Category Archives: Autobiographical

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


Drive-Thu, or Road Trip America: Drive Through

Consider the Drive-Thru.  Probably no other phenomenon is more directly connected to three American cultural love affairs of the second half of the 20th century.

  1. Love of the automobile;
  2. Love for speed; and
  3. Love of convenience.

The “restaurant” concept of the Drive-Thru directly evolved from the Drive-In, and both were probably started in the 1920s by a chain of Texas restaurants called “Pig Stand.”  (and here). Like the Drive-Thru, the Drive-In restaurant was built to provide speed and accommodate cars and laziness, er, ah, convenience: waiters and waitresses, carhops, would zip back-and-forth from cars with orders, then return to the customers in their cars with the food orders, often on roller-skates. The tasks of getting to and from cars – for taking and delivering of orders – required extra staff and time.  Changing from Drive-In to Drive-Thru reduced the employee count … and was faster.

Pig Stand – probably the first drive-thru

Fast Food became even faster. Pig Stand moved west to the LA-area where the drive-in and drive-thu ideas were picked up by In-n-Out Burger. That was followed by McDonald’s, Jack-in-the-Box, and … well, the rest is history.  Drive-Thru is ubiquitous in the food serving industry.  [* With current trends, using the Drive-Thru at Mickie-D’s might be your best chance to interact with an actual person; however, you still have to keep your butt in the car]

In early 2020 the use of Drive-Thru food service got a big bump from the SARS-CoV-2 corona virus pandemic. (and here).

But it’s not just restaurants that provide fast Drive-Thru service.  It’s been applied for uses both common and unusual. We can use Drive-Thru at a bank, to get coffee, liquor, covid and flu inoculations and testing.  In some locales you can vote via Drive-Thru. There are also Drive-Thru legal, wedding and funeral services.  (although these are often labeled Drive-Through, not Thru.)

The market evolves to meet the demand of the consumer.

Starbucks Drive Thru (no hyphen) in Collingwood, Ontario

I wondered a bunch about the Drive-Thru lately.  Near our residence are two franchises that serve chicken in different ways. Both are extremely popular. So popular, in fact, that the concepts of “quick and convenient” are almost completely lost; their Drive-Thru queues are almost always so long that they back up beyond the drive-thru access lanes and out into the street.  With such demand I question whether it’s even economical for the customer. Still, it’s convenient and virus safe: patrons don’t leave their cars.

I also wondered why it is acceptable to spell it “thru” and not the standard “through.”  It has been spelled that way from the beginning (“convenience”) of the drive-thru, and it’s been used so dominantly that “Thru” (as in: Drive-Thru) is now the AP Style accepted form (although fuddy-duddies like Webster still prefer “through”).

[The spelling of “through” is obviously awkward – especially for non-native English speakers – and has a twisted history.  I’m considering going with “thru” for everything, even as a self-confessed traditionalist. In fact, “thru” is much closer to the original spelling, and obviously more phonetically correct.]

I further wonder if our preference for convenience and driving-thru contributes to our nation’s embarrassing weight issues.  42% of US adults are obese; 20% of adolescents. During the Covid-19 lock-downs the U.S. obesity rate went up 3%.

Still, I want to touch on the Drive-Through as well.  That is: why do we Americans – with our fascinations with cars, speed and convenience – simply Drive-Through those larger states with many straight-line boundaries – in Flyover Country?  Have we convinced ourselves that they are boring? Have nothing to offer? Are simply in the way? In the way of our accustomed speed and convenience?

“Oh, you actually drove to Chicago?  Wow, how long did it take?”

“About 14 hours.  There was a little construction along the way.”

“Must have been annoying.  Last summer we made it in only 12 hours.  Just stopped to pee and get gas.”

There’s lots to experience and see in Flyover Country, take it from Forbes.

We hear quite often that Kansas, for example, is flat and boring.  Simply not true on both counts.  Kansas has many rivers flowing thru it.  One is very significant: the Arkansas River (which does not rhyme with “Kansas River”).  All these flow downhill and generally from west-to-east, away from the Rocky Mountains and into the great Mississippi-Missouri river system.  And, as they each trace their own paths, they must be separated by hills and ridges.  So, obviously Kansas is not flat.  Chicago? Now that’s flat.

This many rivers shows that Kansas is full of hills, ridges and valleys

Kansas is only the 8th flattest state in the US, significantly outranked in the flatness scale by the likes of Florida, Louisiana and Illinois. [Astounding, but Colorado, with its impressive spine of Rocky Mountains is the 26th most flat state – owing largely to its huge expanse of prairie grasslands that comprise the eastern one-third of its land]

Kansas? Boring?  Plenty of history and sites, if one is curious and takes some time to not simply “Drive-Through.” With a clever play on words, Kansas bills itself as “The Land of Ahs.”

Learn about the life and times of one of the 20th century’s important leaders.  In Concordia visit the National Orphan Train Museum; learn about the hundreds of thousands of youths from east-coast squalor who grew up in clean air and agricultural villages.  About a steam ship that took off along America’s great inland highway (the Missouri river) with many tons of goods.

Vice-President Charles Curtis, 1929-33, Kansan and Full Kaw Nation American Native, first person of color in a US executive office.


In 1856 the “side wheeler” riverboat SS Arabia embarked from Kansas City to make an ordinary river run, laden with over 200 tons of goods for the growing cities of Omaha and Council Bluffs. 200 tons is a lot. It included elegant chinaware.  Utensils.  Nails.  Champagne.  Evening gowns and night gowns. Pickles.  You name it, it was on the Arabia.

Upriver, where the Missouri forms the boundary between Kansas and Missouri,it hit a snag, reports were it was a sycamore tree.  Not uncommon.  Hundreds of river boats sank on America’s inland highways in the 19th century … along the Ohio, the Mississippi and others, as well as the Missouri.

The Arabia sank quickly into the mud with no loss of life.  Just those 200 tons.  Over the decades the river changed course and the Arabia, some 50 feet deep, ended up in a corn field over ½ mile from the river.  Four adventurers heard about the Arabia and set out to find her in 1987.  In 4-1/2 months they found her. They then succeeded in recovering nearly all of the product and a few parts of the boat (engine and bow) and turned it all into a simply amazing private museum located in downtown Kansas City (Missouri).


A boy, the 3rd of seven born to his parents, was brought up in a small agricultural plains’ city “on the wrong side of the railroad tracks” in Abilene, Kansas.  His mother, a strong anti-war Mennonite, made sure he learned how to do a few things for himself before moving on in life: cook, sew, play piano, dance.  His life’s path took him to the US Military Academy. The path also led him to San Antonio, Texas, where he met a lass also from the heartland.  Her family had since moved to Denver, Colorado and thus started a great love story and one of the most perfect power marriages in history. He not only fell in love, but he also fell in love with Colorado.

You can learn all this and much, much more by visiting the boyhood home and the library of Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower: the man who led the Allied forces to victory in Africa and Europe, and served two-terms as president while keeping the cold war “cold”, ending the Korean War, greatly reducing the size of our military and its expense, handling the press with cool blather, sending the military (101st Airborne) to integrate Little Rock Central High, while ignoring much advice to use nuclear weapons.

Boyhood home of Ike. On same grounds is the Eisenhower Library. Takes and entire afternoon to fully enjoy.


On a single afternoon side trip through Kansas, you can see the monument at the geographic center of the 48 contiguous United States (near Lebanon, Kansas); learn about the transport of hundreds of thousands of destitute and orphaned youth to rural America from the 1850s to the 1920s at the National Orphan Train Museum in Concordia; and even stop to see the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City.

Flyover Country has even become a vacation destination, especially since the Covid lockdowns.  Whether “driving through” or settling in one spot for a few days, you’ll find a lot to see and do, if you take the time.

A different side trip and you can see and experience the streets of Dodge City, the setting for Gunsmoke, one of the most successful TV shows in American history.  Then “get the heck out of Dodge”, while recalling that one of the show’s most enduring characters, Doc Adams, was based on the Kansas doctor, Samuel Crumbine.  He’s the first to promote flyswatters to kill flies in order to hinder the spread of disease (until him they were simply perceived as a mild nuisance); and many other public health movements to fight tuberculosis.  Can you believe we used (shared) public drinking cups until Crumbine preached against it?

Speaking of Ike, get off the main road (I-80) in Iowa just a bit and head to the town of Boone, to see where Mamie (with the bangs), the most perfect wife possible for him, was born.  Although “I like Ike” was a popular saying in the ‘50s, everyone loved Mamie.  Near Boone you can also learn of the heroism of a teen lass named Kate Shelley, and see the New Kate Shelley Bridge.

In central Missouri, wander a few miles off I-70 to the small town of Fulton to learn about another great leader of the 20th century.  In 1946 he gave a speech at a small college there; a speech from whence we got the term “Iron Curtain.”  The term was so important during the Cold War decades, that the school, Westminster College, built a museum honoring the man and his visit.  That man was Winston Churchill. It’s now the country’s National Churchill Museum.

Stirring stuff in fly-over country. There’s just a bit more space between all the sites than we’d like. Not convenient or fast. But fulfilling.

I hope that our cultural cravings for speed and convenience in both food and in travel have not become metaphoric for how we live our lives.  Are we racing from point to point?  Eager for professional advancement? To get to the next meeting, or soccer game, or community meeting? Everything on the clock? Even on vacations we tend to fill the day’s schedules full of things to do, see, eat. Rush, rush, rush.

I recommend taking the road less traveled and going a little slower, as often as possible. How? By simply not “driving-through” our lives, and instead by following the very old admonishment to “Take time to stop and smell the roses”, which is, in fact suppose, a metaphor itself (and a very good one).  Setting aside time in your life to enjoy and appreciate things small and large that are not connected to achievement and success has been shown to be very healthy.

Take some time. Go into the restaurant and meet some people, including the ones serving you.  They have lives and interests too.  Get off the main highway at the next roadside attraction; or just plan on going to visit a few.  Life is wonderfully full of special moments to enjoy if we’re not simply “Driving-thru” and “Driving-Through.”

Wishing you the best

Joe Girard © 2023

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Author’s notes (footnotes follow):


[1] Kansas is named for the Kaw Nation. (Which also goes by Kanza).


Cousins Moog

Two geniuses of the 20th century: William “Bill” Moog and Robert “Bob” Moog.  They weren’t brothers, but they were closely related.  [Bill did have a brother Robert, but the Robert of fame — one of today’s two protagonists — was Bill’s first cousin, once removed]. [1]

Despite their Dutch looking and sounding surname (“Moog” rhymes with “rogue”, not the “goog” in Google) they were of German ancestry.

Their most recent common ancestors were Georg Conrad Becker Moog and his wife, Anna Cathrina Lather, both from the small agricultural community of Winkbach, near Marburg, Hesse, in the Lahn Valley.  Today this is only about a one-hour drive north from Frankfurt.  (This is, coincidentally, quite near my mother’s family ancestral home – another wee hamlet only 20 twisty countryside miles away: Niederasphe.)

Georg was the only child of Jacob Moog and Juliane Becker, also from that region of Hesse.  I don’t know how long the family had been there but judging from records of my family’s past they were probably there for centuries.

Like many other families, the young Moog couple emigrated to the United States in the early 1870s.  It’s difficult to ascertain why with only internet searches.  Here I will pull from my own family history lore and some knowledge of Germany history.

Also coincidentally, at about that time, one branch of my father’s family came to the US, from the wine country east of Stuttgart, along the Rems valley.  Why? We can guess. Three dozen or so sovereign German states were becoming rather forcibly merged with Prussia under Hohenzollern rule; these became a single muscular militant state. Two wars at that time, one with Austria (1868) and one with France (1870-1), were fought as part of von Bismarck’s plan to unify Germany. So, my ancestors sought to avoid impressment and instead pursue a pacifist path, which led them to America. Perhaps the Moogs did too. [Another contributing reason could be Europe’s failed liberal revolutions of 1848; my mother’s ancestors, from Hesse, came to the US in the early 1850s].

Nonetheless, the young Moog couple, going by Annie and George, settled in New York.  [the 1880 census shows them coming from Prussia, not Germany, and George with no occupation].  After deciphering  census workers’ scrawling, I found they settled in lower Manhattan, near the corner of Hester and Essex, one block from both Grand and East Broadway. The neighborhood had a majority of residents with German ancestry; they bore names like Schutt, Opperman, Schroeder, Strobel, Kaiser.  I guess they felt somewhat at home here.

The L-line ran down Essex, just a few yards away, probably horse drawn at first, as cable cars didn’t arrive in NYC until 1883.  Transportation around lower Manhattan would have been somewhat convenient.

Jobs held by neighborhood residents included streetcar conductor, fish and oyster bar worker, plasterer, wood carver, carpenter, cigar packer, paper box maker, porter, mason … very few white collar jobs here. Salt of the earth.

Much of the neighborhood consisted of properties that would be condemned and razed in the early ‘90s; then, over a decade later – in 1903 — the city found the funds to do something with the land: it became Seward Park.

By 1900 the family had moved to a boarding house at 221 E 87th St.  The elder Mr. Moog had died, in 1896, age 46. Sadly, most 1890 census records were lost in a fire in the US Commerce building in 1921, including New York’s, so we lose the thread for a while. This was, and is, a huge tragedy for historians and archivists, as 1890 lies within an era of massive immigration from abroad, and migration within the country.  So, I can’t find if George ever found steady work.

George and Anna had three children, all born in Manhattan: (1) Anna Maria Elisabetha Moog b. 1875; (2) George Alfred Moog b. 1878; and (3) William Conrad Becker Moog, b 1885.

The third child, William Conrad Becker, had a son in 1915.  William (Bill) C. Moog.  We will return to the elder son, George Alfred, later.

Partial Moog Family Tree


America as the great melting pot has always been something of a fairy tale. Upon arrival and attempting to settle into their new homeland many immigrants were shunned and often treated with contempt; in such unfriendliness they naturally stuck together within their own ethnic enclaves – which likely exacerbated their treatment.  Usually, a passage of a few generations was required before they found their footing, and their own ways, within America’s complex social, education, and economic systems.

First-generation American William Conrad Becker Moog and his wife, Minnie Moog (nee: Raabe), had three children.  The eldest was William (Bill) C Moog, Jr, b 1915.

Bill, born across the river from New York, in Jersey City, NJ, studied Mechanical Engineering just down the road at Rutgers University.  He made his way into and upward in the growing aircraft industry, working as an engineer for Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, just outside Buffalo.  There, in 1948, he invented the electro-hydraulic servo valve. Common in control systems now, the device – and the field of control mechanisms that it spawned – completely revolutionized automated control of complex systems.  In fact, it helped create that very field of electrical signal-based controls engineering.

Although Cornell Labs (now Calspan) patented the invention, they couldn’t find anyone to make the servovalves.  Moog stepped up and started a fledgling organization. Moog began building servo devices in his garage.  Moog and his team soon fielded orders from other large companies, like Bendix and Boeing.

An older Bill Moog, evidently after a haircut

Moog started a company and secured the Labs’ rights to manufacture servos of many types. For decades he ran the company. Bill was a free spirit:  No keeping track of hours, loose dress codes, and a free-wheeling creative atmosphere where employees are trusted to do a good job. Maximum informality in staff relations was encouraged. This, before Google and Twitter.  Bill eventually wore his hair down to his shoulders.  All went over well, and the company grew successful and famous over the decades.

Control of aircraft was just the beginning of what was possible.  Servos didn’t have to just control hydraulic actuators; they can control motors using signal feedback with electrical current – of all sizes and sort.

Most engineers in the aeronautical and aerospace industries know of Moog and his company’s designs and products in high-performance systems control of aircraft, satellites, space launch vehicles, missiles, etc.  Actuation control products, many by Moog, are found in numerous other fields too, especially robotics, from industry – machining, processing and assembly – to marine and agricultural hardware, and even medical devices.

Briefly, servos are devices that receive an electronic signal representing a physical quantity – usually position, speed or acceleration – process that signal, and generate a precise controlled action based on that signal.  Mostly, that action includes changing components’ position or speed, or applying torques and forces.

As the world evolved, so did servos to … well … serve the world. Although Moog Inc is not in all these fields, the servo concept that Bill Moog pioneered can be found in CD & Blu-ray disk players, automobiles (especially cruise control), many automatic doors, including elevator doors, and even some vacuum cleaners. [2]

Bill Moog is an icon in the field of engineering.  I suppose the servos would have eventually come along, but it’s hard to imagine how and when, and how the aircraft and aerospace industries would have advanced without his genius and drive.

Bill Moog’s dad had a brother, George Alfred Moog, mentioned earlier.  George Alfred had two children, one of whom was George Curt Moog.  Thus, George Curt Moog was Bill Moog’s first cousin.

George Curt Moog had one child, a son, Robert A. Moog, born in 1934, in Queens, NYC.  (There seems to be a shortage of names in the family: Bill Moog had a brother named Robert, as well as this first cousin, once-removed: Robert Moog)

Robert Moog grew up in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, known today for tennis rather than any famous residents (count Barbara Bush among the few).  His parents wanted him to get into music; he studied harp and piano while attending the Manhattan School of Music through elementary school.  He then went on to a technical high school, the Bronx High School of Science (an early sort of magnet school); one supposes this was in large part on account of his father’s career.   George was an engineer with ConEd (Consolidated Edison, the NY electric company) and also one of the first amateur radio operators. Papa Moog shared his knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, electronics with young “Bob.”  His budding music and electronic interests merged.  Robert soon got very interested in the theremin, a recent invention of Leon Theremin, a Russian scientist, a decade before.  [3]

The theremin, a seemingly miraculous device, both then and now, allows a musician to play an electronic instrument without even touching it; but rather by moving their body (mostly arms and hands) within an electric field that is connected to a sound generating device. With a skilled operator/musician it can appear to the untrained observer as if the person playing the theremin is waving their arms and hands around like an orchestra conductor, and from some remote spot, mysterious instruments are creating musical sounds.  [This is how many creepy movies create eerie sound effects; especially earliest scary films  … Kids’ level description here; very cool video here, you should really watch the 4 minute demo in the previous link.  Seriously].

By his mid-teens Bob had built his own such magical musical instrument.  It became his hobby. Bob and his dad started a small business building and selling theremins in the basement of their Brooklyn home.  Cool to be in business with your old man. In January 1954, still 19 years old, Bob’s article on how to construct a theremin at home was published in Radio and Television News.

Bob Moog, 1954, with his Model 351             Theremin

Bob went for simultaneous degrees in physics (at Queens College) and electrical engineering (at nearby Columbia), and then for a PhD in engineering physics at Cornell. While at Cornell he started a new company, his own, also to design, build and sell these strange electronic musical instruments.

Moog continued to experiment with electrical circuits, developing new ways to create musical sounds with electronics.  Although this had been done before, Moog’s was the first advanced studio usable hands-on electronic music generating device – a musical “instrument.” Eventually he made them rather compact and mobile. The synthesizer was born.

Music of all sorts could be generated from a single electronic device.  Relatively simple at first, by the mid-‘60s his synthesizers could produce the waveforms, overtones, attack (rise) and decay (drop) in power levels and “feel” of many instruments.  By now, I suspect, it is every instrument. By the mid ‘60s the exploding music industry, drenched in pop and iconoclast culture, caught on to the endless possibilities of sounds in Moog’s electronic synthesizers. And the exotic ways it could make music sound. With computers integrated — first analog, and soon digital — there was no bounds to the complexity and sophistication of music that could be played. [4]

It seems likely that Mickey Dolenz of Monkees’ fame was the first to use a synthesizer (although a primitive one by today’s standards) in popular music in the mid ‘60s. Many groups soon followed, including The Beatles, The Doors and The Byrds. Some famous tunes with great synthesizer riffs include: Final Countdown; Light my Fire; Smile Like you mean it; the opening to Van Halen’s Jump; Eurythmics Sweet Dreams.

Many home “pianos”, even very economical ones, are simple electronic keyboards pre-programmed with a wide variety of instrument sounds and “moods” available — from organs to violins, and from tinny like a child’s toy to an orchestra in a concert hall.  They are synthesizers.


Bob Moog revolutionized music.  Bill Moog revolutionized control engineering.  Both have earned awards, wide praise and recognition.  And money. [4] Their names and accomplishments are still revered in the engineering and music fields today.    Robert passed in 2005, age 71.  Bill, passed in 1997, age 82.  Both left a legacy, a Moog legacy, the kind of legacy that rhymes with “rogue”, not ” goog.”


Joe Girard © 2023

Thank you for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here . Or emailing

[1] As a rule, a story line can have only one single protagonist.  However, in an ensemble of more than one separate “story”, each can have its own protagonist.  Rules, rules, rules.

[2] Some “high tech” vacuums have servos.  One type senses the speed of the brush roller, then lowers or raises the roller accordingly.  Another type senses the speed (forward or backward) and gives the wheels a little boost to help the user move the vacuum cleaner over the carpet.

[2] Theremin is worthy of his own detailed essay.

[3] to this date there is still contention over which makes the better “synth”, analog or digital.  Both have pros and cons, and their respective camps can be very adamant about their position.

[4] Bill Moog filed for personal Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1992.  This is probably attributable to a divorce, health issues (a stroke and recovery), his management style, philanthropy, and losing then re-gaining control of Moog Inc.  [the company was not affected by the bankruptcy]
Bob Moog ran Moog Music until 1971, when he sold it; remaining an employee until 1977, when he founded a new company.  Moog Music went bankrupt about 10 years later; the name and all rights, include trademark, were returned to Moog.  His new company and Moog Music then merged, and do business as Moog Music.

Author’s notes:

  • These Moogs were contemporaries, but just barely; Bill was about a full generation+ older than Bob: 19 years. One would think that they not only knew of each other, but met often (“… hobnob with my brother wizards”), especially since they were both from the New York City area. However, I could find no evidence that they ever met, let alone communicated or acknowledged one another. [Wizard’s full departure scene and speech here]
  • Watch and hear Somewhere over the Rainbow played on a theremin.


Quick Text Family Tree

Jacob Moog (b 1830, Marburg, Hesse, d 1898)  – Juliane Becker (b 1830, Marburg, d. 1869 Marburg)

  • George Conrad Becker Moog (b 1849/1850, Hesse Germany, d. 1896 Brooklyn)- Anna Cathrina Lather (b 1852 Marburg, d 1936, Brooklyn)
    • Anna Maria Elisabetha Moog (b 1875, NY state)
    • George Alfred Moog (b 1878, NY)
      • Florence (b 1915, USA)
      • George C Moog (b 1904, NY) – Shirley Jacobs
        • Robert Arthur Moog (b 1934 – 2005)
      • William Conrad Becker Moog (b 1885, Manhattan, NY)
        • William Curt Moog, Jr (b 1915)
        • Robert Leonard Moog (1917-1998)
        • Arthur Edward Moog (1918-2002
        • Elsie Anna Moog


1880 Census page (LDS, free acc’ts available):

Family tree info:

Bob Moog autobio notes: – Moog


The firmament is full of sun driven phenomena: inspiring sunrises, romantic sunsets, sun dogs, northern lights, brilliant Venus leading the sun across the sky at dawn, or chasing it at dusk.

There’s an unusual one I’ve seen only a few times: airplane contrails casting shadows onto clouds. Usually it’s from a fairly high-altitude flight: the sun is high, and the lower-level clouds are thin. The sun shines upon the contrail, and its shadow falls on the clouds below. If the clouds are translucent enough then the shadow is noticeable.


There is a rare twist to the geometry that can make this contrail-shadowing rather spooky. It happens once in a great while, when the sky is very clear; when a plane leaves a stable long-lasting contrail; and when the sun is very low, near the horizon – even a tad below. And two more important coincident parameters: the plane is flying directly away from the sun, and well above the plane, perhaps at 40,000 feet, there’s a faint veil of clouds, nearly imperceptible from the ground except for this phenomenon. [1]

Friday night, it was late,
I was walking you home
We got down to the gate and I was dreaming of the night
Would it turn out right?
How to tell you girl,
I want to build my world around you.
Tell you that it’s true.
I want to make you understand I’m talkin’ about a lifetime plan.


Hope this gives you the idea.

With this rare conjunction, the contrail shadow appears directly in front of the plane.  To an observer on the ground, it looks as if the path ahead of the plane — that is the path it is about to follow — has been painted as a straight line across the sky, showing where the plane is heading.  [My feeble sketch attempt here].  Like a runway in the sky, showing the plane where to go. Beckoning. Come, follow me.

I’ve only seen this “path ahead” shadow twice.  The first time – just after dawn at a high school cross-county track meet in 2008 – it took me a couple minutes to figure out what was causing this amazing sight. A plane precisely following a line that lay many miles ahead of it. I was amazed. I guess I’m weird, because no one else seemed to care.  Well, there was a running event going on.

I’ve witnessed this extraordinary concurrence of parameters only once since.  This optical treat, contrails showing where the plane is about to go, seems rather magical.  [I’ve seen the Northern Lights three  times.  Unforgettable, and each was different.]

Summer of 1978. Or more accurately: the spring. I had just completed 8 semesters at Arkansas State University, in Jonesboro. Yet, I didn’t have quite enough credits to graduate with an engineering degree, despite taking super heavy loads of 19 credits the previous two semesters. This while working half-time at the City Engineering department.

There’s a backstory to my belated graduation; it has nothing to do with partying or girls. No, it was because I had so little confidence in myself in freshman year that I took light class loads, including a wasted math semester in what amounted to “remedial math for engineers.” [2] The longer story is maybe for another essay.

That’s the way it began,

we were hand in hand
Glenn Miller’s Band was better than before.
We yelled and screamed for more.
And the Porter tunes (Night and Day)
Made us dance across the room.
It ended all too soon.
And on the way back home I promised you’d never be alone.

That’s the way it began, Glenn Miller’s band was better than before

So, 1978, I took a Maymester and a June summer session – cramming two courses into 3 weeks in the merry month of May, then a couple more in jolly June.

I clearly remember two songs from that summer. Songs that touched me sentimentally. Both came out in June and charted through the rest of the year. Despite being super busy I caught them while studying in my non-air-conditioned dorm room.  One song was the Commodores’ “Three Times a Lady”, composed and sung by Lionel Ritchie. A smash hit, it reached #1 on Billboard top 100 for several weeks, also hitting #1 on R&B charts, soul and even country charts.  It also topped charts in Canada, Australia and the UK.  It cracked the top 10 for the year, ending at #10.  It’s a touching song of praise for a special woman, sung as a type of reminiscing about, and relishing, a long life of respect — together.

And the Porter tunes (Cole Porter)

The second song, literally and appropriately namedReminiscing”, was by the Australian group “Little River Band.”  It wasn’t nearly the smash hit as “Three Times”, but certainly was a hit for a while, peaking at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. It ended at #65 for the year, 1978.  So, not super popular, although you still hear this sentimental soft pop song in shopping areas and waiting rooms. [lyrics here: 3 times a Lady and Reminiscing].

Both songs set remarkably similar moods and perspective.  Basically, a very lucky guy, looking back a long life that he was lucky to share with a very special woman. My interpretation of Reminiscing is even more romantic: a guy also looking back at his younger self; and that younger self is imagining himself in the future, visualizing himself as a much older man who’s able to reminisce about a long life with that woman, and – indeed – reminiscing about the very moment he was in.  At least that’s always been my take. That was kind of what I desired.  Looking forward, pursuing a good path, and imagining myself looking back at that life, too.

I’m not just a sentimental romantic fool, I’m sentimental about a lot of older culture as well. Two of my favorite movies are Casablanca (1943) and the Wizard of Oz (1939). Maybe I was born a few decades too late (but I’d sure miss the internet)

Hurry, don’t be late,
I can hardly wait.
I said to myself when we’re old.
We’ll go dancing in the dark,
Walking through the park
and reminiscing.


Now that I’m in those golden years, at nearly 40 years of marriage, with grown kids and grandchildren, I suppose I have finally earned the right to some reminiscing.

The high-level contrails are certainly metaphoric for me. 1978 to ‘82 was morning, with dreams of following a path clearly laid out.  (“Go west young man!” [3]) After a few false trails —and after moving west — finally, I met Audrey (Three Times a Lady) and soon enough we set out — together — along the path we saw ahead. Or so we thought. 

Friday night, it was late,
I was walking you home,
We got down to the gate
and I was dreaming of the night.
Would it turn out right? …
Now as the years roll on,
Each time we hear our favorite
The memories come along.
Older times we’re missing
Spending the hours reminiscing.

Contrails, and the path their shadows lay out, don’t last very long.  Circumstances inevitably change or dissolve them;  the weather changes: tumult and twists and turbulence. Clouds  – sometimes puffy, sometimes dark – come and go; the sun angle changes, winds are moody and shifty. The path that seemed so clear … just … fades … away.

Still we persist onward, looking for landmarks we’d heard of, trying to stay the course, or at least head in the right general direction, with the principles that got you so far.  Together.

Now we approach the end of the day. The sun is setting. The shadow phenomenon can also occur – in reverse.  Instead of showing the path ahead, the shadow shows the path completed.  Farther to the east, across the firmament, behind the plane, the trail and shadows begin to break up; views of the earlier path are vague and fading.  Yet, at the end of the day, a contrail shadow is not needed to see the path. The contrail itself – not a ghostly shadow – traces the past. Not too far behind, though, across the sky, even the longest contrails fade.

Hurry. Don’t be late,
I can hardly wait.
I said to myself when we’re old.
We’ll go dancing in the dark,
Walking through the park
and reminiscing.

It’s better to reminisce while trails and shadows are still perceptible. I can see: It’s been a very good flight.  We set a good course, we’ve muddled through disturbances, done the best possible, followed a good path, and had a most enjoyable flight.  Together.

While reminiscing we’re chasing the sun to the horizon – and beyond.  Together.  I’m a lucky man.

Joe Girard © 2022

Thank you for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here . Or emailing


[1] I believe these are called cirrostratus clouds nebulosus.

[2] In sophomore year I was fortunate to have a math professor who got me back on track, and even ahead of schedule. I used his office hours liberally. I sometimes met a young high school student waiting patiently outside his office in the late afternoon. That boy was the professor’s stepson.  And that “boy” is now my brother-in-law.  Sometimes it’s a very small world indeed.

[3] Go west young man. Phrase attributed to Horace Greeley, who promoted westward settlement (Greeley Colorado is named for him), although he never went west himself.  Famous newspaper man, one term congressman, ran for president in 1872, lost to Grant, and passed away weeks later (61) … just one month after his wife had also passed away.

Contrail shadow below trail; taken just after noon near Gravina, Italy. Sun is above and to right of jet plane, casting shadow on thin clouds below.

Sun dogs

Crepuscular Rays at sunset

Interlude: Looking Around

Random Droppings: Looking Back, Looking at Now, Looking Forward

Now, for something completely different (sorry Monty).

Looking Back. 

First, a shout out to reader Dave R for suggesting that the title to my last blog/essay could have been: “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Hair* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) – sorry Woody.”  That’s brilliant. Thanks Dave.

Some readers did respond regarding the embedded cultural references in that essay.  For closure, here they are.

  1. “Sadly, Mr Lupner was born without a spine.” This from a series of Saturday Night Live (SNL) skits, circa late ‘70s, starring Bill Murray and Gilda Radner (RIP ☹ ) … sample skit here.
  2. “Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” A line said several times by the king in “The King and I”, a musical; composed by the famous team of Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein (lyrics) [RIP 2x]
  3. “Curiouser and curiouser”; a line uttered by Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Charles Dodgson (RIP) under the nom de plume Lewis Carroll.
  4. “Any way the wind blows”; a line both sung and whispered in Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, mostly written by – and fantastically sung by – Freddie Mercury (RIP). It came out in 1974.  Normally, it would have been considered excessively long be a hit, at 6 minutes duration; nonetheless, it became a huge hit and still a standard at parties and receptions as they reach their raucous crescendos.  Also, a great karaoke song.
  5. “Fred Astaire got no hair” and other rhymes about hair are taken from George Carlin’s (RIP) recited poem Hair. Sometime in the ‘70s.  [Sample Carlin Hair Stand up act]



“You like Po-tay-to, I like Potah-to” (sorry Gershwins). Definitely not Potatoe (sorry Dan Quayle). Hey, Let’s (not) call the whole thing off.

Gershwin Bros, George (L) and Ira (R) [Born Jacob and Israel Gershovitz]

Thanksgiving weekend. Although brief, it took me a while, in fits and starts, to complete this piece, so I’m a bit late. Still within the 4-day break: after Black Friday and before Cyber Monday.

What are you thankful for?  Comment!  My own list is long.  At the top is my wife and her health.  Somewhere in the list is you all, my readers, whether frequent or sporadic readers and commenters.  Some are words of approbation, others of cogitation, some offer edits and improvements, or other tangents I could have flown off on (as if I need more temptation on tangents to drift away upon).

Thanksgiving mealtime!  What makes mashed potatoes great?  What is your secret ingredient?  Chives?  Cream cheese?  Grated cheese can make it great.  I think it’s butter. Butter makes everything better.

I was surprised to be reminded in my newsfeed last week that yams and sweet potatoes are nowhere near the same, neither genetically nor in taste, although the names are often used interchangeably.  And sweet potatoes are not potatoes at all.  In fact, my brilliant wife conducted an experiment a few decades ago that I had forgotten. She had all the kids visiting for Thanksgiving compare the tastes of them. [BTW: sweet potatoes make the best fries.  Just sayin’.]

Found online … lightly edited …

Color: Sweeties are orange. But not all potatoes are white.

Myth: A sweet potato is an orange potato.  Fact: Even though both the potato and sweet potato originated in Central & South America, they are actually not at all closely related. They come from different botanical families. Potatoes are in the nightshade family; sweet potatoes from the morning glory family.

Myth: Sweet potatoes are yams.  Fact: Yams and sweet potatoes are not the same vegetable, and they have different tastes. Back in the 1930s, “yams” was used as a marketing term for sweet potatoes and, still to this day, you find the two mislabeled in stores. They’re also from different families; yams come from the same family as grasses (!).

Details, details

To make things a bit more complicated, Garnet Yams are not yams at all; they’re sweet potatoes.  [read all about it]

You say potato.  I say … Yams?  “I yam what I yam.”

I’m glad this essay comes out after Thanksgiving, so you wouldn’t be tempted to bore your festivity guests with such trivia.  But, hey!, it’s better than politics, right?

Looking forward

I have notes for some upcoming essays, so here’s a heads up on what to look for. No promises that any will get finished or released.  Mostly a matter of finding time to pull them all together and polish them off. And staying focused.

These are not necessarily in order.

  1. A look back at the recent election.  This will be through the lens of the topic addressed in my essay Mr Gerry.  Since the census was just completed in 2020, districts re-drawn in 2021, and elections based on those districts in 2022, I thought it would be interesting to see how “fairly” the districts were drawn by a mathematical model.  (I put fair in quotes, since as adults we know the world is seldom fair, and fair is in the eyes of the beholder). I’m waiting until all the congressional races are decided.
  2. Like the Gershwins (Ira and George) mentioned above, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some famous brothers in history. This will probably be a trilogy, or more, to keep each reading session reasonably digestible in one sitting. As a side note, I think it’s interesting that fraternity (as well as sorority) are definitely Latin-based. And the words for brother and sister in Italian – clearly Latin-based –  are fratello and sorella.  We call such groups on college campuses by these Latin names, but we also call their “community” Greek Life, and the groups are known by Greek letters
  3. I have notes on an essay on some fruits and the history of a famous American family. The task, as always, is to be interesting, relatively brief, and with several interwoven threads.
  4. And I’m always prone to just march off on some new topic that pops into mind. Or a topic that a reader might suggest.  Perhaps you!

Sound off below.  Have a great holiday season.


Joe Girard © 2022

Thank you for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here . Or emailing

More cultural references.
1) Everything You Wanted to Know … A spoof on the hilarious 1972 movie Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex* (*But were Afraid to Ask), an anthology in 7 parts, screenplay written by, directed by and (in at least 2 segments) starring Woody Allen … including one wherein he plays a sperm.  Wonderfully distasteful.

2) Let’s call the whole thing off.  Written in 1937 by George and Ira Gershwin for the movie of the same year “Shall we Dance” … with a title like that of course it’s starring Astaire and Rogers.

3) Potatoe: Vice President Dan Quayle famously erroneously corrected an elementary student who had correctly spelled it potato, while visiting a 6th grade classroom. [video here]

4) I yam what I yam. One of several regular expressions of cartoon character Popeye (The Sailor Man); here (8 sec) and here (full length cartoon, 3 min, titled I yam what I yam) , for starters. Oh my gosh, the (unbelievable racist) crap we watched for entertainment as kids.

5) Of course, the first: Now for something completely different. That’s a Monty Python line. Google it yourself. Insanely goofy and funny.

Welland Wave

Great Lakes ship enters Lock #3 of modern Welland Canal

… and leaving Lock #3, near St Catharines Museum   [Photos taken August 2022, during recent visit to Ontario]

It was a Thursday afternoon in Ontario.  To be precise: the 20th of June, 1912, on the Niagara peninsula – between the lowest two of the five Great Lakes (Erie and Ontario), in the City of Thorold, population 2,300. Five local lads from Thorold, ages 5 to 7, took off for some afternoon amusement.  Using branches from trees, some twine, and hooks made of bent pins, they strode off with their make-shift fishing equipment to try their luck at a nearby creek.

Fishing at the creek. At least that’s what they told their mothers.  As children often do, they did something different.  Only slightly different. It seemed such a trivial fib. They actually went over to the Welland Canal, so they could watch huge ships transit while dipping their lines.  Whose idea?  Probably George Bretherick, age 7, as he had fished there regularly with his father on Sundays.  Linked to fresh water by the canal and feeder streams, the canal boasted a healthy population of perch, several types of bass and other finned aquatic vertebrate possibilities.

The oldest was David Bouk.  Seven years and 9 months old.  Third child of Lycurgus and Elizabeth Ann. David, his parents and siblings were all born in Ontario; the parents were of recent Dutch and German ancestry. Recent enough that census workers recorded it. Older sister, Nina Elizabeth, age 9.  Younger sister, Edith, age 5. [in records family also shows up as Bourk and Bourke]  — *All ages herein are as of June 20, 1912, unless stated otherwise


The official start of summer was still two days away. The weather was finally pleasant, after a brief spring due to a long and brutally cold winter; still one of the coldest and deepest ever recorded. All five Great Lakes had frozen solid; only recently had their surface turned fully liquid. An ice-bridge had formed over nearby Niagara Falls, giving the appearance it had frozen solid. It would lead to tragedy. [1]  Canadians generally relish winter – especially cold ones.  Outdoor activities – like hockey on frozen lakes and rivers – are the stuff of life.  For immigrants, though, it was tough.

Spring 1912 was cursed as well.  The rivers, creeks, streams, and lakes were frozen and full … then heavy rains bore down.  The rivers and streams all melted and flooded.  It was a mess.  The warmth and clearness of summer were so very welcome.

Moms were glad the long cold winter and cool spring were over.  Bedspreads, blankets and carpets could be beaten free of grit, dust and hair outside.  Laundry drying could go outside too.  Small gardens were planted.  Life moved outdoors.  Get the house good and clean.  Windows open.  Get out the new factory-made version of the good old Shaker Broom; properly flat for efficient removal of all sorts of family life’s detritus. [2]

Hints of summer had been coming since winter ended – only about a month ago it seems, at least by temperatures.  The day was pleasant, high around 70, with clouds suggesting some light rains.  For young boys it’s: Let’s go out and play!

The Games of the V Olympiad were in mid-stride in Stockholm – where Jim Thorpe was winning the Decathlon, taking early steps toward the title “Best Athlete of the Twentieth Century” – long before that city was associated with a certain Syndrome; the Stockholm Syndrome.


George Bretherick.  A few months past seven years old.  He’d just immigrated the year before, from England, near London.  His father, George Sr, had come a year before that to find work.  Coming across together with young George were his mother, Ellen (also: Mary Ellen), and siblings Leonard (sometimes John Leonard) age 4 years, 11 months, and infant Ernest, 2.  Leonard loved to tag-along with his older brother, as he did this day.


Like most years of the era, there were already plenty of disasters with large ships <link>. Contributing factors were the infancy of radio and weather forecasting.  Also, the growth in commerce led to bigger and more powerful ships; which meant bigger steam boilers, engines, crank shafts and propellers. Fresh in everyone’s mind was a “disaster for the ages” that had just occurred. In April a certain unsinkable ship struck an iceberg in the Atlantic, unbelievably at 41.7 degrees north latitude. That’s further south than Chicago, and even parts of California.  Not unsinkable.

Five very young boys went out to play for the afternoon.  There would be some goofing around.  Some fishing.  Stories shared: some from their parents, some secrets from older siblings. Two were 7-years old; the other three were 5-years old (well, one was only four years and eleven months).

The Welland Canal was Canada’s answer to the challenge of water-borne transport between its largest cities and the upper Great Lakes – the awesomely powerful falls that tumble over the Niagara Escarpment betwixt Lakes Erie and Ontario posing as a most un-navigable barrier to all shipping.

The US completed the 369-mile Erie Canal in 1825, linking Buffalo (on Lake Erie) to Albany, NY on the Hudson River – and thus to New York City. Its completion gave a huge jolt to making NYC the commercial and financial powerhouse that it is even still today.

Canada’s effort to bypass the great falls required a bit less distance: only 27 miles. At first this required a tortuously slow 40 locks. By 1912 the Welland Canal had been re-built twice.  First, because the gates were wood and quickly deteriorated.  And later because of the need to accommodate vastly larger ships, and to incorporate powered operation of gates.  By 1912 there were only 26 locks.  Today, there are only 8.  [Most of the locks from the 3rd canal can still be seen today.  <link>]

       Welland Canal Manifestations

                     Years        #Locks     Ship max. Length,ft

        1st    1829-1845       40                   ~100

        2nd  1846-1886        27                   130

        3rd    1887-1932       26                   200

         Modern 1932-             8                   750

Modern: some locks have two-way capability

From Lake Erie, the canal traverses the Niagara Peninsula, roughly on a south-north line, to Lake Ontario, with a water surface some 250 feet lower than Lake Erie’s.

Strategic location of canal on Great Lakes seaway. Pin shows approx location of Lock 22 on the 3rd Welland Canal, near Thorold..


It’s hard to understate the significance of the Welland Canal. It’s contribution to commerce — to jobs and trade — was and is titanic. Today over 3,000 ships traverse it yearly (but only during ice-free months).  Thanks largely to the Welland, Toronto is Canada’s largest city in both population and economic power.  That’s a status it has enjoyed pretty much since the first Welland Canal opened to traffic.


William “Willie” Jack: 5 years, 5 months old.  He had just arrived from Scotland, near Glasgow, with his family the year before.  It was a big load of Jacks that came over on the steamship Lake Manitoba. Father Hugh, mother Martha, and a stable of siblings: James, 20; Janet, 18; John, 17; Anne, 16; Robert, 15; Martha, 12; Susan, 11.  Willie was the youngest.


Young boys going out to play, or fish, alone for several hours? That would never be permitted today.  Yet, when I was a lad – I’m thinking mid- to late-1960s – we often left the house with our bikes, bats and ball gloves, only to return just in time for dinner, or as the first evening stars began to twinkle in the twilight.  Extrapolating back to that earlier time, I can see how this was accepted without even a scoff.  They were just going down to the creek to fish, skip stones and catch crayfish, right?  In reality they went out to play and fish along a shipping canal.  What’s the harm?

Ah, the Canadian Steam Surveyor CSS La Canadienne.  A star-crossed ship.  She started her life in 1880 named the “Foxhound” in Glasgow, Scotland,  Built by Robert Duncan, she measured 154 feet in length, displacing 400 tons.  She was soon bought and renamed “La Canadienne” and sent to Canada for coastal fishing patrol.  In 1906, she was re-purposed for Hydrographic Surveys along the St Lawrence River.  [This is mainly mapping coast lines, rocky outcroppings, and depth soundings].

In June, 1912, she was ordered to go to the upper Great Lakes, into Lake Superior, for surveys there.  The transit was cursed.  Traveling up the St Lawrence River she was going through the Cornwall Canal when she collided with the steamer Britannic headed the other way.  Temporarily sidelined.  Several days. Damage was minimal and each ship proceeded: the Britannic to sea and La Canadienne across Lake Ontario to the Welland Canal.   On this Thursday she was behind schedule; worse, the canal traffic was backed up.  She’d have to wait her turn to go “upstream”; none of the canal’s locks were large enough to take such large craft both-ways all day long.

The final boy of the five was William Wallace.  Five years and one month old.  With a name like that he had to be a Scot; and he was indeed, born in Dundee.  And this day, maybe he was Braveheart.  This family is the most cloaked. Facts were scarce. Wallace is a very common name, as was his father’s, Peter. Wallace is also a very popular name for Scots.  I had hoped that his mother’s unusual name, Elyabrel Tiffany, would help. No dice. As they don’t appear in 1911 census records, I presume they also just arrived.  Many Scots came to Canada at that time.  There is barely any record of this family at all.  Not even in Scotland.  And not in the next Canadian 1921 census. But one certain official government document proves they were there in Thorold. [3]

Four of the five boys and their families were all very recent arrivals to Thorold.  Along with the more established Bouks they all appear to have lived close to one another, in an immigrant-based community of various origins: Dutch, English, Scots, Germans … and a few Canadians.  At that time the great Welland Canal ran right through town, near locks 19 through 24 (locks numbered from north to south). It appears that much of Thorold was little more than a shantytown for laborers and their families — for those who built, and also for those who worked on, the canal.

After lunch, and maybe a nap for some, the boys dreamed up and executed their plan … slinking to the canal, near Lock 21. It must have felt exhilarating! An afternoon of innocent adventure, cloaked in mild deception. Fishing on the canal! Big, big boats going by!
[Map with key features and locks of third canal shown.]

Each of the four manifestations of the Welland Canal has had more than its share of catastrophes.  During the construction of the 4th canal (1913-1935 …

Third Welland Canal overlaid on modern day map; arrow shows location of lock #22

with interruptions for the Great War) there were an astounding 137 recorded deaths – and many serious injuries.  At today’s Canal Museum, in nearby St Catharines, there is a commemorative monument and plaque to honor them.  Many of the workers were from immigrant families, like those of Jack, Wallace, Bretherick and Bouk. Of course the first three canals also had many injuries and fatalities among the workers.  [A good summary of the human cost here: <link>]

June 20, early morning – The sun rises early and well to the north of east this time of year.  Finally, La Canadienne eases into Lock 1 in St Catharines’ Port Dalhousie, the canal’s northern terminus. The Port is an extension of Martindale Pond, an ersatz estuary at the mouth of 12 Mile Creek created for the 1st canal, and still used in 1912 for the 3rd canal. Take her slow and easy.  Power down.  Secure the boat to snubbing posts on either side as the lake-side gate is closed.  When secured, valves are opened to allow upstream water to fill the lock, flowing through inlets. La Canadienne is raised until the water level in the lock matches that of the upstream canal segment. The upstream gates open. She’s released from the posts.  It takes perhaps 10 minutes, and on she steams on to the next lock.

The Lake Ontario terminus for the fourth and current Welland Canal is one mile east of that for the first three canals, Port Dalhousie. That’s Port Weller, about 10 miles west of the one of the most beautiful little cities I’ve seen: Niagara-on-the-Lake. The old downtown is truly like a trip back through time. Seeing the great falls is on most bucket lists. If you go, take the time to see this nearby city too.

The boys were at the canal in time to see La Canadienne transit Lock 21.  So big!  All ships must creep along; both between locks, and, especially important, within the locks.  This surveyor ship, which surely appeared massive to the boys, fits within the lock easily, with a margin of 24 feet. Its 154 ft bow-to-stern length is well within the nominal typical ship length for 1912, at 178 ft. Surface water in the lock churned a bit in a few places, appearing like boiling water, an effect of upstream water gushing in through pipes beneath and unseen.  The most obvious effect was the raising of La Canadienne. It all must have seemed like magic. The churning slowed as she was lifted the last few feet. Done! The upstream gates swung open.  She was released from the snubbing posts.  And then, on she went, toward Lock 22.  This must have been a really exciting thing for young boys to witness.  I still marvel at such things today.

Now the fishing can truly commence. The homemade “hooks” were dunked into the water. The boys waited for the next huge ship to come up while trying to pay attention to their lines.

A few minutes later, at about 3:30PM, La Canadienne steamed gently into Lock 22.  Just before the downstream gate commenced closing, the usual orders were given along the lock and aboard the ship: secure the ship to the stubbing posts, … and drop speed to full stop. All per usual. This was, after all, the 22nd lock of the day.

And yet … Somehow the timing was off.  The ship was not secured.  The ropes were not on the snubbing posts. Power was still feeding the props. La Canadienne continued creeping along at a few knots toward the forward gates – the gates that held back millions and millions of gallons of water exerting pressure on the gate that rose to 750 lbs per square foot.

It took just moments for the captain to realize the mistakes. “FULL ASTERN!!.”

Alas, too late.  Simple physics was now in charge; there was nothing any human could do.

It’s nigh impossible to instantly alter the momentum of such a large craft in water.  La Canadienne banged into the upstream gate of Lock 22, generating an ominous sound — between a thud and a clang — from the collision of metal on metal

The momentum of the large ship generated enough thrust to damage the gates. They cracked opened a bit. The seal was lost.  Even slight damage and slightly cracked open gates were enough for the upstream water to force its way completely through.  With the unexpected suddenness of an earthquake, the water burst through the gates completely.  The monster was unleashed.  A massive and powerful wave surged into the lock.

The water swept over and past La Canadienne. Then into the downstream gate, which was just beginning to close.  La Canadienne was lifted and tossed – pitched and rolled as if she were in a high seas storm – then carried past the gates, down toward lock 21.  On the way she was hurled violently against the canal’s bank, the rocks puncturing her hull.  She came to rest there.

Such a torrent of water.  The scene repeated at Lock 21.  It surged on. Then 20.  Then 19.  The surge continued on, slightly smaller at each lock, until the destruction ended at Lock 18.  Along the way craft were flung about, the smaller of them suffering structural damage.  Surrounding farmland was inundated.

Near Lock 21 it’s likely that none of the boys heard the first sounds of the unfolding disaster.  Or at least thought little of it; none had spent much time at the canal, if any at all, for most.  But surely they must’ve heard and finally reacted to the excited, panicky yelling that followed, as La Canadienne flew out of the lock.  And then … the ominous roar of the wave. From Lock 22, the wave raced to the upper gates of Lock 21, about 800 feet away. Here it resulted in a new huge wave as it crested the gate and plunged into the lock.

The older boys, George Jr and David, probably reacted first. Sensing danger they got up to run, yelling at their co-conspirators to run, run, run!  They ran downstream along the bank, away from the noise, from the commotion, and from the giant wave. It was all too late.

George escaped mostly unscathed.  David was washed into the canal, to be rescued by an alert government employee, Hugh Maguire – a surveyor. The other three? The youngest? The waves swarmed over them and swept them away.

Leonard Bretherick and the two Willies, Jack and Wallace, were simply gone, washed to the weirs of a side pond. Their bodies were eventually found.  But not on that day, that awful, awful day, June 20, 1912.

The death certificates for all three read “Drowning.”  It might as well have read “Carelessness.”

Some mournful witnesses said the boys would probably have been better off running toward Lock 22, so as to escape the 2nd wave caused by the surge from cresting the gates of 21.

All families remained in the area for some time, except for the Wallaces, for whom there is no additional data.  Archival research suggests existences for each family that might well have been lives of quiet desperation.  More children born, more children lost — including a Jack family infant (Matthew Hugh) who perished at only 25 days old from marasmus, i.e severe malnutrition. One patriarch spent his last 6 years in the 1920s alone in a “House of Refuge”, what we would call a Poor House, a place for the indigent, the lonely and seriously infirm, all under government care. Eventually, I suppose, many of those offspring moved away upon reaching adulthood, the world offering wider horizons than life along a shipping canal.


There was an inquisition, of course.  I cannot find the results.  It seems there were few consequences. La Canadienne was raised and towed downstream to port for repairs.  The many gates of the locks were repaired or replaced in several days.  La Canadienne was back in transit in a week.  She did not make it to duty on Lake Superior until August 7th.  She served out the remainder of her existence on Lake Superior, performing soundings and mapping its enormous coast line.  She’d have more major accidents, too; the most disastrous was running aground near Port Arthur on Thunder Bay, in September 1916, presumably during a storm.  She was soon retired and sold off – her crew required for service in the Great War.

This surely ranks as the most tragic accident on the Welland Canal.  Yet, surprisingly, many details are obscured by the thickening fog of history…  soon to be lost behind the veils of time. I felt compelled to bring the the story and its circumstances together, saving them from history’s dust bin, as best I could — to weave the dramatic saga factually and tenderly, from several points of view: human, parent, historian, researcher, story-teller.


Joe Girard © 2022

Thank you for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here . Or emailing


Jack Family Grave, Thorold, Ontario

Welland Canals’ features and locks, first thru third, Yellow =1st, Red=2nd, Blue=3rd; overlaid on modern google map.

[1] Daring tourists and thrill seekers walked across the Niagara Falls ice bridge. Until the fourth day of February, 1912, when it collapsed, with three falling to their eventual deaths. [Buffalo News]  [Explanation of how the ice bridge forms, and invites disaster, here] [A short video describing this horrific tragedy.]

[2] The Shaker Broom:

[3] That document is little William’s death certificate.


Author’s Reflections:

I do apologize.  I had difficulty putting this story together in a way that flows and connects the the converging threads of history in a properly fitting manner.  But one must stop researching and re-writing at some point.  Then it’s hit “publish” or “delete.”

The main reason for this underachievement is that I spent countless hours trying to find background information, which was quite time consuming.  Historical archives I combed through included old newspapers, census data, death certificates, grave site searches and immigration records.  The most difficult was tracing the paths of families who either modified their last names, or whose names were erroneously recorded by government officials.  And, it seems, one chose to be ghost-like.

From my review of newspapers I was struck by several recurrent themes.  First, the incident at Welland Canal was reported coast to coast, in small towns and large cities.  From Nananee to Toronto in Ontario.  And from Montreal to Victoria across the continent.  I perused the Saint Louis Post Dispatch; it even occurs there.  More astounding – the articles appeared on June 21 – the day after the tragedy.   This is certainly testament to the near instant communication via wire services that were in place.  Each article, save that in the St Catharines Daily Standard, were brief and nearly identical, with bothersome little errors.  “If it bleeds, it leads … screw the details … then move on …” seems to have been the news business motto long before late 20th and early 21st century news.

And the papers gave me some blind alleys, as they found multiple ways to spell names, and different times.  One had 1927.  Another August 1.  Census data were unsteady too; but at least it was archived.

I was also struck by the brevity of the newspapers – many just 12-24 pages long.  There seemed to be a lack of news to report, or perhaps paper shortages.  Most font was very tiny.  Also, they carried far more advertisements that we see today; I guess that mostly happens digitally now a-days.

A third striking theme was the fascination with US politics in Canada, as well as the US.  The Republican Convention was about to begin in Chicago.  The consensus seemed to be that Taft would get the nod over Roosevelt (he did), then go on to victory in November (abysmal failure; he finished third).  On the Democratic side there was fear that they’d nominate an un-electable radical.  This concern was especially raised by long-time Democratic firebrand William Jennings Bryan.  In the end they eventually (after 46 ballots) chose Woodrow Wilson, somewhat of a dark horse and political neophyte.  Of course he won, and went on to re-election.

This in-depth endeavor of discovery left me feeling a bit sour.  It took so much time, with the result that I found these families lived lives of desperation, with much sadness, emptiness and disappointment.  Finally, it gave me negative feelings about myself.  Why haven’t I spent more time on efforts like this for my own ancestry?  My dad and my second-cousin, Anola, put much effort into this a few decades ago.  Yet I’ve only pushed it forward a tiny bit.  I owe this to my own decedents, as well as my many cousins.

I stumbled across the beginnings of this story at the St Catharines Museum, which is dedicated to the regional history, a lot of which includes the canal(s).  Facts there were few, and a key fact (year of event) was quite incorrect.  Yet, I persisted.

I have to acknowledge some excellent resources. First my wife, who found visual resources and encouraged me to use them to help tell the story.  She found many typos in the early drafts.  Sadly I re-wrote several times thereafter, and many probably remain.  I also acknowledge the following on-line resources:

Part III – It Happened First In …

A House divided against itself cannot stand”

Abraham Lincoln,
quoting Jesus of Nazareth,
June 1858 speech accepting his party’s nomination for Senator of Illinois, 1958

Lincoln, pre-           beard

Set within a glacially-crafted landscape, as is Part 2’s Waubeka (which is a scant 50 miles southeast) one finds our third and final small community of this trilogy: the hamlet of Ripon.  As with the communities of Parts I and II of this trilogy, Ripon sits alongside a trustworthy clean source of flowing water: Silver Creek.

Driving to Ripon from any direction, whatever the season, one is mesmerized by the views of fields reaching to the horizon, over subtle ground bulges that pass as rolling hills.

Such drives can be exercises in boredom or awe, depending on point of view.  The country-side landscape surrounding Ripon certainly looks bucolic; that’s deceptive: whether it’s crops, livestock or dairy, Ag life is hard.
In mid- to late summer the fertile expanse stretches ever onward, bedecked with maturing crops, interrupted only by the occasional farmhouse, an array of grain silos or a dairy farm.  Trees are sporadic, and usually betray some feature of the land.

Betrayal: A woven garland of trees, sidling and twisting along, betrays a creek in a hidden draw.  A hedge of trees: a property or acreage boundary.  A sparse grove scattered across a small area: a farmhouse.

Most acreage is corn, but there’s also plenty of soybean and cattle fodder, such as the legume, alfalfa, and hay bearing grasses.

The landscape can be equally mesmerizing the rest of the year, too. In winter some crop rotation is needed for soil health and protection; that’s mostly winter wheat, planted in early fall so that germination happens before the first deep freeze. But many of the endless fields simply lie in slumber, carpeted under innumerable 6-sided crystals of white moisture through the weeks, as calendars are flipped from November to March. [1]

The first white settlers arrived in the area in 1844, from New York, via Sheboygan. Inspired by the writings of French philosopher Charles Fourier, they intended to build a utopian agrarian socialist commune, withdrawing from the developing American dog-eat-dog culture. They chose well: glacially blessed fertile and moist prairie land, at the confluence of the smaller Crystal Creek with Silver Creek. These idealists called their settlement Ceresco, after Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.

There are few secrets when it comes to great places to settle. Soon after the Ceresco settlement, David Mapes, also originally from New York, arrived.  Finding the setting as a potentially commercially attractive site, he envisioned a community adjacent to Ceresco, just spitting distance to its east (especially with the prevailing westerlies).

Mapes soon entered into an agreement with the owner of this large swath of land along Spring Creek – a chap named John Horner – for the development of a city there. Horner decided the new community should be named Ripon, after his ancestors’ hometown, Ripon, in England’s North Yorkshire County. As Mapes also had ancestry from England, there was no objection.


Before long Mapes had completed a dam on Silver Creek. This was significant. The dam enabled the creek to power a mill. The dam also formed a large pond. Both the mill and the pond promoted commercial and community development. The mill would grind grist into meal. By virtue of Ripon’s trustworthy long, deep, cold winters, the pond provided ice. The ice was harvested in early spring. Thence it was stored in ice houses and cellars, insulated under layers of hay and sawdust. Through the warmer months it was used to chill and preserve foodstuffs, dairy products, and beer. Such was life before refrigeration. At least there was cold beer.

Within a very few years Ripon was thriving. It was growing. Over those same few years, many in the Ceresco commune began struggling with the idealistic concepts and practices required for total collectivism. As land values increased many wished to sell out.  Some found a way to do that.  Many became Forty-niners and drifted away to follow the Siren call of gold and fortune.  Ceresco was absorbed into Ripon.

“[The Confederacy’s] foundations are laid, and its cornerstone rests upon the great truth: that the negro is not equal to the white man; and that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth” 

Alexander Stephens,
Vice-President CSA,
Cornerstone Speech, 1861

Alexander Hamilton Stephens, VP of the Confederate States of America

Things were neither mesmerizing, nor beautiful, nor bucolic in America in these, the fledgling years for Ripon and much of America’s heartland. The issue of slavery was about to rend the nation asunder. [edited later: OK Lee Webb, and cotton tariffs].

In the supposed “two-party system” America sorely lacked a strong second party. The Democrats had held sway from Jefferson (1800) until 1840. In the ‘30s a new party, the Whigs, coalesced around a single notion: presidents (as exemplified by Andy Jackson, often described as a jackass — a label he gladly accepted) were too powerful. Beyond that notion — that Jackson was a jackass (which later became the Democratic symbol, a donkey) and too powerful as an executive — the Whigs were little more than a loosely cobbled-together coalition.

In 1840, with William Henry Harrison, the Whigs finally wrested the White House from the Democrats. But WHH promptly died, only a month in office, leaving the office to Tyler (“too!”). Sadly, he had strong “states’ rights” leanings, and, thus, implicitly, pro-slavery inclinations. Harrison’s only major policy initiative was to re-create a national bank (which had been scuttled by Jackson); but when it passed Congress it was vetoed by Tyler. The US financial system would remain fragile.

Thus, with Harrison’s passing and Tyler’s ascendence, the Whig fracture began – which soon led to their demise. They did win one more presidential election, in 1848, with Zach Taylor (probably a good general and poor politician), but he also died in office. Fillmore inherited the presidency. He was in practice pro-slavery (signing the horrific Fugitive Slave Act and denying that the government had any power to end slavery). He was, of course hated by northern Whigs. The party’s factions drifted irreversibly apart. Totally useless, it soon died.

In the 1850s the Democrats, were also split over slavery; the significant factions all favored maintaining slavery. Oversimplified? Sure. Some wanted to expand it to new territories, and others wanted the new territories (which would inevitably become states) to decide for themselves. Across the factions they agreed with the Whig, Fillmore: the federal government had no authority to end the awful institution. Whatever the national policy: slavery should remain forever in the South.

It was dire times for both abolitionists and those who wanted to stop the expansion of slavery. In 1853, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, powered by a Democrat coalition, was thundering down the pike. To Anti-Slavers and Abolitionists alike, the Act effectively promoted slavery, allowing new territories and states to decide the slavery issue themselves (of course, just white males could decide).

It was awful legislation – literally atrocious – and it was surely going to pass. It was in blatant defiance of the Missouri Compromise (1820) which allowed the eponymous state to enter the nation as a “slave state” provided Maine could enter as a “free state”, and that no state west of the Mississippi and north of 36.5 degrees could ever be a slave state (the border between Oklahoma! and Kansas is 36.5 degrees). [2] The Kansas-Nebraska Act tore that compromise to shreds.

Motivated by the distress of this approaching human rights disaster, groups began to coalesce around anti-slavery and abolitionist points of view – from limiting slavery, to upholding the Missouri Compromise, to totally abolishing slavery. These people were remnants of the former Whig party, dispirited members of other parties, and various abolitionist groups. The groups started meeting informally across America’s upper Midwest. A nationwide strategy was needed. A new political party was needed.

Ripon’s Little White Schoolhouse

At one such meeting, on March 20, 1854, in a little white schoolhouse in the modest, small and new settlement of Ripon, 34 such representatives declared themselves a new political party, committed to ending slavery, beginning with fighting its expansion into western territories and states, and ultimately to the universal abolition of the ghastly institution of slavery.  That day, the Republican Party had its first meeting, and it came into existence.  It happened first in Ripon.

Note: several Mid-west cities also claim to be the birthplace of the Republican Party, including Jackson, Michigan. Ripon is widely accepted by historians as the site of its founding and first meeting.

The fledgling party lacked sufficient firepower to successfully contest the 1856 presidential election, selecting John Frémont as their nominee. Frémont finished a respectable second, ahead of Millard Fillmore (a candidate in ’52, heir to Taylor, and last of the Whigs) who nicked off a few electoral votes and finished third. The Electoral College winner was the feckless James Buchanan (who won despite capturing only 45% of the popular vote, but more than any other candidate). Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian, had pro-southern and pro-slavery sympathies. Thus, he led both the nation and his Democratic party to cataclysmic and complete fracture.

The rest is history, as they say. In 1860 the Republicans, at a very contentious national convention in Chicago, eventually nominated a self-educated railroad lawyer as their presidential candidate. That man was Abraham “Honest Abe” Lincoln. Their political opponents, the Democratic party, split over how to handle the “issue” of slavery – although, as stated, all favored keeping slavery – and nominated two candidates.

Lincoln defeated the fractured Democrats, represented by Douglas and Breckenridge [3], as well as a fourth candidate, Bell [4]. Lincoln won the presidency, even though fewer than 40% of all voters chose him (this time: thank you, Electoral College).

[It’s worth noting that Lincoln won the party nomination and presidency on a modest non-provocative platform of keeping the country united and preventing the expansion of slavery — but not ending slavery.  That final position was forced upon him (see Stephens’ quote, above). A position he gladly and openly accepted after the 1862 battle at Antietam, when he crafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s positions in the 1860 election campaign were nearly identical to Douglas’.  However, Lincoln had no known a priori southern or slavery sympathies: see quote atop this essay.]

Splitting the party and the nation was so devastating to Democrats that only one person from that party won a presidential election from 1856 to 1912 — that was Grover Cleveland (albeit, elected twice). His party ran him out on a rail in 1896, in no small part because he believed that a sustainable healthy economy depended on a strong currency. (See W.J. Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech, 1896). He was the last of the successful Bourbon Democrats.*

*[It was a Republican split, in 1912, that finally led to this reversal of fates]

Stephen Douglas, representing the northern Democrat faction for president in 1860, had recently defeated Lincoln in 1858 for the Illinois Senate seat after the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Breckinridge of Kentucky, very pro-slavery, represented the southern Democrats. Bell, from Tennessee, was of the new and short-lived Constitution Party, which, although pro-slavery, was unwilling to leave the Union over the issue. All 4 candidates received electoral votes.


… a nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to proposition that all men are created equal.”

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States,
quoting The Declaration of Independence,
November 1864 speech
dedicating the Gettysburg battlefield and cemetery

One of last photos, perhaps last, of Lincoln


And here I risk losing some readers. So be it. Like many others, I see parallels to the 1850s. The country and one major party stand on the precipice of complete rupture. Many talk openly of armed conflict. The fracture lines are evident. The Republican Party, born in honor and strife in a little white schoolhouse in Ripon nearly 170 years ago, has brought itself to the brink of its own fracture, and contributed plenty to the current widening fissures in this country.

God bless us all.

“Real peace comes from learning to understand the perspective of others. When that opportunity comes, harden not your hearts.” – my mash up of several different quotes.

Final Epilog

Three important firsts. You readers have probably noticed a few similarities across these three stories of “firsts.”

  1. The setting of small towns and small schoolhouses.
  2. The importance of water to early US settlements
  3. I have, heretofore, omitted which of the 50 United States in which each of these three communities lie — Hudson, Waubeka and Ripon.  But with a bit of geography knowledge, you’ve figured out that the three “firsts” happened in the verdant and Great State of Wisconsin, land of my youth — as fertile for my mind as it is to its splendid agriculture production, from crops to dairy.
  4. The lay of the land and development of commerce for each community was explored.  As was how each place received its name.
  5. Finally, despite good starts and good intentions, each of these three significant “firsts” have ended up in our contemporary times with controversy and contentiousness.

Be well. Be the person your mother would want you to be.


Joe Girard © 2022

Thank you for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here . Or emailing

[1] I was sorely tempted to contrive a few twisted lines as a Hat Tip to Robert Frost’s classic and timeless composition. Joe-twisted they follow:
“Whose woods and fields these are, I do not know.
His house is prob’ly in Ripon though.
I don’t think it would be so queer,
to stop without a farmhouse near,
to watch his woods (and fields) fill up with snow,
the darkest evening of the year.”
I’m wondering who among my erudite readers might respond to this poetic tangent.  Alas, I left it all out, for “I have promises to keep, and miles to go, before I sleep… and miles to go before I sleep.”

Thomas Nast, prolific cartoonist, born in Landau, Germany, gave us cartoon versions of the Rep Elephant, the Dem Donkey as well as the jolly round Santa Clause

[2] technically: any new state that came from the Louisiana Purchase, not new states west of the Mississippi River.

[3] the city of Breckenridge Colorado was named for Breckinridge. A spelling tweak was made when it became clear that he was very pro-slavery. The “i” was simply switched to “e”; same pronunciation. “Breck” had once been US Vice-president.

[4] Bell represented a party that was mostly constitutionally conservative and southern

[5] NAST: ELECTION, 1876 “The Elephant Walks Around” – And the “Still Hunt” is Nearly Over. ‘ Cartoon by Thomas Nast, 1876, showing the Republican party trampling the Democratic candidates Samuel J. Tilden (right) and Thomas Hendricks (left), while John Morrissey walks away.  Nast gave us our current versions of the elephant and donkey as political mascots.  As well as the big fat jolly Santa Claus dressed in red.

Good start on history of Ripon:

And the demise of Ceresco:



It’s June and the dust of pine pollen is flying everywhere. Dangerous time for those with allergies. Sometimes visible yellow clouds of pollen dust sweep across the hills and plains. The golden pollen of staminate cones can pile up on cars and in corners of lots where wind eddies form and collect it.

Pine pollen wafts away on a gentle June breeze

Pines are some of the most majestic of trees.  They are indigenous throughout most of the world’s landmasses, particularly in the northern hemisphere.  Common here in Colorado are the Austrian Pine and the Ponderosa.

The Austrian (or Black) Pine was originally brought to America by European immigrants in the mid-18th century.  Native to the higher altitudes of central Europe, from Italy to Turkey, its hardiness in a variety of soil conditions and climates led to its wide-spread adoption in America.  They are fairly fast growing (1 – 2 ft/year), normally reaching about 50-60 feet, but in ideal conditions can reach heights over 100 feet.  Over 200 million were planted during the Depression and Dust Bowl years as an erosion mitigation method and as a jobs program. They are now considered “native” throughout much of the US.

Many confuse the Ponderosa with the Austrian. Both have prickly needles, and their cones are approximately the same size and shape. But there are quick differentiating identifiers. The Ponderosa is generally found above 6,000 ft elevation, the Austrian below (may vary on location, this is for Colorado). The Austrian grows only 2 needles per bunch; the Ponderosa 3 (although most trees have an occasional bundle of only 2).  The length of needles are approximately the same, so best to pull off a bundle and count them; when hiking the needles can often be too far up to reach – then I just look on the ground to spot older shed needles; the ponderosa sheds them almost continuously, the Austrian more seasonally, but last year’s are usually findable.

Not only is the Ponderosa capable of growing much taller, it has a more gnarly and grizzled looking bark, with deep grooves and furrows that seem to divide the surface into a pattern of scales and puzzle pieces. This is its fire protection “skin.” As the tree matures, the bark takes on an orange-red hue.

Missing in this discussion is the most important pine — in fact important tree — in north American history: the Eastern White Pine.

This truly stately tree once grew more numerous and thicker than imaginable, across north America’s New England states from Maine to Pennsylvania, from Nova Scotia across Ontario, across Michigan – especially its Upper Peninsula – over to northern Minnesota, and reaching – at higher elevations, following the Appalachians – all the way down to Georgia.

Its 5-needle bunches, are soft and feathery, not prickly. They’re almost like the fine filaments on a portrait painter’s brush.  And they are denser in vitamin C than citrusy fruits like lemons and oranges; so they make a healthy herbal tea.

But its importance lay in its prodigious height, and ramrod straight trunks.  Often free of branches up to 75 feet, with heights reaching 200 feet and more, it could be considered the “Sequoia of the East.”

By the end of the reign of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, in the first years of the 17th century, England was well on its way to being the preeminent world power, which would end up with far flung colonies and business interests so expansive that “the sun never set on the British Empire.”

To conduct all this commerce the empire required more lumber than was possibly obtainable on the islands.  England, from the original Picts and Celts to medieval times, had effectively denuded the island of most usable lumber – it being employed for both construction and heating in those pre-industrial and pre-coal eras.  [However, most construction was masonry or simple stonework, the wood being preserved for fuel.]  [1]

And to protect all this money-making commerce the Empire required a large naval fleet, one that could apprehend pirates and fend-off pesky nations’ navies like Spain, the French and Dutch; they all loved to prey upon each other’s goods and staples, and defend trading “lanes” they thought of as their own.

This all required countless tons of stout timber, all to be worked by craftsmen and shipwrights into the spars, decks, keels, hulls, gunwales, and countless other structural components of the day’s ships.  [Excellent description of construction here.]

Most difficult and important were the masts, upon which the sails that propelled and tacked the vessel were supported. Ships-of-the-Line, with 96 to 110 guns, had masts that exceeded 200 ft in height. Even a cutter, only about one-tenth the displacement, had a main mast of 130 ft.  For a galleon the mast was often 160 feet, with a foremast nearly as long. [2]


Pre-Industrial era British Galleon

Where would such timber come from?  The Brits established trade with regions along the eastern Baltic coast where the Baltic Pine, or the Scots Pine, grew in abundance.  Capable of heights over 100 ft, this simplified the construction issue (masts were usually “spliced’ from several pieces with intricate woodworking).

This source had downsides. The Baltic Pines required trade with insecure agreements and market price whimseys. They had to compete with the Dutch and Spanish on price and trade privilege. Also, shipping between England and the Baltic required navigation around the Jutland “peninsula” and through the Danish isles, where they were somewhat prone to pirates and attacks by rivals to their world domination.

Hence the English turned their attention to their colonies in New England, which was more than abundant in tall, strong, straight timber: the Eastern White Pine.

The White Pine towers above the canopy

Now, an interesting twist of history occurred.  The King lay claim to all the White Pine in the new world realm; surveyors marked them with the king’s seal.  However, locals who had settled the land and worked it with the labors of their hands, arms and bodies, and by the sweat of their brow, felt like they had as good a claim to the timber as the king, in fact, better.

In New England the battle between the common hard-working colonialist and the dictate of monarchy started long before the Stamp Act.  It goes back to the first years of the 17th century, when England first set its covetous eyes on the riches of the New World.

The conflict bubbled on and on until it got caught up in the colonies’ loud pleas for greater independence in the years following the Seven Years War (or, the French and Indian War – in which colonialists help defeat France for control of the New World in North America).

Finally, full riots broke out.  Known as the Pine Tree Riots, its main rebellious insurrection occurred in 1772 when New Hampshirites supported local sawmills by physically accosting the Deputy Surveyor and the Sheriff, catching them unawares asleep at a local inn, and driving them out of town – and brutally mutilating their horses’ faces.  As the riots came shortly after The Boston Massacre (1770), emotions were still high and remained so.  Although the rioters eventually were caught and received a modicum of “justice”, the outright defiance never ended; in fact, it increased. The received and shared message was that defiance of the Crown was possible. In this way it’s  likely that the Pine Tree Riots led directly to The Boston Tea Party (1773) and to the open armed rebellion that followed.

On the morning of April 19th, 1775 a group rebellious Americans faced off with a detachment of British Redcoats at The Old North Bridge, in Concord, Province of Massachusetts Bay.  The government, under force of arms had come to relieve them of their rights: including their rights to pine trees, their land, their way of life and the right to defend all those rights, by force of arms themselves, if necessary.  The rebels would not back down.  The “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired, and the revolution was now in open, armed conflict.

Flag flown from Washington’s cruisers, Revolutionary War

Before Betsy Ross’s contribution became widely accepted, it’s no surprise then that the first flags flown by the Americans in the war for independence had a pine tree on them.  The nation’s first naval vessels, six cruisers commissioned by George Washington himself, flew a Pine Tree Flag.

The original flag of New England “patriots” and insurrectionists had a pine tree on a red background.  Per John Trumbull’s famous painting, and popular belief, the flag flown by patriots at the Battle of Bunker hill carried an image of a pine tree. [see below]

Flag flown by New England revolutionaries, believed by some to have been at Battle of Bunker Hill

The great Eastern White Pine has not faired nearly as well as the country whose first flags its inspiring image adorned two and a half centuries ago.  Unprotected and reaching high above the forest canopy, it was easily spotted and relentlessly cut down.  It’s hard being number one.

Millions were cut and sent to sawmills to build the cities of the growing country.  It’s estimated that across North America only about 1% of these giant beauties remain.  When Brits found out how wonderful they were, there was an attempt to grow them back home in England, which met with some success.

There have been attempts to repopulate much of the original White Pine native areas in America, but it’s met with only mixed success.  Ironically, some of the trees came from England, re-migrating back to their native lands.  However, many carried fungal infections, at least four of which are known to plague White Pines, and further flourishing of the species is, sadly, in serious doubt.

There are some very remote pockets in the highlands of southern Europe, from the Alps to the Carpathians, which somehow survived the last glaciation period in isolation, although many there also suffer from fungus induced needle blight.  I’ve read of some managed migration of trees to the Carpathians, since the fungus is not as rampant there.  Success is TBD.

Some efforts have been underway in the US to preserve the White Pines that remain.  Thinning is used to keep the trees spaced enough so that the fungi cannot spread.

Is this a metaphor? As with the country and political movements it inspired and briefly represented, the Eastern White Pine is in distress, and its future appears insecure.

  Joe Girard © 2022

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Trumbull painting, Death of General Warren at Bunker Hill

[1]  It’s generally believed that this over-harvesting of lumber over eons contributed to large regions of England and Scotland being unable to self-replenish the trees, leading to what we now call the “moors” or “moorland”; vast wastelands devoid of trees.

[2] Masts and ships:].

Dog Sick

OK, so I have Covid.  Many people believe that sooner or later, virtually everyone will get it … at least once. So, I guess it’s my turn. For me this is day 4, or 5.  I forget.  This is almost surely Omicron BA.5. It’s supposed to be mild; and milder still if you’ve had all your shots.  Mark me down as the exception.  Soaring fever, the works. Rib racking, throat rattling cough. Haven’t talked in days (not a bad thing ?).

This morning I woke up slightly better.  Soaked in sweat I groggily arose, after a light doze, I blew my nose, took my temp and, miraculously, my fever had lost its mojo. OK, I got up and my fever had broken. I still can’t talk though (hmm, still, maybe, not a bad thing).  But I wish I could sleep better.

Well, since I felt ever so slightly better, I thought that now I’m only “as sick as a dog”, instead of “sicker than a dog.”

That’s odd.  Why do we say “sicker than a dog”?  Weird little idiom, no?  So I started doing some poking around (I didn’t have the energy to sit long at the computer until this afternoon).

First, I was wrong!  (Again).  It’s “As sick as a dog”; not “sicker than a dog.”  This correction does not change my slightly improving, albeit still miserable, condition.

There is no clear consensus on the etymological source of this idiom regarding dogs and sickness.  It’s oldest use in writing dates to 1705, but it was spoken colloquially for several centuries until then.

Here are some of the most likely candidate sources:

    • The Plague. It was carried by fleas, and dogs are notorious carriers of fleas.  Oddly, dogs are resistant to plague bacteria, but they are carriers.  (Cats do catch the plague).  How people knew to associate the plague illness with dogs, who generally don’t catch it, is beyond me.  The plague, although occurring almost consistently over the past two millennia, occurred in two great waves since 1000AD: (1) in the mid-to-late 14th century and (2) in the 2nd half of the 19th century, the former across most of Asia and Europe, the latter mostly limited to China, Hong Kong and even San Francisco’s Chinatown. [1]
    • Dogs tend to live in the moment. Especially when they are sick.  Dog owners have seen their little Muffy or Bowzer mope around, or just flop on the floor for hours, like there is no tomorrow.  So, when one is “as sick as a dog” they just don’t care if tomorrow comes, or not.
    • In many English-speaking countries, it’s common to refer to vomiting as “being sick.” As in, “We ate something bad last night.  We were sick.  Fortunately, we made it to the loo.”  Dogs are well known to be prolific regurgitators of inappropriate things they’ve consumed.  Like that batch of freshly cooked brownies you left out on kitchen counter last night.  “Where did they go? They disappeared!”  Well, you’ll soon see them again.  Let’s hope Fido disgorges in a convenient spot for clean up.  (He might do it himself, in which case you could possibly get déjà vu all over again).
    • Even though dogs and humans have co-existed for many millennia, and most humans have at least a general fondness for dogs (and visa versa) for some reason English has evolved to attach Dog to negative things. You can be dog tired.  Your efforts at something failed: it’s gone to the dogs.  We sometimes “bark up the wrong tree.”  Inappropriate attacks might cause someone to say “Call the dogs off.”  If you’ve pissed off your spouse, you might be “in the dog house.”  The movie “Wag the Dog” presents a fantastic example of, well, “wagging the dog”; that’s distracting attention away from something that’s not so good.


So which is it?  Or do you have a better idea?

And which idioms do you use that you can’t really explain, say to a non-native English speaker?

Now, off to a nap.  Or something.

Health and peace

Joe Girard © 2022

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

[1]  I included perhaps a bit more on the plague than necessary.  I included this because the plague has been in the news lately, as the bacteria (bacterium?) that caused it was recently found in graves Kyrgyzstan, dating to the early 14th century.

Tick Tock

“There’s no tick tock on your electric clock,
But still your life runs down.”
from “Halfway to Heaven”
— composed and sung by Harry Chapin


Among many conspicuous factoids that jump out at me as I observe the world in all its splendor is the astounding number of people who have achieved extraordinarily at young ages.

Usually I come across these individuals while doing research for some other thread. The Internet has made such research endeavors almost unbelievably easy, especially for one who grew up seeking information with only one option: going to the library and fumbling through frayed catalog cards and struggling with the Dewey Decimal system.  And, the internet has also made it easy to drift off onto tangents.

Book Cover: Chernow’s excellent and thorough biography on Hamilton

Examples are many. Alexander Hamilton and the young Lafayette of America’s birthing years.  Isaac Newton, at age 22 and on leave from university during the plague, whiled away his time musing about sundry things, like gravity, light, and fascinating aspects of mathematics.  This led him to the theory of gravity, and a whole new class of mathematics, integral calculus, to prove it.  And the nature of light.  And a method to compute Pi to many digits quite quickly. Then the plague ended.  He returned to school.

Even a partial list is imposing.  Alexander the Great pretty much conquered and ruled the world in his 20s; his accomplishments even intimidated Julius Caesar.  Joan of Arc was in her teens when she led the French to victory over the English. Nadia Comaneci, at age 14, was the first to score a perfect 10 in Olympics gymnastics.  The Beatles were 20-24 years old when they rode the wave of Beatlemania to #1 … in the world.

Speaking of music. This realm is not without more than a few other names, particularly those of the “27 Club”; great musical artists who perished at that age, including Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. They all passed on from drug abuse complications.  Clean living is no guarantee however — JP Richardson, The Big Bopper, made it to 28, only to go down in a Beech Bonanza, in a foggy snowstorm in a field in Iowa, “the day the music died.”

Following are three short bios of individuals who lived and played with elan, achieved greatly — and left the scene — relatively young.  The Comet, The Sweet Georgian, and The Paderewski of Rag.

The Comet

My dad was born and raised in Chicago; I was born there. Although we moved to near Milwaukee when I was but an innocent lad of 6 years old, we remained loyal to     “Da Bears” and the Cubs for decades, despite all my new friends’ allegiance to the Braves (who dumped Milwaukee for Atlanta in 1966), later the Brewers, and of course, “the Pack.”

50s and 60s style rabbit ears, with aluminum foil

I remember trying to watch televised games from Chicago, some 90 miles away.  We’d string wire through the trees in the back yard, or sometimes I’d stand beside the TV, holding the rabbit-ear antennae just right, usually with aluminum foil wrapped around them in odd shapes (most called it “tin foil”).

“Got it! Don’t move Joe!”

Usually we failed, or the blurry images were barely visible through the “snow”; then we’d give up and listen to a Chicago radio station – that would be WGN, at 720 kHz on AM. As a historic Clear Channel, and at 50 kilowatts, a good reception was a high likelihood.


Gale Sayers, looks like rookie or sophomore pic

In 1965 a rookie arrived on the scene for our beloved Bears: Gale Sayers. An exciting running back — fast, shifty and elusive — who could also return kicks. Raised in Omaha, Nebraska, he attended and played football for Kansas University. There he was a two time All-American, picking up the nickname “Kansas Comet.” Of course, as a youngster I didn’t know any of that; I learned that years later by reading his autobiography.

But I did know he was very, very exciting… and annoying to Packers’ fans. I was into my teens — cleaning zit ejecta from the bathroom mirror — before I stopped drawing his number (“40”) on my shirts to wear during pick-up football games.

During a game against San Francisco, in his rookie season of 1965, my dad and I followed probably the most remarkable game a rookie ever had, or ever will have. Sayers scored six touchdowns, 4 by rushing, 1 on a pass (80 yards), and another on a punt return (85 yards).  It was a late season game, so Sayers’ skills were now well-known, and the 49ers had redesigned their defense and kick coverage specifically to stop Sayers. To no avail. [video highlights here]

We were of course aware the mighty Packers were playing an important game across the country, in Baltimore, that same day. Their most glamorous player, Paul Hornung, had been struggling for quite some time with injuries; most notably a neck injury that caused a pinched nerve, accompanied by numbness and “stingers” running down his arms.  He was having a mediocre season and had been forced to sit out a few games.  That he was playing at all is testament to his mental and physical toughness … and to the stupidity of American Football.

Paul Hornung scored five touchdowns that day, a Packer single-game record that still stands. The next few days all my excited Milwaukee friends wanted to tell me  about those five touchdowns.  In a voice that probably failed to conceal my satisfaction, despite its soft tone (I had a bad stammer, and it was not cool to be a Bears fan in Wisconsin, even way back then) I replied: you know, Sayers scored six.

In 1965, Sayers set the NFL single season record of 22 touchdowns, coincidently at age 22.  It’s been surpassed eleven times now, but he did that in only 14 games. The rest, except OJ Simpson in 1975, had the benefit of 16 game seasons.  (Last year, ridiculously, and inviting further brain damage to players, they expanded to 17 games).

The next season Sayers led the league in rushing.  Then disaster.  He suffered repeated knee injuries, the first while playing against, ironically, the same San Francisco 49ers against whom he set the touchdown record.  He gamely came back after each knee injury and surgery (remember, this is way before arthroscopic surgery … the rehab was just brutal) and an ankle injury as well.  He still showed flashes of brilliance, but he’d never be the same Gale Sayers, again.

Comets light up our skies and provide us with something to marvel at, but they come and go quickly.  The same with Gale Sayers, the Kansas Comet.  He retired at age 28, leaving fans with great memories from a career that spanned just a few years.

So phenomenal were those few years, that Sayers was named to 4 Pro Bowl games (the NFL All-Star game), twice earning Game MVP [link].  Remarkable: he only played four full seasons.  In a fifth partial season, he was limited to only 9 games after two more knee injures — he still rushed for 856 yards with an astounding average of 6.2 yards per carry. He was inducted into the NFL Football Hall of Fame at the age of just 34 years old, the youngest ever to be so honored.

Sayers used his injury down time to get additional education, eventually earning a Masters Degree, as well as rehab. After retirement he first moved into sports management, picking up duties as Athletic Director at alma mater Kansas University and then AD over at Southern Illinois University.  Thereafter, he started his own very successful computer company, which he then ran until retirement.

Brian Piccolo — gone too soon

We can’t talk about Sayers without at least briefly mentioning Brian Piccolo, and the friendship they shared.  Piccolo and Sayers came up together, both finishing their college football careers in 1964.  Piccolo, playing for Wake Forest, led the NCAA in rushing that year; he actually nudged out Sayers in the Heisman Trophy voting.  (10th and 11th).

A tough hard running back, Piccolo was not as speedy or flashy as Sayers.  He went undrafted.  Signing a free agent deal with the Bears, Piccolo eventually worked his way up from the Practice Squad to regular roster player, often teamed up alongside Sayers in the backfield.

Coach George Halas decided it was a good idea to have teammates who played similar positions room together when the team traveled.  A budding friendship further bloomed: the black Gale Sayers roomed with the lily-white Brian Piccolo.  The first such roommate pairing in the NFL.  They even had sequential numbers: Sayers #40, Piccolo #41.

As anyone who’s seen the gut-wrenching movie “Brian’s Song” knows, Piccolo soon contracted a rare form of cancer and passed away, aged only 26.

Final link: Sayers and Hornung. Probably not coincidentally, except perhaps the timing, these stars passed away recently, within a few weeks of each other, in the autumn of 2020.  Both struggled mightily with cognitive decline, then dementia, in their later years.  Although no investigations were performed, it’s highly likely each suffered from CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the worst curse of American football.


Sweet Georgian: Bobby

I enjoy the sport of golf.  It can be relaxing and wonderfully distracting.  The exercise and fresh air one gets from playing are healthy, and so are the companionships that develop.  I’ve made a study of the game, including the physics and the history. I may not play well, but I can understand physics and history. One name all golf historians recognize is Bobby Jones.

Born in 1902 in Atlanta, Jones was blessed in many ways: coordinated, intelligent, self-driven and well-reared in a well-off family.  But as a youth he had severe health problems. For example, he was unable to eat solid food until age 5, which probably stunted his growth in these important years.

Doctors prescribed golf to young Bobby.  He lived across the street from a golf course (now the famous East Lake) which provided plenty of opportunity to play and learn.  He took well to the game, and by age 14 was playing – and doing well – in national tournaments.

While playing golf competitively at the highest levels, Jones attended nearby Georgia Tech, earning a degree in Mechanical Engineering.  Then, he went off to Harvard University, earning another degree, this in English Literature. [during his most competitive golf years, Jones would relax in the clubhouse before matches by reading Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer].  Then, back home to Atlanta-based Emory University to study law.  Jones never fully completed his law studies at Emory, as he passed the Georgia Bar exam after his third semester, aged only 25.  He immediately began practicing law.

Along the way, he married his high school sweetheart and became a head of household: they had three children.

One can only marvel that through all this Bobby Jones compiled one of the most extraordinary golf careers in all of history, and certainly by far the greatest of any amateur golfer.

At age 21, Jones won the US Open. Over the next 7 years he’d win another 12 major tournaments, culminating with the Grand Slam – all four majors – in 1930.

After the Grand Slam (also called “The Impregnable Quadrilateral” at the time) Jones promptly retired, without warning — shocking the sports world.  Like Sayers, he was only 28 years old.  He had proved what he needed to.  He reached heights fans and historians still marvel at.

Robert “Bobby” Tyre Jones — in his prime

Was he the greatest, the so-called GOAT? It’s so hard to compare eras.  For example, Jones accomplished all this with hickory shafted clubs and golf balls that couldn’t be trusted to behave the same from one to another – even from the same box of balls!  Greens weren’t smooth.  He did all this while studying Engineering, Literature and then Law – and then practicing Law and raising a family.  [It is said that during an exhibition match at San Francisco’s Olympic Lake course, Jones reached the green of the 600 yard 16th hole in two shots — a prodigious feat by any era’s standards; he did it with hickory shafted clubs. His reaction?  A sheepish smile.]  If Jones isn’t the GOAT, he’s near the top.

Although his career as golf competitor was over after 1930, Jones’ involvement with golf continued.  Working with the Spalding Company he helped design and promote the first steel-shafted matched clubs.  He founded the Augusta Golf Club, which hosted the tournament he founded, now called The Masters.  He made a series of golf instructional videos – lost for decades; recently found – which are probably the most famous ever, using high speed cameras and special lighting.  Ironic, but it was for these instructional and technical ventures that Jones gave up his golf amateur status; he never accepted a dime for any of his many achievements playing golf.

In the 1940s Jones was still a vibrant and intellectual man.  But soon something was wrong.  He was weakening too fast, and in pain.  In 1948 he was diagnosed with a rare condition called Syringomyelia, in which cysts form and grow in the spinal cord, impinging the nerve channels.  It had been developing for decades, perhaps since birth.

President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower’s painting of Bobby Jones

Jones’ life on earth lasted until 1971.  Those final decades were marked by extreme pain and progressing paralysis.  Starting in the ‘40s he became acquaintances with a man who would become President: Dwight D “Ike” Eisenhower. Theirs would grow to a great friendship of mutual admiration. Ike was like many other world leaders, from Churchill, to Prince Charles, to Franco and even George W Bush — he enjoyed painting .  Ike, also like many of us, really enjoyed golf. He fell in love with Jones’ Augusta Golf Club and course.  In 1953 Ike presented Jones with a painting of his good friend: a younger and healthier Bobby Jones. [1]

Paderewski of Ragtime [2]

This final tale of Ticks and Tocks is the story that started the germination of this entire essay. I learned about it in a recent newsletter of the 1904 World’s Fair Society, of which my wife and I are members.

For the threads of many gleaned tidbits, I must give credit to newsletter regular contributor Jim Wiemers, the society’s Music Collector.

Ragtime music is certainly a historic throwback; its golden era was around the last turn of the century, from the 1890s to the mid-1910s.  But it’s certainly still enjoyed today.  It’s cheery.  It’s jaunty. Its syncopated rhythms are catchy.  Personally, I’ve enjoyed it since watching the 1973 film “The Sting,” which featured Scott Joplin’s ragtime classic The Entertainer throughout the movie. [Confession: The Entertainer is the only specific Rag tune I can confidently identify].

Rag was not considered respectable music from its beginning, not for at least 10-15 years.  No doubt that’s because its roots lie in the African-American communities of that era, most notably in Saint Louis.

In 1904, the leadership of the Saint Louis World’s Fair (officially “The Louisiana Purchase Exposition”) denigrated the music form and wouldn’t permit it to be played on the main Fair Grounds. Some Rag was played along The Pike, which, in many ways, was sort of a “side show” to the Fair.  {Pike description}

This was a great loss to anyone seeking a combination of contemporary culture and art.  And it was most unfortunate, since the acclaimed all-time king of Rag and Rag Composition, Scott Joplin, lived in Saint Louis at the time.  [You can still visit the house he lived in, on the edge of downtown Saint Louis, just a few miles from Forrest Park, site of the Fair.]

Although most of us today are hard-pressed to name Rag stars of that era besides Joplin, there certainly were many.

According to Fair and music historians, at least three contemporary stars of Rag played on the Fair’s Pike: Louis Chauvin, Sam Patterson, and Arthur Marshall.

Marshall played at the Spanish Café, in the Streets of Seville exhibit, for $12/week (he could’ve made $25 over at the Rosebud Bar, but not on the Fairgrounds).  The job lasted less than a month, as his music was too often drowned out by the bands playing at Hagenbeck’s Animal Show (well, the Pike was sort of a collection of sideshows and odd exhibits, displays and experiences). Marshall was replaced by an Iberian Orchestra. [3]  He outlived most the era’s Ragtimers, and was able to provide firsthand testimony on many of the personalities and events to historians decades later.

Sam Patterson and Louis Chauvin played two-piano Rag at the Old St Louis Restaurant and Bar on the Pike  [for a great map of the Pike at the 1904 World’s Fair, go to bottom of this page: click here.  For a great interactive zoomable map of the entire Fair, here]. [4]

Patterson and Chauvin grew up together in Saint Louis, which was rather a Rag hotbed.  They dropped out of school at 15 and 13, respectively, formed a musical touring group, and traveled the country. Later, they returned to Saint Louis, studying and performing – including at the 1904 Fair – before setting off again.

Louis Chauvin (1881-1908) — just not any good photos of him on the internet

Patterson held various musical jobs and even joined Joplin in New York City for a while, helping him complete the ragtime opera “Treemonisha” before Joplin’s untimely death in 1917, aged 58.

And then there was the prodigy, Louis Chauvin, often called “Paderewski of Ragtime.” [2]  A true superstar of the original Ragtime era. He was a regular performer at Tom Turpin’s Ruby Bar in Saint Louis, a nexus for Ragtime talent.  [Quick aside: we note that Turpin himself was an early Ragtime leader, not only through his bar as a Rag performance venue, but through his talent: his works include the very first published Ragtime piece: Harlem Rag.]

Chauvin played only by ear and could re-create any piece he heard; if it wasn’t Rag, he put his own Rag-spin on it.  He could adapt any melody to Rag, including a Sousa march.  Contemporaries pretty much agreed: Chauvin was the best. They were all in awe. But none of his creations were ever written down. His only published work was a team effort with Scott Joplin: Heliotrope Bouquet.

Sadly for him and the music world, Chauvin’s lifestyle was terrible for his health.  According to Patterson “He stayed up, drank, and made lots of love … he only seemed to be living when he was at the piano.  It’s authentic that he smoked opium at the last.”  Chauvin passed away at age 27.  Various causes were listed, but modern assessments would largely pin it on neurosyphilis … that’s a long term case of the STD syphilis, resulting in coma and, ultimately, starvation.




Sayer’s career was over at 28. Injuries. Jones also at 28, by choice; other things to do.  Piccolo gone at 26.

Chauvin, perhaps the first member of the great “27 Club.”

Tick Tock, tick tock. Our clocks are running, always running, always ticking.

I really wanted this to be upbeat.  To be a tribute to so many who accomplished so much, and so young.  Alexander Hamilton setting up a new nation’s finances and banking system at age 32.  Leading a charge at the battle that cinched American independence at 24.  Dead in a duel at 47.

Sorry that this took a bit of a dour turn.  That’s why it took me so long to finish and publish.  I was looking for a cheery way out.

Hey, it’s never too late to do something!  Harland Sanders founded Kentucky Fried Chicken at age 62, after already (1) having made and lost a fortune, (2) bounced around the country losing jobs as varied and crazy as kaleidoscope patterns, and (3) also having survived a genuine shoot out.  [5]

Father William Treacy, the priest who married us, turns 103 this week. He still says Sunday Mass, preaching inspirationally as he’s done for 80 years, on love, humanity, brotherhood, peace, compassion and acceptance. [6]

Me?  I’ll just keep observing and writing.


Joe Girard © 2022

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

[1] This famous painting hangs on the wall of the Chairman’s office at Augusta National.  Reprints are available, but good ones are not cheap. Ike presented it to Jones shortly after taking the oath of office, 1953.  He had been working on it for some time, including through the presidential campaign season.

[2] Ignacy Pedrewski, a Pole, was widely regarded as the best pianist in Europe at the time. As his name shows up in Saint Louis, obviously he was world renowned. An animated performer, he largely played classical music from the likes of Bach, Beethoven, & Chopin (of course) to large audiences. Known for reworking pieces to his own style (as did Chauvin), he went on to become Poland’s Prime Minister when it won its Independence as a favorable outcome of WWI.

[3] They All Played Ragtime, by Rudi Bush

[4] At nearly two square miles (1,270 acres) the 1904 LPE Saint Louis Fair was the world’s largest until the 2010 Shanghai Fair, which nudged ahead at 1,292 acres.  Close behind are the Chicago Fair of 1939, at 1,202 acres and the current 2020-22 Dubai World’s Fair, which has been cursed by Covid, at 1,100 acres.

[5] The Harland Sanders Shoot-out story,; and in the book, “Colonel Sanders and The American Dream”, by Josh Ozersky.

[6] Father William Treacy.  We often watch his masses by Zoom, or on recording when we’re busy.

Biographic sources for Louis Chauvin:

[d] And Jim Wiemer’s column on Chauvin the 1904WF newsletter.


Indigo Blue and Time Zones

9:20 AM, January 19, 1883.  The cross-bay ferry from San Francisco to Oakland pushes off. Forty or so passengers, most headed for Los Angeles, are aboard. In Oakland they board the Southern Pacific’s train #19, with the unlikely moniker “Atlantic Express” – a sister run to their more appropriately named “Pacific Express.”

The “All Aboard” call is at 10:00AM. #19 leaves Oakland station, pulled by a Campbell 4-4-0 — the “locomotive that built America.”

What interesting times we live in. Curious to me that as the economic positions between wealthy and not-so-wealthy continue to widen, the clothing choices between them seem to narrow. It’s near impossible to tell Joe-Six-Pack and university students from the managers and CEOs of the “white collar class.” All seem just as likely to sport blue jeans and untucked shirts.  Not so in 1883, when denim jeans were never a sartorial choice for someone with “clean hands.”  Laborers only.  Everyone dressed as befitting their position in a status-conscious society.

Contemporary Style: jeans, shirt tail and wristwatch

Blue Jeans. We know them generically as Levis, although many clothing manufacturers have knock-offs of that classic – hopefully timeless – design.  We owe them to Levi Strauss (born 1829 as Löb Strauß), an Ashkenazi Jew, who emigrated from Bavaria to the United States and found himself in San Francisco in the 1850s.  California had just become a state and there was good money to be made outfitting fortune seekers (gold rush Forty-niners) and new settlers, as the entire region was booty from the recently concluded Mexican-American War.  Well, to serve them, he invented the denim-based Levi Strauss Blue Jean that’s a staple of most wardrobes in America even today, and the envy of many around the world.

Two things about jeans that are of interest.  Why are most blue?  Well, the chemistry goes that young Mr. Strauss chose Indigo Blue dye because it attached very well to the outer threads of denim.  As the jeans got washed, the dye would pull out miniscule fragments of the fabric; thus, the jeans grew progressively softer, and faded, with each washing.

And there’s another link to 1883, and Bavaria for that matter.  That’s the year that Adolf von Baeyer perfected the method of making synthetic Indigo Blue dye, good enough for industrial use.  Until then it was somewhat rare and expensive; some dye could be made in parts of Europe from woad, but usually it came from points far east, like India, or south, like Africa, where it could be made from plants of the Indiofera genus.

More Prussian-German by birth, and one-half Jewish by his mother, von Baeyer spent most of the last half of his life in Bavaria, moving to Munich at age 40 to take the position as head university chemistry professor.  He was made nobility by Bavaria’s crazy King Ludwig II. He was residing there when he was named the winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and he died there, in 1917, aged 81. (Coincidently, in 1905, another German Jew published four groundbreaking papers that would lead to a Nobel Prize in Physics: Albert Einstein).


Historic Tehachapi Railroad Water Tower

2:00 AM, January 20, 1883. In Tehachapi, California it’s a cold and breezy winter night. The train trip for the sleepy passengers on #19 is about 70% complete. #19 has just made the steepest climb of its journey.  This railroad segment is a true engineering marvel: from 400 feet elevation at Bakersfield in the San Joachin Valley, up to 4,000 feet at Tehachapi; a distance of just 35 miles, as the crow flies. #19 eases into the depot and pulls onto a siding.


Speaking of 1883 and Railroads, that’s how and when we acquired one of the most enduring and useful cultural aspects of day-to-day life – something that we all usually take for granted.  The time zone.

For millennia the very notion of time zones was impractical. Crazy. Noon was either (a) when the sun passed directly over your meridian (determined by knowing true local north), or (b) halfway between sunrise and sunset; with fairly accurate chronometers used to split the daily difference.  In towns across the world, bells rang out “true” local noon, and residents could set their time pieces accordingly – if they had one.

This all changed with the railroad and telegraphic instant communication, which arrived basically together in the US, as many telegraph lines ran right alongside railroad lines – the better to convey weather updates and expected train arrival and departure times at depots.  Delivery of people and product ran on ever tighter schedules.  Until then, several hundred time zones existed in America, as each city had its own based on where the sun was … for them.

But soon this patchwork of time zones became confusing and adverse to coordination. It made little sense for a telegraph to arrive in, say, Toledo at 11:52:40 AM when it was sent from Cleveland at precisely noon. They aren’t even 100 miles apart. The countless tedious time offsets and corrections made computing arrivals, and required departures, too difficult.

Thus, we owe the four North American time zones, the ones we just assume without even a thought to the Railroad Industry of the early 1880s.  [Canada now has two more in the east: Atlantic and Newfoundland – it’s a big country!].

The United States government did not even officially recognize Time Zones until 1918, by an official Act of Congress – which also made Daylight Saving Time official. [Saving Time: let’s not even get started.]


Faux Relief map shows that the Tehachapi Pass route was best low-grade path from San Joachin Valley to LA

The railroad segment from the San Joachin Valley up and over the Tehachapi Mountains was the final stretch completed ‘twixt San Francisco and Los Angeles. Accomplished in only two years of grueling work by mostly Chinese laborers – 3,000 of them – they followed the direction and design of civil and railroad engineers (Arthur De Wint Foote, William Hood, and James Strobridge) to keep the slope to a manageable 2.2%.  This required moving countless tons of granite in order to build 18 tunnels, 10 bridges and the phenomenal Tehachapi Loop.  [The “Loop” is a National Civil Engineering Landmark, and worthy of a side trip if you have any “geek” in you.] Most of the back breaking labor was done with little more than pickaxes, shovels and horse drawn wagons… and tremendous labor.


Southern Pacific’s #19, an “Express”, consisted of only seven cars: two sleepers, four coaches and a smoker (even back then they had smoker designated areas).  For most of the trip only one engine was needed.  A second “helper” engine had been added to help #19 get up the hill. 

Once the train comes to a stop at the depot, the conductor steps off, ducks the wind and heads into the depot, to meet the telegrapher and station manager, synch time, sign the register, provide status, get rail line conditions, and pick up any news or orders.  The forward brakeman and engineer move the train off the main line and onto the sidetrack; the brakeman then sets the Westinghouse Airbrakes and detaches the engines from the rest of the train, and each other. Once the engines are clear, the engineer commences re-arranging the engines, so that the “helper” engine can be sent back down the mountain

My steampunk era pocket watch.

At this point one of the things the conductor would have done would be to check his pocket watch and verify that he and the depot station manager and telegrapher had the exact same time. Watches were known to curiously lose time, unknowingly stop for a while, or even inadvertently get reset.  Such mistakes could lead to head-on collisions, if a train was switched to the wrong track, or left its layby, at the wrong time.

Once synched, telegrams with train status and local weather conditions could be sent out confidently with coordinated, verified time.

Depot time setting time verification

The pocket watch is one of those once useful, yet always charming, miscellaneous archaic curios that are mostly lost to the mists of history.  I have a couple that I enjoy sporting once in a while.

Railroad employees used pocket watches designed to specific railroad requirements.  The watches generally had no faceplate, as there was little need to protect them from mud and weather. They had their bow and stem at 12 o’clock.  This is so there was never any confusion about it.  When you pulled the chain, attached to the bow, then “12” was right there, on top where it belongs.

This is in contrast to many other pocket watches of the time, which often did have covers which had to be flipped open (inconvenient for a conductor or small station officer when many train stops were often only “whistle stops” lasting a few minutes).  Many also had the bow and stem at 3 o’clock, much like winding analog wristwatches – now also rather archaic.  This made it a tad more convenient to hold in your hand and wind the spring, or adjust the time.

World War I not only brought death and destruction on an unprecedented historic scale, it also nearly brought about the death of the pocket watch. The synchronization of maneuvers, attacks, and shipments could not be burdened with the awkwardness of fishing a time piece out of your pocket.  The mud of trenches required a cover; imagine trying to get it open with cold, gloved hands.

Until then “wrist watches” were a quaint novelty item for ladies.  Men had big heavy impressive fobs.  Out of necessity the “trench watch” was born; early on in the war, many officers began strapping watches to their wrist. This became more pronounced when America entered the war. The faces were then adorned with much larger numbers, especially the 6 and the 12. (Also came the switch to Arabic numerals instead of Roman, to avoid the confusion of counting I’s and whether they were before or after the V and X). Some were made with sprinkled glowing radium into the clock hands and numerals. Eventually straps were added.  The pocket watch began its long, slow ebb into history’s shadows: it was too inconvenient at the times it was most needed.  And yet, the shadows of pocket watches remain.


Tehachapi, January 20, 1883.  About 2:05 AM.  A lady (some sources say “pretty young lady”) aboard the #19 intended to disembark at Tehachapi but had no idea of how to safely find a room in such poor weather at that dark hour in an unknown town. The gentlemanly rear brakeman kindly offered to help her. She accepted. He escorted her off the train and into the depot to find proper lodging.

At this point, there are now no train employees on any of the seven cars. Most of the 40 passengers are dozing.

Downey, California is now a suburb of Los Angeles with a very “urban- and industrial-feel.” Rich in history, it is named for a former governor of California, John Downey. If you’re a tech geek, like me, it is the home of North American-Rockwell which also has a rich history: they built P-51s and B-25s for WW2, F-86s for the Korean war, the Apollo command modules for lunar missions and the orbiters for the Space Shuttle.

Downey himself was born and mostly raised in Ireland, and, as such, is one of only a few dozen governors ever born outside the United States. Of course, a large fraction were early governors, who were obviously foreign born, most as British Subjects. California has only had two foreign born governors. I won’t tell you the name of the 2nd, but here are two hints: (1) Hasta la vista, baby; and (2) I’ll be back.

John Gately Downey, 7th Governor of California, 1860-1862

After many migrations, travels and adventures, the gold rush and California’s imminent statehood drew Downey to San Francisco in 1849. Prospecting and serving miners didn’t suit him. He soon moved to Los Angeles where he and a partner started a very profitable drug store business.

As often happens, business success led him to politics. Growing into ever more powerful positions, he was elected Lieutenant-Governor in 1859, taking office in January 1860.  A new Governor was elected too: Will Latham.

Duels? Ridiculous to think that dueling was still a respectable way to settle differences, especially among the educated and politicians at that time, but it was an acceptable (if unlawful) way to defend one’s honor. As it was, one of California’s US Senators had been killed in a duel, September 1859. The brand-new governor (Will Latham) was immediately chosen by the freshly seated legislature to take the Senate seat that had lain vacant for 4 months; Latham resigned the governorship after serving only six days. And, hence, John Downey, by virtue of being the sitting Lieutenant Governor, ascended to the highest state office of California, taking his place in the new and still raw capital city Sacramento. So, both Downey and Mr. Terminator became governor under unusual circumstances.

At Tehachapi Depot the land is not quite level; imperceptibly tipping ever-so-gently downhill back down the hill. This night, coincidently, a strong east wind was blowing downhill as well. [The area is well-known for its winds: currently about 5,000 electricity generating wind turbines are in the area].

The wheels creaked a bit. A few moments later, they creaked a bit more.

Downey had little stomach for more government office after completing the two-year term he had inherited from Latham. He shook the Sacramento dust off his sandals and skedaddled back to LA. There he resumed his business success, expanding into banking, with investments in development of the LA basin and railroads. He was a big investor and promoter in getting the Southern Pacific to build a line from the Bay to Los Angeles.

Downey bought and developed land that would become the community, town, and later city, of Downey. He was quite the local hero when the Southern Pacific began rolling through, in 1874.

Downey’s business ventures often required him to travel to San Francisco, or Sacramento. Whenever possible, his wife Maria would travel with him. Except, she feared trains. She would insist on taking a ship up the coast.

One January, a few years later, business called Downey to San Francisco on short notice. He and Maria preferred to travel together, but there would not be enough time to do the necessary meet-and-greet, then get back to Los Angeles for responsibilities there.

She pleaded with him to take a ship and postpone meetings to make a slower journey possible. He insisted the train would be safe, as well as much faster. Finally, she acquiesced. They took John’s beloved Southern Pacific train.

The wheels were no longer at rest. There was no engine attached. There were no railroad employees aboard. Those wheels … ever so slowly … by the faintest of increments … began rolling. Very gradually and bit by tiny bit. Once freed of static friction and in motion their rotation accelerated. And so did the speed of the cars.

With one brakeman and the engineer shuffling engines, the conductor still fulfilling his duties in the depot, the final brakeman – his assistance to the young lady complete – now stepped outside. A large gust of wind blew out his lantern. This distracted him for a few moments. His pupils wide, he looked out to the faintly lit sidetrack, and – to his horror(!) – the seven cars were gone, vanished into the darkness of the fateful winter night.

The train picked up more and more speed. Two former railroad employees – one was awake from the beginning, standing outside on the smoking car deck – went from car to car attempting to set the hand brakes. This is a difficult task – requiring strength, knowledge and skill – and now especially difficult: they were under extreme pressure as the cars accelerated down the hill, ever more rapidly covering the distance in the gloomy California night: one mile, two miles, three miles. The little engine-less train now truly became an “Express”; her speed went up to 10 miles per hour, 20 mph, 30 mph, 40 … 50… now swaying wildly on every bend, large or small. Getting from car to car was nigh impossible. Utter chaos bloomed; calamity loomed.

Eventually the two retirees got the brakes set on two of the seven cars. It was not enough. Some 3–½ miles from Tehachapi depot, at 70 miles per hour, five cars detached from the other two, and derailed on a curve. As the rail line was following minimum grade, the centripetal momentum carried them some 75-feet down a steep embankment, toward Tehachapi Creek.

It was winter. The cars had heating — coal of course — and plenty of oil for the lamps. The cars erupted in fire. Bodies were cast about everywhere, willy-nilly. The panic, the horror must have been unimaginable.

Accounts vary, but most sources say there were 21 deaths and 12 serious injuries. Some say 15 deaths, others 17. Some bodies may not have been found, and some may have been so torn asunder that a body count may have been too difficult and gruesome. Many of the passengers were Chinese and, considering the era, may not have been listed on the manifest.

Most deaths occurred, gratefully, during or very shortly after the derailment, as the cars pitched and rolled down the hill and caught fire. Most died from the fire, others from dismembering injuries. One of the injured died several painful days later.

Among the immediate dead was Maria Jesus Guirado Downey, daughter of Mexican aristocrats and wife of the former governor. Her premonitions were correct.

Governor Downey never really recovered from this very woeful event. Now we would surely say he suffered from severe PTSD and required psychological treatment and counseling. But they didn’t know to do that back then. Or how. He counseled and treated himself: with alcohol. Until then he was energetic and vibrant; afterward his health waned. Although he remarried in 1888, his 2nd wife also preceded him, passing in 1892; Downey himself followed shortly thereafter in 1894, aged 66.

The root cause of the runaway train at Tehachapi has never been absolutely confirmed. The Westinghouse triple valve Air Brake was theoretically failsafe. They can only fail if the angle-cocks, connecting to the pressurized locomotive air chamber, are somehow closed. This would leave some pressure in the car-to-car pneumatic lines, allowing the brakes in each car to fully or partly disengage. Without pneumatic pressure the brakes were absolutely locked.

Westinghouse’s genius and revolutionary design had been in use for over 10 years, although various railroads adopted it at different times. It contributed immeasurably to the safety of railroads. Conditions at Tehachapi that night could have led to a bit of an issue with the pneumatics, but this would be extremely rare. It’s such an elegant and impeccable design that railroads essentially use it today, virtually unchanged from Westinghouse’s final design.

One unlikely cause that is still found on the internet is that the train was the victim of a failed train robbery. Why anyone would release the brakes, wake zero passengers, and make off with exactly zero dollars and zero valuables in the middle of a cold, windy wintery night is an obvious question that demolishes this theory. Southern Pacific was partial to this unlikely possibility, as it relieved them of any responsibility.

In my humble opinion, the brakeman, in his haste due to miserable weather and tight schedule, probably failed to properly set (bleed) the pneumatic valves. In those pre-union and labor movement times, railroad staff worked notoriously long hours, and sometimes this led to mistakes and oversights. The brakes were not properly set.

In short order, the conductor and brakemen were arrested. They were soon released. No charges were ever pressed and no official cause has ever been given.

The Tehachapi Loop, satellite view, where long trains cross over themselves

As in 1883, the rail line connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles, through Tehachapi, is still probably the most heavily used mountain rail line in the world. Built by the Southern Pacific, with financial and political backing of former California governor John Downey, it’s now owned by BNSF (which is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire-Hathaway). An average of nearly 40 trains each day make the trip, including the engineering marvel “Tehachapi Loop”, considered one of the wonders of the railroad world.  The line stopped carrying passengers in 1971.

Oh, and that second little thing of interest about blue jeans? You thought I forgot, didn’t you? You know that tiny little pocket on the right side of your jeans, just above the regular sized pocket? Yeah, that little thing. The pocket you thought was useless?

Every time you put on a pair of jeans you carry a little sewn-in token of these times from long ago. That little pocket is an anachronistic throw-back to an earlier era.

That’s for your pocket watch.

This is me, sporting a Steam Punk pocket watch in my style 541 Levis

So that’s my little ramble. Running Time and Runaway Trains, Watches and Weather, Irish immigrants and Governors, German Inventors and Chinese Laborers, blue jeans and indigo blue.
Probably a Country song in there somewhere.

“Oh, where would we be without immigrants, chasing their dreams in America?
It’s here that they have more significance, celebrating Christmas or Hannukah.”

Nope. Never gonna make it as a country song writer. Good place to stop.

Joe Girard © 2022

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Sources/Bibliography.  Oh my gosh.  So many, I lost count.  Several dozen.  Maybe more.  If you’re feeling doubtful or skeptical, just use your favorite search engine(s).  More than a few details have conflicting factoids and background stories; in these instances, I used my judgment, selecting the items that seemed most credible, and that had the most internet material.

Final note: as an “Express”, a town like Tehachapi would not normally be a stop.  However, its position near the pass necessitated a stop to disengage the helper engine and send it back down the mountain.  Additional water and fuel would likely have been needed after the slow torturous trip up to the pass.

Acknowledgement to my wife, Audrey, who assisted in edits and made several useful formatting suggestions.

Der Brief

News to some of you: I spend a little time almost every day studying German. Even though my surname is French, I find German more interesting. For one thing, they pronounce pretty much all of the letters in all words, seldom resorting to dropping consonants and blowing snot bubbles. [1]  For another, my parents were each ½ German, thus making me ½ German.  Finally, my wife and I enjoy traveling there occasionally, and I must admit – my German skills there are rarely very useful.  I can read signs. Sometimes in small villages it helps when no one can (or wants to) speak English.

As you might guess, Buchladen is Bookstore.

On some study days I will read short stories for variety, instead of the regular vocabulary and grammar lessons. Those can be a real grind.

Following is a very short story I read recently during a study session (my translation to English is good enough).  Most stories are enjoyable, but I especially liked this one.  It’s called “Der Brief”(The Letter).

Here goes.  Translated by me.


Sari and Lilli are standing in front of a bookstore.

Immensee, famous 19th century German novella

Sari says: Let’s go in! I love old books!

Lilli: And that’s why we are friends.

They go into the bookstore. Sari takes a book and opens it up.

Sari: Lilli!! There’s an old letter in this book!

Lilli: What kind of letter?

Sari: A man named Joseph is writing to his good friend, Doris. He needs some advice.

Der Brief

Lilli: Why? What kind of advice?

Sari: He says that he loves two women, Marianna, and Ruth. Marianna is highly intelligent. But Ruth is very funny. He doesn’t know which one he should marry!

Lilli: I hope he stayed single.  [Lilli is often the Debbie Downer in the lessons and stories]

Sari: Now I really need to know what his friend Doris had to say.

Just then, the woman who owns the bookstore comes over to them.

Owner: Oh! That is a terrific book! … It belonged to my husband. … He died last year.

Sari: Oh, I am so sorry!

Lilli (spark in her voice now): Was your husband’s name Joseph?

Owner (a little surprised): Yes!

Sari (excitedly): And what’s your name?  Marianna … or Ruth?

The woman smiles, a fresh gleam in her eyes.

My name is Doris.

Well, hope you liked it at least half as much as I did.

Until next time …


[1] In some spoken instances they do drop final parts a word. E.g. Einen often becomes Ein because, quite frankly, who really cares if you get the gender and grammatical case correct?

Joe Girard (c) 2022 — story snagged from Duolingo.

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Lemons to Lemonade Travelogue

Prologue.  My wife and I planned a four-week trip to Italy and Bavaria for early this past autumn.  Unfortunately, we had to cancel the trip at the last moment due to a false-positive covid test.  Trust us, it was a false-positive and we’re fully vaxxed. To say the least, we were disappointed. Making lemonade from lemons during our 10 days of state-of-Colorado-imposed quarantine (unnecessarily) we outlined a ‘round the country driving tour to see and experience things we wouldn’t normally consider, leaving plenty of time for serendipitous discovery and exploration of the country’s lesser known and appreciated towns, highways and byways, as well as see some major cities and sites that were still on our list of places and things to see.  [You can follow along in a photo album here]

4,255 Miles; follow the highlight

Thursday, September 30 – Depart home about 6:30 AM.   Hit Kit Carson, CO to see the town and peruse the KC museum, which was closed.  Very quiet, tiny and old town.

Headed to the Sand Creek Massacre Site.  Lots of county dirt roads en route. Drove through herds of cattle on the roads. You really, really have to want to go there.  Somber.  Walk in brisk late morning air to overlook.  Spoke with Ranger, asked a few questions and moved on.

Then to Ingalls, Kansas.  Stopped in a cute, little and odd museum for a break.  It said Santa Fe Trail Museum, but it’s really just all sorts of local history. Very local.  Dusty old registers and accounting books, mostly for property taxes, going back over 100 years.  Found an old Columbia gramophone.  Learned about the attempted Soule Canal, an effort to irrigate this region with water from the Arkansas River.

Continue To Dodge City, Kansas.  Saw lots of unharvested reddish-orange sorghum along the way. Great folks at the Dodge Visitor info center.  Even gave us wooden nickels.  Nice brewery in the afternoon.  City history walking tour; Dodge City Trail of Fame.  Learned about Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, and Wyatt Earp.  Yes, even James Arness/Matt Dillon, and many others, including actors in Gunsmoke.

Friday, October 1 – Delightful Boot Hill Museum.  Reconstruction of the old Dodge City.

[Ingalls and Dodge City are both along the Arkansas River and Santa Fe Trail.  Dodge has an Amtrak stop.  Was named for the old Fort Dodge, 5 miles away to get around Army liquor restrictions at the Fort.  Train station has two magnificent and large sun dial clocks for passengers to check time, one central time, one western.  How large?  Over 40 feet across. Each has their own analemma correction chart as well (although these are identical).  Located almost exactly at 100 deg west latitude, which was the time zone boundary at the time, since the railroads instituted time zones in 1883, and also the artificial line between the dry west and the humid center of the country.]

Drive to Wichita.  Where we stayed in a 1971 RV camper (cozy) adjacent and “hardwired” to a building for water, sewer and electric.  Found 2 microbreweries, one with nice beers (Hopping Gnome) but on busy noisy Russel Street.  There we met a delightful young couple.  He’s an aerospace structural engineer and a glider (soaring) enthusiast who built his own trailer.  She’s a teacher. The next (Central Standard Brewing) 2 blocks away with a quiet and enjoyable Biergarten. No chatty nice couples, though.

Saturday, October 2 – Explore Wichita, mostly the Old Town Farm and Art Market.  Dodged a few raindrops at first but it stopped by 11AM.  Learned about Coleman Lanterns, Mr Coleman and the World War II password code response “Coleman” to the query “lantern”.  [Essay on Mr Coleman and his lanterns here].

It was train day! Old steam powered train engine was running.  Right near a brewery.  Third Place Brewing.  Looked at old train stuff in the museum.  Very small and cozy brew tasting room, near the old and restored rail station (no longer a station as before).

Stopped by the Kansas Aviation Museum on the way out of town, right next to the old airport, now McConnell AFB. It has a lot of cool stuff, but I’d say it’s a bit disorganized.  Nice wing on Beech history, even a plaque for Ball.  We saw it all in about 1.5 hours. It’s in the old Airport building, Art Deco from 1929.

Wichita is also on the Arkansas River, which sort of seemed to be our guide on and off for the first several days.

On to Claremore, OK.

Wow, what a great AirBnB. Gene was our host.  He’s an architect who does house designs for both initial builds and remodels; he has really done a great job with this AirBnB. Even has a hottub. His brother, to whom he was very close, passed away while we were there. Sad. He reminded us of Fred Rogers.  Quite possibly the best host we’ve ever had.  Certainly, the nicest and one of the more inexpensive ones too.  Remarkable, since he’s currently the only AirBnB host in Claremore.

Sunday October 3Will Rogers Museum, quite close to Gene’s AirBnB.  Wow, definitely leave time for this one.  Like several hours.  Bring an extra layer, as they have the A/C cranked … they say to keep the humidity down and preserve some Rogers’ artifacts.  Built in 1938 in just 6-1/2 months with private funds (Rogers perished in 1935 in a plane crash in northern Alaska).

Left for Fort Smith, Arkansas early afternoon.  But we took a slight detour to see what it was like to be an Okie from Muskogee.  Well, a rather sad town.  Not much going on.  A bunch of pot shops.  Weird, since the famous Merle Haggard song begins with “We don’t smoke Marijuana in Muskogee.”  Pot is only legal for medical treatment in Oklahoma, so I presume the region has a lot of very sick people who really need their medical Marijuana.

Rejoin and cross the Arkansas River to enter Arkansas at Fort Smith.  The Arkansas River coincides with the OK-ARK state line here, and the quirky bend in the border needs to be investigated.  Nearly all of Arkansas’ state boundaries are straight survey lines (with the exceptions of some little nicks that are partly defined by the Red and St Francis Rivers in the SW and NE corners; and of course the Mississippi River).  How they arranged a kink in the north-south line for the boundary to be right on the river at Fort Smith must be an interesting story.

Walked the grounds of the Old Fort Smith (actual fort), walked along the river, nice amphitheater, and found a brewery, imagine that. Bricktown Brewery.  Right near the old fort.  The amphitheater was setting up for a big concert; presumably per our server it is quite a happening site for concerts.

AirBnB well to SE of town center.  Not the best, but it did ok.

Monday, October 4. Not much more to see, as the Fort Smith History Museum was closed (Monday), so we wandered over to Miss Laura’s Visitors Center, which is actually a well-preserved bordello from back in late 1890s.  It’s right near the river and the railroad tracks.  Our tour was given by the most delightful lady, 91-years old.  She absolutely loves being a tour guide in Ft Smith, even though she kept saying she’s an Okie from just across the river, in the flood plain.

Well off on to backroads again to Mount Nebo State Park, Arkansas. Along the way we stopped in Paris, Arkansas.  They have a small park near the center of town with a very small-scale low-resolution replica of the Eiffel Tower (25 ft tall, vs the original, at 1,000 ft).  So of course, we took selfies there.

Arrived at Mount Nebo, a hidden gem getaway on a mountain that rises abruptly up and out of the Arkansas River basin. We checked into our 1930s vintage cabin, built by the CCC 1933-35.  Very cool.  Watched sunset at Sunset Point at one end of the mountain.  Great views of the valleys below, including, you guessed it, the Arkansas River.

Tuesday, October 5.  Took the Ridge Trail hike around the crest of Mount Nebo.  Scenic.  Got a bit warm by the end.  Glad we had our hiking poles.  Kinda dicey for our old knees in places.  A nice 2.5 or 3 mile hike which we took at a very leisurely pace.

Headed over to sister Beth and bro-in-law Doug’s place along backroads, avoiding interstates.  Hit the edge of Jacksonville, AR, which reminded me of an old college buddy.  I found his number and called.  Left a message.  He texted back. I texted him.  We’ve chatted since.  It’s been well over 40 years, but we have good memories to share.

Had a great time visiting Beth and Doug.  Walked the yard, the garden.  Very pleasant evening.  Doug smoked some brisket.  Mmmmm.

Wednesday, October 6.  A little more visiting with Beth and Doug (Nice they were able to take the days off), and a nice breakfast.

Then off for Memphis.  Over half the way along US-70 (not interstate) but did pick up I-40 in Forrest City.  Crossed the Mississippi, finally leaving the Arkansas River watershed.

After checking into AirBnB on near east end, did the quick driving tour of downtown.  Then a history walk (nice) and also up-and-down Beale Street (over rated) and through historic region on east end of downtown.

Thursday, October 7.  Back into downtown for the National Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel.  Over 5 hours! And 5 stars! Fascinating.  Lots of primary source history.  We took a break in the middle to get some BBQ nearby (Central Que BBQ).  A “must see” (the museum, not the BBQ).

We were told the Bass Pro Pyramid near the river is a “must see” also, so we did it.  Well: wow.  It’s huge.  It’s got everything, even “cabin” hotel rooms.  Pretty impressive place.  Check it out:

Then stopped at a hole-in-the wall (Cozy Corner Restaurant) and took some takeaway BBQ to our room .

Friday, October 8.  Well, we hadn’t seen quite enough of Memphis yet, so back into town in the AM to see some older neighborhoods, like the Cooper-Young neighborhood, and some of the perimeter of Overland Park.  One more spin through downtown and the famous St Jude’s Children’s Hospital area, then on I-40 toward Nashville. An hour or so along the route we cross into  the Tennessee and Cumberland River basins.

About halfway to Nashville we got off I-40 for a detour over to Johnsonville State Historic Park, which has a nice little museum, and was the site of an important Civil War battle (and a skirmish).  It was a post along a major supply line (on the Tennessee River) for the Blue Jackets. Hiked the battleground, lake front (river is now dammed) and hill where fort was located. Departing, we followed the old US-70 through some small towns, including Waverly.  The devastation of the late August 2021 flood there was still evident, as we saw many tons of waste (sofas, carpeting, mattresses, drywall, etc – all damaged beyond repair) piled up along the highway and side roads.  [Deadly Waverly Flood, Aug 2021]

Made it to west side of Nashville around 5:3PM0 to meet old grad-school buddy Bob Beall and his wonderful wife Leslie at a BBQ joint near them.  A bit upscale for BBQ (Honey Fire BBQ), but very nice, and the company was terrific.  So good to see them again.  We had dropped in a few years ago for a visit.  Great to stay in touch with such good people.  Even if they were raised in Louisiana.

To a Days Inn east/southeast of town probably 20-25 minutes from dinner on the west end.

Saturday October 9 – Drive I-24 over the mountain (Mount Eagle). Kind of a pretty drive for an interstate.  Got off to go into South Pittsburg (TN) to visit the Lodge Factory Store (think: cast iron).  No bargains, but a pretty town along the Tennessee River.  I-24 looked a bit clogged, so we took all back roads from there to Chattanooga.

Got to “Chatty” early enough to tour the Chattanooga Choo-Choo station, and take a local bus to the Tennessee River front area, and took a nice walking tour there along the river, and of downtown.  Cool, hip, happening city.  Who knew?  Walked all the way back to car at Choo-choo station.  Stopped at the Big River Grill near downtown for a bite and a couple brews. Stopped by their large Oktoberfest celebration area; ticketed entry, we passed after a couple of pictures. Then up Lookout Mountain (another civil war battle site) to see what we could see (seven different states, presumably), then duck into the cave to see Ruby Falls, which has, at about 130 feet, the supposed tallest underground waterfall in the world.  Very cool, but gosh, that place makes a lot of money.  Tourists lined up all day to see it.

Well, that’s Chatty.  Now about 25 minutes over to Cleveland, TN our AirBnB, hosted by Dan & Nancy.  Nice couple.  He is a regional manager for the bakeries in Panera Bread; she’s a nurse.  Like the nickname for nearby Chattanooga, they were rather chatty, but very pleasantly so.  Eager to share stories and give us tips.  But time to move on.

Sunday, October 10.  Off to Asheville, NC, but no Interstate for us, at least to start.  Followed US 64 & 74, which is generally along the Ocoee River, up in the Appalachian Hills and still part of the Tennessee River system.  We stopped at the Ocoee Whitewater Center to hike a bit along the river and see the site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater events.  I did not know there were so many dams along the Ocoee; I counted 3.  Then along US-23 into Asheville.

After checking in late afternoon, almost in the center of downtown, we wandered over to the closest microbrewery (Hi-Wire) where we met a nice couple a tad younger than us (about 10 yrs), from near Chatty.  Kevin and Tammy.  We hit it off so well, we walked to another nearby micro-brewery (Wicked Weed) with them and hung out a bit.  Then weariness set in and we crashed hard into bed.

Monday, October 11.  Day to hangout in Asheville and not drive.  Started out with a 2.5 hour guided walking history tour of Asheville.  Tour guide Jess (I think).  Good stuff.  Founded 1797 along the French Broad River (part of the upper Tennessee system), and a convenient location approximately halfway between Raleigh and Chatty.  Surrounded by hills.  Spirits tasting at Cultivated Cocktails – local craft distiller.  Quite nice.  Good story behind the Grove Arcade, and why it’s only 3 stories tall.  Then over the Asheville Pinball Museum, a “hands on” museum experience for a couple of hours.    My hands and fingers were more than a bit sore.

After photographing the beautiful St Lawrence Basilica<

/a>, which was sadly closed, we wandered over to Twin Leaf Brewing, as we had what were sort-of free drink tokens.  Well, it was an okay deal, but the beer wasn’t great, but we did enjoy the environment and get to see a different part of town.

Then down to the riverfront to try and watch the sunset from some parks there.  Mostly blocked by mountains.  The parks seem to have recovered well after being inundated and swept over by floods back in August, some muddy soil debris was still evident.

We tried to see the Biltmore House area, but of course could not get anywhere near it.  Seems kind of touristy and bourgeois anyhow.  Drove through Biltmore Village, which is nice and has a different modern and dense feel than the rest of Asheville.  Off to Trader Joe’s for some supplies and a good night’s rest.  Tomorrow is a lot of driving.

Tuesday, October 12.  Jumped on the Blue Ridge Parkway after stopping in the Visitor Center for tips and ideas.  Cruised that scenic roadway for several hours. About 175 miles of the 469 total, or so. Gorgeous, especially in October.  Can’t be in a hurry.  It’s 50mph speed limit, tops, and quite twisty anyhow.  We got off near the Virginia border right after hitting one last overlook and short hike, Fox Hunters Paradise and High Piney Spur.  Some backroads through tiny places like Galax and Woodlawn, VA, then hopped on I-77 to I-81 and cruised into Edelweiss German Restaurant, just outside Staunton, VA, for some good wurst, schnitzel and spätzle.

Hotel, Days Inn, just a few minutes away.  We could’ve taken I-81 but didn’t.

That was a lot of driving.  Saw a lot of beautiful scenery.  Crossed over into the Shenandoah/Potomac River basin.

Wednesday, October 13Staunton, VA. Stopped in for tour of Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace.  It’s called a library, but I didn’t see it that way.  Sort of a WW museum.  Good tour.  Interesting perspective on history.  Hit a coffee shop on the way out of town.

Hit I-81 for a short while (~15 min) then exited and took many state and county roads through the mountains.  Passed through a crook of Maryland, and rested our butts for a while in Oakland, MD, mostly a thrift store there.  I know Audrey bought something, but I can’t remember what. Old train depot has been totally repurposed.  Nail and Beauty salon, accountants, and lawyers.  I wandered by looking for something interesting and a lady asked me sincerely if I wanted a manicure.  I caught her off guard.  Her question caught me off guard. No time for my first mani now.  Some US highways then finally caught I-68, just inside the MD Stateline and 20 or 30 miles from Morgantown, WV – our destination for today.

Entered Morgantown, which was much hillier than I expected, although it is the home to the Mountaineers, the nickname of UWVa.  Went right to the Don Knotts statue (it’s his hometown) and snapped some photos.

Then off to check out the heart of downtown and the Monongahela River waterfront.  (As a sign we’re about to head west again, the Monongahela feeds the Ohio River). First hit Morgantown Brewery, and we split a tasty burger.  About 1 block off the river.  Nice place, with a back deck and slight view of river.  Trivia night.  I couldn’t get a team together, so we went out to walk the river front.  Met some really nice people chatting, one of whom was a city cop.  That’s his beat, just cruising the river.  Nice walkways, and amphitheater.  Seemed like a pretty “high end” college town. Returned to the brewery to checkout Trivia Night.  Stayed for a few questions.  Two pretty difficult questions that I knew the answers to.  Shared them with neighboring table, kind of hoping to get invited to join in.  [e.g., in what bodies of water are each of these four islands: Isle Royale, Goat, Mackinac and Corsica?  In what movie is the line “You may call me: Oh Captain, my captain” said?]

Time to get some sleep.  La Quinta in, on the edge of town.  More driving tomorrow.

Thursday, October 14.  Turning seriously back west now, as Morgantown was our farthest east (also northeast). Cruising I-79 north into PA for a bit, picking up I-70 west then into Ohio.  I-77 north until we stop in Canton to see the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not as impressive as I’d hoped, but still pretty good and a bucket list item.  Audrey passed it up to have some personal time with coffee.

We took OH-8 north, and just on the north side of Akron we found a park that the Cuyahoga River flows through and has cut a pretty deep and impressive gorge.  Who knew?  Took a nice hike there, I think it’s called Gorge Park in the town of Cuyahoga Falls.  Somewhere near Canton we’ve crossed a divide, as the Cuyahoga feeds Lake Erie, not the Ohio River.

From there to our AirBnB on the outskirts of Cleveland … which is pretty sprawling when combined with all the little urban and suburban satellite communities.  We stayed in Warrensville Heights.  There is a light commuter rail station nearby.  We found that, but parking was very minimal, and the rail seemed to be very lightly used.  Covid?  We did find a brewery in that entertainment district, which was fairly hopping.  Locals suggested Lyft or Uber over light rail.  Hmmm.  Sad.

Friday, October 15.  Well, that was our worst AirBnB experience so far, mostly because the bed was way too soft and noisy.  Audrey got hardly a wink of sleep and Joe was restless.  She ended up counting sheep on a sofa outside our bedroom.  Sigh.  So, we dumped our second night there and booked a room in the high-end Drury Plaza Inn downtown.  Drove there, they let us check in very early and we were off to explore Cleveland.  Very, very nice room.  Complimentary happy hour with meals and breakfast, too.

We took a jagged crooked walk around downtown and ended up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, right on Lake Erie.  Very impressive.  Overwhelming. Everything was terrific.  The building, the displays, the presentations, the videos, everything.  We spent 5 hours there.  Then a bit more walking back to hotel by a different twisty route, which included going by the Browns football stadium (currently called First Energy) and a statue of Otto Graham.

Back to hotel for happy hour and dinner, which included bbq pulled pork. Mmmmm.

Friday, October 16.  OK, time to start heading seriously west.  But first one more cool thing to see, the West Side Cleveland City Market.  Built in 1912 but starting out as a market exchange in the 1850s, it is the longest continually city-run market in the region.  Cool building, very high arched ceilings.  We bought some sausages and bread for road snacks.  West Side and Ohio City seem to offer additional fun that we missed in downtown, so it’s on our “to do list” if and when we return.

On to Fort Wayne, IN.  Wanting to take more backroads, we stayed on I-71 south (southwest-ish) a tad longer to get us into some real rural country.  OH-95 to Mount Gilead, then US-231 up to and around Upper Sandusky, finally catching US 30 (AKA Lincoln Highway in many parts) and going almost directly west to Fort Wayne to meet up with an old work buddy for a beer in the old downtown.  It’s actually quite nice. Fort Wayne.  Who knew?  Many historic beautiful buildings, some to the 1880s and ‘90s, including the magnificent Allen County courthouse.

Ft Wayne is at the confluence of the St Joseph and St Mary Rivers, forming the Maumee River, so we’re still in the Lake Erie watershed.

Highway IN-14 almost straight west to near the Illinois Stateline, then a zig and a zag and you’re in Kankakee, Illinois.  It was getting pretty dark, so we went straight to our room, which was in Bourbonais, just north of Kankakee.

Sunday, October 17Kankakee and surrounds ended up being great.  Locals call it “K3.” We stumbled across a fall festival and trunk-or-treat related family event held downtown where the Farmers Market is held on Saturdays.  (This was a Sunday).  Saw a unicorn (ok, goofy) which kids loved, and a real good imitation of Dr Brown’s DeLoran-based time machine from Back to the Future, complete with Mr Fusion and dog named Einstein.  There are two Frank Lloyd Wright Houses side-by-side, next to the Kankakee River.  One is a museum, which was closed on Sunday, so we walked around and took some pictures. They have a nice train station, which appears to be some sort of museum as well (closed) and was surprised to find they also have Amtrak service.

Somewhere in Indiana we crossed a slight divide, as the Kankakee River feeds the Illinois and then the Mississippi River.  We’re heading west for sure now.

Departing, took city roads to IL-102 up to Kankakee River State Park for a nice 3 mile hike through forest along the river. Leaf color season, and some interesting puff-ball mushrooms.  Audrey picked up some black walnuts and chestnuts to bring home.  Continued along 102 to Wilmington, IL when we were forced to get out when we found out it is along old Route 66, they have an antique store, a brewery (Route 66 Old School Brewing) and a local dam controversy.

Took a different IL highway from there, meandered to I-55, then to I-80, and started really cruising west.  Across the Mississippi and into Iowa, near Davenport. Left I-80 near Iowa City; north on I-380 about half hour to Cedar Rapids.  Check in to nice hotel, not in city center, in mall area.

Went into town in the old Czech village area and found Lion Bridge Brewing.  Nice place.  Learned a bit of local Czech history and about the Bridge of Lions, spanning the Cedar River.  Good homework for tomorrow’s activity.

Monday, October 18Cedar Rapids and the Czech and Slovak Museum and Library.  Wa-a-ay more interesting than we expected.  Took about 2 to 2.5 hours.  Lots of Iron Curtain era stuff.  Also, cultural costumes, famous people and emigrations, mostly to US, over the past 150 or so years.

Quite a Czech and Bohemian village area, adjoining each side of the Cedar River, just south of downtown.  We cruised that area, stopping to take pictures of Wenceslas Church.  And more pics of Bridge of Lions.  Then through downtown.  Nice quiet, clean town we’d like to maybe visit Cedar Rapids again.

Then west again, to Boone, Iowa.  Saw some history and engineering.  Birthplace of Mamie Dowd Eisenhower and side-by-side Old and New Kate Shelley High Bridges over the Des Moines River.  Then over to the very tiny town of Moingona, to see the old train depot – which supposedly houses the Kate Shelley Museum, closed due to Covid – to which young Kate ran to save the Midnight Express (JG essay topic, 2020).

Both the Cedar and Des Moines Rivers flow generally north-to-south where we were, in Boone and Cedar Rapids, feeding the Mississippi.

Doubling back east a bit to Ames, Iowa much of it along the old Lincoln Highway (which has been replaced in many places by a parallel, slicker and safer US-30).  Checked into a B&B called Iowa House, which is in a former Frat House that has been lovingly remodeled and cared for.

Toured around the Iowa State campus.  It is mostly quite beautiful.  Took some pics, which were right at dusk, so they turned out pretty nice.

Tried to find a brewery, but they were all closed!  In a college town!  Geepers, Mondays.  Went to Boulder Tap House, where the beer was just OK, but we split a burger, again, one of our rare meals out.  Nice college kids wait staff that we got to know a bit.

Back to B&B.  Met some really nice co-guests, including a cool chatty grammy (Sally) and her daughter-in-law visiting grandson/son at ISU for a couple of days.

Maps are tricky, as globes don’t properly show up on flat maps.  Turns out Boone and Ames were our farthest north on the entire trip.  (I had thought it was Cleveland, OH).  Anyhow, time to really head west, a bit south and home.  A long day of driving ahead.

Tuesday, October 19.  Up and out after a very nice B&B breakfast.  Back south on I-380, then I-80 west. We did stop in downtown Lincoln, NE for about an hour.  It was originally planned as our last overnight stop, but we had to squeeze a day out of our schedule for a couple reasons.  Lincoln seems really worth re-visiting.  Lady at the Visitor Center had loads of good info and was pretty persuasive.  And it’s even a stop on Amtrak, direct from Denver.  The old train station, as in Cedar Rapids, has been nicely re-purposed.  Could be a future train-based trip.

Just out of Lincoln there was apparently a terrible crash resulting in fires.  I-80 had been closed for hours.  We took a detour way off I-80, up to US-34.  It’s all part of the adventure.  Added about 1.5 hours to our trip home, the traffic on all the detour roads was turtle paced.  Got a feel for towns like Utica and Waco, NE. Interesting to see such small and rather out of the way (even if they are on US-34) Ag and Rail towns not decaying, like much else we’ve seen in out-of-the-way America, barely stayin’ alive.  No reason to re-visit though.  Finally, back on I-80 near York, NE , following the Platte River upstream on-off for a few hours, turning South West-ish onto I-76, and then back to good old Broomfield, Colorado, arriving so late I don’t even remember; but had time to unload the car and do language lessons before midnight.

Museums/Historical Sites visited (quite a few others were closed)
Sand Creek Massacre
Boot Hill (Dodge City)
Kansas Aviation Museum
Will Rogers Museum
Old Fort Smith
Miss Laura’s Visitors Center
Mount Nebo park and historic CCC camp
Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel
Johnsonville State Historical Park (TN)
Chattanooga Choo-Choo Rail Station
Lookout Mountain
Ruby Falls (Cave)
Pinball Museum (Asheville)
Blue Ridge Parkway
Woodrow Wilson Library and Birthplace
Pro Football Hall of Fame
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Czech and Slovak Heritage Museum & Library

Joe Girard © 2021

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In military terminology, a countersign is a word, phrase or signal that must be given to allow passage beyond anyone at a secure post, such as a sentry.  Usually, it is agreed upon a priori.  For example, in Normandy, on the beaches and on the cliffs, on D-Day, June, 1944, the password response to “flash” was “thunder.”  Sometimes it was more fluid, even impromptu, especially if a leak was suspected.  So, it was often based on contemporary culture:
          (approacher) Pass please.
          (sentry) Yankees Centerfielder.
          (approacher) DiMaggio.
          (sentry) Come through. [1]

Well, my REI winter holiday shopping catalog just arrived, packed with other assorted postal bombardments we are prone to receiving in our mailboxes in this current pre-Christmas season. 

REI.  That brings back more than a few autobiographical memories, and I suppose that’s as good a reason as any to trigger the dance of my fingers across my keyboard to tap out an essay that’s been brewing since the first days of the ‘round the country road trip we took in October.

Vintage REI logo. I couldn’t find one from either the very early days, or a good modern one.

REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc) is a retailer of high-end sporting and outdoor adventure equipment. It’s organized as a cooperative.  It originated in Seattle and has since spread to 138 stores around the country.

I became aware of REI when I first moved to Seattle, in 1980, fresh out of grad school – and fresh out of money.  I mean broke.  I literally had zero dollars and zero cents.  Just a Chevron credit card and – for some reason, maybe since I had just earned an engineering graduate degree – an American Express Card.  On my cross-country trip from Nashville to Seattle I stopped in Denver for a few days; my dad loaned me $200 cash so I could put down a deposit on an apartment. As I was about to pull away he asked if I had any money.  None.  None?  He handed me the cash.  We hugged.  He cried.  It was the first time I ever saw him cry. And that was it.  (I spent part of it to get into Yellowstone National Park on the way to the Great Pacific Northwest).

There is a rush you get after being completely broke, thinking Hamburger Helper and Chunky Soup on toast are great meals, and then cashing fat paychecks for a few months.  [Also, after those few months, a collection agency found me, as a result of my “disappearance” after leaving Nashville.  I was able to resolve that with my newfound wealth]. [2]

One of the places where I splashed cash was REI, in downtown Seattle, taking up much of an entire city block at 11th and Pine.  At the time it might have still been the only REI store in the entire country, even though it was founded in 1938. I think that was still the original location. I soon bought a membership in the Co-op and have maintained it all these years – that’s why I still get catalogs.  And rebates.

Old REI patch. I guess people stitched these onto their backpacks and jackets. Vintage.

All the equipment was (and is) top notch.  I finally had money for needed (or wanted) equipment. Winter was approaching, so at first for skiing.  Poles, skis, boots, parkas, gloves, goggles, ski pants, scarves.  Then shoes for running (New Balance) and boots for hiking the Cascade Mountains (Raichle).

In spring as “better” weather approached, I bought some summer gear, including high-end golf shoes (Foot Joy), baseball shoes, and a camping lantern, made by Coleman.  [“Better” is definitely a relative term in the Pacific Northwest.  Let’s just say it rained less and the sun came out a couple hours a day]

Although I didn’t get the golf and baseball shoes at REI, I did get the Coleman Lantern there.  What a brilliant device.   Not just brilliantly bright, but simply brilliant.


William Coffin Coleman (he usually went by “WC”) was born May 21, 1870 in Chatham, NY.  Chatham is about halfway between the Massachusetts state line and the Hudson River.  That’s about 6 miles east of Kinderhook, NY, home of the US’s 8th President, Martin Van Buren, who often went by “Old Kinderhook”, or “OK” for short.  Soon after, in 1871, while WC was still a suckling infant, the family moved to the far southeast corner of Kansas to homestead, getting their own land to work into a home and to farm.  The long arduous journey was made partly by train, and partly by covered wagon.

The brutally violent and bloody wars in the plains between Native Americans and the US Army were still underway.  It took some gumption and bravery to undertake the long transfer of residence.

Details on Coleman’s life before fame are a bit skimpy, sketchy and inconsistent.  Here’s what I found and have decided upon.

Apparently, Coleman had at least two brothers, as there is reference to them helping with some funding some decades later.  Unfortunately, the Colemans’ father passed away when young William was only 11.  He helped his mother run the farm and found odd work, mostly as a salesman of small merchandise.  He continued selling things – both travelling and in stores – and was able to eventually get a job for a while as a schoolteacher after completing a degree in nearby Emporia, at the Kansas State Teacher’s College (now Emporia State University).

He was also Superintendent of Schools in the Blue Rapids (KS) school district for a while. Then, it seems, he changed the direction of his professional intentions and attended Law School at the University of Kansas.  Always short on money, yet always a good salesman, Coleman sold typewriters as a traveling salesman to pay the bills and tuition.  As money got tighter, he was soon doing more traveling and selling than he was studying law.

Much of the following is Coleman Company lore, but I’m sure there is much truth in it.

One fateful evening in the mid-1890s, while on a typewriter selling tour, Coleman found himself in the hard-scrabble, dusty, dirty, pavement-free coal mining town of Brockton, Alabama.  There, in a drug or department store window, he saw a lantern shining brightly.  He’d never seen anything like it.

It burned gasoline, fed to its combustion under pressure.  He immediately changed from selling typewriters to selling lanterns for the Irby-Gilliland Company, maker of the lanterns, out of Memphis, TN. But first he had to buy the rights to sell the lantern, from the Irby family; the only region he could afford that was near home was in Oklahoma. I can’t find the value, but guessing around $500.

Oh, and Coleman, already long absent, finally dropped out of law school.

Originally sales went poorly. Turns out many customers had already experienced unsatisfactory results, despite the lantern’s brilliance, as the fuel delivery clogged with carbon deposits, and could not be easily cleaned.  Word had gotten around.

Coleman was already in for the $500, probably some it a loan from the Irbys and his farming brothers.  Not about to give up, he hit upon some clever ideas here.  First, he began leasing the lanterns for a small sum, instead of selling them.  He absorbed the risk of lantern failure, and replaced them if/when they failed. He could then refurbish and re-lease them.  This changed his product flow nicely.  Now with promising cash flow, his brothers invested further in his lantern sales and leasing business as well.  Second, with some cash available Coleman could afford to start tinkering with the design in his home until it was virtually flawless.

Until then lanterns were largely dull, wasteful and dangerous.  Dull because the light came from the flame.  Wasteful because much of the energy of combustion went to heat, not light.  And dangerous since the flow of fuel (usually kerosene) was either by wicking up, or gravity drip down, and hence the fuel source reservoir could be accessed by flame, especially in the event of a tipping or dropping accident.  Think Mrs O’Leary and the cow in the shed, Chicago, 1871.

WC Coleman: inventor, tinkerer, entrepreneur, marketer and businessman extraordinaire.

The gas lantern – especially with Coleman’s improvements – solved all those problems.  Instead of a wick, Coleman’s lanterns had a “mantle” which glowed, especially when treated with special chemicals (including, at the time, thorium – yikes!).  The gasoline burned just hot enough to get the mantle’s chemical coatings to glow.  And even though it burned pure gasoline it was much safer, since no flame could reach the gasoline reservoir when accidentally tipped over.  In fact, Coleman soon made his lanterns so rugged that they wouldn’t even break when dropped or tipped over (I can attest to all of this.  However, never, never try to get the campfire to burn more brightly by pouring Coleman’s special white gasoline directly onto the fire.  I can attest to this too. 151 rum is much safer).

Replacing the special mantle occasionally was the only maintenance required.

Coleman bought all the rights to the pressure-fed gasoline lantern from the Irby family.  It’s been purported that this might have cost him a further $3,000. This was also achieved by a loan from the Irbys and his brothers — what Coleman often called “the best sale I ever made.” Implementing his improvements, he started a manufacturing facility in Wichita, Kansas, moved his family there, and began selling the soon wildly popular Coleman Lantern.  In a time of scarce electrical lighting, and pale gas or oil lighting, his lanterns were enormously popular.

Pretty much everyone knew of the popular Coleman Lantern.  He soon applied the pressure fed gasoline concept to make conveniently portable cooking stoves as well.

Legend has it that cattlemen in Colorado once saw a lantern burning so brightly, miles away up in the Rocky Mountain Foothills, that they were sure they had discovered a new star.


Green single mantle Coleman Lantern, vintage 1945.

In times of  military engagement, especially when infantry personnel of one army are likely to come in contact with – or even infiltrate the lines of – the personnel of another army, the use of passcodes and countersigns becomes very important.  This happened to great extent in much of World War II.

In the Asian and Pacific theaters, Japanese intelligence kept spies and infiltrators up to date on American expressions and culture.  Still, this posed little problem, as the US quickly learned to use passcodes and contrasigns like “Lolla-Palooza”, and “Lolli Pop”, words full of Ls. Our Asian allies, the Chinese, could usually pronounce the L.  For Japanese the “L” sound was virtually impossible; even when pronounced as “L” it was so awkward that, either way, like R or L, it was a give-away.

On the other hand, it was much more difficult with our European enemy, the Germans.  It’s well known that German infiltrators and imposters in US uniforms could and did cause much confusion with “false intelligence” about where nearby towns, roads and other divisions lay.  This occurred especially during the Battle of the Bulge, December, 1944. Enough Germans spoke near flawless English, able to produce both American and British accents, that it was quite a dilemma.  Many had been educated in America or Britain.  And, they were up-to-date on much of American culture.

[It’s a strong probability that more Americans were conversant to fluent in German than the other way around.  Many GIs were first generation Germans, who grew up speaking German and often stayed in touch with family in Germany until the war.  More than a few of them were Jews who had fled Germany just a few years before.  It’s also a bit ironic that FDR, then president of the US, was quite conversational in German as well, since he traveled there often — yearly it is said — with his wealthy parents as a youth, and even attended school there at least one year].

There were other problems in Europe too. Over-reliance on modern American culture for security sometimes led to costly, if not funny, mistakes.  For example, on Dec 21, 1944, during “the Bulge” US MP’s and sentries were alerted to the possibility of a German disguised as Brigadier General Bruce Clarke.[3] Well, Clarke himself soon approached a checkpoint and was queried as to whether the Chicago Cubs played in the National League or the American League.  Not a baseball fan, and pressed for an answer, Clarke guessed American (incorrectly) and subsequently spent several frustrating hours in detainment.  [The “intelligence” that Clarke, and other officers, were being impersonated might well have been counterintelligence supplied by clever Germans].

One thing the Germans did not know of American culture was the superb performance and popularity of the Coleman Lantern. In fact, these were used throughout the military.  So, it came to be that the perfect and indecipherable security countersign/passcode combination was to respond “Coleman” to the challenge query “Lantern.”

WC Coleman lived long enough to learn of and enjoy this quirk of history.  He was once elected mayor of Wichita, choosing to only serve one term.  He lived until 1957, still engaged in running his company, as an octogenarian.  He’s buried in his adopted hometown of Wichita and has a plaque on the Wichita Walk of Fame, in City Center.


Although the family lost controlling interest in the company long ago, the Coleman® line of outdoor products is highly respected, even today.  The lanterns remain popular, although the mantles are doped with safer chemicals [Extremely low voltage LEDs threaten to quash them soon].  The stoves are still popular with outdoor enthusiasts.  Coleman has expanded in the camping paraphernalia area to include almost everything outdoor: tents, sleeping bags, jackets, vests, collapsible chairs (some with drink holders, beer-sized), tables, boots, and coolers.  And much more. All of it is high end and highly regarded.  “Coleman” means “quality.” Of course, much of it is available at REI, where everything is high-end, at all 138 locations. Most products are available – naturally, it’s 2021 – on Amazon.  Next day delivery.

Wishing you all a pleasant and happy shopping and holiday season.



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

[1] DiMaggio left baseball to serve in the military, 1943-45, returning afterward to many All-Star seasons.  But everyone knew he was the Yankee center fielder.  The most popular baseball player in America, at the time, even when he wasn’t playing.

[2] Hamburger Helper by Betty Crocker.  If you had it, it meant you had meat.  HH stretched meat to more meals.  Chunky Soup, by Campbell, was thick soup with chewy hunks of meat and veggies.  Kind of a splurge, but we always got that (and the beef for HH) on sale.

[3] MP is Military Police

Other stuff: The concept of pressurized gasoline lanterns (and stoves) here.  Old Town Coleman: How Pressure Appliances Work Part I Coleman US lanterns 1981 – 2000 – The Terrence Marsh Lantern Gallery (

Interesting unofficial source of some info

Gently, Not

“… Do not go gentle into that good night.
… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
– Dylan Thomas

I still have a dear friend since childhood.  We’ve been friends and stayed in touch for nearly six decades now, although he lives over 1,000 miles away.  We’ve visited a few times, but most contact is through a news-blurb he publishes via email nearly daily. It contains the day-to-day comings and goings of his life and thoughts: everything from health, to work, to mundane errands, to weather, to politics, and, of course, his grandchildren. [1]

Sometimes he talks about the daily newspaper: what’s in it?; is it on time?; or is it wrapped in plastic for possible rain?  (precipitation is a big deal in Arizona.)  We share a sense of old-fashioned desire for the tactile experience here: we both like to get an actual newspaper, with ink, holding and folding it with that enjoyable crinkle of the paper as we manipulate the pages.

He recently divulged that his wife also enjoys the hardcopy newspaper, but for different reasons than he.  Whereas he checks weather, sports, local and national news (usually in that order, I have deduced), she goes right to the obituaries, and often limits her perusals to those.

Although they live in fairly good-sized city (now about 60,000, even though the municipality is younger than each of us), they live neither in, nor even near, any major metropolitan area.  Therefore, between the two of them, they know a majority of the long-time residents of the region.  So, it’s a way to get news, I suppose.  Mostly, I think, she doesn’t want to learn weeks or months later that a close acquaintance or long-lost friend has gone “into that good night.”

I’ve confessed before on this site that I like to wander through cemeteries.[3] My digital photo album has pics of the final resting places of people both known and unknown to me. The headstones with carved letters, the family plots, the funerary art: all suggest stories.  The details of those final resting places – withered bouquets, trampled grass, cracked stones with the weathered letters of names and epitaphs, two dates with a dash between them , or a few tiny pebbles perched upon a tombstone – are the outlines of those stories; our imaginations are challenged to fill in the rest.

Another confession. Like my friend’s wife, I also peruse the obituaries, especially on Sundays. The Sunday paper usually has a collection of obits from the previous week.  Here I can check to see how many are younger than I am. Weird?  I suppose. Sometimes I get a catch in my breath when I see a name I know. A full week when every Reaper’s Visit is to harvest someone older than I is a good sign.  Such weeks grow ever fewer. When the deceased are younger, I am often amazed at what full lives they lived and how very accomplished they were – I can’t help but feel a bit small and wasteful of my own time and talents in comparison.  Few have gone gently into that good night.


This morning’s Sunday paper brought some very sad news from Houston, Texas.  “Crowd Surge Kills at least 8 at Houston Music Festival.”  Evidently hundreds, perhaps thousands, pushed up against the stage during a performance by rapper Travis Scott.  Never heard of him until now. All of those who perished were young, aged only 14 to 27.  Many more are in hospital.

This is not a unique occurrence.  Human crowd behavior is bewildering; it’s even a scientific area of study.  It’s almost like we’re grasshoppers: a few of us hanging around is no big deal, interesting and a bit ugly up close, but once we get into huge crowds we change – chemically, hormonally, pheromonally, irrationally – and any behavior, whether destructive or otherwise, becomes acceptable.  Are we like locusts?

Cute grasshopper, not so pretty in real life, especially as part of locust swarm

I am but a poor ignorant grasshopper, yet yearning for wisdom, as in the series Kung Fu.  I simply don’t understand it. Twice I have been caught in such crazed crowd situations.  Even though I am not normally claustrophobic, my instinct both times was to simply get away and go against the throngs. Rather like a rat, squeezing myself out from a collapsed building.

Once was at a Summerfest concert, along Lake Michigan, in the summer of ’73 or ’74. [2] One of the featured acts was the Doobie Brothers, already famous by this time. With anticipation of the big act, the crowd grew in size and rowdiness through each of the warm-up acts. I guess half the audience was stoned.  There were no chairs or benches, just blankets and people on grass.  By the end of the last warm-up group, there was no space left at all.  Thousands of people, shoulder-to-shoulder, most pushing this way and that to get a better view of the stage.  The more pushing there was, the more pushing and yelling ensued.  Most wanted to get closer to the stage. Some yelling was for the Doobs to finally get their butts on stage, some yelling at other attendees for pushing so much.

With the sweet smell of colitis floating through the air my companion and I grew a bit fearful and decided to leave.  At this point our going against the flow was still possible – the space we evacuated was quickly consumed by the grateful pushers.

I learned the next day that a riot occurred shortly after we left.  Concert attendees pushed so hard on the stage that it collapsed.  As I recall there were no fatalities or serious injuries.  I don’t think the Doobies even made it onto the stage, although I wondered later if the roadies could salvage the equipment they were setting up.

The other time was about 15 years ago when I attended the Phoenix Open, a regular PGA Tour® event held annually in early February.  It had been for some time, and is still today, regarded as the loudest, rowdiest, rudest, drunkest and (for many) the most fun of all PGA events, which are usually very quiet and reserved affairs.  [Of course there’s always yelling at any event when a fan favorite is making a run, but that’s after the shot is struck, or the putt is holed].

Rowdy crowd at Phoenix Open

As a result of this reputation, the Phoenix Open is usually the most attended of all PGA events.  The big day is usually Saturday; often around 200,000 in attendance.  If you think golf is a game of manners, politeness, and properly behaved respectful fans who remain quiet during preparation and execution of a golf shot, you’ve not seen or attended the Waste Management Open (ironic name), the current moniker of the Phoenix Open.

Continuous hoots, jeers and cheers are common, especially on the 16th hole.  On the 17th too.  It’s not uncommon for this behavior to spill over to other holes, as ethanol fueled fans seek other views. To be honest, I’d be surprised if many attendees even witness two shots during the day they are there.

On this particular Saturday I was attending “alone”, with about 180,000 strangers, and I just couldn’t take the heat (even though only early February) and obnoxious crowd behavior.  Mid-afternoon I went “against the flow” toward the exit, only to find I was not alone.  Not even close. A vast throng of patrons had also decided to depart early.

In their (lack of) wisdom, the tournament officials set it up so that the main exits from the golf course had to weave through large merchandise tents, like cattle channeled through a feedlot.  In the tents were booths of many sizes and types, selling tournament memorabilia and golf paraphernalia of all sorts.  Most of the thousands of people just wanted to get out; but just enough people stopped at booths to shop that they impeded – in fact stopped – the entire flow of foot-traffic.

We simply stopped moving.  I had no interest in golf hats or visors, shirts, slacks, balls or ball markers.  People pushed upon me. I then pushed against others. It got hotter and hotter in the tent (it’s Phoenix).  Fresh air was non-existent.  After 10 minutes or so people started shouting: hey, let’s get moving.  This was anger.  This was locust swarm behavior.

In a flash of panic-motivated brilliance I hit upon an idea.  I pushed to the edge of the dammed-up motionless river of people and crashed through the barrier of a display booth.  I was then able to dash about 50-75 yards, going from booth to booth, sometimes crashing through the tables and banners that separated the display booths, until I was within a few yards of the exit.

Some people saw my successful tactic and followed.  I’m pretty sure more than one display area was out-of-commission for a while.

Once out  of the tent and at the event exit, I essentially cut-the-line for cell phone retrieval, since everyone else was back on the golf course, stuck in the big tent, or behind me weaving through display booths.  [Back then cell phones were not permitted on the tournament grounds; you checked your phone upon entry and retrieved it when leaving with a unique chit.] I ran to my car.   I’m not sure what happened thereafter.  No deaths, but I wouldn’t be surprised if ambulances showed up. The shouting, screaming, pushing, threats and hyperventilating was scary.  Humans.

I simply don’t understand crowd behavior.  Whether it’s F Joe Biden, Let’s Go Brandon, or crushing people to death at concerts, at soccer matches or during a Hajj, … or putting crass bumper stickers on your car because you just know that everyone in your community thinks the same way you do.  These are things that reasonable sane people wouldn’t normally do.  It’s like our brains flip to Locust-mode when we are in crowds.

Houston and crowd deaths. When people die young like this, they don’t go gently. They’ve not had the opportunity to rage against the dying of their own light.  To tell their story.

Live your life!  Rage now!  Soon enough, the sun sets over the horizon.  Live full, so that, as the Kung Fu teacher said: “Death has had no victory, grasshopper.’

The poet Dylan Thomas himself, whom I quoted to begin this essay and alluded to throughout, managed an impressive life and obituary, despite resting his bones forever, barely aged 39.

Grasshopper’s master teacher, from Kung Fu

As always, my best wishes for you.  And avoid crazed crowds.

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

[1] I’ve written about Kevin a few times in this blog and other blogs.  A few I can recall are here, here and here.

[2] Summerfest bills itself as the largest Music Festival in the world.  And they might be right, with attendance approaching one million annually. Although the Donauinselfest (Danube Island Festival) in Vienna has drawn greater attendance in recent years.

[3] I’ve written about my fascination with cemeteries here and death here, among other times, which I cannot find right now.  My mom wrote this nice piece.


Finally, here is Dylan Thomas’s poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas, 1914-1953. The years are close together, but his “dash” contained a full life.

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

[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.  


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

Miscellaneous additional reading:

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


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

Microsoft Word – Taylor Master.doc (

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.]


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.


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


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

[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.


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.


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:

Chicago Weather, Dec 1, 1958  

Maps, classes and students:

Relative Humidity calc:



Jim Grosso interview and recollection:

Roger That

The early 1960s milieu of my youth was certainly different than that of our contemporary turmoil, well over five decades hence. 

For example, some obscure skills regarding road maps were very useful, whether on a cross-country adventure, or just heading out to the next county, or across town. One was being able to find a tiny street somewhere in F-9.  You could not just whip out your mobile phone and ask for directions over that last mile.

Another was to unfold a large detailed map and then re-fold differently so that it could be easily used for navigation; – and then, upon completion, getting it all neatly re-folded again (yes, using the original creases and into the original pattern) without rips or tears so that it could be stored efficiently for multiple future uses. That’s an almost completely lost art.  It required patience, some imagination, and 3-D topological mathematical skills to visualize and execute the folded shapes. 

1960s Road Maps

State maps and city maps often folded differently, and especially so if one was from Texaco, another from Standard Oil, and yet another from Michelin, or from whomever.  If you need a tutorial, find a road map collecting club.  These clubs actually exist.  You can find anything in America. 

I was wondering recently about the children’s cartoon show that we sometimes watched: Roger Ramjet.  I think it was a tangent thought on our nation’s new Space Force (by the way, we’ve effectively had a Space Force since long before President Trump deemed it so). Roger Ramjet was one of countless mindless children’s empty-headed shows that ubiquitously populated the TV Wasteland of the early ‘60s moors (the theme song is right now an earworm in my brain).  The term TV Wasteland was so coined by Newton Minow, the first chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in a famous speech to a Senate subcommittee, in 1961.

The commissioner’s name is part of a humorous twist, from yet another silly brain-dead show for children that jumped into the 1960’s wasteland: Gilligan’s Island. The show’s creator and executive director, Sherwood Schwartz, decided that the name of the tour ship that would survive an ocean storm, and drop seven castaways on an uncharted island, would be named the SS Minnow, in sardonic honor of the Chairman.  

I wondered how Roger Ramjet, both the character and the TV show got their name.  Ramjet was a “hot” word de jour, in those fast-paced technology-war and cold war years.  Simply – I would learn a few years later – a basic sort of turbo charged jet engine, without an actual turbo air-compressing mechanism. 

Our hero: Roger Ramjet

But the name “Roger”, I guessed from early on, was due to Roger’s nature.  Namely military.  Roger was super patriotic, definitely military, painfully loyal and honest, possessed a bizarre superpower, and fought evil. He was also a few cards short of a full deck.  Sort of a US version of RCMP officer Dudley Do-Right (yes, Dudley was from that same TV Wasteland brain dead era).

The military term “Roger”, I (think I) learned from watching popular WW2-themed TV shows like 12 O’clock High and Combat!, which featured radio communications wherein the word “Roger” was used to indicate a message had been received.  R for Roger; R for Received. 

The history and etymology of the word “Roger” in this context is interesting and worthy of an essay in and of itself.  It’s still used today, particularly in aircraft communication.  Variations include Roger Willco (Received, will comply), Roger That, and Roger Dodger.  If its use were to start up from scratch today, it would probably be “Romeo”, as that is the NATO and US Military phonetic alphabet word-based “R.” [US Military phonetic alphabet is a tad different.]

[Since my surname is so often misspelled I am used to giving it as Golf-India-Romeo-Alpha-Romeo-Delta. That gets the job done, and the reply is sometimes: Thank you for your service. To which I must respond: I did not have that honor sir (or ma’am)].

The beginnings of “Roger Dodger” seem apocryphal, but it is a good story, nonetheless. According to legend: a naval pilot was returning from a very successful WW2 mission. Feeling quite jolly and cocky, and upon receiving landing instructions from control, he replied “Roger Dodger.”  Very, very unmilitary.  The reply is simply “Roger.”

Radios of the squadron came alive with the shouting of a senior officer at control who had overheard the wisecrack. Such undisciplined comments are simply not acceptable over military channels.  To which the pilot replied (knowing that his reply was anonymous; it could be from anyone on that frequency): “Roger Dodger, you old codger.”

Another essay foray could be into the use of exclamation points, as in the 1960’s TV show name “Combat!”,  which was my first experience with a formal name or title having an exclamation point; this was decades before Yahoo!, and Yum! type product branding. I was too young and unsophisticated to know of the famous musicals “Oklahoma!” and “Hello Dolly!”  [Soon thereafter would arrive the cookie brand, “Chips Ahoy!”, then came so many it became silly.]

What I recall of Combat! and 12 O’clock High is that they were obviously military oriented … one army air force, the other infantry army.  They were not silly, but very serious. The suffering – both physical and psychological – was real.  Personal struggles. Seeing and dealing with pain, injury, aloneness, death. 

So, how did Roger Ramjet get his name? Did Roger get his name from military roots? No. Like the name “SS Minnow” it was simpler and even less meaningful.  It turns out that the name Roger Ramjet just had a good “ring” to it.  Ramjet was from ramjet, a type of forced-air-breathing jet engine.  And Roger was the name of a reporter (Roger Smith) who joked during an interview with executive producer (Fred Crippen) during the show’s initial creation that the main character’s name should be Roger.  So it was, … and so much for branding back in the day.

“Roger” has made it over to emails and texts – well, at least in mine.  If I reply:  

  • “Roger”, then I received and understood your message.
  • “Roger That”, then I received, understood and I agree.
  • “Roger Dodger”, then I received, understood and I am feeling a bit goofy or lighthearted – or perhaps I think you are being supercilious. But I won’t add “You old codger.”

Peace out

Joe Girard © 2020

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Tony and Farm Boy Records

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

― Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And my mind drifted back to 1966……

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Cloninger, mid-1960s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.  Cheers.

Joe Girard © 2020

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Special Summer

Indian Summer

Idyllic “Indian Summer” image

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

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

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

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

Historic range of the Red Wolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Joe Girard © 2020

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

[2] The story of Lagniappe.

[3] Apologies to song writer Cole Porter, and every great singer-artist who sang it, for poaching and re-appropriating these words.

Indispensable Servants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honor the American Worker

Joe Girard © 2020

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

Nibble on Wisconsin

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

Wisconsin: 1848-present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From there, we’ll track some historical low points to tell the story of how the extent of what would become the great state of Wisconsin got trimmed and nibbled upon – its size reduced by roughly one-half – until it became the 30th star to spangle the nation’s banner, 65 years later, in 1848.

Preliminary notes: Should the reader at any time find this a bit tedious… Then simply stop and scan through to the pretty maps and art so painstakingly gathered and assembled herein.  A very concise history is at the bottom.

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

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


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

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

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

Chapter 1 Wisconsin: part of The Northwest Territory

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

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

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

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

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

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

1800: Northwest Territory split into Ohio and Indiana Territories

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

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

Chapter 2 The trouble with boundaries: Ohio snags extra territory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 4 Michigan Gets its Dander up, the First Time

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

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

Chapter 5 A Continental Divide provokes Illinois aggrandizement

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

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

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

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

North America’s Continental Divides

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

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

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

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

Illinois River watershed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 6 Illinois Becomes a State: a Great Nibble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michigan gets the entire UP, and a bit more!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, Wisconsin’s borders were trimmed much further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Girard © 2020

Bibliography and notes below ….

Time line of the nibbles, with maps:


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

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

[2] Minnesota Territory Map, Minnesota Historical Society, Accessed April 1, 2015,

[3] Illinois Watershed map attributed to USGS



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

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

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

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

Bloody Ramble: from Typos to Chaplin

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Red Blood Cells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Classic Charlie Chaplin Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Until next time, peace to you.

Joe Girard © 2020

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

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

[1] Who discovered the Rh factor?

[2] Possible purpose of Rh proteins:

[3] Blood Types over 20 million years ago:

Could be as recent as 3.5 million years ago:

[4] Charlie Chaplin:

[5] Chaplin paternity, blood tests and court case:

[6] Type-A and COVID-19:

Local Lexicon

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

Public drinking contraption is called a ______?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Kohler, Jr — founder of The Kohler Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________ o _______________________ o _______________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheboygan Press [1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy public drinking.


Joe Girard © 2020

Footnotes and bibliography below.

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

Afterward:  Vollraths

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

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


Analysis: Bobbie and Billie Joe

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

– From Ode to Billie Joe, by Bobbie Gentry

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

Album Cover: Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The first Verse:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Close of the first verse, mama still speaking]

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

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

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


The second verse:

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

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

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

Talahatchee Bridge, Mississippi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Eyed Pea stew, southern style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 3rd verse:

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

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

Bobbie Gentry, on Music Hall TV, 1968

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The 4th verse:

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

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

Mmmmm. Southern biscuits and gravy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover to soundtrack album for movie: Ode to Billy Joe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

So many flowers to pick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Joe Girard © 2020      

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for Joe’s newly published material by clicking here . Or emailing



[1] Some bio links:
Bobby Gentry Found?
Jim Stafford breaks silence on Bobbie Gentry for interview, 1988
[2] Photo citation: By Capitol Records –, PD-US,

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

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


History and Culture: A Vacation in Croatia

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

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

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

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Here’s my attempt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Bled, Slovenia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Girard © 2019

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Belgium: Brugges (Brugge)

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

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

Also: Luxembourg City Center, and Sydney Opera House

Heroes: from Kerr to “The Man”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stan Musial: late in MLB career

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

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


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

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

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

It’s also hard to imagine that there was a hero for the Sox in that Series.  A genuine hero on a team that intentionally tried to lose. But there most certainly was: the diminutive Dickey Kerr. Mostly forgotten now, Kerr was by no means the best pitcher on the 1919 Sox.  Considered a second-tier pitcher, behind the likes of Eddie Cicotte (“Chick”), who won 29 games that season with a 1.82 ERA.  During the series, Chick picked two games to throw poorly at critical moments.

Tiny Dickey Kerr, 1919

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Joe  Girard © 2019

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

Crockett to Court-Martial

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

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

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

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

He was sure he was right.  He went ahead.  In early 1836 Crockett found himself in the Texas frontier, at a compound that had long ago been a Catholic mission called Mission de San Antonio de Valero – a place that came be known as The Alamo.  One of America’s most loved heroes and admired adventurers did not make it to age 50.

I thankfully still have many memories of growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin besides simply watching TV shows like Davey Crockett. Some memories are of the many place and street names.  I was recently reminded of the prevalence of the name “Mitchell” during a trip to Milwaukee, on the occasion of a class reunion for the 45th anniversary of our high school graduation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of The Milwaukee Road’s logos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Mitchell: Aviation Visionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Joe Girard © 2019

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

Taking Flak: Denver Names and History

I’ll probably take some flak for writing this essay.  Oh well, I have before, and I probably will again. 

Recently I took a bus to downtown Denver for an event.  Why the bus? Traffic and parking anywhere near there are just another form of self-inflicted brain damage. And I don’t need any more of that than is absolutely necessary. Just ask my wife; or my neurologist.

Just after exiting I-25, the bus came to a stop right behind center field of the baseball stadium called Coors Field – the Colorado Rockies’ home park.  I got to wondering about the street names at the intersection:  Park and Wewatta.

Surely Park was not named after the ball park.  That didn’t come until 1995. So … what was the street named after? Or for?  I could not think of a significant park along its diagonal path, from northwest to southeast. In fact, after consulting a map, it does not have one. It surely did not really come that close to City Park, or the Park Hill neighborhoods.   

What to say about Denver’s Park Avenue? How many times did Audrey and I traverse its entire length en route to the old Children’s Hospital?  How many grains of sand in a bucket?

First to discuss is the non-cardinal direction of Park Avenue, and all the streets in downtown Denver.  The city, and its twin – competing – city Auraria, were founded during the early years of the first Colorado gold rush, in the late 1850s, at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek – water being very important to civilization in the arid west.  The original streets naturally ran parallel and perpendicular to the water flow there: Cherry Creek enters the South Platte at nearly a right angle; Cherry Creek flowing from southeast to northwest, and the South Platte flowing from southwest to northeast.

Streets were numbered moving northeast away from the city’s southwest-most corner. The street that would one day be called Park Avenue was then called 23rd street.  Around 1873 there was a major city effort on improving street naming conventions, and – for reasons I have yet to discover – 23rd street was re-named Park Avenue.

I found a great interactive map of Denver made in 1878 with almost infinite zoom – I surely thought that would help me. But there were no parks along Park Avenue. 

Park Avenue does cross over the the South Platte River, and its flood plain. Maybe some land there was set aside – as a sort of park – before the railyard there became so expansive. Surely you wouldn’t build where it could flood.  [There has not been a severe flood of Denver from the South Platte since 1965.  Flood control has improved greatly.  Building on that flood plain used to be a dicey proposition. Now it is cluttered with buildings, many of them apartments and condos].

Perhaps it was wishful thinking about “Parks of times yet to come” –  (Denver does, indeed, have many parks) – maybe someday there would be a park at the end of the Park Avenue.  The “end” is where it meets Colfax Avenue, and yields to the more traditional North-South-East-West grid found throughout the rest of the Denver area, and many “planned cities” everywhere.  

Or perhaps, Park Avenue was named after something else. 

Plenty of things in America, particularly the west, are named after other things and other places well-known further east – whether “further east” is somewhere in America, or across the Atlantic.  One of our former “hometowns” – Erie, Colorado – was named after Erie, Pennsylvania … each one hardly a “wonderland.”

“Park” is the fifth most common street name in the United States, according to the National League of Cities (NLC).  [Oddly, #1 on the list is “Second”, or “2nd”.  I assume “First” sometimes gets renamed to Front, or Main, as it is still is #3 on the list].

Probably the most well-known Park-named street is Park Avenue, linking Manhattan and Harlem in New York. And indeed, it was named after a park – sort of, anyhow.  It was originally 4th Avenue, but a rail line was built along its length in the 1830s, connecting the two neighborhoods.  To minimize slope, a cut was made through Murray Hill.  Once the rail line was in, it was covered with grates and grass in the 1850s, which became a sort of common area known as “the park.”  Grand Central Station is there now.

I cannot tell you why Denver’s street is called Park Avenue. For now, I’m going with Denver’s Park Avenue being named after New York’s famous and more glamorous Park Avenue.

It’s a bit quicker to get the source of the names of three “W” streets lumped close together, starting with the intersection where the bus stopped, near Coors Field: those are Wewatta, Wynkoop and Wazee Streets.

 Wynkoop Street.   Edward Wynkoop was one of the first white settlers in Denver, one of its founders, and was appointed the first sheriff of the county and territory in which Denver lay at the time (Arapahoe County, Kansas Territory). 

When the Civil War broke out, and there seemed to be a need for soldiers (there were actually some battles in the west), Wynkoop was part of the 1st Colorado Volunteer Cavalry and became an officer.  Both as sheriff and as commander at Fort Lyons in Colorado (some 150 miles to the southeast of Denver), he tried – in vain – to promote peaceful relations between Denverites and the local Amerindians, mostly the Arapahoe tribes. 

Unfortunately, in late 1864, he was re-assigned further east, to Fort Riley (in modern day Kansas).  Only a few weeks later, on November 29, 1864, one of the saddest, bloodiest, and tragic crimes in Colorado history was perpetrated near Fort Lyons along the banks of Sand Creek.  Under the “leadership” of John Chivington, several hundred mostly Arapahoe and Cheyenne Amerindians, who had camped near Ft Lyon under the promise of protection, were attacked and butchered without warning.  We still mourn the event, a black spot on America’s soul and history, now known as the Sand Creek Massacre. 

The location is now, finally, federally protected as a National Historical Site, and part of the National Park System.

Not exactly a savory bit of history, but it closes the loop on the Wynkoop street name.  To put a better looking ribbon on the story we’ll continue, to well over 100 years later. 1988, a few guys with an urge to make beer, and not much else to do, got together and founded the first micro-brewery in Colorado: Wynkoop Brewery, right there on Wynkoop Street.  One of those guys was an unemployed, laid off geologist named John Hickenlooper.  After a very successful business career at Wynkoop, he went on to become mayor of Denver, governor of Colorado and is currently a candidate for president of the United States.  It seems likely that “Hick” will change horses and run for US Senator … we shall see.

Wynkoop Brewery is still a fantastic setting to have a craft beer, chat with Kurt the bartender about ANYTHING related to sports, get a burger, and catch up with friends.  And it’s only a few blocks from many good things to do and see in Denver, including catch a Rockies game at Coors Field.

Wazee, Wewatta.  Another of Denver’s founders and early residents was a “mountain man” who began life in Scotland, William McGaa (Also known as McGau). He kept moving farther and farther west, finally settling at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte. He had lived, on-and-off for several years, among the Arapahoe. He had a reputation as a rather unruly vagrant. 

He began naming some early streets, including one after himself and two after his Arapahoe wives, naming three parallel streets (evidently skipping a block each time) as McGaa, Wazee and Wewatta.  McGaa’s own street (where he apparently lived a while) became quite notorious as a street full of grifters, drunks, prostitutes and gamblers.  At the time it carried the nickname “America’s most lawless street.”

[According to legend, McGaa also named Champa after himself, claiming it was one of his Amerindian names. Champa is still called that today]

The names of his Arapahoe wives, Wazee and Wewatta, still adorn downtown Denver street signs over 150 years later.  McGaa, ever the prototypical, free-spirited, western mountain man, was not really cut-out for city living – even a city as new and raw as Denver.  He himself was a regular rapscallion there on McGaa Street; notorious for his excessive drinking, gaming and womanizing.

Not unsurprisingly, McGaa kicked-off a tad young, age 43, in 1867.  Upon his death, and seeing no reason to preserve his name, Denver changed the street name to Holladay.  This was to honor Ben Holladay, a successful businessman who had developed the Overland Stagecoach Trail and the Overland Mail Trail. Denver essentially recognized his – and the trails’ – contributions to the city’s early economic development.

Overland Trail as spur to Oregon/California Trails

Unfortunately, due to the circumstances of the era – and unfortunately for Holladay himself – the street continued to be home to much of Denver’s amoral behavior and business.  Two years after Holladay’s death, and under petition from Holladay’s family, the city changed the name again, in 1889, to Market Street. Not really being a market street, per se, city historians believe this was done with a smirk and a wink to acknowledge all the “activities” going on there.  It still carries that name Market, yet now has a much cleaner image.

There’s an old saying “If you are taking flak, then you must be close to the target.” Flak is an interesting word, isn’t it?  You, dear reader, might feel like flinging some “flak” at me right now. In that case, I’m over the target.

It’s a term that comes from WW2, and it’s interesting that we English speakers don’t use the term “ack-ack” instead.  Both terms have similar military jargon origins. 

In early electronic communication – both telephonic and wireless – words, and even spelling, could be confusing.  The Brits came up with using “ack” instead of saying the letter “a”; because even saying “a” could be misinterpreted (like a bad cell phone connection), especially given dialects which might prefer “ah”, “ay” or even “eh”.  Anti-Aircraft fire simply became abbreviated as “ack-ack”, which they started using in WW1.  Somehow, we Americans never really picked it up, not doing much flying “over there.”

Flak has a more curious germination. I deciphered it recently while wading through William Manchester’s exceeding dense history of Germany’s most famous industrialist family, the Krupps.  Flak comes directly from German “Fliegerabwehrkanonen”; or literally “Flight Defense Cannons.”  Germans, of course, having that propensity to smash words together. In there we can detect Cannons (Kanonen), Defense (Abwehr) and Flight (Fleig-) … in this just a single word!  [As usual, almost always in reverse order of significance: just think: Flieger Abwehr Kanonen; Or: guns defending against flight … easy, huh?].

How or why the Allies began using the German term “flak” is still a mystery to me.  But, it does seem to have better flow and onomatopoetic value, does it not?

Well I’ve drifted rather a long way from Park, Wewatta, Wazee, Denver, baseball and apple pie. So, I’d better quit before I catch any flak – which originally would refer to the guns that are shooting at us,  – and not  the nasty stuff that might hit us!

Peace, take care, and remember: if you’re taking ack-ack, you’re close to the target!

Joe Girard © 2019

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Nat King Cole had perhaps the sweetest and smoothest voice of all the 20th century American male singers. His voice easily evokes feelings of warm, genuine love.  I’d vote him to the top of that class of crooner. After all, I’ve admitted before that I am a hopeless, sentimental romantic.

Nat King Cole, 1952 — as good looking as his voice

Some people attribute his tone and resonance to a rugged life that spared neither alcohol nor heavy smoking (he died of lung cancer, in 1965, shortly before reaching age 46). That is simply not true.  Cole was truly gifted and worked hard at his craft.  For evidence I submit the sweet and professional voice of his daughter, Natalie Cole.

I have a Pandora station that I like to play at low key get-togethers and quiet evenings that include, among other genres, some harmonica-based blues, ‘70s soft rock, ballads, bossa nova, and love songs. Cole’s voice comes up frequently.  I’m never disappointed.


The year 1911 stood at the twilight of the Edwardian Era, ‘twixt the death of King Edward and the outbreak of The Great War. That year an amateur musician named Charles Dawes composed a little instrumental tune for violin and piano that he called, simply, “Melody in A Major.” Dawes was a self-taught pianist and flautist who composed merely as a hobby. The tune become somewhat popular in his lifetime.

That Dawes should have success in far-flung fields would not come as a surprise to anyone who knew him.  Born in Ohio in 1865 just after the close of the Civil War, he was the son of a hero and general of that nationally tragic and transforming war. After college and then law school Dawes went off to Nebraska – a frontier land of opportunity. There, in Lincoln, he established himself as a successful lawyer and made friendships with both John “Black Jack” Pershing (who would go on to command all US forces in WW1) and Williams Jennings Bryan (who would go on to promote Free Silver – i.e. liberal monetary policy— and thrice secure the Democratic Party nomination for president of the United States, eventually serving as both Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, and, later, as prosecuting attorney in the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial”).

Dawes also got interested in business.  An opportunist, he moved to Evanston, Illinois (just north of Chicago) during the 1893 Panic, and began acquiring interest in various companies at bargain prices, beginning with a slew of gas companies. Success gained him attention, and in 1896 he managed the Illinois presidential campaign of William McKinley (against his Nebraska friend, Bryan). From McKinley’s win, he was rewarded by being named Treasury Department’s Officer of the Currency. In this roll he was able to recover many millions of dollars that banks had lost during the ’93 Panic.

Dawes resigned from the administration in 1901 to set up a run for Senator. He believed the timing was right, since he had McKinley’s support (who had been recently re-elected and was hugely popular). But McKinley was assassinated at the World’s Fair in Buffalo in September of that year.  The new president, Theodore Roosevelt, would not be supporting Dawes (this was before direct election of Senators). Dawes fell in his attempt to become Illinois’ 16th Senator to fellow Republican Albert Hopkins.

He returned to business, expanding into banking and investment management, forming the Central Trust Company of Illinois.

When Dawes wrote “Melody in A Major” in 1911, he was already a successful lawyer, businessman, banker and government official. 


June 1, 2019 – It’s late evening and my wife and I are relaxing in the Colorado mountains. She’s doing a little work on her computer. I’m reading Le Ly Hayslip’s autobiographical book, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (subtitled: A Viet Nam Woman’s Journey from War to Peace). 

We’re listening to the aforementioned Pandora station, when a beautiful and well-arranged father-daughter duet comes on: When I Fall in Love (it will be forever), sung by Nat and Natalie Cole.  That duet, which won a Grammy in 1997, was made possible by the magic of technology, since Nat had passed away some 30 years earlier.

I wondered if it’s true. Does “falling in love” last forever?  It makes a nice tune, but ….

I put the book down.  Le Ly had mostly terrible luck with men.  And more than just a few. Can someone be simultaneously in love with more than one person?  Like Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Berman) in Casablanca?  Or Dr Zhivago (Omar Shariff) in the eponymous movie? What about falling in love multiple times?  Does that count? What does falling in love even mean?  It’s June 1, the birthday of the young lady I fell for in 1978.  I still remember so many details, even her birthday, and I still have many fond memories and a small place for her in my heart.  Does that count?  Probably not.  No matter how far, or hard, you fall, it’s not love if it can’t be returned.

My one forever love is Audrey.

Why do I even ponder these things?  Is it because I’m a hopelessly sentimental romantic?

A half dozen songs later and Nat comes on again, this time with “It’s All in the Game” – with the great lyrics “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the game”— as in the “game” of falling in love.  No one said it would be easy.

Cole’s smooth voice and recording is one of many covers – and perhaps the best – of a 1958 hit song by Tommy Edwards; others had recorded it as well, but the Edwards version made it to #1 on the charts in both the United States and England. 

The song (often simply called “Game”) had actually been lying around since 1951. That’s the year that songwriter Carl Sigman put lyrics to a decades old melody with no words.  It was a tune that had been lying around since 1911; a tune called “Melody in A Major.”


Established as a successful banker and businessman with a can-do attitude, Dawes was made chief of Procurement and Supply Management for “Black Jack” Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force during the Great War.  He achieved the rank of Brigadier General by war’s end. 

Charles Dawes

After the war, he returned his attention temporarily to private business, only to be appointed to be the first ever Director of the Budget, in 1921 by President Harding.  This is now called the Office of Budget Management.  Dawes helped grow the bureau into one of the most important serving under the president: producing the president’s budget, tracking expenses against the budget, and monitoring and tracking the efficiency of the many agencies that serve every president’s administration.

By 1923 Germany was in great economic distress:  hyperinflation, vastly diminished industrial capability,  unable to pay reparations. Dawes was assigned to a commission to figure out what to do for Germany.  Excessive war reparations and allied occupation of industrial districts had ruined the economy.  The situation led to social and political – as well as economic – instability; it inspired Hitler to attempt the Beer Hall Putsch.

The commission’s plan, which came to be known as the Dawes Plan, called for complete re-organization of the German national bank (Reichsbank) and a reset on their currency, to be anchored by a loan from the United States. Re-industrialization was begun as was acceleration of France’s de-occupation of the Ruhr district. Concessions from the French also allowed for slower, more gradual, and less painful reparations.

As a result of the Plan’s success, Charles Dawes was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925. 

Dawes’ star was shining.  At the Republican convention in June, 1924 he was chosen to be the running mate to Calvin Coolidge in that fall’s election.  He then served as Vice President of the United States (and president of the Senate) for the next four years.

Dawes also served in the Hoover administration that followed, first as ambassador to England and, later, as head of the newly formed Reconstruction Finance Corporation to help fight the depression.

After leaving the Hoover administration he served on many industrial and bank boards and continued running his own banking businesses from his home in Evanston, until his death, in 1951. 

Not coincidentally, Sigman was inspired by Dawes’ lifetime of accomplishment and wrote the lyrics to complete Dawes’ “Melody in A Major” shortly after he learned of Dawes’ passing.

Charles Dawes had a remarkable life. And if you remember him for one thing, well, here’s something that might help you in a trivia contest: Dawes is the only person in history to have co-written a song that made it to #1 on the charts, served as Vice-President of the United States, and been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.   

This sentimental romantic wishes you all a lifetime of fulfillment and fully requited love.


Joe Girard © 2019

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Berlin and Verbs

My wife and I returned from a fairly short trip to Belin last week.  I guess I’d be remiss in my attempts to get back into writing if I didn’t take this opportunity to share and muse a little bit.

We took the opportunity to take in quite a few sites, take some guided history walking tours, visit some museums, monuments, memorials and a handful of the countless Christmas Markets.

I must tell you that Berlin in December is very cool, wet, usually breezy and quite dark.  The sun is “up and out” only about 7 hours per day, but that is misleading.  It’s usually very cloudy.  That might explain the love of Glühwien (German mulled wine, nice and hot).  Berliners don’t seem phased by it at all.  They are out living life.  The tourists, and many ex-pats, too.  Only a few people we met were actually native Berliners (and three of those were tour guides).

Since the 2014 car crash I’ve been attempting to learn German.  I thought I had a good foundation from High School and a semester at university.  Au contraire … or however you say that in German: Gegen something, I suppose. Just a hobby to keep my brain engaged and plastically growing.

I here in advance apologize to any German speakers.

One of the many ways to approach much of the vocabulary is through verbs. It’s a lure, since at first glace it seems like the language doesn’t really have that many root verbs; and each verb has so many subtle differences that one could hope that there is a little learning magic there.  First, let me disabuse you of that notion.  There are many unfruitful approaches to learning German, especially if one is looking for learning magic.  I don’t know of any fruitful approaches.  At least at my age.  But I digress.

Back to verbs.  If one is to think, then that is the basic German verb “denken”.  If one is to remember, that is another more difficult verb “errinern.”

Unfortunately, this second verb, errineren, is somewhat more difficult to use than your “normal” German verb, since it is a mandatory “reflexive verb”, which means you don’t ever just say “somebody remembers something”; instead you have say “somebody remembered themself of something.”  [Jemand erinnert sich an etwas.] Awkward, yes, but German is full of these little pitfalls.

The following list of verbs are made from the extensive list of mandatory reflexive verbs: a) to be interested, b) to be happy, c) to sit down … etc. Of course! You do all these things to yourself.  It’s all quite simple, as explained on sites like (Ha, that site name should have #sarcasm in it).  There they have thousands of words dedicated to something most languages find totally unnecessary and get along quite fine without.  Namely, mandatory reflexive verbs. But again, I digress.  (German can do that to you).

Anyhow, it’s a start.  Think and remember.  Denken and Errinern.

In Berlin there are many memorials, monuments and commemorative sites.  There’s a lot to remember: the first Reich, the second Reich, the wild ’20s, the Third Reich, the Reichstag, the Holocaust, the splitting of city as well as a country, the thumb of Soviet influence, the Berlin Airlift.

“Street Art” is usually very good in Berlin, the former East Berlin, that is.

The places are identified by using the roots of these two verbs.  One place might be a Denkmal or Gedenkstätte, which one supposes are the sort of memorials intended to stimulate thought.  And another place might be an Errinerungsstätte, which are places to preserve memory of someone or something.  One of our tour guides informed us of a third word form for very special places like this: Mahnmal.  According to him this is a rather contrived word – a portmanteau, if you like – of Mahnung and Denkmal.  The source of the front of this third word, Mahnmal – namely Mahnung – is not a verb at all, but rather a noun.  It means “warning” or “reminder.” How appropriate, because much of what is to be remembered and thought about in Berlin should also serve as a stern warning: never, ever again.

Let’s spend time with one more German verb, which is “fahren” and means to drive, or to travel. One reason I chose it is because its simple root, “fahr”, forms the first part of a very fun word that many Americans have heard quite often, “Fahrvergnügen” (Vergnügen meaning “pleasure” or “fun.”  Hey Volkswagen, you’re welcome!)

The other reason I chose fahren is because it leads us nearly everywhere.  Add “Aus” to the front and you get a snicker from English speakers: Ausfahrt.  This would be an exit.  Add Ein for Einfahrt and you get an entrance.  (These only apply if one is driving.  If you are walking it’s Austritt and Eintritt; and in general it’s Ausgang and Eingang – Tritt based on the verb to step, and Gang based on the verb to go.)

Tweak the vowel, a to ü, and you get führen, which means “to lead” … a clear path to Führer, one who leads. So your tour guide is your Reiseführer, a guided tour is a Führung.

See, Fahren can take you anywhere.

Tweak the vowel a little differently to get fähre, which is a Ferry (and that’s pretty much how you’d say it, too).

There are dozens of little prefixes you can toss onto the front of a verb to tweak its meaning, overhaul its meaning, or, sometimes, not change its essential meaning at all. That’s German for you.  For example, add an Ab prefix for abfahren and you get the verb “to depart.”  Which I guess is what it’s time for me to do now.  The noun, departure, is just wonderful: Abfahrt.

Gute Fahrt!

Be well,

Joe Girard © 2018

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The Brezhnev-Honecker kiss of socialist brotherly love … or the kiss death. As depicted on wall art (Mauerkunst).




Looking Forward

1967: It was found in the south part of the city, in the attic of the oldest part of a mid-19th century mansion.  Thanks to a grassroots groundswell, the mansion survived the routing of the new Interstate Highway – I-55 but just barely.

During restorations to preserve this structure representing local history, and to make it into a museum, an electrician found a large bundle of buffalo leather.  Something was preserved inside, wrapped carefully in the skins. Miraculously, the contents were nearly perfectly preserved – despite six score years – as they were otherwise unprotected from the wild temperature and humidity swings of the mid-Mississippi basin climate.



1846: America’s vast western plains

Her name was Mathó-shina (Bear Robe), short for “She who wears a Bear Robe.” She was the daughter of one Lakota chief and sister to another.  She was young – probably mid-20s – a mother and a wife; with bright, dark piercing eyes that hinted at great intelligence and determination.

There, on American wind and storm-swept western plains, in a large tipi made of buffalo skins and lodge pole pines harvested by her father, she lay dying of a lung infection.  Witness accounts that have reached us today say that there is no reason she should be alive, lingering among her people and family for so many, many days … breathless, not even speaking.  Yet she did. She tenaciously clung to life … waiting … waiting. Her father had sent out a search team; she was waiting for their return.


Henri Chatillon was one of those adventurous souls who had roamed the west for nearly twenty years since leaving his home in Carondolet, Missiouri (now a neighborhood on Saint Louis’ most south-eastern extent) where he had been born to a famous French family.  He left home at age 15 to trap and hunt for furs.  He worked for both himself and eventually for large enterprises like the American Fur Company.

Over that time, he had learned the languages of many of the plains’ tribes; and there was enough cross-over that he could communicate and be friendly with virtually all of them.  Never underestimate what a determined, yet largely illiterate person, can accomplish.

That year, 1846, two young easterners, Francis Parkman and Quincy Adams Shaw – both recently out of Harvard – were passing through Saint Louis en route to “the west.”  They wanted to see the buffalos, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Who knew how long the buffalos would survive, or the west would remain pristine? It was the sort of a “rite of passage” journey that two young twenty-somethings who had a privileged life and zest for adventure might undertake.  It was also ignorant.  They had no idea what they were doing or getting into.

Fortunately for them, Chatillon was briefly back home and they crossed paths in St Louis. Probably out of mercy – or pity – Chatillon agreed to be their guide.  And off they went, mostly along the Oregon Trail, toward the great Rocky Mountains.

Somewhere out on the plains a young Lakota man on horseback found them.  He had an urgent message for Chatillon.  Your wife is dying.

The small group immediately terminated their tour and headed off, toward eastern Wyoming, to find Bear Robe’s tribe.

They arrived to find her still struggling for each breath, struggling for life … and still lacking the energy to talk.

Chatillon was tired and very sad – upon arrival he also learned that their young child had just died. Strengthened by love, devotion and duty, he spent that entire night awake with his wife. Inexplicably, she regained the strength to speak with him.

They spoke of many things that night, but all of it we cannot know.  The next morning, Parkman and Bear Robe’s father came into the tipi to find Chatillon holding her … and just in time to see the death rattle of her final breath.


I’ve long thought that death, for many people, can be pushed off until some special event is reached.  And, as a corollary, that people who have nothing to look forward to (or have to wait a long time for something “special”) might experience a higher death rate.

It turns out there has been some research to suggest that this is true. I’ve listed a few citations. The most likely days to die are: your birthday [1] ; right after Christmas (or New Years’) [2] ; and I postulate other major family events, like weddings.

With regard to special relationships – like courtship and marriage – I suspect that if our experience is a valid data point, then having something to look forward to is just as important to the relationship as it is to life itself.

Looking forward.  It means a lot.

During a whirlwind courtship (49 weeks from first date to engagement) Audrey’s and my relationship fell to tatters at least twice.  Each time it was resurrected by having something to look forward to.

First, we had committed (both financially and training) to climb Mount Rainier together.  Although we had fallen on rough times, the fact that we were looking forward to the climb – and achieving it – brought us closer together, even if only for one more time.  Neither one of us would back out. It was a time of re-connecting.

Audrey and Joe atop Mt Ranier, July 31, 1982. Ignorant of the eventual long term significance of this event and picture, I am so-o-o-o glad that I had the presence of mind to lean close and put my arm around the love of my life.

Second, a few months later, in November, I needed a knee surgery and “wisely” scheduled it the day before Thanksgiving, so that I could recover with minimal time off work.  OK – not so wisely.  Not wise at all: when you have surgery, you need someone to drive you home. Every friend I contacted had conflicting commitments.

I needed Audrey, even though we were on the “outs.”  So, I called her and we had something to look forward to, even if it was post-surgery rescue.  Yes, she rescued me – and our relationship.  Picking me up from the hospital and taking me to her parents’ house for the turkey and stuffing festivities. Again, it was a time of re-connecting.

Thinking back, it’s always been that way. There have always been “rough patches” here and there.  But we endure.  And largely because we always have had some major event or trip to look forward to.  For that, almost all the credit goes to Audrey.

When things are rough, there’s no sense looking around – or looking backward – to find where any blame might lie.  Best to keep your eyes and attention forward.

My suggestion is to make whatever you are looking forward to not general (like retirement, or take a trip), but specific: Climb a certain mountain, bicycle a specific location, make a specific person feel special on a specific date, tour a special place.

For a long and rewarding life anyhow.

Here’s looking forward to many more adventures and uplifting life experiences for all of us.  It’s a simple thing we can do to keep us going.


Joe Girard © 2018


Epilogue and afterthoughts:

After Bear Robe died, Chatillon returned to St Louis and settled down.  In gratitude, Parkman gave him his Hawken rifle – a true prize possession.

Chatillon commissioned a painting of Bear Robe.  It was soul-piercing. It showed a handsome sad-eyed man in quiet, mournful reflection gazing into space – and a beautiful squaw looking down, trying to offer consolation.

Henri Chatillon found a new wife, and had a house built on the main road half-way between St Louis and Carondelet.

Chatillon’s new wife had no interest in his past life, including his past wife.  Now having a full life to look forward to with his new bride … Chatillon tenderly wrapped the painting and the rifle in his best buffalo leathers.  He “buried” the bundle in the attic of his new house; and he buried the memories of his past life in his heart – only to be brought out in private solitary moments, and never to be spoken of again. With some anguish, he let go of his past.

“Bear Robe’s Death” — I believe the artist is unknown.

Parkman wrote of his adventures out west in a book that became wildly popular: “The Oregon Trail”, published in 1849. It provides much of what we know of Chatillon and Bear Robe. It’s still in print and available for a reasonable price.

About 10 years later, Chatillon sold the house to the DeMenil family, who enlarged it into a magnificent mansion.  You can get a guided tour of the Chatillon-DeMenil mansion — and learn some fascinating St Louis, mid-west and western history — March 1 through December 31 most weekdays and weekends.

To contact Joe just email him at

You can add yourself to the “New Essay Notification List” by clicking here.

Citations and bibliographical kind of stuff:
[1] The Birthday Effect:

[2] Post holiday deaths: Giving up.

[3] The Holiday Effect:


Brief and Fragile

Food makes its way through the 30-foot alimentary canal at an average rate of 0.00023 miles per hour. Kind of slow. That’s about one-third the speed of a standard garden snail, if it could crawl for 24 hours without stopping, which is about the duration of an average trip down the canal. But snails usually don’t do that (they are ambitiously lazy), so – one assumes – food moves through you at about a snail’s pace.

After chewing, the first part of the digestive process along the canal is the protein enzymes carried by one’s saliva. In addition to the enzymes that begin breaking down carbohydrates, the mucus they produce helps facilitate swallowing. Although we each have thousands of salivary glands, there are six major glands that produce most of our saliva, and they come in three pairs:

  1. The Parotid Glands, which are wrapped around the mid- to aft part of the mandible (lower jaw)
  2. The Submandibular Glands, located just above the Adams Apple, each about one inch off center, to the side, sort of astride the chin area.
  3. The Sublingual Glands, which – as you might suspect – are under the tongue. They are toward the front.

These glands produce some 90-95% of our saliva. The submandibular glands produce about two-thirds of that; most of its juice is enzymes for digestion, not watery mucus for swallowing.


My wife and I just returned from a long out-and-back road trip to the Pacific Northwest. The primary reason was to pick up some of her mother’s furniture. Over a few days, we were able to visit with several dear friends and all her family who still live in the area. The weather was spectacular: we were able to really enjoy some typically Seattle touristy things: Lake Union boat tour, Pike Place Market, Elliot Bay and Snoqualmie Falls.

We also made a wide swing on the return leg to see Crater Lake. A place we’d never been to – but always wanted to – despite several previous vacation trips through Oregon. Simply stunning. Gorgeous. We had fantastic weather … again.

When a couple who are dear friends of ours (she arranged for Audrey and me to meet in 1982) found out where we were (thanks Facebook!), they made the three-hour trip from northern California to visit with us in Oregon. Hadn’t seen them since April, 1984.


I was reminded on this trip, yet again, how brief and fragile an individual’s life is here on our home planet. And not just because we made another trip to Tahoma National Cemetery, where we visited Audrey’s parents’ final resting place, and again walked the beautifully maintained grounds to look at various tombstones and enjoy quiet “alone time”, meditating and rolling thoughts around while on the sacred tracts.

Even considering that many of those buried there died in military service, or shortly thereafter, the average lifespan shown was only about 70 years. That’s only about 1% of the length of recorded history. Yet only about 0.1% of the duration of the Homo Sapiens Sapiens sub-species. And only about 0.000001% the age of the earth.

Life is brief.

Yet on a beautiful Sunday evening I was also reminded that life is fragile.

I’m in pretty good shape. Good diet. Extraordinary exercise discipline. Good BMI. Good BP. Solid core. Probably should drink a little less.

Yet on that Sunday evening I felt unusually tired and lay down for a short power nap. Short? I was down over an hour.

Upon awaking, my tongue felt thick and uncoordinated. Aside my tongue felt sore. I did the stroke test: smiled in the mirror. All good and symmetric. I went outside the house for a social gathering, greeted everyone, and took a piece of cheese from what remained on the snack plate. They had been waiting on me to commence with the meal. I felt awkward.

But I felt more awkward when the cheese would not go down my gullet. And some got stuck under my tongue. I suddenly felt difficulty breathing and talking, as well as swallowing.

I put my hand up to my throat – why? – to find that underneath the left side of my jaw was enormously swollen. Pushing painfully into the swelling I could discern a substantial hard mass. Lymph nodes?

When I showed Audrey – she who could see how large it was – she decided immediately: we are going to an Emergency Room. So off we immediately go to Overlake Hospital, Bellevue Washington.

As the swelling continued growing, the gentle yet attentive Doctor Chang told me that these things often get worse before they get better. As that would be life threatening, he gently suggested that I should spend the night in hospital.

I responded: Gee Doc, I don’t know. This is our first date.

He smiled, briefly. Then shot me a serious look.

“OK, if I need to.”

At first, he thought it was an immune reaction to a medication I have been taking for many years. Apparently common. But, as a precaution against a possible infection, he ordered a CT scan.

Over two hours later the results came in. Yes, I did have an infection (even though I had no fever). Right near the infection that nearly killed me after a dental procedure some four and a half years ago. I still bear the scar on my jaw, under tooth #18.

So … here’s what happened. The enzymes and such carried by salivary glands can crystallize into tiny, tiny stones. Which can block the duct. Which backs up. And then gets infected. That dang left submandibular salivary gland! Of course, I should have known (actually, I had no freaking idea; I had to look all of this up).

What causes this? Apparently, age is a big indicator: I’m no spring chicken. Also, dehydration. Well, it had been very hot and dry in Colorado recently, and I’d been working out … a lot. So, it all fits.

I had a very positive reaction to the IV anti-biotic and steroids. In a few hours I was released – well after midnight – to the care of my loving wife.

Now, suppose we had been driving through the middle of nowhere (as we often were on this trip) or on a long hike or backpack trip – without cell service.

That would have been very serious indeed.

On oral anti-biotics the swelling reduced to nil over a few days. A week of pills and it’s all gone. So, don’t worry about me.

I get my annual physical next week. Can’t wait to tell them about this one.

Life is fragile. Life is short. Hug, call, or write someone special in your life. I’m writing to you.

Wishing y’all get all your days, which are numbered at only about 29,000, on average. That’s not a large number.

Joe Girard © 2018


To contact Joe just email him at

You can add yourself to the “New Essay Notification List” by clicking here.

Last At Bat, Good Sport

Three remarkable young women
+ Two unlikely events
+ One selfless decision
One unforgettable moment in sports history
Plus two great life lessons

“Being nice matters and I think sometimes our society forgets that.” – Mallory Holtman-Fletcher

Central Washington University is a medium-sized state university of some 10,000 students.  It is a solid school, providing a breadth of education to students for about 150 different majors. It provides fantastic value; it was recently rated by The Economist magazine as providing the most positive economic impact on its students of all colleges and universities in the state of Washington. It offers 17 NCAA sports, usually competing at the Division-II level. You don’t hear a lot of noise from or about CWU; they just go about their job, doing it well and moving along just fine, thank you.

Central Washington University’s Historic Barge Hall

Students and alumni of other Washington state schools often disparagingly refer to CWU as “Car Wash State.”  But CWU, staff, students and grads don’t mind much.  And they don’t retaliate.  It is a respectable school.

Ellensburg, Washington – located just over 100 miles east of Seattle, across the Cascade Range, where the mountains blend into the drier Kittitas Valley, and then to the even drier and flatter semi-desert of eastern Washington – is the host city to CWU.  Ellensburg is a small, functional and well-located town of under 20,000 hearty souls.  Ellensburg is a lot like CWU to me: there is no chest-thumping, no braggadocio, no flash.  Just simple efficiency.  Folks from Seattle and other towns west of the Cascades often like to knock it – sometimes as they breeze past on Interstate-90 – as a nothing, sleepy town.  As the equivalent of fly-over country for road trips.

Due to a fleeting, shiny fleck of personal history, both CWU and Ellensburg will forever occupy a tiny, but special, place in my heart.  A soft spot.  Let’s call that soft spot a piece of cake.

Due to one of the most unlikely series of events (and sportsmanship) in all of NCAA history – if not all of sports history – that Ellensburg/CWU piece of cake now has a nice crown of icing.  Very tasty.

There are a lot of sports that I don’t pay much attention to, except maybe into and through the playoffs when the best teams are playing, and they have something important to play for. NCAA Women’s Softball is one of those sports.  I’ll catch a glimpse when in a sports bar, or channel flipping. Then I’m like a moth around a late-night light: I just can’t help myself. My attention is drawn to the pure athleticism and grace of the players under pressure; the pace of the game; the strategies and the drama.  Perhaps their reflexes are the most impressive.  Pitchers can throw the ball – underhand mind you – at speeds that approach major league pitch speeds.  But the pitching rubber is some 14 feet closer than the majors! What a softball pitcher can make that ball do as it speeds along that distance of 46 feet at 80+ mph is astonishing! The pitches rise; they dip; they slip, and they slide. How do batters even touch the ball?

One thing that always amazes me is the size and physique of so many of the young women.  I’ve always thought that most of the better players could swap uniforms with their school’s football players and you could use them as actors in making a realistic movie about linebackers.

I knew of the following story, and at least one other somewhat similar.  Somehow, I forgot almost completely about it.  But sportsmanship in competitive dramatic moments came up in a conversation with my wife recently, and my non-linear brain pulled up this story and quite a few details.  At first, I contorted my brain to try and recall much more. Well the internet is an astounding resource.  After finding many more details there, including some school records, I was overcome with the urge to write it down.


When the Western Oregon University women’s softball team traveled to Ellensburg to play a double-header against Central Washington University on April 26, 2008, the teams were neck-and-neck for the season conference title, which would end in about a week.  It was a special day at CWU: Senior Day.  Their seniors were being honored as they would be playing the final home games of their career.

Playing first base for CWU that day was senior Mallory Holtman.  During those last few weeks of the season she was playing through terrific pain.  She really needed two knee surgeries. Those would have to wait; she did not want to let herself or her team down.  She wanted one last chance for a conference championship. She was certainly one of the stars of the team – in fact the entire Great Northwestern Athletic Conference.  At the time she was the conference’s all-time home run and RBI leader; she is still the all-time conference leader in those statistics. At season’s end she was chosen the GNAC Player of the Year, leading it in home runs and batting nearly .400.

Across the infield was friend Liz Wallace, another senior and team leader – also hoping to help lead CWU to the league championship and playoffs. Liz stood second to Mallory at almost every offensive statistic, and she held down the very important defensive position of shortstop.  She had played in almost every single CWU game over her four years there.  The day and the games meant a lot to these young women.


In 2008, Western Oregon was having one of their best seasons in years.  In fact, their best season ever. They had momentum and they could feel it.  And on that last Saturday in April they had just rolled into town from Idaho, having taken both ends of a double-header from Northwest Nazarene, in Nampa.

Petite and plucky Sara Tucholsky was a senior on that 2008 Western Oregon squad.  She had been through the WOU bad times with good cheer.  [The previous three years the team’s won-loss records were 14-33, 17-32, and a promising 26-25].  And, although she had only briefly been a full-time player –  during part of her sophomore year – she was certainly enjoying being part of this team.  It was a team of extraordinarily deep talent and chemistry. When she got a chance to play, she gave it her all – athletically, energetically and enthusiastically.

At only 5-foot 2-inches tall Sara stood nearly a head shorter than most other players.  Add to that her rather slight frame and she would never be confused for a linebacker, no matter what she was wearing.  This season, as during most of the previous three, Sara played only sparingly, sometimes against a non-conference foe, or – like today – in a double-header during a long stretch of games so that some players could rest.

Western Oregon took game one easily by a score of 8-1, behind star pitcher, team MVP and conference all-star Katie Fleer. (Fleer won 25 games that year).

For game two, Sara was inserted into the 8th batting position and right field.

Her career batting statistics until this day raised no eyebrows.  They were fodder for little conversation.  Her college batting average was a humble .149, and she had but one lonely extra base hit in those four years – a double that fell in way back in her freshman year.  Not only did she not have a single college home run, she had never hit a home run – ever.  Not in high school, not in youth sports.

When Sara’s first turn to bat came up in that second game of a double-header, April 26, 2008, in the top of the second inning, her batting average for that 2008 season was an unimposing .088 – a mere three singles in 34 at bats.  Yet she battled on.

She had diligently taken her turn at regular batting practice; taken advice from coaches; worked on drills.  She exhibited a commitment to improvement when many others would have given up.

With one out and two runners on base Sara now made her way to home plate.  A few jeers and giggles came from the crowd when her lack of height and brawn became evident during her stroll. She gave herself a little pep talk: ignore them, be brave, be focused, don’t give in, do your best, Sara – whatever that may bring.

She dug in to the right-handed batter’s box.  The first pitch was a rising fast ball, about letter high.  A borderline pitch. Sara let it go.  Strike one!

Well, whatever happened next, she told herself, she wasn’t going to let that happen again.

She doesn’t remember where the next pitch was.  Sara simply remembers swinging.

And that’s when the first unlikely event happened.  Sara made solid contact.  Very solid contact. Contact like she had never made before.  Right on the sweet spot.

The batted ball soared out to centerfield and kept going … and going.  The two base runners paused so they could tag up when the ball was caught– Sara certainly couldn’t hit the ball over the fence.  Could she?

She did.  That ball cleared the fence.

While the other runners jogged around the bases to home, Sara – a very jubilant lass – jumped and skipped as she ran to – and past – first base.  In her excitement she initially missed the base.  Every player and fan knows that a ball hit over the fence is not a home run until the batter touches all the bases, in order.  Even though she had never hit a ball over an outfield fence before, Sara of course quickly realized she had missed the base. She stopped. Then she turned around – maybe a bit too quickly in the excitement. She had to return to, and touch, first base.

And that’s when the second unlikely event happened.  Sara let out a short yelp – and crumpled to the dirt. Something was terribly wrong with her right knee.  As it turned out, she had torn her ACL.  She crawled back to first base, practically in tears.

And now the dilemma.  Sara could not be expected to crawl around the bases like that, let alone walk or trot.  The rules of baseball and softball do not permit physical assistance by a player’s teammates or coaches. If so, she would be declared out, and her home run would not be counted. If she were replaced by a pinch runner, it would be a dead ball substitution: The replacement runner would begin the next play at first base, Sara would only be credited with a single, and her run would not count.

After a few minutes of discussion – frustrating discussion between WOU coaches and umpires – there occurred the third surprise event: the unselfish act.  Perhaps not quite as unlikely as the long hit and the sudden crippling injury, but one of the most wonderful decisions and events in sports EVER.

Just as Western Oregon’s coach was about to put a replacement runner at first base for Sara, Central Washington’s star first baseman, Mallory Holtman, asked if she and her teammates could help Sara around the bases.  They conferred with the umpires, who concurred that this would be within the rules. Holtman, joined by teammate Liz Wallace, carried lame Sara the rest of the way around the diamond, pausing a moment at each base and gently lowering Sara so that her left foot could tap second, then third base … and then home plate.  Whereupon Sara was handed over to her teammates.

Three great young women [photo credit: NCAA.ORG and Blake Wolf]

It was now official! Sara had hit a three-run home run!  Those were her only three RBIs (Runs Batted In) for the entire season.  It was, of course, her last at bat in college.  Her improbable hit – and CWU’s extraordinary act of sportsmanship – were the unlikely difference in what turned out to be a 4-2 victory for Western Oregon.


The idea of carrying Sara around originally occurred to Holtman.  And she had the gumption to approach the umpires and WOU coaches on her own. But she has always brushed off the praise.  She’s always insisted that it’s something anyone could have thought of; and almost everyone would have done.

The event was highly documented and discussed at the time.[1]  The three young women won an ESPY for “Best Sports Moment” of the year that summer.[2]  They all would go on to a few years of notoriety, giving motivational speeches, usually Sara and Mallory, who formed a lasting friendship as a result. The video of their performance is still burned into their memory and that of many sports fans.[3] 

2008 ESPY Winners: Best Moment in Sports

Western Oregon indeed went on to win the conference championship.  It was the school’s first conference championship – in any sport.[4] They were eliminated from the Division II sectionals a few weeks later by another conference rival, Humboldt State (from California).

All three young women soon graduated.  That was ten years ago. They are all now married and, near as I can tell, still live in the Northwest or West.

Mallory Holtman went to graduate school at CWU, became the school’s assistant softball coach, and just over two years later, became the head coach, beating out nearly 50 other applicants for the position, aged only 25.  She recently retired from the demands of that position to spend more time with her family.

Liz Wallace is very involved in youth softball, helping to develop the coming generations of good athletes, and good sports. She also works as a human resources administrator. She’s living the life of a military spouse, so locating her at any time can be difficult. 

Sara works as Area Manager of recruiters and representatives for various therapy services: physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech pathology, etc.  She still gives motivational talks.  She volunteers for various agencies, including Ronald McDonald House.

Sara and Mallory remain friends, although they live about four hours apart.

The two CWU young women [5] — Mallory and Liz — gave us all something to cherish and remember –  whether or not we are sports enthusiasts.  It’s this lesson: We must consider our fellow humans as part of the same team – before we can consider them competitors.

The second life lesson is thanks to Sara: no matter how down you are, no matter how bleak the outlook, you are never defeated if you don’t give up.

To this day Central Washington, Ellensburg and those three very special women don’t brag about it.  That’s class. Actions speak for themselves.


Joe Girard © 2018


Acknowledgement to my good friend Marcy, who helped with proof reading and editorial suggestions. She is a delight. It turns out she rather enjoyed the story for personal reasons as well: her cousin attends CWU. I apologize, Marcy, if any typos, errors, or uneven reading have crept through into the final draft. Your effort, as always and in all regards, is greatly appreciated.



1)     The umpires were in fact wrong.  NCAA rules did permit a substitute runner in such a rare event to continue running the bases in a dead ball situation such as this. It’s an understandable error, and the sports world is better off for it. The rules have been amended to make this clearer.

2)     ESPY = Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly

3)     Watch a video:

4)     However, as a club sport, the WOU men’s lacrosse team won the non-NCAA sanctioned PNCLL conference that year, 2008.

5)     I almost used “Young Ladies” here and throughout.  It was sort of a title, as in “Lord and Lady”, or “M’Lady” – as they had certainly earned a title.  Upon reflection I was led to conclude the term could be considered disparaging, so used “Young Women” instead.

6)     Box score for the game:

7) Yes I know that I named an earlier essay Last At Bat, but I couldn’t help myself. So this essay got an appropriate subtitle: Good Sport


Some resources:
NCAA: Where are they now?

Sara Tucholsky – An Inspiring Softball Story

Western Oregon Softball historical stats:


Baseball: Reflecting on some April History

I guess every baseball fan knows that this past weekend, on April 15, the sport “celebrated” Jackie Robinson Day — the day in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play in a major league baseball game.

I put “celebrated” in quotes, because it is also a muted acknowledgement that baseball’s major leagues shut blacks out of participation for some 80 years until then … much to both their great loss and their fans’ loss.

Last summer my wife and I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.  I knew many of the names, but seeing them displayed Hall of Fame-style was very powerful.  Rube Foster, Satchel Paige, the two “Bucks”, Buck Leonard and Buck O’Neil, Josh Gibson.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum entry

Josh Gibson, oh my gosh Josh.  Gibson hit so many home runs, about 800, that fans and sportwriters who had seen them both play often referred to Babe Ruth as “The White Josh Gibson.”  And he accomplished that while playing catcher, without a doubt the most physically demanding defensive position. And quite likely the most mentally demanding, as well. It was with a bit of a heavy heart that Robinson, and those blacks who soon followed, broke into the majors in those years.  Josh Gibson got a brain tumor and eventually died quite young, aged only 35, of a stroke from complications in January, 1947 … just months before Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  As the tumor started affecting him several years before — well …. there’s no telling how many more home runs he could have hit.  Or if he’d even made it to the Major Leagues, too.  <Sigh.>

As the current baseball season is already some three weeks old, modern baseball fans might wonder what took the Dodgers so long to play Robinson. Well, April 15th was Opening Day back then.  And anyone watching the weather throughout the Midwest and Northeast this spring will understand why.  Baseball is a summer game and it is pretty stupid to be playing all those games with temperatures in the 20s and 30s and snow flying around — in nearly empty stadiums.  Not to mention making for dangerous travel (lots of team buses back then).

Even with a “later” mid-April start, they pretty much had the entire season wrapped up — World Series and all — by the close of the first week in October; when the weather was usually still quite pleasant.  Compare that to today when the threat of snow and freezing weather is almost as bad at the close of the season (often the first week of November) as it is at the season’s opening.

Baseball is a summer game. How did they do it? Back then they only played 154 games a season (162 now) and had scheduled double-headers throughout the season. Most teams played as many as 25% of their games as double-headers well into the late 1950s. And playoffs weren’t the four or five week elimination ordeal they are now, with nearly one-third of teams making it to the playoffs instead of only two.

I well remember the joy of double-headers as a boy, two games in the hot sun with dad, lots of hot dogs and peanuts, yelling and screaming.  Trying to keep a score card. Watching scores from other games around the country on the outfield scoreboard. Game one in the early afternoon — noonish — and game two only 30 or 40 minutes after the last out of game one, barely long enough to re-chalk and drag the infield — in the late afternoon.  Falling asleep on the way home…. memories.

Well, speaking of history, April 17, 1945 is quite a famous day in baseball history, especially for St Louis Cardinal fans.  I’ve borrowed the following from a post by John Sarkis, who has given me permission to “lift” his work. He writes regularly regarding St Louis regional history.


April 17, 1945, Albert “Red” Schoendienst played his first game in a Cardinal uniform. The Hall of Fame second-baseman from nearby Germantown, IL would play for the Redbirds for 15 seasons, the New York Giants for two years, and the Milwaukee Braves for four seasons before returning to the Cardinals for three years of limited action. As a player, coach, or manager he wore a major league uniform more than 70 consecutive years, and is currently the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

On that same day native St. Louisan Harry Carabina, who became known as Harry Caray, made his debut as a Cardinal broadcaster. With the Cardinals and Browns sharing Sportsmans Park, the schedule provided that one of the teams would always be home, which allowed Harry to broadcast both Cardinals and Browns home games that season. He became a full-time Cardinals broadcaster in 1947. After being fired by Cardinal owner Gussie Busch, Caray spent 1970 calling Oakland Athletics games, then joined the Chicago White Sox in 1971. After 11 seasons on Chicago’s Southside, he moved to Wrigley Field in 1982. Harry suffered a stroke on Valentine’s Day, 1998, and passed away two days later.

Also on that day, the Brown’s legendary one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray, made his major league debut, getting one single in four at-bats off Les Mueller of the Detroit Tigers. As the MVP in the Southern League, Gray’s contract was purchased for $20,000 from the Memphis Chicks and he was called up as many of the regular major-leaguers were serving in the war. He had his best day in the majors on May 19, playing in Yankee Stadium and collecting five hits and two RBI as the Browns swept the Yankees. He was sent back to the minors when regular players began returning from overseas. Playing left and center field for the Browns, he appeared in 77 games, batting .218 with a .958 fielding percentage. Pete Gray, the only one-armed person to ever play in the major leagues, died on June 30, 2002. His glove is in the Baseball Hall-of-Fame.

(Thanks John!)

[Editor notes.

There have been a very few other players who were similar to Gray, but having most of an arm yet no hand.  Most notably I remember one-handed Jim Abbott throwing a No-Hitter!!

Checking the almanac, the Browns played that game at home.  So Harry Caray called the game. ]


Joe Girard © 2018

Piece of Pi

March 14; or 3/14.  AKA “Pi Day” to geeks around the world.  We geeks are somewhat irrational.

Pi is an irrational number, which means it cannot be represented as a ratio of any two integers, although 22/7 comes pretty close.  This comes in handy in some calculations, especially when there is a 7 to cancel out. As written almost everywhere but the US, 22/7, or July 22, would be another good candidate for Pi Day.  An even better approximation is 355/113 … which isn’t really very useful.  And it’s nothing like a date.

Speaking of dates.

March 14 marks a sort of anniversary for me.  It was way back in 1981.  A Sunday morning. [1]

I awoke resolved to make a change.  My career was zooming.  My life was changing: I could now read. My horizons were widening.

And yet — at 24-1/2 — I knew that I was not quite yet the person I would turn out to be. Not the person I could be; not one who could make my momma proud.  I knew that I wanted to have a long marriage — the whole enchilada: kids, house, grow old together, make each other coffee and walk on the beach together at 75 years old.  Yet that was nowhere near happening; even though I had been dating.  I was not yet that kind of person.

Just as a High School athlete with promise decides to be a professional ball player, I knew that simply making the decision to change — to be THAT person — was not enough.  I thought it would be a few weeks; it would take some time and effort. Turns out it took more than a few weeks. And it certainly wasn’t a “piece of pie.”

I moved out of my apartment. I ended some relationships — that was awkward. I sought new relationships — that was exciting. I got involved in the community. I consciously tried to be a better person.  And hopefully a potential candidate as the lifelong soulmate for someone special.

I made some mistakes along the way. I confess to still making mistakes. I went far up one blind alley — although meeting some interesting and even inspirational people while blindly wandering that alley.  But the decision was made. All who wander are not lost. Stay the course, Joe.

Fifty-one weeks (357 days to be exact) after that Sunday morning the woman who would be the love of my life showed up. It was awkward and I was not quite ready, but she was willing to be patient.

The excitement of those few years of growth, from being an illiterate, hopelessly stammering underachiever to aerospace rockstar with a rockstar for a mate, still blows my mind.  I wish I could bottle up that experience and figure out the key triggers … and give it away to every young person.  Alas, life doesn’t work that way.  We all have our own paths, our own stories and our own memories.

That’s my irrational autobiographical blurb for now.


Joe Girard © 2018


[1] My friend Gil pointed out that Mach 14, 1981 was a Saturday.  So — my memory isn’t perfect.  It was definitely a Sunday.  So it was really March 15.  I went to bed on 3/14 thinking those thoughts, and awoke on 3/15 convinced. A chrysalis event!

Shaw’s Jaws

“In that clear water you could see the sharks circling. Every now and then, like lightning, one would come straight up, take a sailor, and take him straight down. One came up and took the sailor next to me. It was just somebody screaming, yelling …” – Loel Dean Cox, USS Indianapolis survivor [1]

In August, 1989, my wife and I “did” southern California.  Including Disneyland and Universal Studios.  Then we only had two kids: the oldest nearly four years old, the next just over one year old.  I doubt they remember.

I clearly remember the robotic sharks at Universal Studios tour that were used in the thriller movie “Jaws.”  Parts of the movie flickered through my mind’s projector screen.  Intrigued, I resolved to watch it again, the next chance I got.  I think we rented the video tape and played it on VCR shortly thereafter (remember VCR?).  I don’t think my wife watched much of it.

Great Whites can exceed 20 feet

I can vividly remember the day that I first watched “Jaws”, in August of 1975.  I was not quite 19 years old and I was working a 7-to-4 job in an unairconditioned Arkansas sweatshop factory that summer ‘twixt my freshman and sophomore years at A-State.  I had a high school friend on his way, via Continental Trailways bus, from Wisconsin. We planned to go to a late evening showing when he arrived. It was a Friday.

Right after work was the company picnic.  It was my first introduction to southern-style deep-fried catfish and hush puppies. I was a strapping growing lad.  “Self-indulgent” doesn’t begin to describe my ravenous consumption.  I stayed late to make sure there were no leftovers. Then I hustled down to the bus station to fetch my buddy.

A few hours later – in the theatre – well, I didn’t feel so good.  Pretty rumbly in the tummy.  And a rather gruesome film didn’t help.  When shark expert “Hooper” suddenly and unexpectedly sites Ben Gardner’s face while investigating the underside of Ben’s fishing boat late at night … of course, late at night … well, I got the sudden urge to lose about five pounds of southern deep-fried crap food.  I did make it to the toilet in time — just barely.


Even though my wife and I are already members of a great health club (Camp Gladiator) –  each 1-hour session is a team event –  we recently joined a second club.  It is only a couple minutes from our new home.  It is quite inexpensive, especially considering the many benefits available.  We use it to augment our team workouts with individual strength and cardio work in its huge facility. It has hydro massage, hot tub, sauna … One of the blessings of being mostly retired.

Benefits and cardio work.  In one of the cardio rooms the club has the largest video screen I’ve ever seen, outside of a theater. Probably 40 feet across.  Very wide screen. Last weekend I dropped into it for the first time to burn several hundred calories and to watch that old ‘70s suspense thriller movie that I had seen twice before.


“Jaws” is blatantly a modern twist on Moby Dick. It has a great white shark instead of a great white whale; and has a crazy old seaman named Quint instead of Captain Ahab.  Directed by young, still-largely-unknown, 26-year old Steven Spielberg, and based on a book by Peter Benchley (subbing for Herman Melville), the movie stands out for a few more parallel reasons with “Moby.”

[Warning: a few minor plot spoilers ensue]

First, as a sort of old-time adventure story, there are no major female roles in the storyline.  Second, even though there is a lead protagonist in each story (Ishmael in Moby, Chief Brody in Jaws) the roles most remembered are those of supporting characters.

Roy Sheider does a very good, yet non-showy and straight up, portrayal of Police Chief Brody.  Yet he was, in my estimation, totally upstaged by two remarkable performers, playing their roles expertly.

A very young looking Richard Dreyfuss plays the shark expert Hooper.  Hooper is the rich, over-educated, know-it-all, smart-ass city boy.  Dreyfuss is convincing as Hooper, the outsider here on the island, who gets roundly antagonized for it, and refuses to change. This was when Dreyfuss was just becoming a big star (his only big hit ‘til then was “American Graffiti”); he was only 26 at the time of filming.

To me, even Dreyfuss is quite upstaged by Robert Shaw, who plays crazy seaman Quint.  Quint, it becomes obvious from his first appearance on set, is quite attracted to the idea of hunting and killing large sharks. As it turns out, he had good reason.

Robert Shaw as Quint

We learn that reason in back-to-back scenes aboard Quint’s boat, while the three main characters are out hunting the killer great white shark at night.  Of course, it’s night.

These are two of my favorite scenes in cinema history, even though overall the movie is not all that spectacular. These scenes come back to back; in fact, technically, they are probably from the same scene.

In the latter of two scenes, all three have had a bit to drink – Quint of course acting as ringleader. He starts mumbling one of his crazy sea songs and is interrupted by Hooper (Dreyfuss) who breaks out into “Show me the way to go home … (I’m tired and I wanna go to bed.  I had a little drink about an hour ago, and it got right to my head)”.  Soon, the other two have joined in – I wouldn’t call it harmony – pounding in synch on the table.  To this point in the story, the three have gotten along poorly.  Now they have bonded. That’s when the shark rams the boat.

Immediately preceding this scene comes – in my opinion — one of the best and most memorable monologues in cinema history.

Hooper and Quint have been at each other for most of the movie.  The scene has gotten a bit testy – alcohol enhanced – when Hooper and Quint start comparing injuries and scars. Antagonism is turning toward warmth and respect.

Eventually Quint wins the scar contest.

How? He is asked about a scar on his arm that turns out to be from a removed tattoo.  What did the tat say?  Hooper teases: “Don’t tell me: MOTHER”, then roars at his own joke.  Softly, Quint replies: “USS Indianapolis, 1945.”

Brody seems ignorant of the significance. Hooper is incredulous that Quint was on board.  And then Shaw/Quint breaks into a 670-word monologue describing his experience as a survivor of the USS Indianapolis.

Clearly whoever wrote the script for that had done some in-depth research on survivors’ testimony and knew how the lines should be delivered.  Turns out that person was Shaw, himself.

Besides being a terrific actor, it turns out Shaw was also an accomplished writer of novels and screenplays.  Correctly sensing that it would be one of the most important scenes of the movie, perhaps the one most remembered, Shaw did not like the original versions and convinced author Benchley and director Spielberg to let him re-write it himself.

One reading – with Shaw’s newly acquired crazy-seaman-northeastern accent – and they were all confident: Shaw had nailed it perfectly.

Filming the monologue took only two takes.  The first did not go according to plan.  Shaw was a hard drinker his whole life – had been since losing his alcoholic father to suicide at age 12 … those damned genes – and he decided he should do the scene a little under the influence.

Except, he was a lot under the influence.  He awoke the next morning with little recollection of the shoot and feared it was terrible.  I suppose everyone else thought it was OK, but Shaw begged to reshoot it.

He did it straight up sober and magnificently. [Video: Shaw’s USS Indianapolis talk] [4]

Born in England (Lancashire), and moving first to Cornwall and then to Scotland after his father’s death, Shaw must’ve had quite the breadth of accents down before coming to acting.  It’s kind of unfortunate that he got typecast in movies; it’s just that he played the crusty old-guy so well.  He was an accomplished theatre actor, touring widely and doing mostly Shakespeare, into his mid-twenties. But he did have a gift for accents; in his film career, he played a 16th century British king, an Israeli spy, a Russian spy, A German WWII officer, and a crusty Long Island fisherman.  [3]

Crusty old guy? Shaw was never an old man.  He was only 46 for filming Jaws – although he looked and acted about 66.  His hard-drinking and workaholic ways — both exacerbated by losing his beautiful wife rather young (age only 42), just before Jaws was released — led to stress and poor health. He passed on, age only 51, from a heart attack, on the road just outside his cottage in Toormakeady, Ireland.

Anyway, at least he left us some cinematic memories.

Ben Franklin famously quipped that nothing is so sure as death and taxes.  I’ll add that the quip will never die; and both can be so unfair.

Speaking of taxes, Shaw essentially made nothing for his role as Quint – even though Jaws was the first movie to gross over $100 million, was probably the first Summer Blockbuster, he got first line billing and it is probably his most remembered role.  Why? Taxes, taxes, taxes.  The jaws of taxes. His taxes were excessive that year from reported income in Canada, Ireland, Britain and the US, reducing his US take-home pay to nil.  I wonder if those governments spent his millions wisely?

Here’s hoping for some modicum of fairness in your lives, dear readers.

Adieu for now.  “Show me the way to go home.  I’m tired and I wanna go to bed ….”

Joe Girard © 2018



Shaw made one slight mistake.  The torpedoes hit on June 30, not June 29.  However, the torpedoes hit at 12:03AM, so a survivor could be forgiven for thinking it was the day before. The movie script was adjusted so that the shark attack on the young boy was June 29.

[2] Story of Robert Shaw as Quint:

[3] Short version of Shaw’s filmography:
From Russia, with Love
A Man for All Seasons (as Henry VIII)
Battle of Britain
Young Winston (as Winston Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph)
The Sting
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Black Sunday
Force 10 from Navarone


[4] Copyrighted text to Jaw’s screen play: Shaw’s talk about the USS Indianapolis.

[Actually I’ve come across two versions of this.  Not sure which is more correct.  Guess I need to see the movie, again].

HOOPER: You were on the Indianapolis? In ’45? Jesus…

(Quint remembering)

               CLOSE UP ON QUINT


Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief. It was comin’ back, from the island of Tinian ta Leyte; just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes.

Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen footer. You know, you know that when you’re in the water, chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. Well, we didn’t know. `Cause our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. Huh huh. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week.

Very first light, chief. The sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know it’s… kinda like `ol squares in battle like a, you see on a calendar, like the battle of Waterloo. And the idea was, the shark nearest man and then he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.

Ya know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men! I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand! I don’t know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday mornin’ chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player, bosom’s mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top. Up ended. Well… he’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. He’d a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.

So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945.


Anyway, we delivered the bomb.

Gravely Speaking

Well, it’s more confession time for Joe.  Here is a new one: I like cemeteries.  Not so much the end of life part, or the eerie part about thousands and thousands of earthly remains gathered in one place. I’m not a Poltergeist-kind-of-guy.

No, it’s the countless untold stories. Just because stories are lost doesn’t make them less real.  Each stone has a story with many, many chapters.

I’ve liked walking through cemeteries for over 40 years now.  It’s not exactly something I go out of my way to do.  Except, perhaps, to visit my parents’ final resting place a couple times a year, and to pay silent, solemn tribute at Military Cemeteries, such as in Luxembourg, the Netherlands (both Arnhem and Margraten), and Arlington National. This spring we hope to visit Normandy’s.

I’ve sort of converted my wife now.  Wherever we travel – when we have a few minutes to spare – if we find ourselves near a cemetery … well, we take up the interesting task.  We’ll stroll up and down aisles, looking at names, dates, inscriptions.  We’ll stop at a few and try to imagine the stories of their lives.

As you dear and devoted readers know: I like stories.

It’s been over a decade now, but I used to coach quite a bit of competitive youth soccer.  We were a “travel team.” That means our “away” games were truly away. In addition, we traveled to several tournaments each year.

One of the Denver metro locations for soccer matches is Fort Logan, on the west side of town.

Ft Logan was, as the name suggests, a military post for many decades.  It was shuttered shortly after World War II, its grounds converted to recreational pursuits (as in soccer fields) and a large military cemetery.

Large military cemetery. You see, every US veteran is entitled to a free plot in a military cemetery.  Plus, a spot for their spouse.  I use the word “free” advisedly.  They all paid dearly in blood, toil, sweat and tears – some also with their life, others with their sanity. At a minimum, they gave up some of the best years of their lives. In fact, Ft Logan is where my parents are resting.

For away soccer matches we typically car-pooled.  Distances could be from 10 to 100 miles, one way.  Normally the kids vied for a chance to be in my car.  I was pretty easy going, usually not saying much beyond game prep (are you hydrated, got your gear, morning menu), until the kids ran out of stuff to talk about.  Then I’d jump in with a non-stop commentary, interweaving strategy, tactics and training with multiple clean jokes. The goal was to get the players simultaneously at ease and focused.  I was a gas – most of the team tried to get in coach Joe’s van.

The car-pool to Ft Logan, some 20 miles away, was different.  After our first match at Logan the word spread: don’t drive with coach Joe.  You might get a burger afterward, but between the end of the game and the eating there would be torture.

Here is the reason.  Instead of going straight home or to McDonalds, I’d drive the kids over to the adjacent cemetery.  I’d drive slowly and aimlessly until they agreed on a plot where we should stop.  Then we all got out of the car and walked together, slowly, up and down rows, sometimes criss-crossing between rows. Occasionally I’d stop at a stone for a few moments before moving along.

We continued doing this until they all could agree on a particular stone we should stop at.

When they agreed, and we stopped, I looked at the stone.  It would say something like:

Francis J. Ferrari
 Purple Heart
 He Loved All

After a minute of silence or so – I’m sure it seemed like an hour to the kids – I would begin telling the story of Ferrari’s life (This is all made up.  I can’t recall any of the names today.  I just know I did this “imaginary history telling” quite a few times).

“Francis went by Frank.  To his mom he was always Francesco (being sure to pronounce the c as “ch”).  That had been her father’s name. She was from the old country, Sicily. She had moved to the US when she was only 13.  Frank was born just a few years later.

“Frank was the oldest of six kids from a very loud and mixed Sicilian-Italian family in New York.  In fact, he spoke Italian, although his father didn’t like it. ‘We’re in a new country now’, he insisted.  It was his dad who demanded he be named Francis, not the classic Sicilian ‘Francesco.’

“Frank was a senior in high school when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  Two friends and he rushed down to the Army Recruitment Office a couple days later to volunteer, after war was declared. He graduated early, passed his physical examination, and went off to basic training a few months later, in Georgia.  He had never been out of New York City before.

“He fought with Patton in North Africa.  Then he fought to free Europe from totalitarianism. “

—  “Coach Joe.  What does all that other stuff mean?”

“Oh, the SFC means he was promoted several times before the end of the war.  SFC means Sergeant First Class.  He was a leader without being an officer. He fought alongside his men.

“The Purple Heart means he was wounded during his service in the military.”

—  “How did that happen?”

“It was September, 1944.  About 2-1/2 years after he signed up and had endured many hardships like illness, hunger and loss of dear friends already. In a bold stroke to try and free the Dutch people of the Netherlands quickly — and possibly end the war by Christmas — he was part of a massive Allied surprise attack behind enemy lines.  His regiment was supposed to hold many of the small towns and bridges in eastern Netherlands – a stretch of about 50 miles – so that mechanized divisions – tanks and such – could drive up a major highway and clear out the Nazis. Unfortunately for the Allies and the Dutch, that plan didn’t work out very well.

“And, unfortunately for Frank, his platoon took a near direct hit from an 88mm artillery shell.  Shards of metal were implanted deep in his leg and butt. Many of his buddies perished.  He survived, but also suffered permanent hearing loss — I think it was his right ear — and a severe concussion from the shock wave.  He was never the same again.

“By the time he had physically healed, in a hospital in England, the war was nearly over.  So he was sent home to his parents.

“You can see here that he died fairly young.  Only about 45 years old.  Some of your parents are that old already; some older.

—  “Oh.  How did that happen?”

“He never got over the sight of so much blood and dying.  He never quite got over not being able to play sports anymore; the injuries took that away from him.  And he never quite got over the brain damage from that concussion.  Although he married and had children and was a loving father, he never got over being generally sad.

He fell into poor health habits. He moved the family to Colorado for the clean air, but a flu virus came around, he caught a bad case, and he died rather quickly.  He left three children, probably about your age.

“This stone here.  This stone engraved with his name, age, rank – this stone is all the thanks he ever got. So, let’s thank Frank.  Let’s thank Frank for giving so much of himself to make this world a better place.”

After another brief moment of silence, the kids were rewarded with a trip to McDonalds – even if we had lost the match.


Last month my wife and I went over to Tahoma National Military Cemetery, in Kent, Washington.  Her parents are there.  Her dad is a Pearl Harbor survivor, USS California.  Regular readers know that Audrey recently lost her mom, a Holocaust survivor.  We dropped by to pay our respects, leave a few pebbles, and ensure that the stone had been engraved properly.

Since it was an unusually pleasant Pacific Northwest January day, we took a stroll around the beautifully groomed grounds.  We walked into and out of a few plots.  We walked both together, usually holding hands, and sometimes alone. Probably almost a mile around a wide loop. We took note of some stones and exchanged a few thoughts on what the personal stories might be.

Jesse Barrick, Medal of Honor Awardee

When, to my astonishment, we came across this stone pictured here. In my wildest imagination I wouldn’t have ever expected to come across a Civil War Medal of Honor Awardee tombstone this far west of the Mississippi. Now here is a story that surely cannot be made up.

Quite a story it is, too.

I will spare you my telling of his story, and how his remains came to rest just outside Seattle.  The links are below. They are short, interesting reads.

It is a tremendous testimony to the efforts we as Americans go through to give veterans their proper and honorable recognition. No matter how much time has passed and no matter the distance.

And rightly so.

Wishing you all peace and happy story telling – tall or real, stories are important.

Joe Girard © 2018

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to a real person or anyone with the name of Francis J Ferrari is purely accidental.  I had and have no intent to intrude on anyone’s history in this way.

[1] Jesse Barrick, Home of Heroes Biography and story. 

[2] Jesse Barrick Bio, Seattle Times,



Honor your Father and your Mother
– Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16

Some stories and lessons are so important that they are repeated.  So it is with many things in the Bible. So it is with many things in life.

For example, the creation story is told twice (in both Genesis 1 and then again in 2) – and they are not exactly the same, although the messages are similar. A wonderful book that explores these messages within the context of the marvelous mystery, joy and perseverance of the woman-man relationship – and the elusive mysteries of the human heart – is Bruce Feiler’s “The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us.”  I recommend it.

The story of the Ten Commandments is also told twice: once in Exodus and again in Deuteronomy.  And elements of these are referred to throughout the bible.  Take for example the Commandment “Honor your Father and Mother.”  Seems straightforward enough, and for the most part it is.

Honoring one’s parents is important enough that Paul restates it in Ephesians 6-2.  He wisely goes on to write, by the way, in the next sentence: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.” Also, wise advice.

My parents are gone now.  I was blessed with good parents (and pretty good genes, too; evolution – that thing really worked for me).  They cared. They modeled good social skills.  They were loyal.  Above all, they really, really tried to be good, involved, caring parents – clearly showing as much love and patience as they were capable of, nearly all the time. Nearly.

I’ve written tenderly about my parents, referring to them more than a few times.  In “What Dreams May Come” I expressed a notion that, when it comes my time to pass, my dad will come to fetch me from this world. Recently, in “I Got a Name” I traced some of my mom’s life trajectory; and in “Letting Go” I re-lived some of my dad’s special experiences through my own eyes and emotions.

Hitting pop-flies and fly-balls to kids is difficult

One of the unusual things that most impressed me about my dad was his ability to hit self-toss fly balls and popups with a ball and bat.  This is not a skill that comes naturally to anyone.  If you are not athletic, then the awkward swing-and-a-miss is almost guaranteed every time.  If you are athletic, and have played some baseball (like my dad), then the natural swing produces line drives and groundballs.  Popups and fly balls are supposed to lead to easy outs.

When I was 6 years old I started playing organized baseball.  From my earliest memory my dad had thrown me pitches to hit and played toss with me.  But in a real game, I was bamboozled by the easy can-of-corn flyball.  It was embarrassing. Reading a flyball off a bat in a game was completely different than catching a soft toss.

He knew I was ashamed.  Heck, he probably was, too. So, he took me out in the back yard and tossed me higher popups.  We soon progressed to self-toss batted popups that he would hit 30-50 feet.  As I got older, he could hit them 75 feet, then 100 feet, then 150 feet.  Whatever distance kids my age were hitting flyballs, he could duplicate in our yard, or – later – in a nearby field.  It was quite an impressive skill.  He was a coveted assistant-coach on my youth teams, as he would willingly spend hours hitting flyballs to any kid who wanted to practice. My teams had the best outfielders.

As the years went on, I was pretty much the best fly-ball shagger I knew.  That I developed this talent and confidence was attributable almost solely to my dad dedicating himself to developing the skill to hit  such popups and flyballs.  And the fact that I would bug him to do so whenever there was a chance to practice; he rarely said no.

I only had one child who ever asked this of me.  I tried my best, and over many hours, managed to only become mildly successful at it.  I can attest that it is a difficult and unnatural skill; my well-developed baseball skills were almost a handicap.  Yet, I never said no.

Yes, Dad could be a very patient man.  He proved that in 51 years of marriage and raising six kids. Yet he was demanding at the same time.  He always insisted that I make a good throw back to him, even after a great catch.  No lollipops.  No dribblers.  “You want my time, you have to put forth your best effort.”

It wasn’t always so, however.  When I was in the third grade our family had its 5th delivery from the stork.  That was five kids in only 8-1/2 years (a 6th came only 3 years later).  My dad was painting one of the bedrooms after a minor re-model and furniture adjustment to get all of us into the tiny rambler. I was “helping” – which means standing around, asking dumb questions, and learning by watching how to be a man, a father and a husband.

He was almost done with the job.  Perhaps I had begged him to hit me flyballs when he/we were through.  Quite likely. He thought he had poured enough paint into the roller pan to finish the bedroom, but it turned out he was a bit short.  Maybe 10 or 20 square feet of the last wall remained.

Finally, my chance to help.  “Dad, can I bring the can up from the basement for you?”  Exasperated, tired and a bit amused, he said OK.

I went down to our unfinished basement, where my dad had a small work area, and fetched the can of paint.  It still had the lid on it.  Perhaps I’d be more help if I removed the lid?

I pried the lid off.  In the process, somehow, the can teetered over and fell onto the concrete floor.  Oops.  I quickly got it upright, and stood there gawking in amazement at the mess I’d made.  This was not an accident I could get out of; could not blame it on my sisters or bad luck.  I had screwed up.  And I didn’t know what to do. Except own up and take responsibility.

Spilled can of white paint. Ugg.

Sheepishly I went back upstairs and told my dad what had happened.  He did that heavy-breathing-through-the-nose thing, made the “shhh –” sound without finishing the word, and we traipsed downstairs to see the mini-disaster.  That’s when it happened.

My dad saw the paint can sitting there next to a white puddle on the floor. He pulled his right foot back like a football player for a 60-yard field goal and kicked that can as hard as he could.

To his amazement (and mine) the can was actually nowhere near empty.  My reflexes had been quick enough to save quite a bit of pigment.  Most of what was left splattered all over the cinder block wall of the basement.  It was like a magnificent piece of single-color modern op art.

We stood there a moment, dumbstruck and shocked at what had just happened.  Then my dad hustled over to the can, which had crashed and bounced lamely off the wall, and was lying on its side. He set it upright and looked inside. It still wasn’t quite empty.  Neither of us said a word.

There still was a cup or two of paint in the can, which my dad calmly dumped into the roller pan.  He went upstairs to finish the bedroom – amazingly there was still enough paint to complete the task, even after two paint-tastrophes. I stood there alone — shocked, ashamed, flabbergasted — in the basement. I couldn’t move from the incredulity of the last two minutes’ events.

After the room was done, “we” cleaned up my spill from the concrete floor.  But my dad never cleaned those spots off the wall, or painted over them.  Even though we stayed in that house over nine more years.

We never talked about that event again, until just before he died.  In those slow agonizing months before death you know it is coming, you just don’t know when.  You want desperately to spend time together, and after all those months you run out of things to talk about. Yes, we talked about all those hours hitting and catching fly balls. Childhood friends. Old girlfriends. Courtship. Marriage. Raising kids. Staying married. Family road trips. Whatever came to mind. (Why hadn’t we talked about much of this decades before?  When it could have helped? Oh well).

Finally, out of topics and dreading silence, I worked up the courage to ask about his recollections of the can-o’-paint incident.  Even after 50 years — and knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door — he recalled it vividly.  Yes, he was sorry and ashamed.  And that’s why he left the paint spots up all over the wall – he wanted to be reminded of how rash and impulsive and destructive he could be.


And that’s another thing that impressed me about my dad was the ability he developed to monitor and curb many of his natural negative energy tendencies. It was partly because those paint spots told him the lesson, over and over again.

I know that I received a lot of traits from my parents.  Some inherited and some by nurture.  Among them I lean more toward my dad in terms of being impatient, making quick decisions and taking impulsive actions.  If jumping to conclusions and flying off the handle were sports activities, I’d be in great shape; I’d be Olympic caliber with little training.

I consistently need to respect and be aware of that. I have dark moments.

I also know that I have good genes and have had very good role-modeling from my parents.

I consistently need to respect and be aware of that, too. I know to do the right thing.

Some lessons are so important they need to be repeated.
So it is with many things in life …
Even if you have to repeat them to yourself.

Here’s to parents and parenthood: the good, the not so good, and all the blessings.

And here’s to honoring your Father and your Mother.


Joe Giard © 2018

I got a name

Like the pine trees lining the winding road,
I got a name, I got a name.
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad,
I got a name, I got a name.
And I carry it with me like my daddy did… 
— Songwriters: Charles Fox, Norman Gimbel
© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
(made famous by Jim Croce)

Yes I have a name.  And this is how I came to receive it.

My father was named Donald Joseph Girard.  As my name is Joseph Donald Girard, one might easily imagine — as I did for years — that I simply have his name, turned around a bit.  I was an adult before I learned “the rest of the story.”

My mother was a Catholic nun for about a year and a half.  That’s an important part of the story.  But first we must touch upon her biography a bit.

She was the youngest of three children from a broken and very dysfunctional family.  After the divorce, she, her mom and sister emigrated to the US from Canada (illegally overstaying a visa, by the way — an illegal immigrant; a Dreamer) when she was age 11. They struggled with poverty and moving from house-to-house through her difficult pubescent and adolescent years.  She has confided that she lost all interest in religion, faith and lived with a gray set of morals.

Always a “connector”, she had formed a few close friendships with girls who seemed to have their “stuff together.”  Two I can recall — because they remained life-long friends — were Lorraine and Joan. Both sweet ladies, whom I got to know much later, and both Catholic.

My mom came to the realization she needed some direction in her life.  She started occasionally attending Catholic church with her friends and took to it well.  More frequent attendance and instruction in the faith followed.  Then full conversion. It’s said that “There is no believer whose belief is stronger than that of a convert”; and that was certainly true of my mother.

A few years later she entered the convent, first as postulant, then as novitiate. She took the vows of service and poverty, donned the habit, took a new name (Sister Mary Lourdes) and began her new life.

It was — up until then — the most wonderful thing that had happened to her in her life.  A new city where she was welcomed (St Louis).  A loving, caring, generous faith community.  A beautiful Convent, with her own room (although tiny), where she wouldn’t have to move every few months. Having given up money and possessions and image — well — she didn’t have to worry about those danged things anymore. A world of possibility and freedom and love opened up to her that she couldn’t even have otherwise imagined.

It lasted just over a year until she had her doubts.  After a period of counseling and meditation she became our own version of Maria, from The Sound of Music.  She left the order before taking her final vows. Something else was calling her.

Whereupon she returned to her previous hometown (Chicago) and took up the life of a single woman again.  But this time dedicated to virtue and service, with a clear direction on morals.

A few years later she was whisked off her feet by a very good dancer.  A witty, charming, energetic nice young man, with a promisingly budding career, and at least a nominal commitment — at the time — to the same Catholic faith.  Heck, they met at a CYO dance (Catholic Youth Organization).

The relationship soon got serious, and they began discussing kids.  In that regard, she had only one criterion.  The first son, if they were so blessed, must be named Joseph.

Now I can tell you why that name was her firm choice.  The name of the Order that so transformed her life was … The Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet.

My parents remained loyal to each other the rest of their lives.  They remained loyal to the church.  They remained loyal to St Joseph, donating to many different charities named after him, including Little Sisters of the Poor, whose patron saint is St Joe.  [1]  [2]

I’ve carried my name proudly.  I’m not Catholic — or even very religious — anymore. Yet I have kept a little plaque of St Joseph the Carpenter up in my room for many decades, wherever I go. It was a gift from my mom when I was a lad. I keep it as a reminder of the loyalty and commitment of my parents. And why I have my name.  And what I have to do.

Plaque of St Joe. I’ve taken it to every bedroom I’ve had since I was about 9 or 10 years old. Thanks Mom.

I must be loyal to my parents by living a life they would be proud of.

Well that’s my blubbery autobiographic piece. Sorry for any apparent “virtue signaling.”


Joe Girard © 2018

[1]  My mom passed in 2006.  My dad’s devotion to St Joe and my mom continued, as he wrote these checks until he passed in 2014.

[2] Some of these charities are now supported by my wife and me.


Girardmeister 2017 Review

Our favorite attitude should be gratitude.
— Zig Zigler

A writer writes.  A writer writes for reasons.  One reason is to be read.  And so it is with me.  That is one reason among several.

Readers read. Readers read for reasons.  When it comes to leisure time reading, usually it’s because they believe, or at least harbor the hope, the writer has something useful or interesting to say. And so I hope it is between us, dear readers.

Thank you for reading my on-line musings this year.  Whether you are a new follower or a seasoned one, whether you read them all immediately – or just occasionally when you get around to it – please know that I cherish your attention, and our on-line acquaintanceship.

I know you are all as varied as the thoughts that course through my moody, reflective and inquisitive brain.

You should know that I do have at least something of a filter; not all these thoughts make their way to words and full sentences, and, eventually, even on to the website.
But you should also know that I do not filter you all; I don’t screen or block who can read material. I don’t filter or edit comments (much); and e-mail comments are kept confidential.

It’s nigh impossible to tell how widely an essay, or post, will be read for many months. Thus, for this review I’ll go back and include the last few months of 2016.

I published seven essays that were biographical in nature, including my very favorite, Young Kate Shelley (the girl with two first names), which was completed with substantial editing help from my wife and my good friend Marcy. Kate Shelley ended up the #3 most popular for the year.

The surprising #1 most popular was another biographical sketch, Maximum Factor. [1]  Sandwiched between these two, coming in at a surprisingly strong #2, was one of my autobiographically wistful pieces, Happy Anniversary, Baby.

One of the biographical pieces, Last At Bat, was one of two baseball focused essays. The other was Can’t Touch This, which described some odd and exceptional pitching performances.

Two guest essays made solid showings.  One, posted very recently, was a lovely short essay, The Man on the Corner, written by my mom, back in 2004.  It is running strong and may make it to near the top of the “hit list” if, and when, I do this essay again a year hence. The other, a brilliant piece by my good friend Ken Hutchison, is called Remembering Lisa – a deeply heartfelt tribute to a co-worker of ours at Ball Aerospace, which came in at #5.

A considerable number – an embarrassing fifteen! – ended up being at least somewhat autobiographical.  These ranged from travelogues, to pet peeves, to random musings, to reflections, to confessions.   Thanks for putting up with all of that. Although all of them were therapeutic and cathartic to some extent, I feel best about a very short, very recent piece, called Letting Go.

I’m grateful for the time you spent reading.  Even if it was just once. Thanks for commenting, even if it was just once.  Thanks for the emails.  Thanks for the suggested edits, for calling out errors, and opportunities missed to explore topics more interestingly.

Interacting with you all – even if it is mostly one way – is somehow fulfilling for me. It scratches an itch.  It is part of who I am.

Writers write to be read.  For what it’s worth (probably not much to you) I also write with the fervent hope to be read by generations yet to come, so they will know something about crazy ol’ Joe.

Insofar as writers write to be read, I will share a prayer my mother kept over the desk in her writing studio.

The Writer’s Prayer

I ask for an insight and sensitivity to people and events around me that I might always have an abundance of stories to write.

I ask for the ability to write wisely and well, to write in a way that will enrich and enlighten the hearts and minds of others.

Help me to make people laugh when they want to cry in self-despair;
and to make them cry when they are insensitive to the pain of others.

Help me to remember always that words have the power to destroy – or build;
the power to spread ignorance –  or dispense knowledge;
the power to darken the world with hate – or light it with love.

Help me to continue writing through those black moments of discouragement,
especially when I feel that nothing I write is good or worthwhile or will ever be read by anyone.

And daily help me to have faith in my writing and in myself, even though no one else may have faith in either.

Looking forward to communicating with all you in the year(s) ahead.

Wishing you all a blessed and peaceful 2018.

Joe Girard © 2017


In case you missed them: Top 11 essays by popularity, normalized
100: Maximum Factor [1]
97.9: Happy Anniversary, Baby
92.4: Young Kate Shelley
88.5: Long View – 2016
86.4: Remembering Lisa
82.1: Election 2016
80.7: P is for Privilege
77.2: Modest Proposals for American Football & Elections
74.5: Hope for Ferguson
70.0: OzzieLand-1
68.8: Can’t Touch This

[1] — Once in a while there are Russian and Ukrainian IP addresses that “fall in love” with hitting a particular page.  That may be the case with Maximum Factor. That’s partly why I listed a top 11.

Coffee, Culture and History

Confession: I drink a lot of coffee.  Probably too much.  I also like to observe people.

Recently, when in coffee shops, I’ve started casually making a tally of the of people who are spending their time in these special places with their attention focused on some digitally connected device.

Not counting customers in line, or placing an order, the ratio consistently runs at around 65-75% percent.  My how things have changed.


The year 1683 marked one of the most dramatic turning points in European history, at least as pertains to central and western Europe. For one, it marked the high-water mark for Islamic influence and territorial martial acquisition by the Ottoman Turks.

To push their domination further and more completely into Europe, they laid siege to Vienna.  A massive army of 170,000 under Ottoman Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa — allied with rebellious Protestant Hungarians, who chafed under Austrian rule — surrounded the fortressed city and cut it off from supplies and communication.  And then proceeded to wear down the great city’s defenses over two months’ time.

Greatest extent of the Ottoman Turk Empire

There is no end to imagination of how the history of Europe would be different had this siege succeeded, as was expected by most. Or if the Ottoman armies had simply bypassed Vienna and moved onward into, say, modern day Germany and Poland.

But Vienna was the center of culture for many hundreds of miles, and – as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – was a much desired jewel for both the Turks and their rebellious Hungarian allies.

In early September, as the Viennese defenses were beginning to fail and capitulation seemed imminent, there was a great surprise!! A huge rescue force arrived. Many armies, formed from dozens of German and Polish principalities, appeared on the hills outside of Vienna.  The city had held on just long enough, despite a defense garrison of only just over 1,000 fighting defenders. Early on September 12th the Ottoman army moved to attack the rescuers.  But they badly underestimated the size and breadth of the northern allies’ position.  The Ottomans charged.  Most of the German and some of the Polish northern armies – usually estimated at some 74,000 men total – swept down to meet the Ottomans on their flank and rear.

The battle raged for some 12 hours; nearly a quarter of a million men engaged in bloody, ruthless, hand-to-hand combat. Attack and counter-attack. Over and over; back and forth. Just when it appeared as though the Turks might claim the day – and Vienna – they were blunted by another surprise.  The Poles had effectively kept 18,000 horse-mounted men in reserve; this because they were delayed in their long slog through the mountains and forests.  Immediately perceiving their opportunity, the Poles thundered along a wide front … down from the wooded hills into the plains, striking the Turks who were already engaged with Germans and other Poles. At some 18,000 strong, military historians regard this as the single largest cavalry charge in history.  [And, now that we have entered the asymmetric-terrorist-nuclear-digital-cruise missile-drone era of warfare, it will ever likely ever remain so.]

Caught quite unprepared – the battle had already waged 12 hours; where did these fresh horse-mounted troops come from?? – the Turks were delivered a coup de main, in fact, the coup de grace, by the Poles, who nonetheless suffered heavy casualties themselves.  After two more withering hours, the surviving Turks fled the battlefield, but only after butchering their prisoners and attempting to destroy much of their military matériel. They soon abandoned their encampments in nearly complete disorder. [1]

Vienna, the center of culture and power in central Europe, was saved.

The booty left behind by the Turks included innumerable tents, much grain, many sheep & cattle (soldiers had to be fed, after all), horses, mules, and, according to King John Sobieski who led the largest Polish army, “… no small number of camels.”

Two other items of interest they left behind.

The first was a vivid memory among the Viennese: a memory of countless Ottoman Turkish flags emblazoned with the Islamic crescent flying outside the city walls. As a consequence of this, the Viennese are said to have invented that delectable morning snack called the croissant (which in addition to being the French word for “croissant” is, of course, the French word for “crescent”).

This legend has much merit.  The croissant did not become hugely popular in France until nearly a century later, in 1770, when Marie Antoinette – she who was born in Vienna and of Austrian royal blood – arrived and married the young man who was soon to become Louis XVI. [2]

[To be fair, there is evidence that versions of the croissant were enjoyed in and around Vienna before 1683.  So perhaps the victory merely inspired its colossal growth in popularity.]

Ottoman Military Flag — 17th Century

The second item of interest left behind was mountains of coffee beans. The confused Viennese, Germans and Poles thought this might be some sort of food source. Ugg, it tasted awful. Perhaps it was food for cattle, or camels. But they wouldn’t touch it either. So they began burning it as fuel; mmmmm – it did smell pretty interesting.

Coffee beans, grinding and imbibing for solo pleasure and social drinking was known to few in Europe, principally only the Mediterranean trade-centric towns like Venice. But it was unknown inland and to the west.

It took enterprising world-traveler and Viennese citizen Georg Franz Kolschitzky to figure out the secret. Through his earlier travels in eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, he had learned the magic of roasting and grinding the beans for use in preparing something very akin to the stimulating beverage we know today.

And so was born the legacy of the Viennese coffee house.

The coffee cache rescued, Kolschitzky’s coffee recovery became the basis of the very first coffee house, as we know it. In fact, there is a street named after him and this “gift” in Vienna: Kolschitzkygasse.

There were tables for cards. Tables for pool. Available newspapers and pamphlets provided stimulus for conversation. Life slowed down long enough to enjoy the company of old friends, and new acquaintances: to chat about current events, young children, doddering uncles, or a spouse’s quirks.

Please excuse me while I tell an old but appropriate story.

A professor once placed a large glass carafe on a table in front of his class and poured it full of golf balls. He asked the class if the carafe was full. They all said “yes”.

He then took out a bag of marbles, and poured them in too, bouncing and jiggling the carafe, until not a single marble more could be added. Is it full now? Most still said “yes.”

He then produced a large bag of sand, and poured that in as well, until every conceivable pore was filled. Is it full now? Still, most said “yes.”

Then he walked over to his pot of freshly brewed coffee. He poured two cups and dumped them into the carafe before it came right to the brim.

Is it full now? Yes, they all agreed.

The professor concluded. Yes it is now full. And here is your lesson for the day. Life is never so full that you cannot enjoy a cup of coffee with a friend. Especially if you take care of the big things first.

The concept of the coffee house – a place to catch up with friends, chat idly or heatedly – took off and spread across Europe. And came to America. It was a beautiful thing.

But now I see all those people with their faces and attention drawn to electronic screens – not even looking or talking to their friends alongside them who are at the very same table (who are doing the very same thing) – and I can’t help thinking: have we lost something important? Is our social fabric decaying that quickly?

If I had a coffee shop, I think there were would be no wifi and I’d make it a faraday cage so customers couldn’t get data or calls on their phones… unless they went outside to the sidewalk tables. I’d have a payphone and front desk phone. But, I would supply free music, newspapers and refills. It would bomb terribly, wouldn’t it?

Wishing you peace and hoping to share a cup or two with any, or all, of you in the near future.[3] Perhaps we can share a croissant too, and raise our cups in a toast to the salvation of the good parts of European culture; as long as we take care of the big things first.


Joe Girard © 2017

[1] At the battle’s conclusion, the “Christian” victors returned the favor by slaughtering many of the surviving Turks who could not escape and could not be exchanged.
[2] Davidson, Alan (1999). Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press. p. 232

[3] In MY version of the story, the professor poured in a couple of beers.

Letting Go

I can vividly remember the house I grew up in, in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  It still amazes me to no end that my parents raised six kids in that tiny rambler.

White and blue, with a modicum of brick façade, it sat, conveniently, part way up a gently sloping hill.  It was downhill from our house, along North 49th street, south and down to “the creek” where 49th stopped for a few blocks and you had to turn onto Churchill Lane.  The creek, in turn, meandered from there a mile or so to the Milwaukee River: that brown, slothful, murky body of water that I sometimes walked to for fishing until I turned 16 and needed a fishing license. Along the creek friends and I would sometimes plunge in to catch frogs and crawdads.  I guess that’s what young boys do. It’s astonishing I didn’t get ill more often.

I called the hill convenient.  That’s because the gentle slope helped all of us learn to ride a bicycle.  Each of us progressed from trike to bike, with training wheels of course.  Day by day dad would raise the training wheels until we could demonstrate that we’d keep our balance without the wheels touching pavement very much.  Then one training a single training wheel would come off.  We were on parole.  After another few days, or a week, the big day came: dad took off the other training wheel.

This is where the hill came in handy.  You need a bit of speed especially as a beginner to steadily balance a bicycle.  The hill helped.  The hill plus dad, running alongside for 50 or 100 yards, holding the bicycle, helping with speed and balance.  Back up the hill we’d walk, pushing the bike. Then again. Then again.

Each successive iteration dad held the bike less firmly, until — finally he let go (without telling us!) — he was just trotting alongside … smiling widely.  He did this for each of six children.


My wife and I had three children, whom we raised in two different houses in Colorado.  Each house sat on a street partway up a slight hill. How convenient.

Those were some of the simplest, yet happiest, moments of fatherhood.  I can still see myself, thinking of my dad’s beaming face, trotting alongside each child.  Did they know how loved they were?  In their own joy and pride … could they sense any of the same in me?

Finally it is time.  You let go.

Sometimes they still fell, or forgot how to use the brakes, scraped their knees and hands.

Then you meet them at their needs.  Retreat to simply running alongside, or gently holding. Encourage.

And finally it is the very last time.  You let go.  One last time.  You stop running after them…

You smile, knowing that they, with their back to you — swerving wildly — are probably smiling too.


That was decades ago. They are all grown now. I’m pretty good by now at letting go. There are still a few things I should let go of.

But those memories?  Never.

Joe Girard © 2017

Six Kids, Spring 1968

Pet Peeves – II

Here’s round 2.  Buckle up.

Most Americans speak only one language.  I don’t have a problem with that.  That fact, by itself, does not mean we are lazy or stupid.  But the fact that so many speak it poorly surely does.  Here are a just few of this Grammar-Nazi’s language Pet Peeves.

  1. Me, Myself and I.  These all serve different purposes and CANNOT be used interchangeably.

    How to console the Grammar Nazi

    “Me” is an object.  Something must be done “to me” or “for me”.  People can talk about me, complain about me, kick me and disparage me.  But “Pete and me” cannot go to the store, or go out drinking.

    What is being done to me? Nothing! Therefore, the proper pronoun to go with Pete, above, is “I”.  This pronoun “I” is the nominative case.  As such, it gets to do things. Like go to the store. “Pete and I go to the store.”

    Further, “myself” cannot be used in place of either “I” or “me.”  The pronoun “myself” is reflexive, which means it is used when you do something to yourself.  I can bathe myself; I feed myself, I cut myself; I educate myself, I monitor myself, and I gratify myself.  In each case the word “I” must also appear in order for “myself” to correctly appear.

    We do not say “Myself and Pete went to the store, then went drinking”; where is the “I”??  “Myself” does not DO things. And we do not say, “If you have any questions, please address them to myself.”

    What?  It’s “Please address questions to ME.”

    Advanced users: “myself” can also be used for emphsis. “I wrote the code myself.”

2. Your, You’re and Ur.  OK, I get that when typing quickly this is an easy mistake to make.  We sometimes type “your” when we mean “you’re”; or the other way around. But “Ur” is a total collapse, effectively giving up on a nice bike ride or a hike after the first drop of drizzle.

“Oh, it’s so hard, I’ll just type Ur.”  Use of Ur and repeated Your/You’re errors just show laziness.

3. Their, They’re and There.  Occasional such typing errors are expected, even when proofed.  Repeated errors?  Lazy.

4. Affect/Effect.  This one really bugs me.  One simple rule will get you the right answer 99% of the time.  “Effect” is a noun.  As in: “What was the effect of your efforts?”  Effect is a thing.

Affect is a verb.  “Do you see how your word choice affects me?”

Rarely “effect” can be a verb.  But if you get that far, you’re already an English expert.

5.  Who/Whom and prepositional phrases.
Like “I”, the pronoun “who” is nominative.  That means it gets to do things.  Who is doing that?  Who is singing?  Who pinched me?  Who is there?  Who won the race?

See? Who is doing, who is singing, who is pinching, who is winning and who “is” existing. Substitute a name and it works the same: Joe is doing that, Joe is singing (badly), Joe is pinching, Joe is there.  And, happily, Joe won the race.

Like “me”, the pronoun “whom” is an object.  That means it gets things done to it, for it, about it.  “To whom are you speaking?” or “For whom is this gift intended?”

Whoever and whomever follow the same rules.  Whoever is nominative and does things.  Whomever is objective and gets things done to it, things done for it and things done about it. “Will whoever is farting please stop?” And …  “We will hire whomever you recommend.”  In the first, “whoever” is doing something … namely farting.  In the second “whomever” is getting something done to them … namely recommended.

A reasonable exception is that an entire clause can make up the object.  So: “I will give the award to who deserves it most.”

A particularly sharp Pet Peeve is trying too hard and missing this last rule.  “I will give the award to whom deserves it most” is so painful; because it is an equivalent error to “me deserve the prize.”  As is “Will whomever is farting please stop?”  Ewwwww.

6.  Last and most Peevish: Apostrophes.
6a) There is not a single case where an apostrophe should be used with the possessive pronouns: my, mine, ours, yours, his, hers, theirs, its.  These are clearly possessive and need NO apostrophes … ever.  “That book is her’s  ….”  “That is it’s nature … ”  ewwwwwww. Just … don’t … do it. Then there the doubly erroneous “That is its’ nature.”  Holy moley.  An apostrophe AFTER the “s” in possessive “its.”

6b) Apostrophes should only be used for plurals in very rare cases.  “The decade’s went rolling by …”   “All of her T-shirt’s were too small…”    ewwwwwwwwww.  Not necessary, not acceptable. It is a waste of a character.

The exceptions are few, but understandable.  See below.  Plus, many people accept things like “There are no if’s, and’s or but’s on those posts”; although most style manuals recommend against it.

6b) Acronyms and apostrophes.  What is the plural of CD?  You might answer CD’s.  But then what is the possessive of CD?  It is also CD’s.  So what’s the difference?  The fact is, like above, that the apostrophe for plural is redundant.  Using “CDs” (no apostrophe) is just fine for the plural of CD.  DVDs is the plural of DVD and STDs is the plural of STD.  (Yes, there are more than one).

And years don’t use apostrophes for plural either.  The decade from 1930-1939 is correctly called “the 1930s” … and  not “the 1930s’. ”  Using the apostrophe indicates possessive: “The 1930’s characteristic events include the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, Social Engineering and the outbreak of World War II.”

[An exception is the plural of lower case letters (“mind your p’s and q’s”) and plural of abbreviations with mixed lower and upper case letters (“she had already earned two PhD’s”).  But these are rare and well beyond any reasonable Pet Peeve.]

7) That pesky “s”.  What started this latest Pet Peeve rant?  Well this week Daylight Saving Time ended.  I’m not a big fan, but — as they say — “It is what it is.”  Deal with it. But it is not Daylight Savings Time; it is Daylight Saving Time … because we are “saving time”; we are not “savings time.”

Attention to details shows that we Americans — we who are generally assumed world-wide to be lazy and parochial — have at least shown a modicum of mastery of at least one single language: our own one mother tongue.

Self Control is paramount for any Grammar Nazi wishing to be accepted socially

Ok.  That bug is crawling out of my orifice now. Have a wonderful week.  As for me, “It is what it is” — I will have to deal with this with a smile on face indefinitely.  I can do it.  Yes I can.  But silently, internally … every day … all day long … I am correcting grammar.

Peace and happy speaking

Joe Girard © 2017

Pet Peeves – I

The most important thing about Pet Peeves is that everyone has them. Things that bug us. A careful thing to remember about Pet Peeves is that it’s everyone’s Pet Peeve when they encounter someone who has a lot of griping to get off their chest. So I’ll keep this short — for now. That’s why it’s Pet Peeves – I.

ARGGGG. Pet Peeves.

Warning: Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire took up six volumes.  Euclid’s Elements, thirteen.

The potty.  The restroom.  The powder room.  The necessary room. The Loo.  Room 100.  The WC.  The toilet. Or, as Americans call it: The Bathroom.

Why do we do that?  We certainly don’t intend to bathe there, unless you include a little splashing at the sink.

  1. People — especially men — who don’t wash their hands after using the convenience.  Really? You are the reason I don’t touch restroom door handles.
  2. Toilet Paper Over or under.  Can we get it over with? The free end goes over the roll; it should not come from underneath. Why? You can find the end easier.  You can tear off the paper easier.  You don’t have to risk scraping your knuckles on the wall behind the paper. And that’s what the inventor, Seth Wheeler, had in mind when he patented the perforated paper roll dispenser in 1891.  See for yourself.  Here it is.

    Inventor Wheeler says: “Over”

    However, if you have a cat (or two, or more! — you crazy cat people) I get why under appeals to you: it’s more difficult to get the roll spinning and unraveling if the free end is behind.  But I don’t have cats.

    And cats can’t explain “under” in offices, restaurants, and other public places. [1]

  3. Men. Seat up or Seat down?  I don’t care.  Just do the right thing.  Not doing the right thing is a daily double of Pet Peeves for me.
    a) If you’re gonna put the seat up, fine.  Just put it down when you’re done.  Men, I know it’s hard to believe, but there are women in this world who hate to have to put the seat down (that means touching it — ewwww).  Get over it.  I grew up in a house with two sisters who came marching down the birth canal right behind me (ok, 15 months and 36 months younger).  If I can do it, so can you.
    b) If you’re gonna pee with the seat down, then by gawd please sit.  Your aim is not good enough to completely miss where the next sorry soul will have to sit.  You lazy bastard. Honest to Pete, guys. Don’t ruin our delicate balance of the sexes by being stupid.
  4. Still on hygiene, but no more potty talk.  Cold and flu season is approaching.  Time to address some PPs there as well.
    a) Covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing.  My Pet Peeve is when people do this directly into their hand.  Particularly the palm of their hand.  Well, isn’t that just dandy?  Hi! Nice to meet you, too.  What else are you gonna touch besides my hand?  Please, please, please use a tissue, hankie or the crook of your elbow.
    b) That quick-and-dirty, sneaky, casual nose wipe.  Don’t think no one saw you. And even if no one did, do you think that nasty slimy mess your sniffer was trying to get rid of cares where it goes next?

That’s enough ewwww and gross for now.  I don’t want to be your new Pet Peeve.

Stay careful and healthy out there.

Oh! The moral to the post??  Cat people shouldn’t marry dog people.  Corollary: Over people shouldn’t marry under people.

Feel free to comment below or Email Joe with your own Pet Peeves.  Or to just berate me.

Joe Girard © 2017

[1] There is a lot (I mean a LOT) of internet based discussion on this topic.  Surveys nearly all fall in the range of 65-80% prefer OVER, and much of the remainder don’t really care.

Dear Diary

Dear Diary,

First and foremost, I’m declaring myself “healed” from the brain injury. It has been a most interesting and revealing three and a half years since “the crash.” I suspect that some effects will linger indefinitely (zaps and swirls), but the worst is over. I so declare it!  I’m functional. I can drive. I can think clearly. All … the … time.

Dear Diary

I have gained immeasurably, mostly renewed appreciation for many things at the highest levels. For my wife. For my oldest son. For siblings, nieces and nephews. Cousins. For my life. Health. For so many friends past and present.

Speaking of past. As hinted at earlier, many hours of “healing quiet” led to a fairly detailed reconstruction of my life. I compiled a very long list of people.

To qualify for “the list” required that the person be most likely alive (or that I could find a close relative). Further, (a) I owed them a long outstanding Thank You; or (b) I owed them a similarly aged apology; or (c) they were a friend or special acquaintance with whom I’d lost contact because of the winds and vagaries of fate.  In several cases, it was all three reasons. Seems, dear Diary, like I’ve written that before, most likely in Happy Anniversary, Baby, my most soul-baring entry, among many, in your pages to date.

Oh, Diary. At this point my pretty-darn-good memory became rather a burden.  The list was long.

Alas, I was not able to contact everyone.  Some keep a low profile.  Some have names that are too common.  Still, thanks to the internet (Facebook and LinkedIn were big helps) and some sleuthing (sometimes I felt like a stalker), I was able to contact a vast majority.  I have loosely labeled these as “Repairs.”

In some cases I was able to reach close family members. Or friends of theirs I could recall. These also qualify as Repairs.

Unfortunately, most on-line “people finders” eventually want money to get beyond simple, insufficient, tantalizing information.  I wouldn’t do that, which limited my success, I suppose, in some cases.

The List included old professors, mentors, lady friends, roommates, teammates, officemates, workmates, golf buddies, business partners. All touched my life in positive and meaningful ways.  In one case I am in very positive, but light, contact with a wonderful couple who will never recall who I am — not sure I want them to; so I have not revealed to them the reason for our correspondence. (Maybe I am a stalker).

Some of us are now connected on Facebook or LinkedIn.  Mostly just by email.  A few were by cards and in two cases, just a short phone call. Weird.  I felt like a 16-year old boy again, asking a girl for a date, all the way from the phone ringing, all through the phone chat, and until we hung up.

Like the continual diminishing of my head injury symptoms, achieving this is like an oppressive weight being expunged — or at least lightened — from my soul. Sometimes we’ve rehashed old memories; in some cases that seemed unprudent — still, in those cases, I was able to replay good times and bad in my head without tormenting them.

I confess, Diary, that it was fruitful to relive joys, mysteries, disappointments and frustrations.  It’s all in the past, and all for the better.

Nonetheless, the List and the Repairs are nearly at a close.  A few tasks will linger, but that’s life.

In coping with the task, I compiled a list of quotes to inspire me.  To soothe me.  Below a few are shared.

While they talked they remembered the years of their youth, and each thought of the other as they had been at another time
— John Williams

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. — C.S. Lewis

Every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being re-directed to something better. — Steve Maraboli

A clear rejection is always better than an insincere promise. — unk

Friendship is always a sweet responsibility … — Kahil Gibron

Well diary. That’s it for now.

Oh, one last thing, Diary.  I may be “healed” but don’t think that this means I’ll be scribing upon your pages more often.

Joe Girard © 2017 {yes it’s weird to put a copyright symbol in a diary entry. 🙂 }


Other quotes:

You not wanting me was the beginning of me wanting myself.  — Nayyirah Waheed

… when a door closes it can feel like all doors are closing.  A rejection can feel like everyone will reject us.  But a closed door leads to clarity. It’s really an arrow.  Because we cannot go through that door, we will go somewhere else.  That “Somewhere Else” is your true self.  — Tama J Kieves

In Search of Meaning

1. “For the meaning of life differs from man to man,
from day to day and from hour to hour.

What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general
but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

— Viktor E. Frankl (Man’s Search For Meaning)

As mentioned earlier I endured nearly eleven years of being pracitcally illiterate during my adolescent and young adult years.  Obviously I missed out on a lot.  During my ravenous quest to catch up — and become literate in every sense of the word, including culturally and intellectually — I came across Viktor Frankl’s classic of Existentialism: “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

Someone told me it was important.  They were right.

No synopsis can do it justice, although many have tried.  With many millions of copies sold since its first publication in 1946, you can and should read it yourself, if you haven’t already. In fact, it’s time for me to read it again.

Frankl completed the manuscript of nearly 200 pages in only nine days.  He was an Austrian Psychiatrist who had only weeks before been liberated after enduring three years of “housing” in Jewish ghettos and four concentration camps — including Auschwitz and Dachau.

It is short, but dense and challenging in several dimensions: emotional, thought provoking, revealing of human nature. Recollection: It is translated from the German, so sometimes reads a bit stilted and awkward.

If we learn nothing else from Frankl’s deeply reflective work: A) We have it so good we don’t even know how good we have it; and B) Our life has meaning … if we decide that it does; in some cases, making that decision is a prerequisite for life itself.

Those dark 11 years: One of the things I evidently missed out on was a meaning to life.


Indeed, I — in the late autumn of life — now feel a bit lost for “meaning.” Meaning varies not just “from day to day and hour to hour” as Frankl said; it varies with the seasons of life. Now at the end of a “successful” career — and as a more-or-less empty nester — I find myself musing on this very topic.  Frankl reminds me — reminds ALL OF US — that this is up to each one of us, to decide for ourselves.

I have a friend who has ALS.  Holy moley. That’s an existential crisis if there ever was one. Compared to Frankl and my friend … heck, compared to almost all of humanity who has ever lived … I have no problems.  Like Frankl, my friend has embraced a marvelous attitude about his situation.  He relishes the reality and the challenge. And he remains engaged with the concept of meaning in his life. He realizes he still has choices … and he is making them.

2. “Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
— Viktor Frankl

Well before my ALS-stricken friend’s awareness of his upcoming struggles with this horrible disease, he made a decision to begin raising service dogs for children with “silent” disabilities, such as diabetes, seizure disorders and severe food allergies.  The results of this work are truly life-changing … and incrementally world-changing.  In time, our Kiwanis Club adopted this effort as our Flagship Project.

He remains engaged in training dogs, families and new trainers … despite his failing health. He sets an intimidating and inspirational example.

Reflection. To make a difference: affect someone’s life positively. I believe that the “save the world” approach is a poor investment of time and treasure.  At least for me. Best to help one or a few people at a time.  And to make a difference that impacts the future, be a positive influence on a young person’s life.

My stricken friend has this for an email tagline, and I may start borrowing it.

“A hundred years from now, it won’t matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in or the kind of car I drove…..but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”  —  Forest E. Witcraft


With all the furore over DACA lately, superimposed on the disasters of hurricanes and earthquakes, it’s re-assuring to remember that America is overwhelmingly, by and large, a generous and merciful nation.

Americans participate in donating their time and money at a higher rate than almost any other place in the world. Although only 60-70% actually give money during any year, when rated as percentage of GDP, the US is the world’s most generous nation, donating to organizations both domestic and international … all efforts to improve the human condition across the globe. This of course does not count government foreign aid.

Toss in the fact that Americans are also most likely to help a random stranger and they are the world’s most generous folks as well.

In time, God permitting, and after many months, the affected communities will recover, thanks to human resilience, generosity and mercy.


I’ve changed my home page to show a few of the charities my wife and I support. The explanations and links are duplicated below.

[Feel free to comment or Email Joe.]

We’ve been blessed in many ways, including being financially healthy enough to financially support meaning in life. Reprised, here are some of our Favorite Charities, almost all focused on children.

Foothills Kiwanis Club Foundation: Primary activity is providing service dogs for economically disadvantaged children with invisible ailments like seizure disorders, diabetes and severe food allergies.
Also supports many child-related organizations with funds and manual labor, including Sweet Dream in a Bag, who provide personalized bedding for children in social and economic crises.

Alert Service Dogs for Kids: photo copyright of Foothills Kiwanis Foundation

Rocky Mountain Honor Flight: Treating WW2 and Korean War vets with extreme dignity and gratitude by providing “red carpet treatment” for tours — with personal escorts — of monuments and historic sites in Washington, DC.

Smile Train: Repairing cleft pallets in third world countries. The stigma of this unfortunate defect is too difficult to understand and puts victims at an impossible social and economic disadvantage.

NAMI – National Alliance on Mental IllnessDepression is epidemic.  Suicide is at the highest rates in several generations.  And it is the second leading cause of death among 15-35 year olds. This age group is as disaffected as they have ever been.  I weep when I consider the long term consequences of this on families, social fabric, our nation and the world.

Maji Safi Group: Bringing clean water and safe hygiene practices to villages in Tanzania.

Ethiopian Education Fund: enable disadvantaged youth and young adults, especially girls, in the Kaffa zone of southern Ethiopia to realize their full educational potential. Just one or two more years of education can make a huge difference.

Real Choices Pregnancy Centers: Helping woman in pregnancy crises in all aspects.

Wish there was peace on earth, but it seems now that it cannot happen anytime soon — at least in our lifetime.  May it come some day decades hence … and may we pull together to make that more possible.


Joe Girard © 2017




“Football combines two of the worst things in American life.
It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.”
― George F Will


Brains are a mystery.  Mysteries within mysteries.  It reveals its secrets slowly and after great effort. But there are natural experiments that allow us to comparatively easily peel back one or two layers of this exceptionally exquisite enigma.

One natural experiment is the cumulative effect of extreme brain trauma on its health and performance. These trauma events can come from a variety of causes.  Some are accidental; some are on purpose. For me it was mostly from surviving two very violent car crashes.

Although the first crash was arguably more violent (see Driving Alive), it was the second that “did me in.” That one was just over three years ago.

Here is an update.  I still get brain “phenomena.” It is very confusing to suddenly get zaps and swirls and illogically migrating headaches.  They come and go without warning; some appear sharply and cruelly.  Some fade in and fade out.  I rather prefer the “faders”, but I have no control.

Sometimes I just don’t feel human.  At those times I don’t want to be around people (not the usual extrovert Joe), and I don’t want to be around Joe, myself.  I smile when I should look contemplative, and scowl when I am happy or content.

Sometimes I wonder why I’m even alive. I know that’s not logical; but that’s just how it works.

I cannot possibly imagine the consequences of additional brain shakes.

Well, actually I can.  We are seeing the consequences in Football. The effects on middle-aged (or younger) men who have withstood multiple brain shakes is staggering.

Love or hate George Will, but he writes thoughtfully and (usually) readably about a wide array of topics.  Last weekend he wrote a column about football and its long term effect on players’ brains.  It’s not pretty.  Granted, Will has obviously and openly favored baseball over football for quite a while (see quote).

Good Brain Bad Brain — This combination of photos provided by Boston University shows sections from a normal brain, top, and from the brain of former University of Texas football player Greg Ploetz, bottom, in stage IV of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. (Ann Mckee, Md/ASSOCIATED PRESS) <Credit given; please don’t sue me>


Still, he speaks truth.

From 1900 to 1905 some five dozen young men died — mostly on the field and 19 in 1905 alone — while playing football.  [1] A national outcry induced none other than President Theodore Roosevelt to call the governing bodies and prominent leaders of the sport together to, literally, save the game.

The result was some of the changes that make it a more exciting game today.

Today, September 5, 2017, we celebrate the 111th anniversary of the first forward pass.  Accomplished by St Louis University, when playing Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Back in the day when scores were often in the single digits, St Louis played a much more wide-open style, and ran up an 11-0 record that year, cumulatively outscoring their opponents 407–11. [This at a time when touchdowns only tallied 5 points].

Another major rules change: 10 yards were required to make a first down. Previously it had been 5.

The game changed; the uproar faded a bit — although some fatalities continued, albeit at a lower rate. Yes, they added pads and helmets. But arguably the most important changes, cited above, opened the game to make it much more exciting.

Football MUST adjust to the revelations that repeated head knocks literally ruins brains — and lives.  We cannot have men checking out on their families, friends and their own lives at middle age, or younger. Followers of Colorado University football should also hearken to the warning of the early demise of one of their greatest players, and Heisman Trophy winner, Rashaan Salaam.

History shows that intelligent changes can make the game both safer AND more exciting.

Wishing you spiritual and mental peace,

Joe Girard © 2017



[1] death count 1900-5:

Driving Alive

        On a back country two-lane highway in rural western Tennessee, it is a wet evening under low November clouds, just past civil twilight. [1]  A heavily loaded 18-wheel tractor-trailer is laboring northwest over gentle hills, its speed dropping to 40 miles per hour uphill, and rising to 55 downhill.  Following closely behind that truck is a small Toyota Corolla with a 22-year old driver who awaits a chance to pass.  The Toyota’s windshield wipers flick away the spray kicked up by the truck at the end of a day that has dropped over an inch of rain.  His 21-year old companion has drifted off to sleep beside him, her seatbelt unlatched.  Finally, after what seems like hours, but is only several minutes, a straight flat section of highway opens up – a section fairly well-known to the driver.  He pulls out to pass, checking for the headlights of possible oncoming traffic, and makes his move to pass.

The tiny 1974 Toyota Corolla

    Moments before, an Oldsmobile Delta 88 leaves home in a small rural community in western Tennessee.   The big 2-ton 88 enters the highway, heading southeast.  In a few moments its 450 cubic inch 8-cylinder engine has accelerated it to nearly 60 miles per hour, its driver not yet aware that only her parking lights are on — but not her headlights — as twilight continues to fade and three small children clamber about the car’s spacious interior.

    The Toyota’s little 1.6L aluminum 4-cylinder engine, reacting to the driver pushing hard on the accelerator and down-shifting to passing gear, pushes the little 1,500 pound tin can to nearly even with the truck’s cab, which is itself still accelerating on the flat to nearly 55mph.  Anxiously, the Toyota’s driver pushes the tiny engine — which has just been refreshed with new plugs, points, condenser and a very clean carburetor — with more intensity.

Suddenly, and to his dismay, two tiny lights appear directly in front; not headlights (!), but the dim parking lights of a much larger car.   There is not enough time to complete the pass; indeed, there may not be enough time to safely drop back and slip behind the truck on such a rain-slick road.  The cars are approaching each other at well over 100 miles per hour.

The massive 1973 Olds Delta 88

The following events happen in a mere moment or two.


Backing off the gas, the Corolla’s driver maneuvers the car onto the highway’s left shoulder.  There, the soft and wet shoulder grab the car’s left wheels and tug it – tug it toward a water-filled ditch that now appears in the headlights and parallels the road.  Until now there was little time to waste; there is less time now, and zero margin for error.  The driver tries to gently navigate a path to split the difference between the ditch and the on-coming Olds … too much!  The tiny Corolla spins out of control and careens back into the oncoming lane – directly in front of the much more massive Oldsmobile.  The last thing the Corolla’s driver sees is the front grill of the Oldsmobile plowing directly into the driver-side door.

Such a meaningless waste of lives.


    Traffic fatality rates in the United States have fallen dramatically, although not steady, in the last four decades.  In the early ‘70s, we lost consistently well over 50,000 lives annually to traffic accidents … as much as the entire death toll for our long involvement in Viet Nam – I recall being reminded (which lasted from 1950 – really! – until 1975, although we ceased fighting in 1973).  By 2009 our auto-related death toll had fallen to just over 30,000 lives [2].  This great drop in death despite a population growth from just under 200 million to well over 300 million in that period.  Or, if you prefer, a per capita drop in traffic fatalities of over 50%.   This, despite unquestionably more crowded roads and highways.  And less sane drivers.

    There are many reasons for this.  The leader is probably safer cars and driver practices in general – cars with 4, 6 and even 8 air bags, energy absorbing frames, engine mounts that drop, seat belts and shoulder harnesses.   Add to that better road and highway design and signage, driver training, alcohol awareness and we have a safer America.


    There are other factors for sure, including better driver education training for young drivers, as well as some wonderful programs targeted toward our younger drivers and citizens, such as Alive at 25 and Every 15 Minutes.  Insurance companies are placing more emphasis on well-trained, well-behaved and more responsible young drivers, especially those under 21, our most endangered segment of the driving population.


 All of this notwithstanding, there is some disturbing evidence that traffic death rates have leveled off and may soon be increasing.  Growing road crowding and evidence of increased road rage are combined with more occurrence of pervasive distracted driver.  Perhaps none should be more alarmed at distracted driving than pedestrians, cyclists and even motorcyclists – who seem more affected than others when drivers make small mistakes with significant consequences.


    But sometimes it is nothing more than dumb luck that turns a possibly fatal traffic accident from its worst-possible-outcome to one much, much better.  Providence – God? – may deem that it is not the time.  I am not quite so comfortable with that, because – sometimes – the end results are so much worse than they could have been.  Does God have a hand in that as well?


    All life has potential, and as such I believe that there is a plan for each of us.  But I cannot presume to know what it is.  It is simply there.


    Life is a sequence of unexplainable miracles.  A short list includes the meeting of our parents – and grandparents, ad infinitum – as well as the miracle of mitochondrial splitting of cells and formation of organs.  When miracles lead to a life full of potential – when miracles lead to a life with a great role – then we think that it was meant to be.  Even ordained.  When the miracles stop, and lives and their potential cease along with the cessation of miracles, we wonder what the Almighty was thinking.

That is where I have spent a good deal of time over the past several decades.

And what of car accidents?  And miracles?  At about 5:30PM on November 17th, 1978 just outside Bells, Tennessee on a dim, rain-slickened State Highway 20, I was the driver of a 1974 Toyota Corolla.  My life did not “flash before my eyes” as I watched the Olds 88 smash into the driver’s side of my tiny car.  I do recall thinking “so this is it?” and seeing a flash of light and then … nothing.  The Corolla did a full gainer and a few twists before landing wheels down in a field on the side of the highway.


    Somehow the Olds managed to direct most of its energy into the Toyota’s frame forward of the cabin where the driver and passenger were sitting … virtually shearing the Corolla off where the dashboard connects to the frame.  Still the driver’s side was almost completely caved in … yet … miraculously, no deaths.


    And I don’t use the word miraculously lightly.  Lots of other factors have led to decreased traffic fatalities: better tires, reflective highway paint, anti-lock breaks, Jersey barriers, daytime running lights, those little ridges on the sides of roads.  In 1978 my personal little Olds-Toyota collision incident had the benefit of not a single one of those factors.  Considering the events: There is no good reason for me or my passenger to be alive.  She suffered a bang on the head and a twisted knee.  The kids in the Olds bounced around, but their (uninsured) mother refused treatment for herself and them at the scene; to be seen only once again.  She appeared a month later in traffic court and testified that she never hit the brakes because she thought I was safely off the road.  My left wrist, hand, knee, ankle and calf were shredded … yet survived with quite a few stitches.  All are now cursed with arthritis, and I have a single bad disk (C6/C7), but yea verily, no complaints. I also suffered the first of my concussions.


    Maybe there are good reasons for me to be alive.  My wife of almost 27 years (edited: now 34 years).  Three grown children; two daughters-in-law.  Countless lives and friends and experiences.  Many questions will remain unanswered for me until I finally do meet my end.  Questions.  Did someone, something, somehow nudge the Olds over? What is it I am supposed to do with my life that justified my survival?  Have I done it already?  Am I on borrowed time?


    Hardly a day goes by, my friends, when I don’t recall that night.   [Edited: and also the evening of my violent May 1, 2014 car crash]. And I am left with only this:  Life is an unbelievable series of wonderful and unexplainable mysteries and miracles.  And not just from the moment of conception and through literally trillions of mitochondrial reproductions; the miracles that make up our lives and make our lives possible go back through the chance and circumstances of our parents’ lives to the dawn of time.  Yes, each life is an accumulation of incredible numbers of miracles.  Use it wisely.

If you believe that there is a future day of reckoning — a day of judgment — with your Maker — you just might be a better person today (allowing of course for human weakness) … thus granting justification to all the infinite little miracles of the past that made it possible for you to be you.

Joe Girard © 2010, 2017
[1] Evening Civil Twilight is when the sun passes 6 degrees below the horizon, or about 12 solar diameters. On clear evenings some activities are possible without lighting.  On heavily overcast evenings lights are required for just about any outdoor activity.

Other Notes: Highway 20 at this location is now a four lane highway … much easier to pass.

Other notes
My Corolla was yellow.  Not orange as the image shows.  I don’t know the color of the Delta 88, but it was large. My car was totaled.  As I was grad student with little money, I had no collision insurance.  So it was a total loss.

Transitions, Awakenings, Gratitude

Every time an old person dies, it’s like a library burning down.”

 — Alex Haley

There is now one less faithful reader of my rambles and musings. Audrey’s mom — my mother-in-law — passed away last week. She was 87-1/2 years old. She lived a full life. RIP Eleanor “Elle” Rolfe (Nee: Stork).

She was a Holocaust survivor, escaping Nazi Germany in late 1938, thanks to the Kindertransport, which safely evacuated some 10,000 children (not nearly enough) to England in the dark and fearful few months following Kristallnacht.

Her father, Kurt, had been a very successful lawyer in Hamburg. He was pulled right out of a courtroom during a hearing, arrested, and sent off to a concentration camp.  The story is a bit vague at this point (see Haley quote), but her mother Paula and Kurt’s partner managed to get Eleanor onto one of the children evacuations. Her brother Eric, older by some three years, had been sent to a boarding school in England a couple years earlier.

Not quite age nine, she lived in England for about a year, staying with several families and even an orphanage. She arrived without knowing any English.  The first English word she recalled learning was “soon.” Every time she would ask when she could be with her brother (asked in German, of course, but I think they could understand “Bruder”) her guardians would answer “soon.”

Of course, they didn’t really know. Everything was chaos.  The Brits — mostly country folk, since the government was so terrified of the city bombings that would indeed come, starting in September, 1940 — were generous to care for these children.  (Many stayed after the war; they were orphaned).

Eventually she and brother Eric were re-united. Some time later their father was extracted from the Nazi grip by his law partners’ connections and bribes.  We owe a great debt of gratitude to law partner Kurt Sieveking, from a famous Hamburg family, for helping to get the family out of Hamburg in those dark, fearful months.

The family was re-united in Amsterdam, was able to obtain visas to the US, and sailed away the next December.  They arrived in New York harbor on New Years’ Day, 1940.

Hers is truly an epic story.  The family has a collection of epic stories, really.  Enough death, sorrow, and broken families to make you fill Amsterdam’s canals with tears. And these are just a few of many millions of stories.  What we know of the family alone could fill volumes; could be turned into several screenplays.  And that’s not half of it.  So very sad; and yet so very real.


My wife and I watched a rather odd, painful — yet interesting — movie earlier this week: Sleepwalk with me. It’s a mini-autobiographical biopic, written, and directed by the main character, who also stars as himself. [1]

[Warning: Plot spoiler] Brief synopsis.  The protagonist is a nice guy, but sort of a loser.  He’s in a nowhere job, but aspires to be a stand-up comic.  The aspirations are going nowhere too.  He has a beautiful, wonderful girlfriend. The relationship is eight years old, stale, and not really going anywhere.

He finally proposes marriage, more out of desperation than love.  This occurs just as his stand-up career starts improving immensely, as unlikely as that appears. She starts making bride-zilla scale wedding plans. She seems so excited.

As the wedding date approaches, near the end of the story, he admits that marriage is a bad idea for them.  To his astonishment, she agrees!  They break it off as easily as snapping a single uncooked spaghetti noodle.  Poof!  She never really thought the relationship would work out — for almost the entire eight years! And yet, she had accepted his proposal.

So why, why, why — he asks — did you keep hanging on with me???

Answer: I didn’t want to hurt you.


And it is a pretty weird story.  But it made an impression on me in a couple of ways, because it has such a ring of truth.

First, this guy (Mike Birbiglia — he is called Matt Pandamiglio in the story) put a lot of effort into telling an elaborate story that shows himself in a bad light. That’s honest and honorable. It ended up being kind of funny too, in a mostly awkward way, but that’s not the point.

Second, it got me to thinking about relationships, and how often they lack useful candor.

I don’t want to try and count the number of relationships I’ve had that have ended awkwardly.  And you know? … I almost never had a solid clue.  Am I dense?  With few exceptions, it seems like the young lady just sort of lost interest, but never had the nerve to tell me. Or maybe I did something wrong — and they never told me what it was. Never told me to “bug off.”

My wife can tell you that I’m a hopeless, sentimental romantic. With one exception, I just blithely thought any lady who’d date me more than two or three times was a potential lifelong mate.

And then .. and then … what?  Who knows?  I was just supposed to figure out from  their change of affection, or body language, or how they said my name  — or not being available next weekend, or the one after — that I just wasn’t their cup of tea. I’m not a good mind reader, especially when it comes to the opposite sex.

Except for once, every single break up just sort of happened when I stopped calling — with no regrets or “what happened?” from them. Or ended when I specifically made a point of saying something like: “I’m mystified.  With no more useful information, this is over.” This generally was just fine with them. [2]

With regard to exceptions, the most mature approach was probably the youngest, a lass we’ll call Susan (because that was her name).  Aged only 17, I dropped by one day, unannounced, fishing for clues, and asked “what’s up?”

She hemmed a few moments, then pulled a fresh sprig from a spruce tree and handed it to me. “This is a gift for you. See?  It smells nice.”

I said something like “Yes, it does. But, I don’t understand.”

She said “It will die soon. Even nice things die.”

Brilliant!  I eventually figured it out.  But I kept the dried up, dead old sprig for several months. Sentimental me.


I made a lot of mistakes when I courted Audrey.  Even more since we married. There was a lot of growth potential for Joe; but there was a long way between where Joe was and where that potential suggested he could be.

And that was — and is — one of her principal qualities. She held out for the potential. She has seldom been reticent about telling me how I could be better.  What I’d done wrong.  What she was expecting.

What a relief.  Yes, it hurt sometimes. And sometimes it’s even been kind of funny; for example I’ve even had to change how I fold socks and make a bed.  Pleasing a woman can be difficult and mysterious. It’s so much easier when she tells you what she wants and expects. And when she’s disappointed.

I’m pretty sure we owe quite a bit to Elle for these and many other of Audrey’s wonderful qualities.  The object of my affection saw potential and set a high bar for me; then she helped me get there — instead of just harrumphing and leaving me to guess, or divine the answers from a Ouija board.  Add to that her desire to be a devoted mother of children, something her mother faithfully and consistently displayed (fact: this was something we discussed on our first date!) and I knew I had a winner.  That was clear pretty early on.  I’m pretty sure around our 3rd date. And Audrey herself helped me earn her.

I’m a lucky man.

I’ve thanked Elle more than a few times for the gift of Audrey.  But let me say it again, here and now.  Elle: for anything and everything you had to do and endure to get Audrey to be the way she is, I thank you.

Joe Girard © 2017

Read Elle’s interview for Kindertransport history. Or listen to her interview for the US Holocaust Museum.

[1] Sleepwalk with me was produced by Ira Glass, he of fame from the Radio Series “This American Life.” The story was first made public on the show, narrated by Mike Birbiglia,and was very well received. The film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Festival, wherein it won the Best of NEXT Audience Award.

[2] Miss E(B)K, in case you ever read this — you were different: very nice, generous, mature and interesting lady.  Simply a poor fit, although it was a pretty good run for a few months.  The lessons on this one were: don’t wait too long, and don’t break up over the phone. Sorry about that. I also learned that live theater in a small venue is cool; so are older women.  Thank you.

Verse: of Fog and Snails

“Art is long, and time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act—act in the glorious Present!
Heart within, and God o’er head!”

— excerpts from “A Psalm of Life“, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.


Hi again,

Just about finished going through old papers. And processing them mentally.

Here I present two poems that I wrote long ago.  I’ve put at least one up online before, but coming across early drafts of them has again helped me crystallize some “foggy” memories. These drafts were in that “folder of folderol”, referenced in “Wish I knew, ooh baby.”

As poetry should be, they could have many interpretations. Feel free to try your own. I won’t be offended.

Although they were meant to be ambiguous, the author also intended them to be very, very specific for himself. When you’re done, you will find those interpretations … far below the main texts. Thanks to my memory and those scribbles the thoughts and thought process at the time have become quite clear, yet again.

Crumpled up old poetry drafts

This first draft of the first poem (Foggy Sonnet Breakdown) was inspired in November, 1981. I was having some “issues”, as readers might have inferred from recent essays.  I took a day off work from Boeing (Seattle) to drive up into the Cascades for a solo hike.

Foggy Sonnet Breakdown
[The name is a twist on Foggy Mountain Breakdown, a banjo-based Blue Grass classic created by Earl Scruggs. It pretty much defines the Blue Grass style all by itself.  I learned to appreciate Blue Grass during my grad school years in Nashville, TN.]

Cascade mountain hiking. This is NOT a good idea for the Pacific Northwest in November.  The weather and road conditions matched my mood perfectly; it was very foggy, cold and drizzly. At least I had the roads and trails to myself.  During the drive up and back, and during the 9-mile “forced march” hike up and down Denny Creek (which left me near hypothermia and through which I endured multiple aggressive attacks by swooping Cascade Gray Jays when attempting to snack on my “gorp” — conditions I actually rather welcomed at the time), I composed most of these lines. My notes show that I originally called it “I-90 Fog”.

Later I transformed it into a “perfect” sonnet: not only 14 lines, but also 14 syllables per line.  Here you go.

Foggy Sonnet Breakdown

Praise the Fog around us now: Hides the vileness that we shun,
Protects us from other worlds till another day is done.
Curse the Fog around us now: Hides the beauty that we seek,
Causes us to lose our way and so makes the day seem bleak.

A Fog lies in our valleys, but ne’er upon our true peaks.
Fogs are chosen by the Prideful, as sure as by the Meek.

Fog can be the product of sympathetic tears that greet
The Victims in their own undoings when touched by Passion’s heat.

As for me, I am resolved; for who of us is to tell
If the path I’ve chosen leads to my heaven or my hell?

I wish that I could ask you Fog: “What makes you so damn sure
That we’ll lose sight of our goals, and our patience won’t endure?
For the day is very young and the Sun is rising fast;
Soon she’ll cauterize you canker: free from ourselves at last!”

— Joe Girard © original 1981; edited in 1993 (during another self-induced crisis)


Ahem.  Well … chew on that a while, if you’d like.

The second and shorter piece, entitled “Snail People” was written in January, 1982.  I had — more or less — accepted defeat (although the Coup de Grace was some three months away).

Do I need to explain Seattle’s January weather?  It’s Dreary and Damp, with capital D’s. That’s D, as in fending off a Dark mood.  Defeats are singular … life is longer: spring and opportunity were on their way. Like Longfellow’s Psalm of Life, it was time to move on; wiser, stronger, bravely and more resilient.

Snail People

See Ye now the snail,
So timid,
It crawls upon the sand.
See Ye now the snail,
I grasp it,
And crush it in my hand.

Poor stupid creatures,
Not knowing
That living in a shell —
Poor stupid creatures
A corpse would do as well.

See ye now a man,
So lonely
Within his shell — how strange!
See ye now a man.
I wonder:
Why won’t he ever change?

Joe Girard © January, 1982

Ahem.  Interpretations?  Feel free.

They were written from lengthy and deep introspection.

Hint: There is acceptance of flaws … and determination to deal with them, through faith in self.

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing.
And now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing

To think I did all that
And may I say – not in a shy way
Oh no, oh no, not me
I did it my way

— from “My Way”; lyrics by Paul Anka, first and most famous English recording by Frank Sinatra.

Author recreates his interpretations, several decades later:

Fog covers parts of the Smoky Mountains at the break of day.

Well here goes. Fog is cluttered and clouded thinking.  It both shelters and obscures; it can be comforting or disorienting.  Mountain fogs tend to lie in valleys; at mountain high points the view is far and clear, for you are above the fog. (Fog is simply a cloud that reaches down to the ground). Climb to be your best self; and the fogs simply fall away.

Such obscuration can be caused by both pride and self-pity. Dwelling on your depths leaves you in the fog; dwelling on positives gets you up the mountain, above the clouds.

The fog, or clouded thinking here, abruptly turns to reference the tears of self-pity.  This is not true victimhood; not when a condition is self induced. The heat of emotion turns tears to vapor, where they re-condense into a fog.

It is of course, about me. I was the victim of my own in-doing.  I accepted responsibility.  Now what?

Yet, it is still early in the day (my life). The Sun is my own fiery self-determination, which can, and will, cure — even if it requires burning the wounds to cease their oozing.

Capitalizations.  No apologies.  Note that Longfellow did the same. These were to emphasize that the subject referenced is me, myself, or some quality of mine. I capitalized and made the S of sun bold, to make that (i.e. my self determination and  willingness to use it to cure, even through metaphoric searing) especially pronounced and memorable. A point of focus. To burn it into my psyche. The sun, like self-determination can both burn and heal.  Simultaneously.

Well, I think that’s it. That’s all I can recall for now about how, why, and when I first wrote it … and what it meant to me. What it meant about me.

Foggy Sonnet Breakdown …
[The idea of fog along mountains ranges and lying in their valleys also came from my years in Tennessee. Each spring a friend and I would make a lengthy vacation at the end of the school year in the Smoky Mountains to hike, camp and raft rivers.]


Snail People is more about accepting self, dismissing isolation, and moving on. Acknowledging a large world beyond oneself.

Living a small, shallow protected life is a choice.  It can feel comfortable.  But it is self-limiting and leads to metaphoric death: a life void of meaningful interactions.  Yes it is safe, and life without a shell will — certainly, eventually — involve some pain.  Get over it.  Crush it. No one will ever feel sorry for you for long.

So, don’t be lonely.  Shed that shell. Have people in your life. Learn! Time to move on.


Until next time, I bid you Adieu. And, I wish you many heights above your fog.  And life out of your shell.


Joe Girard © 2017


Another Love Story

Another Love Story

“There’s no tick-tock on your electric clock,
But still your life runs down”
— Harry Chapin (song: Halfway to Heaven)

The Long Island Expressway is often called by its acronym LIE, and seldom by its assigned number ID: I-495.  It is also often called the Long Island Distress-way, a tribute to its notorious snarly traffic jams that can go on for miles and miles and several hours each weekday.

Monday through Friday the expressway turns into a slothful snake, slithering on the cold concrete as it stretches from the Queens Midtown Bridge out east to Suffolk County.  Late in the morning and early in the afternoon, the LIE wakes up.  The traffic drops below a volume threshold, and — voila! — cars can often zip along at 65mph (105 kmh), sometimes even with a few car lengths between them.


I have a confession to make.  During my high school and college years, I didn’t like the contemporary popular music as much as I let on.  Sure, I learned the words to many of the more popular songs and was, thereby, able to fit in.  I faked it.

The songs that attracted me were more earthy.  Songs with words that could be understood; songs with words that told stories; songs where the words were more important than the music.  The music was simply the walls upon which murals were painted; murals that told stories of a vast range of “ordinary” people, trying to do their best, survive the world’s vagaries, and just – somehow – get along.

Thirty or forty-five years ago a guy would rather die before admitting that Barry Manilow’s songs about a washed up show girl (Copacabana) or a man who mourns that he is no longer in love (Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again) were his preference.  Include Gordon Lightfoot’s saga of a doomed freight ship (Edmund Fitzgerald).  Or maybe worse, “chick” songs: Judy Collins singing a ballad about someone who did all the right things in life, except the important things (Send in the Clowns), or acknowledging that everything important we think we know about life might be wrong (Both Sides Now).


At lunch hour the LIE offers an enticing route for mid-day errands.  Clients to meet.  Lunch with friends.  Errands to run.  Doctor appointments.  In the summer, pick up or drop off kids at camp, make an early get away to – or late return from – the outer beaches.  Trucks are out making deliveries and pickups.  Noon hour traffic usually zips, but it’s a crap-shoot: sometime it’s a bit tight for 65mph, and – with just one accident, or breakdown, or a little precipitation – it can return to “the Distress-way”, slowing to a sudden and unwelcome complete stop.


Shoot, I even liked some ballads, like Marty Robbins’ cowboy ditty “West Texas town of El Paso” and Simon & Garfunkle’s “The Boxer.”  Among the “story teller” singers and songwriters, by far I liked Harry Chapin the most.  He wrote and arranged his own songs.   His voice was just bad enough that anyone could convince themselves they could sing them.  But the stories — the lyrics — captivated me.

Harry Chapin, Album cover: Heads & Tales

By Chapin’s own admission, he was a delusional dreamer.  His first songs (he often joked) went something along the lines of “If only everyone could hold hands and hum along to the wonderful songs I am singing, the world would be a wonderful place and we’d have peace and friendship and boundless goodwill.”

Born to a musical and theatrical family, Chapin even made a brief yet successful foray into movie making, writing and directing a documentary for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.[]

Harry found his stride in music in his own form of ballad, telling stories of life.  His breakthrough song, in 1972, was Taxi, a story about a taxi driver who has lost his life’s dream and purpose — and then, without warning one night, he picks up a fare who turns out to be a former lover needing a ride home.  Her life has also not turned out so well.  They briefly reminisce.  Among his many studies:

  • Sniper – a confused and frustrated young man seeks notoriety ·