2nd place.  Quietly both proud of his achievement and also a tad disappointed in his slipping numbers, Ray takes home the last two of his ten Olympic first place awards.  He is 10 for 10, winner of 10 events and undefeated in his Olympic career.  Unheard of even today for a multiple gold medal winner.

1881-1891. Young Ray is distraught and discouraged by his condition: Paralyzed and bed-ridden.  Mary Elilsha refuses to give up, reaching out to doctors and medical centers far and wide.  There is full consensus: this is a life-long condition.  Ray is forever paralyzed.  But one doctor provides a glimmer of hope: perhaps some physical therapy could possibly help.  It might well have just been a simple kind thing to say to a grieving “mom” like Mary.  No sense heaping more grief on her, and Ray.

Mary runs with this advice.  She finds a woman with a therapy background willing to spend time with Ray.  Some research suggests her name was “Kate”, but the source is not firm. Nevertheless, she quickly moves past massage and assisted range-of motion stretches; she improvises with a peach basket, cutting two holes in the bottom and hanging it from a rope suspended over a pulley on the barn.  Ray, wheelchair-bound, was lifted into the basket, its height adjusted with the pulley so that his feet barely touched the ground.

“Push Ray, Push!”

Day after day, month after month, year after year, Ray spent endless hours in the basket.

“Push Ray, Push!”

Slowly, incrementally, almost imperceptibly, the basket was lowered – first by Kate, then after she had left, by Mary Elisha.  As it was lowered, although unknown to Ray for some time, he could support ever more weight, and this allowed him to flex his legs, exerting his muscles over greater range of motion.

By the time Ray reached his senior year in high school, he was still using crutches. But he could get himself into and out of the basket, raise and lower it himself, and he was growing in several ways.  Ray was growing stronger – much stronger.  He was also growing to be quite tall, now reaching 6 feet. And he was a superior student.

By the end of his senior year he was walking.  After 11 years of paralysis.  He enrolled at nearby Purdue University and started participating in the track club.  He continued his own training and therapy, keeping careful notes, and training with the club.

In 1894 Ray completed a degree in engineering, and moved on to a few years as an Associate Engineering Professor at Purdue.  His intellect and his physical prowess were catching a lot of attention.  Since freshman year, Ray began winning track events, although at a club level and against mostly regional schools.

Ray Ewry and the Athenian Olympic Stadium. At right his Olympic shirt bears the Winged Foot insignia of the New York Athletic Club

Later in the 1890s, Ray got the opportunity to move to the New York area, with a position designing and building ships for the US Navy.  As a coincidental bonus, he was also offered a sponsored membership at the exalted New York Athletic Club, where he could continue training and competing.  It was they who sponsored his participation in the Olympics. And provided a training site for him.

 

1910-11. Despite his age, Ewry had every intention of competing in the 1912 Olympic Games, in Stockholm. He continued his training and kept meticulous notes.  Outwardly upbeat about his chances of qualifying to be on the US team, inwardly and in his notes his mood was a bit darker.  His joints ached; not just his knees and not just when he trained.  It was everywhere. And he could feel his leg muscles weakening, despite his disciplined workout and training regimen.

It’s hard to tell the difference between the effects of aging and the combined effects of Post-Polio Syndrome and Rheumatic Fever.

In 1911, aged 38, while training for the Olympic tryouts, he suffered a knee injury.  These had occurred before, and he always recovered and worked through them.  Not this time. He just could not get through it this time.  After a few months of further training and therapy Ray decided it was time to retire from competition (although he remained active in the sport for decades, both coaching and judging at events).

After a very distinguished career with the Navy (as a civilian) Ray was recruited by the city of New York City to help further develop their water supply infrastructure.  The large city was still growing, and they would soon need not only more water, but better systems to deliver it.  Ray spent a lot of time over the next decades touring the state, inspecting and directing implementation of his designs, many of which are still providing steady, faithful service today.

Along the way, Ray married a local Lafayette girl, a lass named Nelle Johnson, several years younger than he, who had taken kindly to him when he was young, shy and struggling with polio paralysis.  They had only one child, a girl named Mary Elizabeth, who usually went by Betsy or Bets.  Sadly, Betsy got very early Alzheimer’s, and all of her memories of her father were lost.  Her only son (I think, and thus Ray’s only grandson) Thomas Carson,  a music industry professional, compiled much of Ray’s lesser-known history through much personal research. His work was a great resource to me in writing this essay. [2]

Ray passed away in 1937 just before his 64th birthday.  One would normally think that is quite young for an athletically accomplished man who attended faithfully to his health.  I can’t find the circumstances, but it seems it was a quick slide at the end and might well have been negatively affected by the health issues of his youth … which followed him  through most of his adult life.

In 1928 Ray Ewry was invited back to Purdue to be present at the dedication of the new Ross-Ade Football Stadium.  As Purdue’s most accomplished athlete ever (and perhaps most accomplished engineer), he was the guest of honor.  For the ceremony, and unknown to almost everybody, Ray brought with him a small jar of soil from the Olympic Field at Athens, still untouched after more than two decades.  For the surprise highlight of the dedication ceremony, Ray spread the hallowed ancient Olympic soil upon the stadium field of his Alma Mater.

Ewry’s Olympic record of ten championships held up for many decades. In fact, so far, it has only been broken once, by the superhuman Michael Phelps, who has won 23 gold medals.  He broke Ewry’s record of 10 when he won his 7th through 14th Olympic Gold Medals at the Beijing Games, in 2008.  However, Phelps is not undefeated, as he won zero medals in 2000 (at Sydney, age 15) and has 28 overall medals (also the most ever) against “only” 25 golds.

It should be noted that several decades later, in 1949, the IOC decided that the 1906 Games were not “Real Olympic Games” and purged all records of those games from their official list. Most historians of athletics disagree, however, and they do indeed count these games and awards, since they were highly attended, highly promoted as Olympics, and set the trajectory for how the games evolved. So, officially, I suppose, per IOC (and Wikipedia and others) Ray Ewry has only eight Olympic championships. But I am with the consensus of historians: we emphatically say ten!

Thank you, Ray Ewry, “The Human Frog”, for showing us that anything is possible if we keep pushing our boundaries and continually try to better ourselves, even in times of strife, viruses, and disease… and beyond.

Joe Girard © 2021

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

Footnote (1) Today, the Tower is only visible from this site if one peers carefully between trees growing in the park and new buildings built later in the 20th century. Here is a painting of an aerial view of the 1900 fair, which was likely made from a sketch that was made by an artist aloft in a balloon.  The athletic field is the green space across the river. It is possible that the old Theirs city wall, which was quite close to the park and fields, could have obscured the view, despite being heavily damaged during the siege in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

1900 World’s Fair. Athletic Field is the green space across the river. Arial Painting by Lucien Baylac, based on Balloon observations.  The Observation Wheel (Grande Roue) was about 354 feet tall, higher than the huge wheel built by George Washington Gale Ferris for the 1893 Fair in Chicago, and also used at the 1904 Fair in Saint Louis.

 

Footnote [2] Thomas E Carson V, Ray Ewry’s grandson, wrote a biography about Ray, called “Unsung.”  It was the culmination of decades of work in which he interweaves Ray’s bio with his own nearly epic pursuit of the details of Ray’s life, as well as his medals.  There are many, many sources on Ray.  But, to the benefit of me as a writer and you readers, Mr Carson’s book provided much of the rich contextual detail about Ray that made his story much more “human.”  Thank you sir!

Carson is also a published fiction writer, and I believe you can find his works (including some serials based on a main character named Drum Bailey) on Amazon and elsewhere.

Mr Carson may not be Ray’s only grandson, but some genealogy searches turned up no others.

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Various sources, among so very, very many …

Before Leaping To 10 Golds, Athlete Beat Polio : NPR

Ray C. Ewry | American athlete | Britannica

Biography of Ray Ewry <small>(1873-1937)</small> – TheBiography.us

The Ray Ewry Sports Engineering Center – Ray Ewry Sports Engineering Center – College of Engineering – Purdue University

Ewry begins Olympic career with 3 titles in 1 day in Paris – Washington Times

Shore Up

See the source image

Ernie Shore, circa 1917

I haven’t written about Major League Baseball (MLB) this year until now.  I’m still a bit discouraged by all the new rules for covid, and those that  have carried over.  The game drifts farther and farther from the one I learned and loved as a child.  Strikeouts are now matter-of-fact; those numbers continue to soar.  Batting averages sink.  There is a controversy about this being linked to many pitchers illegally applying various substances to the balls to improve their grip. Is it that, or that every swing seems to be a “home run” swing?

But it’s still America’s game.  America’s great past time.  Old games stay in our memories, and in the record books.  Just as new stars and events make their ways into the same places.

Consider the phenom playing for the Los Angeles Angels, the once-in-a-century supremely talented Shohei Ohtani.  The Japanese star hits for extraordinary power and is also a starting pitcher.  His home run rate rivals that of Babe Ruth, the other most-famous pitcher-and-hitter; and, depending on how one calculates, Ohtani hits HRs more frequently than the Babe.  Both over his career and especially this year.

Like the Babe in the earlier part of his career, Ohtani is also an exceptionally good pitcher.  Stuck with a mediocre team, his win-loss record doesn’t accurately reflect his talents.  He has one of the fastest fastballs, and regularly throws at, or over, 100 miles per hour.  With a full assortment of pitches and deliveries – cutters, sliders, splitters, curves – he’s dropped his ERA this year to 2.70 and strikes out one-third of batters he faces; both are among MLB leaders.

Ohtani will be at the All-Star Game in Denver next month.  Many fans are looking forward to his participation in the Home Run Derby.

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I’ve written about amazing pitching performances in MLB history a few times, for example Can’t Touch This and Last At Bat.  104 years ago today, on June 23, 1917, an amazing pitching performance occurred that is sorta-kinda one of the most amazing No-Hitters and Perfect Games that don’t get recorded as such.

The man was Ernie Shore, a teammate of Babe Ruth’s on the Boston Red Sox.  He is linked to the Babe in other ways besides this particular game against the (first) Washington Senators. Both were earlier sold by the Baltimore Oriole organization to the Boston Red Sox in the same transaction.

[Later, before the 1920 season, the “BoSox” would sell Ruth, known at the time as “The Bambino” to their rival Yankees – even though he had helped lead them to three World Series wins. He was just too expensive and demanding. This became known as “The Curse of the Bambino”, since the BoSox, who had won 5 of the first 15 World Series, did not win another until 86 years later.  Meanwhile, the Yankees won 26 championships, or so, in the same time period.  They had won zero before acquiring Ruth.]

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Ernie Shore was a farm boy from the foothills of North Carolina, near North Bend. He was the 2nd of five boys born to Henry and Martha Shore; Ernie arriving in 1891. (My essay about farm boys in MLB here]. Ernie compiled a very respectable record during his four years alongside Ruth on those Red Sox teams, going 58-33.  He also went 3-1 in four World Series starts, helping the Braves win back-to-back WS victories in 1915 and ’16.

[The Sox won another World Series in 1918, this time without Shore, as he had enlisted in the military to fight in World War 1. When Shore returned, he too, like Ruth, was dealt to the Yankees].

Fenway, pre-Green Monster

The day was June 23, 1917.  Exactly 104 years ago as I write this. World War 1 raged in Europe.  Bodies fell and blood flowed across Flanders.  Fenway Park, the now famous home of the Boston Red Sox, was barely 5 years old.  Its iconic “Green Monster” left field wall was in place, but that nickname came later.  Then, it was just “The Wall”, put up to keep fans and freeloaders off the field.  There were rows of fans in front of the wall.

The woeful Washington Senators were in town for a 5-game series against the Sox, which would include two double-headers.  Such long multi-game series and double-headers (especially on Saturdays) were more common back then, since travel was very  inconvenient.  One of those double-headers might have been a makeup from a weather-caused postponement earlier.

On this fine Saturday, Babe Ruth was the starting pitcher for the Red Sox in the first game of a double-header.  The game’s first batter walked; he was the Senators’ Ray Morgan, a swift-footed second baseman.  Ruth thought both balls 3 and 4 should have been strikes, and he let the umpire know how he felt in no uncertain terms.  In fact, by many reports, the dispute came to blows. Ruth was ejected from the game. So was the Red Sox’s catcher, Pinch Thomas.

Without warmup or warning, Ernie Shore, who was likely scheduled to pitch the backend of the double-header, was called in to pitch.  Sam Agnew, a part-time catcher, substituted for Pinch Thomas.

The situation seemed rather frenetic, and thus opportunistic, to Morgan.  What with the dustup between Ruth and home plate umpire Brick Owens,  the sudden pitching change, and the sudden catcher change, this seemed like a good time to try and steal second base as soon as possible.

He did try.  The new catcher, Agnew, fired the ball across the diamond to second baseman Jack Barry, who then tagged out Morgan.  It was not a good opportunity.

Morgan was the last baserunner the Senators had the entire game.  Ernie Shore retired every batter; 26 up, 26 down.  The Red Sox went on to win, 4-0.   By the way, substitute catcher Agnew went 3 for 3, and knocked in two of the Red Sox’s runs.

This game used to be listed among MLB’s individual no-hitters and perfect games.  But the rules for such things were “shored up” (sorry, pun intended).  It’s now just an interesting game and one of those baseball oddities.  Maybe it wins you a few bar bets.  It is listed now as a “combined no-hitter.”  Babe Ruth steals the headline again.

After World War 1 Shore resumed his career, now with the Yankees.  However, during the winter of 1918-19 he caught a bad bug from his Navy roommate. Perhaps it was the Spanish Flu.  He was bedridden for weeks. It greatly weakened him.  He had a subpar 1919 season by his standards.  He rested and trained for 1920, but the arm strength just wasn’t there. He was sent to the minors in 1921.  He languished there a few seasons, then retired.  He then tried coaching for a while, but Shore didn’t have the body or the heart for baseball anymore.

He moved back to his native North Carolina.  He got married, raised a family, got involved in local youth sports and politics.  He was even sheriff of Forsythe County for 36 years.

Ernie, Thanks for the memories. We might forget you, but the history books will not.

Joe Girard © 2021

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Enterprise

My wife and I are very blessed and fortunate.  Our enterprises have afforded us the opportunity to travel rather extensively, compared to our compatriots, mostly in the US and North America – and, to a degree most others have not, across much of Europe and even much of Australia: New South Wales, Canberra, Victoria, South Austrailia … and even Western Australia, which even most Ozzies have not seen.. 

Renting a car for most or part of the trip is often part of the overall calculus, including the financial aspect.  Yes, non-automotive transport is often efficient and quaint – whether by buses or various types of train – and we have certainly made use of that opportunity. But there’s nothing like the good ol’ American feel of independence and flexibility you get from a car.  The call of the open road, where you can get to really out-of-the-way places on your own schedule.  And to have travel flexibility and independence.  Pull over to take in a seductive, attractive random hamlet, or a park, or scenic overlook, or ancient castle.


Sky Harbor’s Car Rental “Palace”

One thing that has struck us is the variability in car rental costs.  Particularly at airports.  Prices can be eye-watering.  Especially at airports like Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport. Holy cow! The special add-on fees and taxes there are often more than the raw cost of renting the car!! 

This is, I reckon, largely the result of two major factors.  First, there’s the cost to the car rental company for space at, or near, an airport; it’s often quite high.  Airports are usually run by local Port Authorities, Transit Authorities and/or host municipalities.  They charge very high rates for space because … well, because they can.  It’s part of why a sandwich, a coffee or a beer in an airport is so expensive. Companies must pass this cost along. No sense being in business if you cannot make money.  

The second is the almost unavoidable urge to make someone else pay for your own needs.  Need money?  Easy: just charge special fees and taxes to out-of-town visitors.  The same occurs in another hospitality industry: Hotels.  Let’s have “Joe from Colorado” pay for our fill-in-the blank need (roads, water treatment, schools, ramps, lights).


One way to see a lot of the world without a lot of extra fees and surcharges is to join the military.  Especially the US Navy.  Most sailors get to see quite a lot of the world, even if it is often by peering over endless seas. 

My father-in-law was a Navy man during World War II.  Radioman, 3rd class. He indeed got to see much of the world as a young man, from the Mediterranean to the far-flung atolls of the Pacific.  He also got to see and experience Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941.  A regret we descendants all have is that we didn’t encourage him to talk more about this.  But he just never seemed to want to be open about it, … and we respected him, keeping a safe distance from the topic, only probing once in a while. He always stayed guarded and reticent on the topic of war experiences. That’s a trait that many of that Greatest Generation Era shared.  So many memories – not just Pearl, but things like seeing the bloodied Marines coming back from Saipan and Tarawa – would lie largely suppressed for decades, until his final years.  Unfortunately, that’s just as his mind began to cloud.  We cherish the few stories and memories we could get from him.


Well then. Join the Navy.  See the world.  Jack C Taylor, of St Louis, Missouri, was just such a fellow. In 1942 he quit his enrollment at Washington University (in neighboring Clayton, abutting St Louis’s western boundary) and got himself into the Navy, where he became a fighter pilot – flying Grumman F6F Hellcat Fighters off the decks of aircraft carriers. 

The Grumman F6F carrier based fighter

Assigned to the USS Essex in 1943, Taylor participated in many confrontations, including dogfights.  Most notably is the famous and crucial battle of Leyte Gulf in late October 1944.  There, his squadron provided daring and critical strafing cover for torpedo bombers, all targeted toward sinking the Japan’s Imperial Super Battleship: the Musashi.

Taylor also flew sorties as the Essex supported attacks and victories at Guam, Wake Island, Peleliu, among others.  Credited with only two confirmed “kills” himself, Taylor is not an Ace.  However, he was wingman on many “kills” – including during the Marianas Turkey Shoot.  So, his military decorations – including two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Navy Air medal – were well earned.

Shortly after Leyte, the Essex put into port in the Caroline Islands (Ulithi Atoll).  She was simply short on supplies, having been at sea and in battle for four months (heck of a way to “see the world”).

Taylor was moved over to the carrier USS Enterprise.  [Speaking of Pearl Harbor and Infamy: The US Navy was extremely fortunate that the USS Enterprise, along with the two other operational Pacific Fleet carriers – the USS Lexington and the Saratoga – were not in port when the Japanese arrived at dawn that fateful December Sunday morning]. 

Taylor stayed with the Enterprise for most of the rest of the war.  The focus of the fighters’ value changed, as the Japanese turned more and more toward use of the Kamikaze.  The Enterprise itself, in fact, took several Kamikaze hits … can’t shoot them all down.  Along the way the Enterprise supported many coordinated Naval efforts, from Luzon to Iwo Jima.

A genuine decorated war hero, Taylor returned to St Louis and tried to pick up his civilian life. A natural adventurer ( … adventurer? Well, he did land fighter planes on the decks of aircraft carriers as they pitched and rolled upon the open sea) he started his own business from scratch: a delivery company.  Too early for the needs we now see fulfilled by Ubereats, Grubhub and DHL, he then moved over to selling cars, Cadillacs mostly. 

Successful at that, he planted the idea to the car dealer (Lindburg Cadillac) to get into the car leasing business.  That is: leasing really nice cars to business executives.  His employer agreed. In exchange, Taylor took a 50 percent pay cut and dumped $25,000 of his own money to bootstrap the operation. He ran the business out of the dealership, still selling cars on the side. He expanded over a few years to three locations in the Saint Louis area.  The company was called Executive Leasing. 

The quality of cars was good, the clientele loyal, and Taylor ran a tight financial ship.  The company was making money within a few years; Taylor was soon the primary owner and principal.  Customers began pestering him to rent them cars for short periods of time.  This is not something he wanted to do; he had a very simple business model that he was not eager to relinquish (leasing to executives for 2-3 years); it was stable and making profits.  The pestering continued: short-term rentals. After a few years, he relented.  He would add short-term car rentals alongside his long-term lease business.

Taylor and Executive Leasing began the short-term car rentals business in 1963.  Within a year the rental business grew to be much larger than the leasing business.  One reason is that Taylor creatively partnered with auto insurance companies.  When clients needed a rental (because of repairs needed after a crash) Taylor would rent them quality cars at low rates.  His business boomed.  He had outlets not just in St Louis, but now in several other cities.

It grew wildly, mostly by word of mouth and Taylor’s growing network of connections.

It was time to face the truth, something Taylor had denied from the beginning: he was in the car rental business, not the leasing business.  And he had a new improvised business model that was simple and efficient: small rental sites scattered around cities.  And mostly not at airports.

The company couldn’t be called The Executive Leasing Company anymore.  What should the company be called now?  He reached into his past and pulled up the glory of the USS Enterprise.

And that’s how the vast Enterprise Car Rental company got its name.  The overwhelming majority of its sites are off-airport. All across America, over 10,000 of them … tucked into business parks and strip malls and low-cost locations in neighborhoods of medium to large sized cities.

USS Enterprise, leaving Pearl Harbor, August, 1944
(National Museum of Naval Aviation RL Lawson Collection)

Mr. Taylor was very enterprising.  He went coast-to-coast. He expanded into Canada and Europe.  Enterprise acquired National and Alamo car rentals.  It became a huge enterprise, and remains so to this day. It is usually ranked #1 among car rental companies for volume and quality. [Ref here]

We have rented off-airport cars in Canterbury (UK), Freiburg, Landau and Munich (Ger), Wollongong (Aus) and, yes, even in Saint Louis, Missouri (actually Clayton, the original and current hometown of Enterprise Car Rentals).  Most of those are quite convenient, as you can usually take public transport to near the rental site from the airport or train station. If not, Enterprise will usually drop the car off — if you are within 5 miles or so. And pick the car up when you are done!

Since these are not at airports, not only are the surcharges and extra fees quite low to non-existent, but they also usually also have lower drop fees; which is great if you want to end your car rental adventures in a different city than where you start.

Honesty here: Although many of these off-airport experiences were with Enterprise, some were through EuropeCar, which seems to have a similar business model, and the same logo colors: Green and White.  [I know we used EuropeCar in Saint-Lô, Normandy, and Landau (twice).  BTW, The folks at the Enterprise in Canterbury were just lovely; on that trip I dropped the car far away: in Edinburgh.]

Taylor and Enterprise were very generous with their fortune.  By himself, and through the Enterprise Foundation (his company’s charitable arm), he donated several hundred million dollars to philanthropic causes.  Geographically, these recipients and donations were widespread, going into the communities where his neighborhood rental offices were located, often to provide assistance to underserved children.

He also donated very generously in the St Louis area.  He donated millions and millions to the St Louis Philharmonic, to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, and to local youth organizations and colleges. [Including Rankin College, where our dear friend Max Storm taught for almost three decades]

Jack Taylor ended up having a wonderful and successful life by any measure.  His enterprises were successful, and he left us and his family with terrific stories.  We and future generations will have at least two more reasons to remember him. (1) The US Navy has just completed the Jack C Taylor Conference Center, at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis (a truly beautiful campus in a beautiful city).  And (2) the Missouri Botanical Gardens in his hometown of Saint Louis is currently building a new visitor center, to be named for Mr. Taylor.

Jack C Taylor passed on in 2016, aged 94.  Thanks for all you did, sir.

To you readers: Be well. Live and love large.

Joe Girard © 2021

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

Miscellaneous additional reading:

How to Save Money on Rental Cars: Rent Away from the Airport |

Moneyhttps://www.enterpriseholdings.com/en/press-archive/2016/07/jack-crawford-taylor-war-hero-business-leader-philanthropist.html

World War Fighter Pilot Jack Taylor Dies: Founded World’s Largest Car Leasing Company | Naval Historical Foundation (navyhistory.org)

Microsoft Word – Taylor Master.doc (navyhistory.org)

The Big Tease

“One Robin does not a Spring make”

old addage, together with …”and one sparrow does not a Summer make”

Last year about this time I slipped into a pattern of writing on themes related – more or less – to the coronavirus pandemic. You can refresh your memory here, here, here, and here. Usually, it was as a means to address other topics, or a tangential reach from some other theme, as per my customary rambling style.

[Can’t believe it’s been a year since that excrement hit the modern electrical convenience.  Like a major flood, we’ll be cleaning up for a long time.]

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” (attributed to Mark Twain).  Well, here we go again. This year I seem to have slipped into a similar pattern of essays related to the months of the year, as seen here and here.

It’s early March.  Last weekend the temperatures in my hometown along the Colorado Front Range hit 66 on Saturday and 71 on Sunday. Took advantage with a long bike ride and long walk. That does not mean Spring has sprung?  Oh, no, no, no. This is Colorado. One robin and all that. The white stuff will return, with chilly winds soon enough.  March and April: I’ve learned to address these as “the big tease.”  This weather cycle spins and teases – taunting us – often until Mother’s Day.  Sometimes beyond.

March, like January and much of our Western culture, has its etymological roots in pre-Christian pagan culture, notwithstanding March’s enduring connection to St Patrick.

March is intensely connected to St Patrick in America and Ireland

Before getting onto March, and its sibling eponym[1] Tuesday, I’ll back up.  What is “pagan” and paganism?  Well, it’s not unlike a weed.  What is a weed?  A simple working definition is: a weed is any plant you don’t want.  Similarly, paganism is any religion you don’t understand or practice.

Well, that’s a bit oversimplified, but it works well enough.

Once Christianity became the universal (i.e. catholic) religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century CE, after the ascendency of Constantine, many rural parts of the empire clung to and languished in polytheistic and ancient religious practices.  The word “pagan” has roots in old Latin meaning “rural”. And as Christians became more dominant, they used this word (pagan) as a pejorative to describe those whose religious practice did not “fit in.”  In modern jargon, they were effectively calling them “rednecks.” Generally, “pagan” has evolved and is now a word used to describe followers of non-standard (i.e. non-western-style) religions, as well as pre-Judeo-Christian theologies and practices.  Often, they are either poly-theistic and/or animalistic practices.

Back to March, ancient “pagans”, and pre-Christian Rome.  As mentioned earlier, March was originally considered the first month of the year (we see this obviously in the extant names of September through December).  Romans named this month after their god of war: Martius.  Why?  Well, no one went to wage war in the winter; that would be crazy: the weather was terrible, and all the paths, fields and roads were muddy, or snow covered. March brought spring, followed by summer: the seasons of martial campaigning.  Think about that: a whole month given to thinking about, preparing for, planning, and beginning to wage war!  How pagan!

March’s weekday “twin” is Tuesday.  We can see the similarity in Latin’s descendant languages for this day: Spanish (Martes), Italian (Martedì), French (Mardi), and Romanian (Marţi).  Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago many celebrated Mardi Gras?  Fat Tuesday?  The day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent?

But how did we English speakers get “Tuesday”? Not all English words have a Latin or Greek ancestral root.  The very word “English” is named for the Germanic/Teutonic tribe called Angles.  The Angles’ regional god of war was named Týr which somehow, over a few centuries after migration, became Tiu. 

I have no idea why the English or long-ago Teutons copied the Romance cultures and named “Tiu’s Day” after an ancient pagan god of war. Maybe they coincidentally decided to name the 2nd day of the week just as they did the month such right before the weather gets nice. Although, as a side thought, it gets pleasant much later in those more northern regions than it does in Italy.

Perhaps a renaming is in order.  Sunday surely comes directly from the Germanic/Dutch (Sonntag, Zondag); but, do we worship the sun?  Or the moon for that matter (Monday)? Sunday has been literally renamed the Lord’s Day in some other western tongues (Spanish: Domingo, Italian: Domenica, Portuguese: Domingo, Romanian: Duminică).  I have no idea why the Frenchies call it Dimanche.  Anyone?  Bueller?

St Joseph, the Carpenter (AKA San Giuseppe). The feast of St Joseph (Mar 19) is much celebrated by Italians and those with Italian ancestry

Perhaps in this time of wokeness and canceling, it’s best to just let sleeping dogs lie.  If we were to consider re-naming March, Tuesday and Sunday – whatever could we all possibly agree upon? And what would we cancel next?

May the beauty and promise of spring be upon all of you soon.  Have a happy and safe St Patrick’s Day and St Joseph’s Day.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2021

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

[1] Eponym is sort of the inverse of a namesake. If St Joseph were my namesake (likely guess), then I am his eponym. March and Tuesday have the same namesake, thus they are eponyms of the same thing: the god of war.

February Amore: When in Rome, you amateurs


What’s Love got to do with it?  –
famously recorded by Tina Turner,
written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle

Last month, as an amateur writer (I always was and probably always will be), I wrote a piece about January as a pathway for touching on some tidbits of an autobiographical nature, self-reflection, as well as contemporary culture.

And now we are in February, the month of Love, as it brings us both Valentine’s Day, the 14th, and Random Acts of Kindness Day, the 17th.

Gonna geek-out here a bit. February – by virtue of some topics connected to it – is a rather curious month.  It has only 28 days, except once every 4 years when it has 29.  And thanks to Pope Gregory XIII and his attention to astronomers, the 29th day is not added in years ending in 00 – unless the first two digits are divisible by 4 (hence 2000 – with a “20” prefix – was a leap year, whilst 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not).

Curious indeed, and great reminders that there is no reason whatsoever why the time it takes the earth to make a cycle around the sun should be any simple multiple of the time it takes for the earth to spin around itself one time. {Notes on “years” and “days” below [1] and [2] }

Many ancient cultures had calendars. They were necessary for everything from government administration, to drawing and enforcing contracts, and especially for agricultural cycles. As with much else, we can trace our modern Western calendar – and February – back to the Romans.  The Romans had several calendars over the centuries, and sometimes more than one at time.

And we would be correct in guessing that, for quite a while, they had only 10 months per year.  The Roman year began with March, as it is the time of spring and new life.  We can clearly see this in the names of many months that they left for us: September, October, November, and December.  These are ordinal partners for numbers 7 through 10. For parts of Roman history the remainder of the year was a monthless winter period; and would reset as spring approached with March.

Eventually the monthless periods were filled in with January and February … then months number 11 and 12 by the old calendar, and months 1 and 2 by the administrative calendar.

This all changed with Julius Caesar.  He made 365.25 days/year the law of the land and fixed the calendar year at 12 months.  He named the 5th month after his family (July), and deemed it should be 31 days.  So, he nicked a day off the 12th month, February, reducing it to 29.  [Not much later, Caesar Augustus did likewise, reducing February to 28).  And then he moved the beginning of the year for all to January.

The month before spring was a time of cleansing, to prepare for the year ahead, and for the coming seasons of work – in the fields, vineyards, time to make war, etc.  The ritual of cleansing was called “Februa”, related to the verb “to cleanse”: februare.  And, voila, there you have it.

As an unverified side thought: It is possible this is related to the Christian similar season of Lent.  Just a guess, but we do know Jews had done a spring cleaning of sorts for millennia (it’s probably part of the reason the bread at Passover was unleavened), and also performed a new year spiritual cleansing between Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur.


Moving on. February is Cupid’s month, for it gives us Valentine’s Day, a day to honor the emotion of love and praise the ones we love.  For example, Amore.  Love. 

Dean Martin’s Amoré album cover with his smash single: That’s Amoré

I can’t help but think of Dean Martin singing That’s Amoré whenever I hear that word.

And what about related words?  Ami: a good friend or even a lover.  Amiable: kindly, friendly, worthy of love.  Amity: friendly, affectionate, loving (but don’t forget the story and movie Jaws occurred on and near fictional Amity Island). We also get easily to the words enamored and amorous.  And paramour: a lover (although usually used as an illicit lover).

We find it in the girl’s names. Amanda: she who is loved. Amy: a beloved child.

And in the amenities at hotels: things we just love to make our visit a little nicer.

What about that often-pejorative word “amateur”?  Pejorative, as in: “Oh, what an amateur mistake”, and “He’s just a rank amateur.”

What’s love got to do with that? Show me some love here.

An “amator” in Roman times was a friend or lover. But by the time it arrived in English centuries later, it had passed through French, picking up both the Frenchy spelling “amateur” and a somewhat new meaning: someone who does something purely for the love of it.  That is, for personal passion.

Whether it’s a hobby like golf, playing piano, writing, or gardening; or a service to your community, church or synagogue – to be an amateur is to put effort into activities without any financial compensation.  It’s just for the love of it.

To call someone an amateur is not an insult.  It is a complement. It is nearly an act of love itself. It is to identify someone as one who does something simply out of love.  Is there a better reward than love?  Even self love?

So, here’s to February – that weirdest of months.  And here’s to cleansing ourselves, spiritually and physically. And here’s to the amoré, the passion, and the amateur in all of us.  After all: To live is to love.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2021

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

[1] Actually, what we call a “year” is not quite the same as the time it takes the earth to make one trip around the sun.
It’s the time from one March Equinox to the next.  A perfect 360 degree trip around the sun is a sidereal year; the one we use on our calendars is the tropical year.  They are different by about 20 minutes.  Why? Because the earth’s axis is precessing at a period of about one cycle each 26,000 years.
So, a calendar “year” is not set up to measure the earth’s orbit around the sun, per se.  It is set up to measure the seasons. This is the difference between tropical year (seasonal) and sidereal year (by tracking a presumed motionless star background)

[2] There is no reason to think that the time required for a trip around the sun, or from equinox-to-equinox, should be anything like a simple multiple of the time it takes the earth to spin around itself.
In fact, a single such revolution is not a day.  Not by several minutes.  A “day” is the average time from noon until the next noon.  The current best estimate of “days” per “year” is 365.2425

The length of a tropical year and solar day even drift and wobble.  Perhaps it’s time for a piece on just what “time” really means.  And that leaves us with Chicago (or back then, the Chicago Transit Authority): Does Anyone Really Know What Time it is?

Presenting: The Tippi-Review, the Trailer too

The One

“There!  That’s the one!”  A celebrated famous movie director and producer is shouting at his television.  He’s also famously morbidly obese. He’s watching NBC’s Today Show, when up comes a commercial for a diet nourishment drink, one of scores of Ultra-Slim-Fast-type products of the day. 

But he’s never been interested in dieting or health. He is one of the 20th century’s great story tellers and film makers.  He’s been looking for someone.  Someone special. And now he’s captivated by the lithe and pretty blond pitching the diet drink.  She has the beauty, the poise, the elegance, and the charm to play the characters in some films he’s been itching to make.  She’s the one.


You’re never too old to change.

I’ve been biting my fingernails since my earliest memories.  My parents tried every way possible to help me stop. It’s such a disgusting habit in several ways.  If nothing else, it’s atrocious hygiene; and people will – unconsciously or not – often judge your character poorly for it.  And it looks terrible.

Nancy and Sluggo. Famous cartoon characters since 1938

But I couldn’t stop.  As Sluggo said to Nancy when asked about it: “But they’re so convenient.  They’re right at my fingertips!”

I worked for a few decades with a fellow who gnawed his nails constantly. Way worse than even me. Every digit’s nail bitten right down to the quick.  Catch him thinking about work stuff (another aerospace engineer) and his saliva covered fingers were jammed into his mouth. 

“Well”, I could tell myself, “at least I’m not that bad.” 

But, I did even disgust myself.

I tried many times to quit.  Eventually, about 10 years ago, I started making great improvement and finally was able to cut back to almost never.

But a new problem arose.  When nails grow long, they crack and split.  Then what?  Back to biting?   I never replaced nail biting with a proper new habit, which – one would naturally think – would be to regularly trim my nails.  So, even though I’ve mostly quit biting, my nails still look like a mess, as I will nervously pick at the splits and cracks, or maybe trim them with my teeth, or resort to a deep gash with clippers to remove the nick. 


Nails, Nails, everywhere

During the 2007-2009 economic recession, I found myself looking at what was going on in brick-and-mortar businesses.  Who’s closing? Who’s staying open?  What businesses are resilient?  I’ve been doing this ever since.

Typical Salon Sign, for the ubiquitous Nail Salon in most metro areas

One curious thing that I noticed is that our urban and suburban areas are absolutely loaded with Nail Salons.  They are everywhere.  Even now, I can’t help but scan strip malls and shopping centers to find the almost-always-present *NAILS* marquee signs.  Usually in neon.

One reason, I suppose, is that people (mostly ladies) like to have very nice looking nails.  I appreciate that.  It’s a fairly inexpensive splurge (for most) that allows them to feel good about themselves, a bit feminine, and attractive.  Any more reasons?

Go inside a nail salon and … wait!!, I don’t go in those.  Maybe I should. Probably could use a good manicure occasionally (but no fake nails for me). 

Anyhow …. look inside and you’ll very likely observe that the professional manicurists are Asian ladies.  And if they are Asian, they are almost certainly Vietnamese ladies.  [Yes, I’ve peered in the windows, and peeked through the doors to verify this.  I usually don’t get pleasant looks in return.]


Tippi

Nathalie Kay Hedren was born in 1930, in New Ulm, Minnesota, the second child (and daughter) to first generation immigrants.  New Ulm, probably with the closest hospital, is about 10 miles from her first hometown, the tiny hamlet of Lafayette, lying in the fertile south-central breadbasket of Minnesota.  There, in Lafayette, her Swedish father ran a small general store.  She was small and precocious, so her father called her “Tippi”, Swedish for “little girl”, or “sweetheart.” Tippi: The nickname stuck for life.  

When Tippi was four, the family moved to Minneapolis, probably because of the impact of the great recession on her father’s farmer-customers.  Genetically blessed with good looks, naturally blonde hair and bright hazel eyes, Tippi started appearing in local fashion shows and advertisements in the Twin City area when just a lass. When she was 16 her parents sought a gentler climate, as her father’s health was slipping.  Upper Midwest winters will do that. They settled in San Diego, where she finished high school.

She then began studying art, at Pasadena City College, and also developed an interest in modeling.  Soon, her good-looks, grace and aplomb would take her to New York. And on to a very successful decade in modeling. Over those years her face (and lean figure) graced the covers of Life, The Saturday Evening Post, McCall’s, Glamour and other magazines.

A failed marriage and one child later (she is actress Melanie Griffith’s mother), Tippi was back in southern California, making commercials for various brands, including Sego, a meal-replacement drink of only 225 calories.  Thin was “in”, even then.


Tippi Hedren, in opening scenes in “The Birds”

The Find

Alfred Hitchcock’s wife and film-making partner, Imelda Staunton, noticed her first.  A brilliant blond, on a diet drink commercial.  She knew “Hitch” was looking for another blond to cast in a movie he was hoping to make.  And she knew he had an eye for beauties, especially blonds, and putting them in terrifying situations; as in Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest) and Janet Leigh (Psycho).

Hitchcock profile and silhouette. Used on his two TV series, both called “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”

An interview was set up.  That paved the way to screenings.  Hedren was no actress. But she worked very hard on her lines, which were generally from earlier Hitchcock hits.  She impressed him with her determination; plus she had grace and class. Hitchcock intended to make her a star. He’d be her coach.


Tippi’s career

Hedren starred in the 1963 thriller “The Birds”, generally regarded as a top Hitchcock classic.  Hedren went on to make one more movie with Hitchcock: the not-so-popular “Marnie” (1964, with Sean Connery) which was met with mixed critical reviews. Then they had a falling out (lots there, maybe watch the movie “The Girl”, a Hedren/Hitchcock biopic). [1]

And this reminds you of ….?

She then floated in-and-out of acting the next few decades, mostly spot appearances on several TV series. She appeared with her daughter in an ’80s Hitchcock TV episode. Nothing so significant as “The Birds.”  But she had developed new interests along the way.

The late 1960s found her in Africa for filming. There she became enchanted by exotic cats and she grew concerned about their exploitation and mistreatment. Inspired to act, in the early 1970s, Hedren began what would become a mission for the rest of her life: working with wildlife charities to assist in the rescue and protection of such beautiful animals.  Land was bought north of Los Angeles to establish the Shambala Preserve as a wild feline sanctuary. Later, she established the Roar Foundation to further support this charitable activity.  In fact, she lives at Shambala now, aged 90, with her beloved big cats.


Refugees

For the United States, the Vietnam war ended in 1973, when the treaty known as the Paris Peace Accord was signed in January.  Although the US was out, the war continued.  Treaty or not, North Vietnam bore down on South Vietnam.  The South’s capital, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), fell in April, 1975. 

Fearing for the fate of so many who had been loyal to South Vietnam and the US, the US government evacuated over 130,000 refugees and brought them to the United States.  They were put in camps around the country: to be fed, clothed, and trained for employment and integration into the US society and economy.

Hedren was moved to act. She visited the first non-military camp for refugees, Hope Village, near Weimar, CA, along I-80 in the foothills about 40 miles outside Sacramento. This was a humanitarian visit to encourage them and find a way to help.  She came with typists and seamstresses, hoping to find careers the refugee women could connect with. [2]

Now 45, Hedren was still a strikingly beautiful blond.  At 5’-5”, she was tall to them.  Blond and tall: that’s not all they noticed about her.  They noticed her beautiful nails.  They were long, perfectly shaped, … and painted.  They had never seen anything like that.  They all wanted nails like that.  How do you do that? They wanted to become manicurists!

Hedren watches teaching demonstration at Nail School, Camp Hope, 1975

Trying to find employment: why not work with what you love?  Hedren flew her personal manicurist to Camp Hope, to help train them. Then she recruited a local beauty school to work with them. In that first class, they trained a group of about 20 Vietnamese women.  She guaranteed them all jobs, when they graduated, mostly in southern California.  And she flew them to LA too.  And they continued to train more refugees who wanted to become manicurists.  Not pure coincidence that LA county has the highest population and concentration of Vietnamese of any place in the world, outside Vietnam. [Many other refugees from nearby Camp Pendleton eventually settled there, too].

One of the first graduating classes at Camp Hope (Weimar, CA)

And from there the nail phenomenon exploded.  In the US, the nail salon industry grosses over $8 billion in sales annually.  There are about 55,000 nail salons in the US – you can see them in almost any strip mall and shopping center – and about half of them are owned and operated by Asians.  And over 95% of those are Vietnamese. Of these Vietnamese professional manicurists, most are only one or two degrees of separation from Tippi Hendren and her nail salon school for Vietnamese refugees. [3]

Until next time, be well,

Joe Girard © 2021

  • Notes:
  • [1] the veracity of Hedren’s sexual harassment claims against Hitchcock are much disputed, including by actors and stage hands who worked with them on “The Birds” and “Marnie.” I tend to concur with the skeptics. At 5’7″ and 300 pounds, one can hardly imagine that the rotund 61-year old Hitchcock thought he had any romantic chance with the 5’5″ 110-pound 30-year old blond bombshell. But, stranger things have happened (ahem: Harvey Weinstein). Plus, she returned to work with him, briefly, in the ’70s on a TV show.
  • [2] Hope Village is now the home of Weimar Institute, a health oriented college.
  • [3] US Nail Salon sales, staff and salary stats here

Wrote Myself a Letter

“I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter …”

Lyrics by Joe Young; recorded by many [1]

January, 2021 is finally here.  It is the time of the new year.  A time for looking backward, and a time for looking forward.  January is the gateway month, named for the Roman god Janus, the guardian god of the city gates, the god of doorways and of arches. Like the namesake month, a symbol of new beginnings.

Janus, the two-faced god. Always depicted with faces looking in opposite directions: in/out, backward/forward. Often, as here, with an older face looking back, and a younger face looking forward

On one hand: Reflection and cogitation. On the other hand: forecasting and planning.  What have we learned from the experiences of the past year – the past decades – that can help us in the new year?  In our future? Can we grow?  To help us make better use of our allotted time on this spinning blue marble?

Have you ever written yourself a letter?  Perhaps not. Perhaps you did, and don’t know it.  It is one of those recommendations that come up on lists of possible New Year’s Resolutions.  Write a letter to your future self.  Tell yourself your plans, hopes, dreams.  Your thoughts, your experiences, even your past. 

Janus: thought #1. What if you could write a letter to your ten-year-old self?  What would you write, and how would you write it, so as help, but not frighten that child?  My message would be simple:  Don’t worry so much; follow your passions; love freely; make healthy choices. 

Janus, thought #2. Well, what if one actually does, or did, write letters to themself?  There are sundry ways this can manifest.  Many of us journal or blog, or something of that sort, such as keeping diaries.  My friend Kevin writes a newsletter to about 100 friends 6 days a week; he has been for many years.  Those of us who do those sorts of things can look back on archived records of what we were thinking years or even decades ago.  Such writings can carry one’s consciousness both forward and backward.

Beyond Janus, thought #3: regarding the writing of letters, notes and cards. This is something wonderful and spiritually uplifting that is largely lost to current and future generations cursed with the ease and ephemerality of electronic communication. ‘Tis a special thing to receive a letter, or a card containing a note, written by hand.  They can contain the essence of your heart, mind and soul.  From the greeting, through the letter, possibly with innuendo, and emotion and news of daily life, to the sign-off.  Such things are still best captured with actual handwritten ink-on-paper in-the-moment reflection.

_________________________________________________________________

At holiday season the delivery of hand-written greetings surges a bit. But, every year it is less and less so.  Three to four decades ago the average household received 30-50 greeting cards during the holiday season – each with a note of friendship, fondness, reflection and even affection.  No more. The average is now 10-15.  Postal delivery of daily actual hand-written person-to-person messages is crashing.   This while the flow of digital communication (via email, text, FB instant message, WhatsApp, etc) proliferates. We who well recall personal communication by pen and paper – the little thrills of receiving a letter from a friend, grandparent or lover – find ourselves a bit amiss and adrift. 

I see no end to the trend.  Soon, by the time of my death perhaps, all greetings will be electronic.

We are Janus, standing at the changing of the guard.  What will we gain in this new era?  And, at what cost? Many interesting and lesson-filled chapters of human history have been reconstructed by the recovery, perusal and research of preserved letters. How would we know of the unlikely decades-long friendship between Jefferson and Adams? The deep affection between Adams and his dear Abigail? The love affair between Bess and Harry? What will people think four or ten generations hence?  That the pen and paper were deemed illegal?

Brief backstory many of you know [much of it is available – yes, sadly, mostly only digitally on my blogs] – I was in a violent car crash, May 1, 2014. I suffered a serious brain injury. 

Even though I safely emerged from many very dark months, the remaining years till now were no great fun either. Through years of recovery (still not quite finished – sigh) I fell into a bit of a deep funk for a while.  In fact, at one point, I sort of panicked. I recall the time and place of the bottom exactly. I cannot apologize enough to those I love and were close to me during those years – especially my wife – for my behavior. My excuse? I feared that details of my life were lost to the fog.  The events, the people, and settings that I could recall and synthesize – were they real? 

All kinds of memories started flooding my brain – as if my brain were trying to re-construct a part of itself.  Was it a historically faithful reconstruction?  Was it fantasy?  What kind of person was I?  Shitty?  Sensitive?  Loving?   Asshole?


My mom died suddenly in 2006. She left my dad alone and more than a bit lost. They were quite a team. He was the organizer: bank accounts, car payments, insurance policies, mortgages, when to paint the house, change the oil. Those things were simply not in her world; she lacked that gift.  But she contributed much more to the party. Despite a life-long struggle with mental illness, she was the connector, the socializer, the sentimentalist, the writer, the family historian, the family emotional bank account manager – and the one who hid large bills with pictures of Alex Hamilton and Andy Jackson all over the house in case the Depression ever returned. 

Mom had a huge heart that bled at every opportunity. As testimony, two items.

(1) Evidently I was a pretty honest kid, at least with money. Back in the day when most transactions were done with cash – credit was not a big deal, long before PayPal and Zelle – I’d often be tasked with riding my bike to the grocery store. [Oldest of six kids]. I’d fetch simple stuff like milk, eggs, can of soup or an onion.  Not so much that I couldn’t get it home on my bike.  When I got home, she not only got the groceries, but I actually gave her the receipt and the change.  All of it.  What a crazy kid was I. Unbeknownst to me … she stuffed all that cash into an envelope for years.  Years! One day, when I was in high school, she just handed it all to me. I must have needed or wanted money for something. A fat envelope full of bills and coins that represented years of honesty and integrity.  That was powerful.

(2) Mom, the sentimentalist, also kept large collections of correspondence – spanning decades – much of it organized, but some of it scattered around “her” parts of the house. Some were mixed in with pictures of presidents on fancy pieces of greenish paper, 2.61 inches wide by 6.14 inches long.

Well, about four years after mom passed dad’s health declined to the point he had to move out, and we had to sell the house.  That’s when we found boxes and boxes of mom’s “stuff” – and over several weeks we eventually found all the money, maybe.  Many items – not the cash – went unclaimed and were donated to various charities – or pitched in to the garbage.  [Can I brag?  My wife organized all of this.] The Big Win, by the way: I got the Manhattan glasses.

Most of mom’s memorabilia were preserved, divided up, and passed off to her six children when we cleaned out the house. Some of us “kids” have sorted through our “inheritance” by now: pictures, letters, cards, etc.  I am ashamed to say: I have not.  Not a whit.  I have not even cracked the lid.  It’s daunting, and – to be honest – I’m a bit afraid.


Thankfully, my youngest sibling has gone through his share of “stuff from mum.”  Several years ago, he came across a small stack of letters that I wrote to my mom and dad when I was in grad school. That would be 1978-80.  The folder was titled “Letters from grad school”. Clever, huh? Well, he kindly passed them back to me a couple of years ago without comment.  Time passed. I have just recently gone over them. What can I say? “Wow” is not enough.

I am now reading letters that I wrote to my parents over 40 years ago. 

Questions: What do they say?  What kind of person was I?  What was going on in my life?

Answers: Well, I was not an asshole.  I communicated a lot, even if it was simple stuff like football scores, weather, classes, and my love life.  I held little back. Of course, I even asked for money and advice once, when I was dealing with medical issues. I signed off “Love You” and “Miss you.”

“Happy” and “Grateful” don’t even begin to explain how I feel. Thank you, thank you sibling #6. Thank you, mum, for saving these scraps and scribblings. And thank you to myself for writing these letters. These are quite literally “Letters to my future self.”  If someone had told me, in 1979, to write a letter to myself to be read in 2020 or ’21, about who I was and how I felt as a young adult, well — I cannot imagine a better approach. 

It’s as if I had sat right down and wrote my (future self) a letter. “Dear Future Joe, you are a pretty good guy.  Here’s proof!”

I have no idea how to end this appropriately. But I’ll take a shot at it.

New Years Resolutions.  1. Go through “My Boxes from Mom.” 14-1/2 years is long enough. If and when I find something meaningful, I will share it with my siblings, as appropriate.  2. Write more letters.  Write them … on paper or card, with pen, and address the envelope by hand.  And cards, too. Draw silly pictures of hearts and setting suns. Criminy, we don’t even have to lick the stamps anymore.

Get real. Messages saved as screenshots, or archived on googledocs or your email server are ethereal. As in: tenuous.  Messages are made more palpably precious when they’re put on paper by ink and loving hand. Such treasures can be squirreled away to be cherished by dear family and descendants. 

There is nothing – nothing!! – like the touch of hand. That is one thing that this period of Covid has taught us.  The touch of a letter that’s handwritten, or the fondling of a letter, card, or note from a love, a mate, a friend, or an ancestor is the next best real thing to actual touch.

Happy New Year

Peace

Joe Girard © 2021

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

[1] This has got to be one of the most famous songs in the US in the 20th century, judging by how many very popular singers have recorded it.  Among the many are Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (probably my favorite version), Bing Crosby, Bill Haley & the Comets and Willie Nelson.  As recently as 2012 Sir Paul McCartney’s album “Kisses on the Bottom” started off with this song on track 1.  [The album’s title is actually a line from the song.] The gist of the song is probably that a guy wishes he’d get more letters from his lady friend. 

Correction: In my November 30, 2020 Essay “Fire Drill” I incorrectly stated that the great Vince Lombardi, in his first move as head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers, wasted the very first draft choice in the NFL. That is incorrect. For some reason the 1959 draft was held in early December, in 1958. Lombardi did not sign with the Packers until January, 1959. That, along with a terrible team, was another burden he inherited.

Fire Drill

“… people extending helpful hands to do a kindness to their neighbors, and that’s a good thing.”

Alex Trebek (Nov, 2020)

___________________________________________________

Fire Drills.  Do you remember these as a schoolchild?  Unless the memory is failing, or you were homeschooled, we all do. 

1960s, growing up in Milwaukee, going to a Catholic parochial school — yes, we had fire drills often. I mean … a lot.

Later, in high school and university – even occasionally at places I have worked – there were also fire drills. But never again so frequent – or solemn – as at OLGH elementary.

I’ve asked some old school friends about their memories.  Those who can recall have memories that generally concur with mine. 

  • The teachers (mostly nuns) took on an even more serious demeanor than we were used to.  “Screwing around” was verboten. 
  • Kids who chatted, teased, or lolly-gagged were publicly chastised afterward. 
  • The principal (I do recall Sister Marilyn) timed everything. 
  • Each class was assigned a location to orderly assemble in the parking lots, some distance from the school building.

We were told that this was extremely important; that during an actual fire there might be water coming from the fire sprinklers; and there might be smoke.  Move quickly, but orderly and calmly. Remain calm.

Couple other recollections.  The only things that made it seem “real” were the constant blaring of the fire alarm; that, and the nuns’ extra-stern decorum.  And at least one thing that made the Fire Drills seem very unreal: each room of students always evacuated to the stairs and/or exit nearest their classroom.  What if that exit or stairway was impassable owing to flames or smoke?

I’ve recently wondered about the frequency and urgency of those drills.  Was there a historical spark to trigger all this activity?

There are good reasons for such exercises.

It was 2:24PM when Frankie Grimaldi raised his hand and asked to go to the lavatory.
Permission granted, he slipped out the door of the 5th grade classroom. 
But something was wrong.  He quickly returned. 
“Miss Tristano, I smell smoke.”

November 27, 1958. 

Thanksgiving certainly seemed innocent enough, with little portent. Probably not much different from our 21st century experiences (well, 2020 was a severe exception … we hope). It fell on the 4th Thursday of the month, as it had since FDR deemed it so, back in 1939, to extend the holiday shopping season. FDR’s pen notwithstanding, this year of 1958 it fell nearly as close to December as it possibly can, due to the month’s Saturday start.

Families traveled and assembled to give thanks – to eat and drink, to visit and catch up, and convivially confabulate over current events. In more than a few households they probably spent some time huddled together around a mystical tiny cathode ray tube, embedded within a heavy box which contained many more tubes, and which rastered fluttery black-and-white pictures onto a 12 to 15” screen, sent from magically far away.

In the 1950s TV ownership exploded, from under 10% of households at the start of the decade to over 80% by 1958. And this as the number of households also grew rapidly. Owning a TV was a criterion for hosting Thanksgiving get-togethers in many families.

Many watched the annual Macy’s parade in the morning; perhaps all three hours. Two football games followed.  At mid-day was the annual Thanksgiving Day match-up between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, played at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, broadcast on CBS. That game was a turkey indeed, Detroit winning 24-14, with miscues a-plenty, each team nearing the end of poor seasons.  The Packers clinched the worst record in the NFL that desultory day (ending at a franchise all-time worst 1-10-1, two weeks later).  Later in the afternoon, over on NBC, Texas and Texas A&M concluded their mediocre seasons, Texas winning 24-0.

Well, football.  Papers indeed called the Lions-Packer game a “turkey”: full of muffs, fumbles, drops and off-target passes. One contributing reason might be Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, built in 1912 — long before domed stadiums. It offered scant protection from the weather.

What weather?

Anyone who’s lived in the upper Midwest, especially quite near the Great Lakes, is familiar with this weather pattern.  It begins to “settle in” sometime in November, and lasts – on and off, but mostly on – until the first buds of spring. The skies? Brutally dull. Simply shades of gray, often monochromatic; texture deficient; so thick and dull that it often denies human perception of the sun’s position. Breezes – transporting high humidity air near or below freezing – steadily sap energy.  Then, randomly – suddenly – a potent gust bursts forth, taking away the breath, biting the lungs. Oh, where is that hot toddy? That fireplace? That villa in Florida?

This weather slowly emotionlessly sucks away at man’s vitality … one’s zest.  That is what I recall, growing up in Milwaukee, near Lake Michigan.  And that was the bleary upper mid-west weather when the Lions beat the Packers, November 27th, Thanksgiving Day, 1958. This weather carried the weekend; and so, it seemed, would go on and on.

Yet for most it was a time of joy. There was visiting and eating and drinking and catching up on family: how are the kids?  How is your job?  How do you like the suburbs?  It was an era when large families, abundant jobs and booming suburbs were more common than not. That Sunday, November 30th, was the First Sunday of Advent: the beginning of the Christmas Season.  The holiday season had arrived.  Shoppers were out.  Christmas trees and lights were going up. 


When I was a lad I struggled with, among other things, an awfully bad case of asthma. It often debilitated me and kept me on the sidelines … from my earliest memories until I was nearly 30. The things that set me off worst were allergies, very cold air and physical activity that required hard breathing.  A combination could be a near-death experience. 

One consequence of severe asthma was that I was frequently excused from recess.  Yes, that sounds weird. Repeat: Excused from recess. Back then, in Catholic schools, recess was our Physical Education.  Just try to stop a boy from running and jumping and playing – even when there’s pollen flying around, or when chilly wintery air triggers a lung reaction. The school’s teachers and administrators, so counseled by my parents and doctors, often made me stay inside.

To keep me out of trouble, I got to hang out with and help the janitor a lot.  I was good at mopping up puke, sweeping the cafeteria floor, collecting garbage.  Most garbage was taken to the basement, and then stored near the incinerator.  Every so often I would get to watch the janitor load and fire-up that beast.  It was terrifying.  Its flue pipe rattled.  The door shook. You could watch the intensely colorful, bright dancing flames through a small window. Heat radiated from its metallic surfaces.  And … in a few minutes … several days’ worth of the school’s flammable waste was nothing but a small pile of ashes.  Plus, a sooty, expanding dark cloud, wafting across the city of Milwaukee.

Why in the world did we do that?  It seems most irresponsible to us today.  Nevertheless, schools, hospitals and institutions across America disposed of their trash that way.  Some still do.


Monday, December 1, 1958

About 250 miles west of Detroit – where the Lions played lethargically and the Packers played worse – over in Chicago, along Lake Michigan, the weekend weather had been much the same: dismal.  On Monday, surprisingly, the day broke cheery, rather calm and clear.  In many places the sun even shone through, although still chilly at only 17 degrees. Gloom and breath-sapping breezes would come in a few hours.

Our Lady of the Angels (LOA) elementary school stood over on the west side of America’s second largest city. Operated by the eponymous parish church next door and staffed mostly by nuns from the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), it fell under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Chicago.  

OLA parish, founded in 1894, had grown to be perhaps the largest within the Archdiocese, which in turn was one of the largest in America, thanks to Chicago’s growth (it was then at its max population, about 3.6 million), the Baby Boom, familiar Catholic fertility, and waves of Catholic European immigrants. For decades it was the center of worship for mostly families of Irish descent.  But since the war Italian names had become slightly more prevalent – and even some Polish and German family surnames had begun to appear as well – on the rolls of the burgeoning parish and school.

Burgeoning school.  Its K-8 enrollment was 1,600 – with 50 to 60 students in most classrooms.  The north wing was the original building, opened in 1911.  The similar south wing – parallel to the north wing and separated from it by a small courtyard – was the old church, converted to classrooms two decades before. In 1951 the two wings were joined by a slender annex, adding a few more classrooms, bringing the total to 22.  [Actually closer to 30, as Kindergarten and a 1st grade class was held in Joseph and Mary Halls, across and just down the street].

With its booming enrollment, OLA was probably 40-50% over-capacity. Despite that, academic achievement was not neglected; the reputation for Sisterly and Catholic fear-and-guilt driven discipline did not come without basis.

On this day, December 1, 1958, it’s been estimated that up to 400 students had stayed out of school.  Some due to illness, but for most probably in order to extend the long Holiday weekend.

Despite the day’s encouraging meteorological start, things changed around midday; the skies began to cloud a bit, portending that life-sucking winter pattern Midwesterners know too well.  At least it warmed to about 30 degrees … but still chilly and humid enough to make one wish for a scarf and extra layer, especially when the wind suddenly picked up.

Other than that, the day seemed perfectly normal. They said the pledge and their prayers.  They worked on Advent calendars and Christmas decorations.  They got through their lessons. Some kids probably got their knuckles wrapped. All normal. Until around 2:00 PM. 

There are many recollections and memories by survivors and witnesses of that historically tragic afternoon.  Narrative timelines overlap; some of the details recalled are conflicting; an exact sequence of events has never been precisely determined.  However, the overall big picture is the same; and it is a very big, very dark picture.

I choose, for simplicity, to work around the stories of two individuals. The first is Miss Pearl Tristino, age 24, one of the few lay teachers (that is: not a nun) at OLA. She taught 5th grade in Room 206, on the 2nd floor of the annex building, near the south wing. She had grown up near, went to school at, and still lived near OLA.  The other is James Raymond, the school janitor who had five children in the school and, apparently, was something of a handyman for the parish,

Around 2:00 Miss Tristano excused a boy to go to the restroom.  He quickly returned.  At around 2:23 she asked two boys, probably Jimmy Grosso and Wayne Kellner, to take the day’s trash down to the basement; this was customary for every classroom at that time of day, as they were preparing for dismissal at 3PM. It was considered an honor.  Jim and Wayne dumped the trash into a barrel, one of several, in the basement. The school’s trash was usually hauled over to the incinerator by the chief janitor, James Raymond, to be disposed of (burned) on Tuesdays, which would have been the very next day.   

Some historical texts say they returned with reports of smelling smoke.  Others say Miss Tristano soon permitted Frankie Grimaldie to go off to the restroom, at about 2:24.  He quickly returned saying he smelled smoke.

Either way, Pearl was alarmed.  She ducked her head out the door. She smelled it, too.  Definitely smoke.

The school rules at this point were clear.  No one could pull a fire alarm (there were only two in the entire school complex), nor even evacuate the building without the permission of the principal, who was sister superior: Sister Mary St Francis Casey.  Pranksters can always be found in student populations, and LOA was no different; frequent false alarms had driven her to this despairingly costly regulation.

Pearl ran to the classroom next door, #205 (the doors were virtually adjacent), where her friend Dorothy Coughlin taught 6th grade. Together they quickly decided to evacuate their students regardless of regulations should they not be able to quickly find the principal.  Pearl scampered down the hall of the south wing, to the school office, perhaps 20 yards … but it was vacant.  She could not have known that Sister St Francis Casey was serving as a substitute teacher on the 1st floor.  Pearl quickly returned to 205/206.  She and Dorothy evacuated their classes. On the way out, Pearl pulled one of the fire alarms … nothing happened.

Their students safely outside, an adrenaline-charged Peal Tristano hurried back into the building – the smoke now more noticeable .. more putrid. She pulled on the alarm again.  This time it did ring.  Loudly.  There were still well over 1,000 students and teachers in the burning school. However, the alarm was not connected to the Chicago Fire Department alarm system.  They were all still alone.

[The closest “fire box” – a box from which an alarm could be sent directly to the Chicago Fire Department – was two blocks away.  Stunningly these were still sparsely placed, even though fireboxes had been very useful since the first one in America was installed many decades before, in Charleston, in 1881]


The fire had begun in one of the basement trash bins, probably around 2:00PM.  Perhaps it was set by the lad Miss Tristano permitted to use the restroom.  Or, perhaps by one of the few dozen or so kids who took their classroom’s trash to the basement between then and 2:24. There has been no official cause ever found or given. It’s officially just “an accident.”  Several years later, a well-known fire bug and prankster admitted to setting the fire, hoping for a “fire alarm” – he purportedly said – and a chance to get out of school a bit early.  Further questioning revealed gaps and inconsistencies in his story; he divulged the information in a meeting with investigators conducted without permission of his parents (he was still a minor); shortly after he recanted.  And there the investigation died.

The fire smoldered and grew with insidious furtiveness, invisibly gaining strength for 25-30 minutes.  Flames then burst out of the bin, and hungrily sought anything flammable: walls, more trash, wood paneling … and oxygen.  Finally, the fire’s heat ruptured a nearby basement window.  Bolstered with fresh oxygen, carried by the cold, life-sucking December winds, the fire quickly became an inferno.

It raced up the main stairwell – its steps, handles and paneling made entirely of flammable wood:  oil-stained, and wax-polished – and reached the first-floor entry.  There it encountered perhaps the single significant useful fire safety feature of the building – a closed fireproof door.  The fire turned and raced up to the second floor.  No students or teachers on the first floor, which held the classrooms for grades 1 through 4, perished; the door saved them all.  Most barely knew there was a fire until they were outside.

There was no fire door on the second floor. Up there, in the old north wing directly above the old basement, the incinerator and trash bins, virtually everyone was taken by surprise. That is where all 95 deaths occurred: 92 students and 3 nuns.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Near 2:30, James Raymond, he with 5 kids in the school, was returning from a nearby parish property (probably Mary Hall) where had completed some handyman tasks.  He noticed a glow from a basement window. Investigating, he found an out-of-control fire.  He ran over to the rectory (the parish priests’ residence) and told Nora Maloney, the cook and housekeeper of 26 years, that the school was on fire.  Call the Fire Department!!

At first unbelieving, she did as told.  Several minutes later (narratives give varying amounts of time) Fire Engine 85 and Fire Truck 36 pulled up – the first of several dozen fire department vehicles to appear on site – with sirens blaring, ladders and hoses and ready.  It would soon be a five-alarm fire, with 65 different Chicago Fire Department companies responding. Unfortunately, Ms Maloney had given them the address of the Rectory, on Iowa Street, nearly half a block away from the school entrances. Panicked and terrified neighbors had started to gather.  They told the fire fighters that the fire was at the school, around the corner on Avers Avenue. They would have to reposition the vehicles and hoses, costing several precious minutes.

Horrified neighbors and parents

Although 2nd floor teachers on the north wing, now trapped by impenetrable hallway smoke, had closed and sealed their classroom doors, the fire roared right up to a small overhead attic, through which it could spread unfettered.  Then onto the roof.  With fire also creeping along the hallway floors – made of asphalt tiles over wood floors – many classrooms were soon surrounded.

Before the fire brigade’s arrival, many neighbors had already brought their own ladders to the school to help evacuate students and teachers trapped on the second floor.  Unfortunately, the school’s design put these windows about 25 feet off the ground – most ladders simply didn’t reach.  [Why? The basement extended about ½ floor above the ground, and the 2nd floor windows were nearly 4 feet from the floor].  Many students who could clamber to the window ledges simply leapt to the ground.  Fatally in some cases.

His message delivered in the Rectory, Raymond returned to the school ASAP. From classroom to classroom he rambled. Through smoke and heat. He led evacuations (with benefit of knowing where the fire was likely to be worst and knowing the school layout – literally – like the back of his hand). Raymond is credited with personally physically saving at least forty children and one teacher. And countless more with his verbal directions and force of personality.

OLA fire, helicopter view (Chicago Tribune)

The storytelling could go on and on – almost all of it painfully sad. Much of it full of heroism. Some of it poor, unfortunate choices made in the most stressful of circumstances. I’ll leave that to those who are interested.  The internet is full of reports, memories, pictures, building plans, anniversary articles and analyses of the fire.  Just Google something like “Fire, Our Lady of the Angels school, December 1, 1958.”

[Warning: It is powerfully heartrending and gut wrenching to simply to do such a search, and click images.  ]

Students and teachers were taken to hospitals all over Chicago, mostly to St Anne’s Hospital, about one mile away.  St Anne’s was run by the sweet nuns of the Poor Housemaids of Jesus Christ, under the administration of Sister Almunda.  Perhaps some of the same nuns who cared for these poor burned and battered students of LOA were the same who helped welcome the eldest of my two sisters and me into the world; she was delivered there just under a year before, and I – nearly her “Irish Twin” — was born there just 2-¼ years before the fire.

The saddest of all is perhaps the passing of 8th grader, William Edington, Jr.  As if clinging to the ledge of one of LOA’s tall windows, “Billy” survived until August 9th, over 8 months after the fire.  He had undergone dozens of skin grafts; finally the paperboy’s body could take no more. He was the 95th victim.

Aftermath:

Defying credulity, LOA had already conducted six fire drills that school year.  And the school had passed a fire inspection just weeks before, on October 7th.  Passed a fire inspection!  Yes, there were many shortcomings identified – most notably no fire sprinkler system.  Also: flammable stairways, hallways, and ceilings.  Only two fire alarms (and those in a single wing) in a complex accommodating 1,600 souls – and neither of those connected to the Fire Department.  Yet for all these flaws it was “grandfathered” – given waivers on account of the buildings’ ages, with too much cost and difficulty associated to implement all the fire code regulations.

The country had suffered massively deadly school fires before LOA.  Two that were more lethal: the Lakeview School fire, in Collinwood, OH in 1908 that killed 175.  And then the Consolidated School fire, of New London, TX, caused by a gas explosion, when 294 perished in 1938.

Fireman Richard Scheidt carries out the body
of 10 year old John Jajkowski,
(Steve Lasker / Chicago American)

The fire at Our Lady of the Angels – with 95 deaths and scores of serious injuries – was a George Floyd-type of moment.  A Medgar Evers moment.  A Pearl Harbor moment. The country finally got serious about fire safety.  No cost would be spared to protect our children.  Smoke detectors, then something considered new and still evolving, went in.  Buildings were remodeled.  Fire-proof walls and fire-proof doors.  Non-flammable materials.  Smoke detectors.  Heat detectors.  All with upgrades, as technology advanced. Fire extinguishers and fire alarms: all within reach of anyone, not just taller adults. [At LOA the few fire extinguishers were seven feet off the floor; even many teachers could not have gotten to them].

Within a year over 16,000 schools in America underwent major changes to address fire danger.

Fire codes were regularly updated and rigorously enforced.  Grandfathering had to go.  Fire codes and enforcement have increased and improved so much that it is now a misnomer to call a Fire Department a Fire Department. We should call them “The department that responds to all sorts of emergencies, and occasionally even a fire.” Across the country less than 5% of FD calls are for fires.  The vast majority (about 70%) are for health emergencies.  Other emergencies (hazmat, weather cataclysms, possible gas leaks, etc) make up most of the remainder.  Sadly there are still false alarms, although most are not ill-will; just smoke scares and alarms going off.

And frequent fire drills continued, with an increased earnestness.  I started Catholic schooling in 1962.  No doubt the LOA fire and the images were still fresh in the minds of the nuns, parishes, and archdiocese. I recall they were at least once a month, but rather randomly timed.

There have been school fires since. Of course. But none completely out of control.  Very few with body counts; and those are just one, or at most two.  Over the past several decades there has been an average of one death by fire in schools per year in the US.

On the other hand, our schools now have active-shooter drills.  And bomb scares.  <Sigh. > Personally, I think we can do a lot better in protecting our children – in this regard – But I digress and didn’t want to get political.

St Anne’s is no longer a hospital.  It was converted a few decades ago to a charity-run assisted living complex for the elderly.  It’s now called Beth-Anne Life Center. Maybe I can leave this world at the same location I entered it.

OLA’s school was razed and rebuilt – completely fire-proof – within two years.  It was closed a few decades ago, due to declining interest in parochial school education, in the ‘90s.  A few charter schools have tried to make a go of it in the building.  It appears to be mostly vacant now.

The OLA church and building function has changed too.  It now finds itself in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.  Currently it serves as a faith-based “mission” doing community service and outreach in areas like childcare, after-school ed, food & clothing distribution, senior citizen programs and bible school classes. For some functions it uses parts of the otherwise-abandoned “new” school building.

Treatment of burn victims has improved fantastically since the trauma of LOA and Billy Edington’s suffering.  Development in Stem Cell technology has led to “spray on skin” treatment, which has greatly reduced need for large scale skin grafting for burn victims.


Cheesebox, Rescue
Janitor James Raymond, also alerted to the Cheesebox situation, perhaps by Fr Hunt’s frantic efforts, arrived at Room 207 at about the same time as Fr Hunt.  Like him, his shoes and slacks had been on fire, and floating cinders had burned holes in his shirt.  Raymond was also sporting a serious bloody gash across one wrist from breaking through a window. 
Sr Geralita explained: No keys.  Do you have keys?
Raymond, putting pressure on his bleeding wrist, looked dolefully down at the dozens of keys hanging from his key chain.  “Yes, but which one?”
Outside and all around the fire had burst through onto the roof.  The room was beginning to flash over.
By God’s grace the very 1st key he tried opened the door.  As Sister sheparded kids through the door and onto the escape, Raymond and Hunt swept the smoke-filled room for kids hiding under desks, their noses to the floor for the cleanest air.
There were no fatalities in the Cheesebox.  Assured all students were out, the 3 adults stepped onto the escape just as the room completely flashed over: everything in 207 was on fire or melting.

[Of all days. Sister Geralita never forgave herself for forgetting the backdoor keys to the fire escape that day.]



I sort of feel like 2020 has been a metaphoric fire drill. This virus and all this crap is not going to wipe out our species: not even close. Yes, people have died, suffered, and been dragged through anguish. This too, shall pass. Still, 2020 has been a serious thing:  including the virus and how we respond to it.

So, principal mother superior. How are we doing?  Are we pushing and sniping in the hallways? Shoving or being respectful down the stairways? Are we minding the tasks at hand: taking care of ourselves, those we love, our fellow humans?  Are we yelling boisterously at each other? 

What are we going to change going forward?  Ourselves? I can do better, myself.

Right now, I think we all suck at this fire drill. We suck. We are wasting a possible “Pearl Harbor moment.” Is there a contemporary social metaphor for nuns of the ‘50s and ‘60s wrapping our knuckles and boxing our ears? Because we deserve it.  Each of us can take this opportunity to step back, objectively critique ourselves (not others, please) and move forward with more clarity in our primary individual human roles and responsibilities: that is, with sympathy, compassion, kindness, respect, and patience. 

Along with Alex Trebek, another Canadian-American, I have hope. 

“In spite of what America and the rest of the world is experiencing right now, there are many reasons to be thankful. There are more and more people extending helpful hands to do a kindness to their neighbors, and that’s a good thing. Keep the faith; we’re gonna get through all of this, and we will be a better society because of it. ”

Alex Trebek (Farewell Thanksgiving message, RIP, November, 2020).

The horrible fire of December 1, 1958 helped make us better.  I believe the tempering fire of 2020 will help make us better, too.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020

Resources/Bibliography:  These are all easily found.  The best is a very well researched and written book called “To Sleep with the Angels”, by David Cowan and John Kuenster

Short general resources:

https://guides.library.illinois.edu/c.php?g=416856&p=2840506

https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Publications-and-media/NFPA-Journal/2008/July-August-2008/Features/When-the-Angels-Came-Calling

Chicago Weather, Dec 1, 1958  

Maps, classes and students: https://www.olafire.com/Survivors.asp#206

Relative Humidity calc: http://bmcnoldy.rsmas.miami.edu/Humidity.html

Summary: https://www.olafire.com/FireSummary.asp

FAQ: https://www.olafire.com/FAQ.asp

Jim Grosso interview and recollection: https://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/12-2-2008/Reclaiming-a-charred-childhood/