Category Archives: History


Among Georgia’s geographic regions is the large expanse scientifically dubbed the Upper Coastal Plain.  Stretching from the southern border with Alabama, around Columbus, to the Atlantic Coast, around Savanah, it was formed over many millions of years and several geologic eras, extending back to the Cretaceous Period, up to 135 million years ago.  Each era left numerous individual layers of soil of different hardness and compositions, reaching a few hundred meters deep in total.

Georgia’s Lower (yellow) and Upper Coastal Plains (green)

Topographically, it’s generally gently rolling hills, gaining some elevation as it traverses northward toward the Appalachian piedmont.  There are a set of north-south ridges near its center, separating the Gulf and Atlantic watersheds.

The territory of Georgia was the last of the original 13 British Colonies, founded in 1732 by James Oglethorpe under the reign of George II (hence its name).  Although its statehood dates to the Revolution, the westernmost regions were not settled until around 1825, mostly by farmers seeking open land to grow cash crops, mainly cotton.

Three years later the city of Columbus was founded, its location along the Chattahoochee River providing commercial transportation for products, using the rather new invention of the steamship. [1]

Major Continental Divides of the US East

The land south of Columbus, like much of Georgia and the south, was substantially covered in Longleaf Pine, now also called Loblolly Pine.  New settlers came here in the 1820s and chose a fertile looking such area on a gently sloping hillside for their cotton acreage.  In 1832 they built a church, Providence Methodist, central to this new farming region.

Of course, the new settlers had to first clearcut all the Loblollies – and remove the stumps.  Seems like quite an ordeal.  Certainly, they would have used slave labor.  The Loblolly is a wonderful tree, growing tall, often over 100 feet, and very straight – perfect for building new lodgings.

Then they’d have tilled the soil before seeding.  Although the prepared fields were on a hillside, they never thought to terrace the land.  Combined with the clearcutting this was a very unfortunate oversight.

It’s a rather rainy area; average precipitation most months is over 4 inches, often falling in buckets over short periods of time from cloud bursts and thunderstorms.  Although precipitation is welcome to farmers, the large storm drainage volumes followed the terrain fall-line, or ran between the furrows closest to the fall-line.  Many fields were actually tilled with furrows running up and down the fall-line. Rapid erosion began within a few years.  Published reports of significant erosion first appeared in 1835.

Much of the earth a few feet beneath the surface was unconsolidated sedimentary in nature, basically sand. By 1850 the erosion catastrophe was out of human control. Long gullies up to five feet deep had formed; the erosion could only accelerate from this time onward.  Providence Church was moved.

Today the massive extent of the erosion has cut deep and wide into the formerly pleasant and wildlife-rich pine forest on a pristine hillside.  The canyons are quite the site for geologic wonder, they’ve cut deep into the earth, revealing the many layers of geologic eras long ago.

Erosion has now reached hard rock, some 150 feet deep; the deepening of the nine connected canyons has slowed. It’s widening has not.  Now at about 300 feet wide, its breadth is accelerating, and the perimeter widens ever more, now at about 3 feet per year in many places. Along the cliffs more and more chunks of soil calve off, tumbling down to the canyon floor, to be washed away to the delta downstream on the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola River system.  Native pines have not stopped the erosion – in fact they may have accelerated it.  Large root systems are slowly uprooted and fall to the canyon below, along with the full tree, ripping great swaths of otherwise apparently stabile soil.

The canyons took the name of the old Methodist Church; they are called the Providence Canyon.  The area is now a Georgia State Park.  The canyons and the rims are very walkable.  It’s a bit out of the way, but worth the visit.  We spent just over 2 hours there.

The Soil Conservation Act of 1935, passed mostly on account of the Dust Bowl also addressed issues like the Providence Canyon practices.

Joe Girard © 2024

See citations and resources below.

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Canyon 6, Joe Canyon 7, 8 or 9, Audrey From a canyon rim

[1] Invented two decades earlier, the first major success of a steamboat in the US was Fulton’s, who had his own design for the idea.
Its first major successful trip was in 1811-12. This vessel of his design traveled the Ohio River from Pittsburg to its confluence with the Mississippi, and then to New Orleans.

Some resources:

Sanders, Sigrid. “Providence Canyon.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Jul 26, 2017.

Kirkman, L. “Upper Coastal Plain.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Sep 1, 2020.

Plaques and posters on display at the Providence Canyon State Park.

And of course, Wikipedia

A Cross fror Higbee

Lenah, circa 1918

Lenah Higbee, a life that deserves to be remembered

Originally Canadian, born May 18, 1874 (*1) in New Brunswick, Canada, Lenah Higbee (nee: Sutcliffe), immigrated to the US to attend nursing school at the New York Post Graduate Hospital [now NYU Medical], where she completed her nurse’s certification. She did further graduate study at Fordham University, in the Bronx and she also began her own private nursing practice.

In 1899 she met John H Higbee, a widower and retired Marine Lt. Colonel. They courted and were married that year.(*2) He was in service for many years, beginning in 1861, in the US Civil War.

Through marriage Lenah immediately became a naturalized US citizen, by laws at that time (which stood until 1922, when US sentiment turned largely anti-immigrant).  John was approximately three decades older than she.

In April, 1908 Lenah became a widow when John passed away.  They had no children, although it’s possible John had children from his earlier marriage.

The very next month the US Congress passed legislation to form the Navy Nurse Corps. It became law when it was signed by President “Teddy” Roosevelt.  On 1 October, 1908, Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee became one the first twenty nurses in the original Navy Nurse Corps (Historians call it The Sacred Twenty). Now widowed, she was unmarried, a requirement to serve.

The 20 were initially trained at Portsmouth, Virginia.  She soon earned the role of Chief Nurse at Norfolk Naval Hospital (Virginia), and in January 1911 became the second ever “Superintendent” of the Corps.

Over the next 11 years of her military career Higbee was never given an official military rank (unlike Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan) and was paid less than other skilled Navy professionals with similar demands.  Throughout the remainder of her Naval career, she carried the simple and non-military title “Superintendent”, an unofficial title (it is, however, the title of the commander of the US Naval Academy).

Superintendent Higbee

During this period, up until The Great War, she implemented universal training programs with demanding criteria to ensure Corps-wide competency in all situations.  She helped grow and train the Corps to nearly 1,400 nurses. Higbee was a well-placed powerful activist for military nurses, advocating for better pay, better working conditions and better recognition.  She served on many military and national medical committees, including the Red Cross, to help prepare for the Great War, in which America’s entry was appearing ever more likely.

In 1916 Woodrow Wilson was re-elected to the presidency under the slogan “He kept us out of war.”  That wouldn’t last long.  Just 10 weeks after the election, the Zimmermann Telegram was intercepted and de-cyphered by the Brits.  A month later the message was relayed to President Wilson, who then released the text to the US public. [the one-month delay, was because the Brits feared revealing that they had broken the German code.  Perhaps the first use of “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail”].   The Public outcry was enormous … and angry.

Coincident with the cable’s public release, the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare; that included sinking unarmed ships of all sorts.

Thus, the US gave up on non-interventionism and, as of a Congressional Declaration of War requested by Wilson, April 17, was on the way to war: “Send the word over there: That the Yanks are coming.”  [By Year’s end, Over There made it to #1]

The military was mobilized, but not all that quickly – the US wasn’t really prepared; they didn’t have a large military with respect to Gross National Product at that time.  Recruiting was lagging, armaments and training were severely lacking.

But the Naval Nursing Corps was ready.  With Lenah Higbee acting effectively as Naval Nurse Chief of Staff, in charge of everything within the Corps, working long hours at the Navy Bureau of Medicine & Surgery in Washington, she managed the recruitment, deployment to hospitals and ships, matériel, and logistics of all Navy and Marine Nurse contributions to wartime healthcare.

During the war, the Navy Nurse Corps served on every combat ship, transport ship, and supply ship.   Nurses were also attached to the US Railway Battery in France.

Higbee’s nurses were also called upon to train the recently recruited Navy Corpsmen. About 350 in total.

The demands on Higbee were extremely challenging, made worse as the Spanish Flu pandemic (*3) that swept across the World (*4) and affected every nation of  the war’s belligerents; the flu hit US servicemen just as its battle casualties began mounting [The US Military suffered some 117,000 deaths in the war, twice the loss in Viet Nam, in just a year and a half, with half the population; this includes about 45,000 from the flu].

Corpsmen and nurses assigned artillery land-duty dealt with shocking human trauma of every sort: Shrapnel, blast shocks, piercing bullet wounds, psychiatric troubles (“shell-shock”, now PTSD).  Not to mention trench foot, vermin like rats, and gas warfare and STDs. And, of course, the Spanish Flu.

Higbee’s contributions were more than equal to any on the battlefield, or at sea.  Her tireless and steadfast devotion were instrumental in providing high quality healthcare to servicemen.  Success of the Nurse Corps, a vital component of the war effort, would not have happened without Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee. Her dedication and professionalism motivated not just the entire Corps, but all those working with and around her.

Her contributions were rightly recognized.  On November 11, 1920 (1st official anniversary of Armistice Day) she and three other Navy nurses — Marie Louise Hidell, Lillian M. Murphy and Edna Place — were the first women to be awarded the Navy Cross.  Sadly, the awards to the other three were posthumous – they had succumbed to the Spanish Flu, contracted from patients they had treated.  Higbee is, consequently, often regarded as the first woman to be so honored.

The Navy Cross

Thanks to the nurses’ and Higbee’s wartime efforts, which was carried on by their successors, military nurses were given official military rank beginning with World War II.

To this day, the Navy Nurse Corps continues to provide quality care to Navy Staff and families.  The memory of Lenah Higbee is held as an inspiration to all who serve.

Higbee retired from the Navy on November 30, 1922. Throughout her very distinguished career, despite the ever-present discrimination from the still male-dominated medical professions, she had maintained her dignity and service commitment. After retirement she filled her life with pursuits not possible during her service to the nation.  She eventually moved far from New York and Washington to central Florida.

  • The SS Orbita manifest shows her, as a widow, arriving at Ellis Island, New York, on May 23rd, 1924 from Cherbourg, France – with an address in New York City at East 76th Street (no bldg number); that’s in mid-Manhattan.
  • Another manifest, SS Dominica, shows her arriving February 2nd,1926 at Ellis Island from Trinidad and Tobago (then part of British West Indies).
  • She arrived in New York on June 23rd, 1935 from Southampton, England on the SS Statendam. Her Current residence now listed as Deer Isle, Maine. A remote island near no major cities. I surmise she moved to Florida after this trip.

    Lenah Higbee at 49, passport photo

She received her first US passport in September 1899.  I’ve found that she renewed it in December 1923; one of many renewals; in ’23 she was still residing at 55 East 76th Street, NYC.  When it was approved, her passport showed she had blue eyes — and a scar on her right wrist (injury?)

After retirement she also remained active in American health care.  She was involved in, and soon became president of, the American Nurses’ Association.  Among all her duties, she also campaigned for improved health care for all US residents.

Going back a bit … Because of the relatively close proximity to NY City, I will presume she attended the 1901 World’s Fair, in Buffalo. There are teasers that John may have spent some time here, although born in Manhattan. There, at that fair, many wonderous things were to be discovered; modern advancements in medical science were on display, including Roentgen’s X-Ray machine. Also exhibited were early manometers, improved stethoscopes, ophthalmoscopes, very early incubators, antiseptic techniques, and more.  President McKinley was assassinated there in September. [See this girardmeister essay]

Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee passed away from natural causes on January 10, 1941, in Winter Park, Orange County, Florida, at age 66 years. Like her husband, she is interred with full Military Honors at Arlington National Cemetery.  In fact, they are buried side-by-side –— Section 3, Site 1797.

Two naval vessels have been named for her Lenah Higbee.

USS Higbee, DD-806

The first, the USS Higbee (DD-806), was the first combat warship named after a female member of the U.S. military. It was commissioned in 1945, serving in Viet Nam and as part of the NASA Mercury missions Pacific Ocean recovery team.  She was decommissioned in 1976 and, I guess sadly, was sunk in 1986 as part of an aerial bombardment exercise about 100 miles west of San Diego.

The second, the USS Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG-123), was laid in January 2020.  It’s an Arleigh Burke-class* guided missile destroyer. It was christened in 2021, commissioned in May 2023 and due for official fleet entry later in 2024.

USS Higbee DD-123

Thanks for reading.

Joe Girard © 2024

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



L. Higbee at rest

Some final notes and linked sources

  • John’s data is scarce. He was born in New York, NY, 1840, and passed in Buffalo, NY, 1898
    In the 1840 census, a John Higbee (father?) shows up in Brooklyn with two children under age 5 and a woman (name? wife?) aged 20-30. If this is our John’s family, our John Higbee would then be a “Junior.”
  • Can’t find any marriage, birth, or fatherhood records. However, it seems that all boroughs were not officially joined into New York City until 1898. So, perhaps, this is not the “John” we are looking for.
  • They may well have decided to dwell in Buffalo after visiting the Fair (where McKinley was assassinated, Sept 1901).
  • When I saw the name Edna Place (Navy Cross recipient) I couldn’t help but think of Etta Place, of “Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid” fame, often considered the most beautiful woman of that era.
  • *For Colorado readers, Admiral Burke was a native of Boulder; The Burke school and Park are named for him. The school has been renamed Horizons Charter School
  • Tags in the text:
  • (*1) – Several Documents say 1873
  • (*2) – A very good guess is that John served in the 1st New York Marine Artillery Regiment. This regiment was first mustered in Nov, 1861, just after John’s joining, at age 17. Most 1st NY recruits were from New York City, his hometown. It’s also the only Marine group of any sort from New York state. Records show this group in combat, securing many ports from North Carolina up through Virginia.
  • (*3) – here I use pandemic, not epidemic. The former connotes worldwide; the latter something more local, as in epicenter.
  • (*4) – Spanish Flu: India lost 12 million, China almost 7 million to the flu. US “only” 675,000

Side by Side graves


Finding Lenah and John. Section 3



[4] Military Medicine, forgotten nurses, Spanish Flu in WWI —




Page 126





[13] I also found to be very useful here.  See [11] for one such item.


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

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

Author’s notes (footnotes follow):


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

Kate Chopin

The Women’s Convention of 1848, in Seneca Falls, NY, was an early major milestone in the US Women’s Rights movement. It was arguably the first. Two years later, in Saint Louis, a girl was born who would go on to become an unwilling icon of that movement: Catherine “Kate” O’Flaherty.

Catherine O’Flaherty was born, in Saint Louis, Missouri, in February, 1850, to an Irish immigrant father (Thomas) and a Saint Louisan mother (Eliza) of well-heeled lineage, including French-Creole [1] and Quebec ancestry.


Thomas O’Flaherty was born in 1805 in County Galway, Ireland.  Ireland had been ruled by, and oppressed by, England for centuries. He emigrated to the United States around 1825 seeking opportunity — before the infamous Potato Famine hit in the mid-1840s.  He settled in the country’s most prosperous and fastest growing heartland city, Saint Louis, Missouri.

Catherine “Kate” O’Flaherty Chopin, 1890s

He did well financially almost immediately. He ran a boat shop along the river and a small store. He expanded into cotton and grain trading.  Now entitled to rub shoulders with city’s oldest and wealthiest families he moved in the highest circles.  There, through arrangement, he met and courted Eliza Faris – she from a first class family in St Louis society, with well-established St Louis Creole roots.  On August 1, 1844 they were wed.  She was barely 16 at the time.  Thomas 38.

Eliza was his second marriage – this time an arranged marriage. From the 1850 census, we see a child George O’Flaherty, age 9 in the household – Eliza’s stepchild. Eliza is some 22 years younger than Thomas.  Besides George, Eliza, and several of her family, there are 2 more children: Thomas, age 2, and Catherine.  The later shown as 0 years old; she was born on February 8 of that census year.  Thomas’ profession in the census is shown as “Merchant.”


At age 5 Catherine, now going by “Kate” was sent to a private Catholic boarding school, across the Missouri River, in St Charles.  There her studies lasted but a few months.


Thomas extended his business interests.  He saw opportunity in the nation’s expansion, and its need for more railroads.  He was an initial investor in, and one of the founders of the Pacific Railroad (later the Missouri-Pacific Railroad).[2]

Thomas and Eliza, circa 1845

In 1855, shortly after Kate was sent off to school, the Pacific’s first major line from St Louis to the state capital – Jefferson City – was finally completed after four excruciatingly long years of construction.*  The inaugural trip to Jeff City, the state capital, was to occur on October 1.

[* Excruciating long: it took only 6 years to complete the “transcontinental” 1,800 mile line from Omaha to the San Francisco Bay area. From Saint Louis to Jefferson City was about 110 miles of rail line].

Again, a delay … this time to complete a temporary trestle bridge over the Gasconade River, just west of Hermann and some 20 miles short of the capital.

Finally, the line was complete by the end of October.  A large freighter pulling a dozen Gondola cars, each with tons of gravel, traversed the entire line, confirming its safely.  It was good to go.

Eliza & stepson George, ~1850

November 1, All Saints’ Day, ominously the day after Halloween, the inaugural full-length passenger run set out. The train carried some 600 passengers; among them were dozens of St Louis dignitaries, including O’Flaherty, Thomas O’Sullivan, and Henry Chouteau. O’Sullivan was the Pacific’s chief Engineer, Chouteau a direct descendant of St Louis’ founding family.

At 9AM, after much fanfare, band music and speechifying, the 14-car train pulled out of the Seventh Street Station (just south of the site of today’s Busch Stadium, and under ½ mile east of where the landmark Union Station would stand four decades later). Pulled by the small but mighty 4-4-0 locomotive Missouri* the train made its way west through a heavy rainstorm, over many creeks and small rivers, mostly along the right bank of the Missouri River, toward the capital city.   About 25 miles from the route’s terminus, some 9 miles west of Hermann, the line crossed the Gasconade River bridge via the temporary mostly-timber trestle.

[* The locomotive had recently been re-named “O’Sullivan” after the engineer.  He was also a prominent St Louisan and member of one of its oldest families].

At 1:30 PM the train reached the Gasconade bridge.  A notion to stop and check the bridge was dismissed, as that heavy gravel-laden train had crossed the day before – with chief engineer O’Sullivan himself aboard that run as well.  Plus, it was raining hard and the train was running late for the scheduled ceremonies to be held in Jeff City.

As the engine and tender rolled onto the first of six 150-foot spans the bridge gave way.  Complete collapse. All cars but one left the track and tumbled down the thirty-five-foot embankment, most of them all the way into the swollen river.  A historic catastrophe. Among the 30 fatalities were O’Sullivan, Chouteau and Thomas O’Flaherty. [This line along the Missouri River is still used by Amtrak today. It’s called the Missouri River Runner.  The bridge has, of course, been replaced and upgraded several times].  Thomas is buried in Calvary Cemetery, in St Louis.

Trains were to proceed over the bridge by creeping at just a few miles per hour. The O’Sullivan “dared” to cross at over 10 mph. This was determined to be the catastrophe’s cause.


This Missouri/O’Sullivan

Fatherless, Kate was returned home from school.  For the rest of her youth she was raised in a household led by only women, all strong matriarchs: her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.  All had been widowed young, never re-married, and developed into fully self-sufficient, self-directed and independently minded women. They raised Kate to be likewise.  She was home-schooled, mostly by her great-grandmother, Victoria Verdon Charleville, assisted by her grandmother, Athenaise “Mary” Charleville Faris. They ensured she was well-educated, and that she was well-rounded, including extra studies in classic & contemporary literature, music and her ancestors’ French language.

After she completed what amounted to Elementary School at home – about the time her great-grandmother’s health began fading (she died in 1863) – Kate began attending the nearby Catholic Girl’s School, Academy of the Visitation, in St Louis’ Visitation Neighborhood around 1859.

Kate must’ve been quite the catch.  Handsome, well-off, well-educated, much attention was directed at her by local young men.  But it was on a family vacation to New Orleans where she met her future husband – Oscar Chopin.

These locomotive wheels were found at the accident site in the river 147 years later and are now on display at the Union Pacific Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (The Missouri Pacific was acquired by the Union Pacific in 1982)

Chopin was also of French Creole decent; his surname is pronounced like the famous composer’s.  They were married in 1870. By all accounts they had a good relationship and loving marriage. This despite Chopin’s father having a notorious reputation as a tyrant with an irritable disposition.  Their relationship and marriage blossomed, and over the first 10 years of marriage they had six children.

Oscar held Kate in very high regard.  He admired her intelligence, creativity and devotion to duty, all wrapped in a free spirit.  He allowed her many freedoms not normally seen in the south.  She was involved in his business, managed many of his contacts, went unescorted in public, and dressed as she wished. Oscar praised her publicly.

After an extravagant honeymoon that took them across Europe they settled in New Orleans.  Following a few years of prosperity, Oscar’s cotton trade business failed due to a series of economic crises that struck the post-war South.  They moved to Natchitoches Parish, started a General Store and helped manage local plantations.   Although the store’s sales were healthy, Oscar was well-known to be excessively generous in extending credit to his customers, and then not bothering much with debt collection.

Buried in debt and struggling to support his family, the good-natured Oscar was under great pressure – to which he succumbed. In 1882, aged 38, he contracted “Swamp Fever”* and died after a period of brutally painful suffering.

[*a generic name for local diseases; it was probably malaria].

Kate was now a young widow, like three generations of women before her, at age 32, with 6 children and shouldering over $12,000 in debt (worth about $350,000 in 2023).  She took over the business and ran it well for two years. During this time, she shamelessly flirted openly with local men – not all were single.  Outrageous! She had a brief affair with a local wealthy plantation owner, Albert Sampite. (Although married, Sampite was estranged). He encouraged her to further reach for her own aspirations. He inspired her to boldly engage her imagination – something she’d do the rest of her days. It was a brief, yet exciting, liaison.  But this was all just too much work. Her life was too full, too busy. At her mother’s urging she sold the store, packed up and returned to her hometown in 1884. Permanently, as it turned out.  Saint Louis was home.

The main reasons for the big move were to get financial relief, emotional support, and help raising the children.  The support was short-lived, however.  Within a year of Kate’s arrival Eliza fell ill.  When she died Kate was alone again.  [Phone book records show them living at 1122 St. Ange Ave, in the Peabody Darst Webb neighborhood]

Through her mother’s illness Kate fell into a depressive funk.  The doctor who attended to her mother through failing health, Dr Kolbenheyer, noticed Kate’s struggles. He recommended she try writing for solace.  When Eliza died, Kate did start writing.  Oh, how she could write. She wrote about what she knew.  She was almost immediately successful, writing about people and things she knew about and had seen in Louisiana.  With her inheritance and money she earned from writing she was pretty well-off.  Enough to support herself and her children. She moved to a very nice home at 4232 McPherson Ave, in the Central West End neighborhood.

Inspired by this success, she tried writing novels.  By the later 1890s she was well-known nationally and famous locally.  She had hundreds of articles and short stories published, as well as novels that critics reviewed highly.  In 1897 she embarked on writing her pièce de resistance: The Awakening.

After two years it was complete. Published in 1899, The Awakening caused quite a stir.  Briefly it’s about a woman, Edna Pontellier, who is married to a wealthy businessman in New Orleans.  She feels trapped in her life and hemmed in by the expectations of a wife and mother in the old south.  She seeks independence and self-discovery.  She seeks, and finds, her own desires – outside the bounds of polite society’s expectations.  Her desire includes enjoyment, which includes sexual pleasures.  The rest of the story is about the conflicts and crises that arise as she finds fulfillment of those desires. In the end, it’s a tragedy.

It was a scandal!  In mixed reviews most critics found it disturbing.  Readers thought the same. Shameful. Immoral.  Outrageous.  Women don’t do that!  And if they do, we don’t write about it.  Feminists praised her as a hero.  Feminist “Hero” was a mantle she never accepted.  She was just a writer.

The result? Chopin’s writing career crashed. Publishers eschewed her work. Copies of The Awakening were stashed away in unlit corners of libraries and homes.  She was largely forgotten. Even by feminists.  A decade after her death, her works were briefly re-considered, and some critics, like Fred Lewis Pattee, began considering her among the best writers of the late 19th century. Alas, her works soon again drifted into the realm of cob-webbed dust-covered attics.

Her works lay largely dormant and forgotten until after the mid-20th century when scholars, many of them feminists, re-discovered The Awakening. It’s now held in high regard as an early classic of feminist literature.  It’s widely studied and celebrated for its exploration of themes like repression, gender roles, identity, sexual awakening, and women’s individuality and freedom.

Authors and readers since have been inspired by Chopin’s female characters.  Two popular and very successful novelists of our era who nearly always include female protagonists who face challenges and grow to become heroic figures are Kristin Hannah and – gasp, a man! – Ken Follett.


Excitement for Kate.  Her hometown, Saint Louis, hosted the 1904 World’s Fair. The main entrance was just two miles from her home in the Central West End neighborhood.  Instead of going to see the world, the world had come to her: a perfect fit for her hungry and inquisitive mind.  She bought a season’s pass and delighted in roaming the grounds –  a nearly 1,300 acre expanse with over 1,500 buildings, 12 Palaces and a mile of Pike with curiosities of all sorts,  all connected with 75 miles of roads and walkways  –  to learn of countless technical and cultural advances in the world.

A Saint Louis native, she certainly had already experienced many a warm day with oppressive humidity. Most Fair visitors that summer remarked on this unpleasant “feature” of Midwest weather.  In the late morning of August 19, a huge storm system developed over Kansas, then moved slowly east.  The intense storm dropped two inches of overnight rain on Saint Louis – much after midnight –  before drifting east, dumping buckets all the way to Buffalo.

The next day Kate was at the Fair again. The heavy rain had driven the humidity to the point of being nearly unbearable in the 87-degree heat. With so much to see and learn, Kate soldiered on. In the afternoon she began feeling very tired and woozy.  She began feeling faint.  Then she passed out.

She was taken home. Victim of a cerebral hemorrhage.  She passed away in her own bed, two days later, age 54.  She is also buried in Calvary Cemetery and Mausoleum, St Louis, near her parents.

A legendary figure in Saint Louis history, literature and feminism, Kate Chopin aspired, achieved, and inspired many.

Thanks for reading.  I enjoy sharing almost forgotten history from my own perspective.  Be well. Be like Kate Chopin. Color outside the lines. Live your dreams. Aspire. Be you.


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

Author’s notes (footnotes follow):

Note 1: Many will wonder, after reading this, whether I am a “feminist,” or not. My position is nuanced, and largely depends upon how one defines the term. First the affirmative.

I am a feminist in a practical sense. No society can reach anything close its full potentional in areas of human progress – economics, arts, philosophy, or technology – while restricting the participation of one-half of its population. Yes, I’m a feminist insofar as that means fully empowering all of the population to contribute to society … legally and without infringing the rights of others. Everyone has something to contribute to society … as they see fit. This is consistent with classical liberal philosophy.

And the negative. I am not in harmony with fringe opinions attributed to “feminists.” These include notions of “male toxicity”, “all heterosexual intercourse is rape”, destruction of capitalism, attacks on trans-woman as they’re perceived to be “hogging” their victimhood spotlight, banning religions with a patriarchal history, renaming anything with the sounds “her, him or his” in the word: e.g. Hurricanes become Him-icanes. In any case, much may all be well on its way to history’s dustbin as women in the US now earn 38% more college degrees than men at nearly every level. This last point is very interesting – perhaps a topic for another essay.

I might have uncovered some disagreement here. OK. Tribal rules don’t care about nuance.

Note 2: As many of my readers reside in the St Louis area – and I’m hopeful more will join as I often write essays with St Louis themes – I have included reference to the St Louis neighborhoods, streets and addresses so that they can place events in the region.

[1] The term “Creole” has many definitions. Herein I use it to refer to those who trace their ancestry to Europe, of French and/or Spanish ancestry, often mixed with black. This ancestry often goes back to upper classes or upper-middle classes, whether the status was attained in Europe or in the New World. Most of these Creoles do not speak “pigeon English” and are definitely not Cajun, which is a unique Louisiana background and culture altogether – although in some parts of Louisiana they overlap.

It appears that O’Flaherty’s first marriage was also to a society St Louis Creole, named Catharine Reilhe. They wed in November, 1839. Catharine was born in 1819, in St Charles, and passed in 1846. It’s likely that Kate was named for her. His son from his first marriage, George, was born in 1841; he died in 1863. As with most of the O’Flaherty and Chopin family he’s buried in Calavary Cemetery, St Louis. It seems he died in Arkansas, as a member of the Confederate Army, as a consequence of the Battle of Prairie Grove, December 1862, in Northwest Arkansas.  As Saint Louis, indeed most of Missouri, was very fractured over slavery and the Confederacy.

Reihle sounds like, and is, a name of Germanic origins — mostly Austrian, some from Württemberg.  As multiple sources state she’s from a Creole background, I suspect this is either due to interpretation, or something acquired by ancestral marriage, separate from her maiden surname.

A much abbreviated list of sites for resource, plus there was, a great free resource.
Kate Chopin

Ernest M Criss

Ernest M. Criss was born on September 24, 1880, in Lawrence, Kansas. He was the second child of Swaze and Minerva Criss.

Ernest Criss, circa 1900

In 1898, when the Spanish-American War broke out, Ernest enlisted in the US Army and served in the Philippines with the 20th Kansas Volunteer Infantry. Although the war ended by the end of that year, Ernest did not immediately return home. Instead, he joined other veterans to volunteer to fight on the side of the Boers in South Africa. He was shot in the shoulder soon after arriving but, after healing, remained in service until the end of the war in 1902.

Upon learning of the need for security at the upcoming 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis, and their desire to employ mostly honorably discharged soldiers from the Spanish-American War, Ernest signed up to serve in the Fair’s Jefferson Guards. He left Lawrence for Saint Louis in March 1904, arriving in time for training and to get fit for his uniform.

He served the Fair well until November 11 when, ironically, his assigned beat had him at the Boer War Exhibit (daily reenactments of key Boer War battles). A quarrel between a Boer and a Brit named John Backhouse turned into a violent scuffle. Criss charged in to break up the fight, but soon found himself entangled in the donnybrook, … and in danger. Ultimately and sadly, he shot Mr. Backhouse in the abdomen, resulting in his death two hours later. Mr. Backhouse was a newlywed, having met another fair employee, Kitty Tatch, on the fairgrounds that summer and marrying her soon thereafter. [1]

Boer War Reenactment Program (one of many formats)

Criss was arrested and detained to await action by the coroner. Two weeks later, a coroner’s jury exonerated him, determining that he had shot Mr. Backhouse in self-defense. [The Jefferson Guards were not generally issued firearms, but they were allowed to carry their own.]

The Spanish-American War had a significant impact on the US. The victory liberated Cuba (the main goal) as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spain. The US kept Puerto Rico and Guam as strategic territories, while setting Cuba and the Philippines on the path to independence. The Army and government administration staff were required to support, protect, and guide the Philippines, and Ernest re-enlisted and went over to help. He only occasionally returned home over the next few decades — to renew his passport and visit his family.

Along the way Criss met and married a Filipina named Isidra Quintos.  They had five children together, all girls. Isidra died in 1929.

Criss’s military record kind of dries up around 1919, yet he remained in Manila. I assume he left the military (age 39, and perhaps already having about a 20-year career). It seems he went to work for the US Government, helping the Philippines set up their government administration.  Ernest served in the Philippines until December 1941— December 8 to be exact — when the Japanese launched their surprise attacks all across the central and western Pacific Ocean. [2]

Ernest joined many Americans and Filipinos who fled to the Bataan Peninsula. They held out against the army of the Rising Sun until April 9, 1942. That’s when they ultimately surrendered, and the notorious Bataan Death March began. Ernest, weakened by the privations of months in the jungle at the age of 61, did not even survive until the end of the March’s first day. Unfortunately, his remains have not been found.


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] (a) At least one newspaper source has the incident occurring when Criss was off duty, at around 4:30 PM.

(b)Among the reenactments, the Battle of the Transvaal was reenacted twice daily on a 15-acre for the War exhibit.  The Spanish-American War was represented also, with daily reenactments of the Battle of Manila Bay.

[2] Note that the Day of Infamy, December 7, was December 8 in the Philippines. Dateline.  The surprise there was nearly coincident with Pearl Harbor, occurring just a few hours later as dawn approached, as well as Wake Island, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Midway.

Military record.  Sparse, but there are muster rolls that one can scroll through, if one has time.

[3] Boer is Afrikaans for farmer.  Closely related to the German word: Bauer.

Author notes: Back story: while perusing very old newspaper clippings in the reference section of the old and extraordinarily beautiful St Louis downtown library I came across the faintest thread of this story. Intrigued, I dug for more when I had time.  Then: I dug and dug and dug. Getting anything close to a full story was quite an adventure. This story has almost completely faded into history’s mists and fogs. Here’s what I could cobble together.  



We’re in the midst of a Midwest driving tour, currently in Saint Louis for the February meeting of the 1904 Worlds Fair Society.  On the way here we made a combined Dust Bowl/Wizard of Oz tour.  We visited several small towns historically in the center of the worst of the Dust Bowl.  We visited local museums and historic buildings; all had reference to the Dust Bowl, and wings set aside for that dark decade.  One town has the “Dorothy House”; another has a Wizard of Oz museum – appropriately both in Kansas.

In Boise City, OK (they pronounce it Boyz) the museum on the north edge of town was much more interesting than we expected.  There we came across two displays (not Dust Bowl related) that really captured my interest.  I share them here.   The first is a long tapestry that looks vaguely like a kitchen skirt.  The second is the story (part true, part imaginative and fanciful) behind an American flag rescued during World War II.

Both are short.   I hope you enjoy.


“Guest” entry #1:

I don’t think our kids know what an apron is.

The principal use of grandma’s apron was to protect the dress underneath because she only had a few and because it was easier to wash aprons than dresses; and aprons required less material.  But along with that, it served as a potholder for removing hot pans from the oven.

It was wonderful for drying children’s tears, and, on occasion, was even used for cleaning dirty ears .

From the chicken coop, the apron was used for carrying eggs, fussy chicks, and sometimes half-hatched chicks to be finished in the warming oven.

When company came those aprons were ideal hiding places for shy kids. And when the weather was cold, grandma wrapped it around her arm.

Those big old aprons wiped many a perspiring brow, bent over the hot oven and stove. Chips and kindling wood were brought into the kitchen in that apron.

From the garden, it carried all sorts of vegetables. After the peas had been shelled, it carried out the hulls. In the fall, the apron was used to bring in apples that had fallen from the trees.

When unexpected company drove up the road, it was surprising how much furniture that old apron could dust in a matter of seconds.

Grandma’s skirt, found in Cimmaron Heritage Center, Boise City, OK

When dinner was ready, grandma walked out onto the porch, waved her apron, and men folk knew it was time to come in from the fields to dinner.

It will be a long time before someone invents something that will replace that ‘old-time apron’ that served so many purposes.

They would go crazy now trying to figure out how many germs were on that apron.  But I don’t think I ever caught anything from an apron – but love ……….

– Author unknown

[I searched online to find an author.  No luck, but I did find it in quite a few places.  There are several versions of this poem – all largely the same.  This is a tad shorter than most: it gets the point across with fewer verses.]


Guest “entry” #2 – “Little Jack” Johnson  — [First paragraph by museum curators]

American Flag in Humble Surroundings

This is the story of an American flag, made from what was apparently a table cloth and other materials available in the humble home of some Belgian woman.  The flag, coming into the hands of “Little Jack” Johnson after the Ardennes breakthrough was wiped out by American forces, was sent with other European war souvenirs to his parents, Mr. & Mrs John C. Johnson here, and have been placed on display at the First State Bank. Jack’s story of the flag follows: [1,2]

“The town of Bastogne will live in the minds of every man wearing the uniform of our country because of the many acts of cruelty performed there by the Nazis during the short-lived Ardennes breakthrough.  Although Bastogne is the better known, the nearby village of Houffalize suffered more heavily in the terrific fighting that went on in this territory.  There is not a single building left standing intact and most of the inhabitants were killed in cold blood.  It was between these two villages in Belgium that I recovered this homemade American flag, filled with holes caused by bullets, and flak and covered with mud, blood and parts of human bodies surrounded by the stench that arises from the field of battle.

“What was the story of the flag?  I’ll never know the entire story, but by filling in the parts I heard from war weary villagers, it was one of joy and sadness.

“The Belgian people had long awaited the coming of their liberators.  Some woman, working in secrecy, as hope welled up inside her heart, using the scanty materials that she could salvage, prepared this flag with which to welcome the American soldiers.

“At last the great day arrived and as the tank columns came into view, the flag was taken from its secret hiding place and proudly displayed in front of this home that was filled with joy at being released from the yoke of the Germans. [3] Each day, with the rising sun, the flag would be hung to fly in the sunshine of freedom.

“Then came the black cloud that filled all hearts with fear and sorrow – the Germans were coming back with their threats of death and cruelty.  The great Nazi onrush could not be stopped in time, and they rolled once again into the village from which they had been driven.  A group of arrogant, swaggering German soldiers pulled the flag from its place and crushed it to the ground.  But, true to its great tradition, it would not stay crushed to earth, but would rise again to fly in greater glory; the Americans returned with a new hatred and venom in their hearts.

“Hurling new and more powerful missiles of destruction they slaughtered those who dared to defile the flag.  Huge bombs fell from the skies and tanks lumbered in to retake the village.  Once again the people were under the protection of a great nation.  But this flag was not to fly again as I found it still on the ground.  Nearby I saw sights so gruesome that they made me sick.  Boots still filled with feet, the bodies blown to bits, blouses still containing bits of flesh and hand; there was a head.

American Flag found near end of Battle of the Bulge, near Bastogne.

“Yes, it made me sick, but with a sickness that made me happy and proud, because they were the ones who had wanted to crush our own homes and kill our loved ones, as they had done in this little village.

“This flag would never again fly in a liberated country; it finds its final resting place in America, the country it so proudly represented.”

— by John C. “Little Jack” Johnson, year unknown

Joe G: Thanks for reading.

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[1] The Ardennes breakthrough is better known as The Battle of the Bulge, Dec 16, 1944 to mid-January.

[2] There is still a First State Bank near the center of Boise City, OK.  So I presume that Mr Johnson was from Boise City, and the flag was donated to the museum (Cimarron Heritage Center) at some point.  The museum is in a house donated by the Cox family, which was designed by Bruce Goff, a direct protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright.  It was built in 1949.

[3] Belgium was 1st liberated in September, 1944

I have found records of a John C Johnson, born in 1918, from Boise City, OK to a John C Johnson.  Also born in Ok and a mother, Nettie, born in Nebraska. [A few sources say Dec 1917 …]

He enlisted in January, 1941.  1yr college, occupation: bookkeeper/cashier.

In 1950 John C Johnson, married, no children, is shown as living in Boise City, OK, in census data as a bank cashier.  Which sort of fits with the First State Bank.

It appears he passed, March 7, 2003.  Sorry that I didn’t start my historical obsession sooner, and thus, never got to meet him.

John C Johnson, Jr, Main cemetery, Boise City, OK

As John Johnson is a very common name I had to stop my search after a few hours.  So much to sift through.  It is the same man.



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:

Quantum Roots: Family Roots

In honor of the passing of a great entertainer, I share this short guest essay to provide a little more history than is circulating on the web.  We all have family history.  Enjoy finding yours.


In 1882, a baby was born in Germany named Max Born. He grew up to be a physicist at Gottingen University. In 1935, Adolph Hitler personally terminated him from his position because he was born Jewish.

Max Born

Like his close friend Albert Einstein, Max fled Germany, which probably saved his life. He became a professor at Cambridge University. Later, he began working at the University of Edinburgh. There, an amazing nine of his students went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. He himself won the Nobel Prize in 1954. Max is known as one of the fathers of atomic Quantum Mechanics.

Irene (Born) & Brinley Newton-John; Image Credit: Lost Cambridge

His daughter, Irene Born, married a British intelligence officer, Brinley Newton-John, who worked at Bletchley Park and had interrogated Rudolph Hess during the war. Irene gave birth to Max Born’s new granddaughter, Olivia, in 1948.

Olivia went on to win five Grammy awards and be named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

She played Sandy Olsson in the movie adaptation of the Broadway play Grease.

Rest In Peace Olivia Newton John, the granddaughter of a genius, Nobel Prize winning physicist Max Born.

Olivia, credit Julie Parks, AP

Facts assembled and written by Joe Gelman


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:


Part II – It Happened First in

You’re a grand old flag, you’re a high-flying flag …

US Flag — 1959 to present

Prologue. Waubeka: lay of the land

The languid Milwaukee River begins as a set of mild-mannered creeks amongst some “highlands” formed by a “range” of moraine hills. These hills constitute a small divide, between Lake Winnebago’s watershed and the river’s own. Several river branches and creeks soon join in, most from the same highlands. When enough creeks have linked up, it has graduated to a real “river.”  Thence it begins meandering on a very twisty path – apparently aimlessly, like a band of nomads, or like one of my essays ?. It plods many dozens of miles through Kettle-Moraine country, collecting other creeks along the way. Twenty miles from its mouth it finally turns right and commits to a generally southward flow, albeit with a few jogs.  Finally, in downtown Milwaukee, it joins two other rivers and makes a sudden hard left turn just before it disgorges into Lake Michigan.

Typical Midwest rolling moraine country

Ice sheets of at least four glaciation periods have covered much of North America over the current Ice Age. Each period lasted tens of thousands of years. The last – which ended about 11 thousand years ago – covered all of Canada, and much of the upper Midwest. The ice sheets were one to two miles deep. Cartographical features remain, large and small.  The most obvious are lakes, including the Great Lakes.  Many subtler topographic features include:

        • modern river paths,
    • moraines (hills),
  • kettles (depressions),
  • and till plains (fine glacial deposits). [2]

Lying alongside this lazy river – ‘twixt two of its last big bends, 30 miles upstream from its mouth – one can still find the tiny and humble settlement of Waubeka.  The community remains unincorporated, its population still just a few hundred.

Waubeka was first settled by Europeans in the 1840s.  Its name comes from a local Amerindian — Waubeka (Anglos’ best phonetic Anglicization: Wau-BEH’-kah) — who was Chief of the Potawatomi tribe that remained in the area after White-man’s settlement. [note: my pronunciation may not quite coincide with locals]

The region was once thickly forested: beech, cedars, pines, oaks, maples, larch, and black walnut, to name several.  All grew well in the humid continental climate, and the rich glacial till soil.  A beaver population prospered among the many placid brooks. Thick forests provided ample timber for these industrious builders – the largest rodents in North America – to build dams and lodges.[3]

In time, the land was settled – or maybe “exploited.” Endless groves were substantially cleared by felling on an ambitious scale. Some timber was floated downstream for use elsewhere, but the river’s nature (slow, twisty, with occasional “rapids” and dams) precluded much of that. Some was used for construction, and much simply burned — either for heat, or just to get rid of it. Most of the beaver were harvested, too, although by then the beaver pelt rage was winding down; but they were considered pests, since their dams created large ponds where they’d otherwise not exist.

The cleared-out land has produced an impressive agricultural yield ever since. [4]  Soon after this initial clearing out, Waubeka had its own dam to power a grain mill.

Agriculture still supports much of the economy around Waubeka. The hamlet itself is now slowly — grudgingly — changing. Bits of commerce and refugees are wafting north away from Milwaukee’s gravitational pull. But little Waubeka still retains much of the “agricultural-small-community-keep-it-simple” feel it had 150 years ago, when our protagonist came of age there.



Essay Main Body

“… Forever in peace may you wave.
You’re the emblem of
the land I love,

The home of the free and the brave…”

Bernard Cigrand was born in tiny rural Waubeka, in October 1866.  He was the seventh of eight children born to Susanna and Nicholas Cigrand (one died in infancy in 1859).  Census data show Nicholas was a blacksmith and, for a while, hotelier.  Susanna is listed as housekeeper — quite a task I imagine with 7 kids in a remote community. Nicholas and Susanna were immigrants from Luxembourg. [Although Nicholas’ US naturalization record from 1858 says he was born in “Holland.”] [5]

In 1885 young Bernard was finishing his first year of teaching the school children of the area at a salary of $40/month. He was young, only 18.  Classes were held in the community’s small school (of course, small) called Stoney Hill School. Born and raised in Waubeka, he was considered qualified to teach by virtue of his high school diploma, times being what they were, and especially — as a local boy — he was well-known to be bright and trustworthy. Very young teachers in small remote communities were not uncommon at the time.

Bernard Cigrand, himself (looks like a wedding picture)

Bright, yes. After another year of teaching in Waubeka, Cigrand was accepted to dental school in Chicago. [6]

Upon dental school graduation Cigrand practiced dentistry in northern Illinois, starting in Chicago while also teaching at the dental school there. He set up a longtime practice in Aurora, IL, while residing in nearby Batavia, along the Fox River.

But before Cigrand’s pursuit of dentistry, while teaching in that small schoolhouse in Waubeka, he did something that started a national movement — one that is remembered to this day.

Monday morning, the 15th of June 1885, started out as usual for young Bernard. He opened the schoolhouse and opened its windows to allow a draft — humid warm June days are often oppressive. He went out to the hand-powered water pump and filled a watercooler – likely a Red Wing Stoneware ceramic cooler, or water ‘bubbler’ – thus securing his students’ hydration for the day. The cooler would be placed on a table in the back of the room. Then he did something quite new. Cigrand put a 38-star American flag on his desk.  His reason?  To begin promoting understanding of, appreciation for, and respect for the flag: its history, symbolism, significance, and its power to unify the many ethnic groups immigrating to America. (He himself was a first generation American.)

38-star flag, 1877-1890

A year passed. The end of his second, and final, year teaching in Waubeka. On Monday the 14th, Cigrand did the same thing.  He set out a flag.  He started talking about it, and he invited the students to talk too.

What a great idea! Word got out. The flag was a local hit.  A movement was started.  Flag Day, a day to honor the flag. Cigrand made it a personal mission.  Even after dental school he continued promoting Flag Day.

And he had opportunity to do just that. Cigrand was well-traveled as Dean of the Chicago Dental School and attended conferences in that role where he spoke of the Flag and the need of having a national Flag Day.  He contributed to several Chicago papers and gave lectures on the significance of the flag.

The idea continued to spread. Schools and towns and cities across the country started honoring the Stars and Stripes every June 14th, as the number of stars increased to 48 over the following three decades.  Of course, since 1959, the grand old flag now displays 50 stars.

June 14th was the de facto Flag Day long before President Woodrow declared it so, in 1916. Congress then made it official (although it’s not a federal holiday) via legislation in 1949 – and President Truman signed it.

We “fly the flag” at our house on special days, Flag Day among them.

“ … should auld acquaintance be forgot, 
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.” [7]


Of course, America being America, the nation’s flag — like Little Free Libraries — has become contentious.  I really don’t want to spend much time on this sad aspect.  With full knowledge and acceptance that our country has many, many warts and blemishes from shameful historic acts, I prefer to focus on its positive aspects: historically, currently and in the future.  To focus on the positives the flag symbolizes: such as human dignity, responsibilities, liberties, and unity.

Dignity and unity are possible because of E pluribus unum. In many we are one. All men are created equal, with the right to pursue happiness.  Equal protection under the law.  Fundamental rights encompassed by the Constitution’s Amendments. A country willing to spill its blood and spend its treasure for freedoms at home and abroad.

The flag is a focus of controversy? Really? Can’t we all just get along?  Do it for the children; for the school children.

On August 1, 1889 Bernard Cigrand married Alice Crispe. She had migrated to Chicago from rural Michigan, near Kalamazoo.  She bore him three sons and three daughters. Among them, Elroy (b. 1895) also went on to be a doctor of dentistry, DDS.

Cigrand is a very uncommon surname.  As there are a few scattered across the area, especially in upstate Illinois, near Batavia, I would not be surprised if many – or if all – are descendants of Bernard and his brother Peter.

Bernard had a sudden heart attack and passed away in 1932, aged 65.  He is buried near his home, just outside Aurora, Illinois, along the Fox River. Buried nearby are his wife, Alice, and five of their children. [8]

…Oh, say does that Star Spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”


On some positive notes,

  • Stoney Hill School in Waubeka has been fully restored to a fine condition.

    Stony Hill School house, modern

  • Flag Day ceremonies are held there annually.
  • The main street through Waubeka is called “Cigrand Drive.” There is also a “Cigrand Court” in Batavia, near his longtime home and final resting place.

If wishes made dreams come true, then mine would be that all citizens appreciate their nation’s flag, pausing often (and before assigning blame) to consider and respect the symbolism of what’s good, beautiful and hopeful within their country.  In other words, be at least a little bit like Bernard Cigrand, DDS.


Joe Girard © 2022

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[1] Languid, indeed.  Over its 100+ mile length the river’s elevation drops just over 500 feet.  Much of that near its headwaters

[2] Technically we are currently in an ice age era, which has lasted about 2.6 million years, part of larger ice age that has lasted about 30 million years.
Some glaciation fingerprints referenced above:

[a] Glacial Kettles:

[b] Glacial Moraines:

[c] Glacial Till Plains (also sometimes called Ground Moraine):

[3] A feel for how the region looked pre-European settlement can be gained by visiting the nearby North Branch of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.  Beaver populations in the region are now protected as well (although can still be pest-like). Near Waubeka is a city actually named Beaver Dam.

[4] Thanks to glacial till much Midwest soil is among the most fertile on the planet. Positioned upon land that’s ever-so-gently sloped it’s very conducive to agribusiness, both crops and on-the-hoof.

[5] Luxembourg’s status and its sovereignty were in flux through much of the 19th century.  At the time of Nicholas’ birth, the Prussians, the Dutch, and even in some regard the Austrians, laid claim to parts of the duchy.  At one point the Belgians claimed all of it.  I was surprised to learn that regions of the duchy speak an offshoot dialect of French called d’Oïl. This could explain the “Frenchy” looking surname.

[6] Chicago had only a few years before been catastrophically burned (1871) and then picked up the nickname “Windy City” (1876). It’s not particularly windy, and the nickname’s origins probably come from its propensity for spewing “hot air.” Politicians and local business leaders were promoting Chicago and its rapid phoenix-like recovery from the fire.  The name stuck when journalists in rival cities used the nickname to describe the zealous windbags and gasbags who lived there.  This was envy: the city was known for its large, and growing wealth due to its hub as a financial, commercial and transit center.

[7] Song lyrics extracted from chorus to “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, by George M Cohan, who was born on July 4, 1878 (hence his famous lines in Yankee Doodle Boy: “[I’m] a real live nephew of my Uncle Sam, born on the 4th of July.”)

[8] Four children died in young adulthood, including, Bernard (not a Jr) who went young in 1925 at 35.  These might have contributed to father Bernard’s passing in 1932. Wife Alice passed in 1962, age 92.


Notes and extras.

  1. At right and below: extent of Midwest ice sheets in current ice ag

    Laurentide Ice Extent in modern USA

    e phase (yes, we are in the inter-glacial period of an ice age, called the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation age), mostly the Laurentide ice sheets. Note that basically all of current Canada and much of the Pacific Northwest were also covered, the NW by the Cordilleran Ice Sheet.



Cigrand’s tombstone, Riverside Cemetery, Montgomery, Illinois (quite near Batavia)

2. Tombstone of Bernard Cigrand, DDS








3. 1870 census data for Cigrand family of Waubeka

Cigrand family census data, Waubeka, 1870  … Source: Elizabeth M Cigrand (1862–1951) • FamilySearch [then click 1870 census record]

Part 1: It Happened First In

Lying along the left bank of the St Croix River, just across from Minnesota, the population of the small city of Hudson has nearly doubled in the past two decades — now population 14,000 — from its beginnings as a tiny settlement in the mid-19th century.  I suspect much of this recent growth is spillover from the Twin Cities, which straddle the Mississippi, about 20 miles due west. It’s now even considered part of the Minneapolis-St Paul Metropolitan Statistical Area for demographics and census data.

For decades aspects of the lumber industry supported its citizens, from logging, to mills, to transport. Most of its present-day commerce is tourism, supporting both domestic and commercial travel as a stop-over along Interstate-94, and as a Twin Cities “bedroom community.”


Hudson on the St Croix, looking downstream



Hudson was originally called Willow River, when it was first settled in 1840. In 1852, after a previous re-naming, the city’s first mayor Alfred D. Gray successfully petitioned to change the name to “Hudson”, as the bluffs along the river reminded him of the Hudson River in his native New York.



With the city’s long history of remoteness and small population, rare indeed is the modern individual who can name a single notable person from Hudson, let alone a famous one. There is one name that more than a few recognize, but the tally is not abundant.  He could be famous; he should be famous. Perhaps, some day, he will be famous. His name is Todd Bol.

Born near St Paul, Bol mostly grew up in Stillwater, Minnesota, graduating high school there. Stillwater is also very small, just a handful of miles upstream from Hudson, but on the river’s right bank.

Todd Bol, of Hudson on the St Croix

After high school Bol then earned two bachelor’s degrees consecutively, in sociology and psychology, at a state university some 25 miles southeast of Stillwater, across the St Croix, in Riverside.

After university, his professional career originally followed that of his mother— a longtime teacher and bibliophile. He taught school in some small, even far-flung, hamlets in eastern Minnesota. Todd Bol also seized upon his mother’s passion for books and reading.

Eventually Bol left teaching and became a serial entrepreneur. He founded or help found companies, then moving on to others. He got involved in health care and nursing. One Bol company trained nurses in advanced care, and another, a foundation, provided scholarships for advanced nursing candidates.

Free now to change his domestic setting, Bol settled in relaxed Hudson, across the St Croix. He had left Minnesota, this time for good, as things turned out.

The 2008-9 financial crisis took a toll on Bol, now in his 50s. He found himself unemployed and with no nearby prospects befitting a person of his creativity and energy. Moping around, his wife suggested he take up some hobbies, starting with Do-it-Yourself home improvement projects. “And you can start by replacing the old garage door.”

Mission accomplished; Bol’s attention turned to the pile of old wood that used to be the door. Much was recoverable, still usable, and in fine condition.  Bol could not bring himself to throw it all out.

What to do with that scrap wood?

             Little Free Library, #1 (I think)

His entrepreneurial mind struck upon a way to connect himself to his mother, and to honor her, via this old wood.  He conceived and constructed a miniature one-room red schoolhouse, complete with belfry, a few feet wide and tall — built from that scrap wood. And about a foot in depth, front to back.  It had glass in its front doors so that one could peer through to see its contents.  He mounted it to a post, which he then planted securely in the earth — in his front yard — accessible from the street.

What could be seen through those glass- paned doors?

Books! Todd Bol filled the miniature schoolhouse with books. It was the first Little Free Library (sometimes called Little Neighborhood Library), or LFL.

Within a few years the idea spread wildly.  Cute little miniature buildings with books popped up in neighborhoods, parks, resorts, squares.  Want a book? Take a book.  Got a book? Leave a book.

The idea caught on and, well you probably know the rest of the story, if not the details.  Here are a few.  Rewinding a bit, soon after that first LFL, Bol met Rick Brooks, who worked at the state’s flagship University as an outreach program manager.  Excited by the Bol’s idea, they teamed up to promote community development via LPLs.  It became their passion; a project inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s library endowment [synopsis here], which funded construction of nearly 1,700 libraries in small to mid-sized towns across the country. [some say 2,500].

They soon blew past that number. There are now well over 100,000 LFLs in the world.  Well, at least that many registered with the Little Free Library Organization, a non-profit that sprang up to support LPL growth and “builders.” There might be more. They have an app to help desperate bookless readers locate LPLs (but seems most effective in the US), as long as the LPL builder/owner registers with the organization.

Alice Kravitz, notorious nosy busybody, from the “Bewitched” TV series

[Yes, Jonas, there’s even one in Erding, Germany — where they are called “Mini-Bibs” (German for library is Bibliothek). ]

LFLs are in all 50 states, 108 (and counting) countries. There is one at the south pole, and another in Siberia. Bol’s realized dream spans the globe, east to west and south to north.

LFLs were an advantageous societal feature during the Covid lockdowns, as libraries across the country closed indefinitely. Local residents put non-perishable food in many LFLs; others, hurt by the hard times, took the nourishment.

Hard to believe then, but not surprising (this is America, after all) that LFLs became contentious in many locales.  The world is full of Gladys Kravitz-types — nosy busybodies, nannies, and nitpickers. Every neighborhood seems to have at least one.  After all: LFLs violated all kinds of local codes, ordinances and HOA bylaws.  Then sprang up those who would ban books, from the Left and the Right. Some even feared the effects of competition with brick-and-mortar libraries. [1] (Sigh.)

This was one reason for the existence of provide advice on how to deal with busybodies and HOAs, and legal advice on how to fight city hall … and win.

Sadly, Bol was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018. He passed quickly, age 62 [Twin Cities Star Tribune Obit], leaving the world with a great gift, a legacy, and an awesome tribute to his mom.

Joe Girard © 2022

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[1] A partial list of books banned in America, in various school districts, library districts and municipalities.

  • Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Fifty Shades
  • Harry Potter (esp. Sorcerer’s Stone)
  • Slaugherhouse-5
  • Fahrenheit 451 (how ironic is that?)
  • Brave New World
  • Lord of the Flies
  • Animal Farm


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

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[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.

Like Hearing Lincoln at Gettysburg

‘Like hearing Lincoln at Gettysburg’

by Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe

Jeff Jacoby, of the The Boston Globe


WHEN THREE US Marine divisions invaded the tiny but crucial Pacific Island of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, they expected the fight to be over within a few days. Instead, it lasted more than five weeks. By the time it finally ended on March 26, 1945, nearly 7,000 Marines had been killed in action and another 20,000 wounded. It had been one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history.

Even as the fighting raged, arrangements were being made to bury the dead. Three cemeteries were prepared, one for each division. The 5th Marine Division’s cemetery was laid out at the foot of Mount Suribachi, the hill at the southwest end of the island where the iconic photograph of six Americans raising the US flag had been taken a month earlier. Eventually more than 2,200 men, 38 of them unidentified, would be laid to rest there.

Beneath endless rows of grave markers on Iwo Jima, thousands of fallen Marines were buried in 1945.

The cemetery was dedicated on March 21. The plan was for Major General Keller Rockey, the division commander, to deliver a secular address, paying tribute to the fallen on behalf of the nation and the Marine Corps. Then the division’s 17 chaplains were to jointly hold a nondenominational religious service. The highest ranking division chaplain, Commander Warren F. Cuthriell, asked the division’s only Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, to deliver the sermon.

A native of Cleveland, Gittelsohn had been ordained at Hebrew Union College and appointed to the pulpit of a synagogue in Rockville Center on Long Island. From his teens he’d been an ardent pacifist, bitterly opposed to war and against military spending of any kind. “If there was one absolute in my personal credo, it was the absolute of pacifism,” Gittelsohn wrote in a 1946 memoir. “I vowed never to aid or bless any war of any kind. I told my friends that I was prepared to spend the next war in prison. I argued with my father that submission to the worst evil was better than resisting it by force.”

Then came Pearl Harbor and the scales fell from his eyes. “I felt inwardly happy that the monies I had called wasted were appropriated and the ships I had not wanted were built,” Gittelsohn wrote.

As it became clear that war against Japan and Germany was an urgent moral necessity, he decided to enlist as a chaplain. The memoir in which he told his story was never printed during his lifetime; it lay undiscovered in the Hebrew Union College archives until long after his death. Only now has it been published for the first time by the Marine Corps University Press. Titled Pacifist to Padre, Gittelsohn’s narrative focuses on his two and a half years as a Navy chaplain. He writes with eloquence and compassion of the struggles — moral, psychological, social — faced by young people caught up in the terrible experience of war. He conveys with almost unbearable intensity the “desperate, longing needs” of Marines about to head into combat and knowing they might never again see the people and things they love.

On Iwo Jima, where so many thousands of American lives were cut short, Gittelsohn was deeply touched that Cuthriell, the senior chaplain, had designated him, a member of “the smallest religious minority in the division,” to preach the memorial sermon. Gittelsohn labored over his remarks through the night, writing them out by hand. Then he learned that several of the Christian chaplains had objected to having a rabbi preach over graves that were predominantly those of Christians. Cuthriell, insisting that “the right of the Jewish chaplain to preach such a sermon was precisely one of the things for which we were fighting the war,” didn’t want to back down. But Gittelsohn withdrew, unwilling to mar such a solemn the occasion with controversy. Instead, he delivered the words he had written at the small service held later at the Jewish section of the new cemetery.

Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, far right, conducting the first Jewish service for members of the 5th Marine Division on Iwo Jima.

“I do not remember anything in my life that made me so painfully heartsick,” he subsequently wrote in his memoir. “We had just come through nearly five weeks of miserable hell. Some of us had tried to serve men of all faiths and of no faith, without making denomination or affiliation a prerequisite for help. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews had lived together, fought together, died together, and now lay buried together. But we the living could not unite to pray together!”

That was not entirely true. Several of the Protestant chaplains, upset by the snub to their colleague, attended the Jewish burial service and were therefore among the first men to hear the sermon he had written. That sermon is now legendary in Marine Corps history. This is how it began:

“This is perhaps the grimmest, and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-Day. Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the sides with us, as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us.”

It was not a sermon about religion or God that the Jewish chaplain preached that day. It was a call and a commitment to brotherhood — an exhortation to embrace the equality of Americans not just in the graves of Iwo Jima but back home in America, where prejudice was rife, bigotry rampant, and the ideal of liberty and justice for all, then as now, very much a work in progress.

“We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. . . . Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor — together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews — together. Here, no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. . . . Among these men, there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.”

Copies of Gittelsohn’s sermon were typed up and circulated. Many of the men sent copies home. One of those copies reached Time magazine, which printed excerpts that were read nationwide. The sermon was quoted in newspapers and broadcast over the radio. Today it is renowned as one of the great memorial addresses in the annals of America. In the Marine Corps, it is known simply as “The Purest Democracy.”

In 1995, just a few months before his death, Gittelsohn was asked to give the invocation at a ceremony in Washington, DC, marking the 50th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima. He spoke the same words he had delivered on that sorrowful day at the foot of Mount Suribachi half a century earlier. It was, said a three-star general who was there, “like hearing Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.”

“Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against another, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery,” Rabbi Gittelsohn said. “Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: This shall not be in vain. Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come — we promise — the birth of a new freedom for all humanity everywhere. And let us say: Amen.”

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).

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Number One

The Supreme Court has certainly received a lot of attention lately: hearings, pending decisions, leaked drafts and partisan splits.  We tend to focus a lot on partisan splits, but 9-0 unanimous decisions occur more often than 5-4 and 6-3.  And those are just announced decisions.  I suspect they are also quite common on procedural things, like which cases to hear.

Shertoff proposed flag

Last week the Court announced a 9-0 decision on an interesting case, Shertleff v Boston.  Quickly: Shertoff was a free speech case in which a citizen (Shertleff) was denied flying a Christian flag (red cross on blue patch with white background) on one of three masts at the Boston city hall.  The city had never denied such a one-day request before.  But the court considers such facts not so much as the law. [1]

Regarding the law, the court has always bent over backward to protect free speech.  And the right to have that free speech heard – or, in this case, seen.  It’s not the first time Boston and the area has been so severely spanked by SCOTUS on speech.

In 1993 the Irish Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Group of Boston (GLIB) wanted to participate in the St Patrick’s Day parade.  They were denied (although not by the city, rather by an independent organization running the parade).  GLIB sued and Hurley v Irish-GLIB, Inc went to the highest court.  These things usually take a while to wend through the court system.  The court decided again, in 1995 and unanimously 9-0, that free speech gets pole position.  Gays et al must be allowed to march in public parades.

Another unusual 9-0 decision came in 2014 in McCullen v Coakley.  A Massachusetts law was passed in 2007 mandating an anti-protest “buffer zone” around entrances to abortion clinics – even if that buffer extended to public areas like sidewalks. Protestors sued. Free speech won unanimously, again.  The whole law was stricken.

In every case above the most progressively liberal and conservative justices united to rule in favor of the most liberal interpretations of free speech, even if it went against their personal social principles in the specific cases.

This even applies to burning the flag, see Johnson v Texas, decided in 1989.  Although narrowly decided at 5-4, it’s interesting that conservative-leaning Kennedy and most-conservative Scalia voted with the majority to permit flag burning.  [Kind off odd, as the specific flag burning incident was a protest against Ronald Reagan, done just outside the Republican convention of 1984 — and by 1989, when the case was finally decided, Reagan had recently appointed Justice Anthony Kennedy].

Not long after Johnson, above, the court heard a very similar case.  In response to Johnson Congress quickly passed the Flag Protection Act, which prohibited flag desecration and mistreatment.  They basically dared the courts to take up the issue again.

This got to SCOTUS quickly, dying a 5-4 death in 1990, in United States v. Eichman.  Again, with conservatives Scalia and Kennedy concurring: flag burning is speech.  Speech is protected.

Antonin Scalia, SCOTUS Judge 1986-2016

Years later Judge Antonin Scalia stood by his votes.  “If I were king, I would not allow people to go around burning the American flag.  However, we have a First Amendment, which says that the right of free speech shall not be abridged…”

Scalia’s reference to the First Amendment to the Constitution gives us a good chance to review this very important part of the US Constitution.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

One thing that’s interesting right from the start is that this Amendment, as written, is directed at “Congress” — not to the states, or to the state legislatures, or to city governments.  Yet the Supreme Court, and lower courts by precedence, have determined for a long time that these rights (religion, speech, press, assembly) are so very important that they apply to all branches of government.

These rights are indeed important.  Let’s consider Freedom of the Press.  This points to just one reason why I personally did not really react much to the great fear-stoking regarding the tenures of, let’s say, our last two presidents: Obama and Trump.  What’s that you say?  Because they were pummeled and attacked by the press, and cartoonists, daily.  None of those publications or voices were silenced, arrested, or “disappeared” by a government response.  We can extend this to the many anti-this and pro-that demonstrations that happened during each presidency.  Free press and free speech all.  [Presidential claims of “fake news” and a bible walk to St John’s notwithstanding].

Freedom of the press is so important it should cause us to consider how contemporary events would have played out if such a valuable and cherished freedom truly existed in, say, China and Russia.

Would there be an atrocity-filled war in Ukraine right now if Russia had such a court-protected freedom?  How might the Covid pandemic have played out if China had freedom of the press?  Reporters Without Borders (RSF) rates China 175th and Russia 155th (out of 180) in the world in Press Freedom.

By way of comparison, the US gets an overall top-grade score of “Good”, and “Satisfactory”, but still comes in at only 42nd, per RSF.  Saying the “US is better than most” is not anything like saying “Russia and China are better than North Korea” (dead last). They are so very low because of authoritarian government interference and censoring. Although we (the US and much of Western Europe) can do better, we are in pretty good standing regarding press freedom.

In absolute freedom of speech, the US does rank #1 in the world (World Economic Forum rankings). [2]

“I disapprove of what you have to say, but I defend your right to say it” has long been a maxim of US law and principals. [3] Recent Rasmussen polls regularly show over 80% of Americans believe free speech is more important than offending someone, and prefer it to giving government control of speech content. [Caveat, among younger Americans this number is dwindling.]

In reviewing the RSF’s Free Press evaluation criteria the US seems to lose ground for a variety of non-government reasons:  there are far fewer jobs for investigative journalism than there used to be; many writers self-censor; much media fails to fairly present alternative views. [4] It’s all related and these conditions continue to morph.  All-in-all, these topics are very large kebabs to skewer. As is Free Speech, in the context of, say, Twitter and Elon Musk. I’ll leave those for others to tackle.

Here’s to #1.  The First Amendment, that is.


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

Footnotes below.  Acknowledgements to recent articles by Jeff Jacoby (Boston Globe) and The Economist for stimulating the thoughts that led to this essay.

[1] More on recent Shetleff Case:

[2] This is supported by a 2015 Pew Research poll, here.  By 2021, the US has dropped into a virtual tie with Norway and Denmark for #1 [link], which apparently has more to do with Americans’ perception of free speech than actual government or private censoring.

[3] This quote is often attributed to Voltaire, 18th century French philosopher and strong proponent of civil liberties.  It’s actually probably best attributed Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an early 20th century biographer of Voltaire, trying to capture Voltaire’s philosophy.

[4] Figure and scoring, ref: Reporters without Borders site:
Reporters Without Borders site

Reporters without Borders 2021 World Map, hard to believe Russia is red, not black.  But this was before Ukraine.

White (score 0-15) relates to a Good Situation.
Yellow (score 15-25) reflects a Satisfactory Situation.
Orange (score 25-35) represents a Problematic Situation.
Red (score 35-55) represents a Difficult Situation
Black (score 55-100) represents a Very Serious Situation



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.


Furry Friends

“Cat” and “Dog” are such small words for critters that fill our hearts.


Arriving after two tumultuous decades marked by Depression and War, the 1950s were a time of rapid change in the United States.  For example:

        • Booming population: The population surged by 18.7%, the largest since the large immigration waves of 1840-1910; but in the ‘50s it was due to the baby boom, not immigration.

        • Television: In 1950, fewer than 10% of households had a TV; by decade’s end it was 87%.  The most popular TV show? Many iconic shows are still in syndication reruns; the most popular from 1951 to 1957 was “I Love Lucy.”

        • Automobiles: In 1950, there were fewer than 0.6 cars per household; by 1960 it had more than doubled to 1.27.

        • Suburbia: Americans began flocking to the suburbs, most of them new, as conceived and first accomplished by William Levitt, and his Levittowns. Homeownership jumped from about 50% at the close of World War II to over 60% … where it remains today.

        • Pets and furry critters: Humans have kept pets to work and for companionship for millennia. Until then, companion pets were largely for the upper classes and well off. Now, that trend changed: animals were for companionship. And Americans indeed loved animals, as marked by the 1951 inaugural of the PATSY Awards (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year); hosted by Ronald Reagan – then a strong union man and President of the Screen Actors’ Guild.

      We might be always changing, but we’ve always loved furry animals. Must be in our human nature.  Many remain in our collective memory.  Here are the stories of two such loved animals.

      Room 8

      Elysian Heights is a neighborhood on LA’s northside, lying on the northside of a rise that separates it from Major League Baseball’s Dodgers’ home stadium in Chavez Ravine.  It’s a historic and mostly residential neighborhood, reaching back to the late 19th century.

      In 1886 the LA city government was wondering what to do with a rock quarry on that hill that was up for auction, not so creatively named “Rock Quarry Hill.”  They all agreed to acquire the hill, restore it so much as possible, and set aside much of it as a park, open to the public in perpetuity.  The hill and region were re-named “Elysian” (Greek for paradise, or even eternal resting place, taking its name from the mythological Elysian Fields) – and lent this name to the Elysian Park and Arboretum that would follow.  It is rather like Eden: peaceful and providing wonderful views of the Los Angeles valley to the south and southwest.

      Soon enough a neighborhood developed there, across the Park, also rather like Eden: warm and verdant.  Named Elysian Heights, it was large enough to have its own elementary school, built in 1915: Elysian Heights Elementary.

      Starting in the ‘20s, the area became a magnet for artists, Progressives, and other social and political iconoclasts.  Many probably had cats, and dogs, and pets of all sorts. Elysian Heights was welcoming to all, including communists and many eastern European immigrants.

      One day in 1952 a stray cat sauntered right into the Elysian Heights Elementary school like he owned the place.  Like a lion king.  The tabby explored the building for a brief while, and then decided he’d taken a liking to Room 8, a sixth-grade classroom, whose teacher was Valerie Martin. Rather like their recusant community, the students in room 8, the entire school, and principal Beverly Mason all reciprocated, and took a liking to him.  He would be quite welcome. For the remainder of the school year, he returned every day.

      Room 8, Elysian Heights Elementary mascot

      Of course, he needed a name. Why not name him after his favorite room, “Room 8”?

      The school year ended, the building was closed, and Room 8 disappeared over the summer.  When school started back up in September, Room 8 returned to … well, he returned to room 8, still Valerie Martin’s 6th grade classroom.

      The students of course were delighted. This pattern continued without interruption until the mid-1960s.  All through the school year Room 8 lived at the school, mostly in room 8.  During the summer months he disappeared.

      Room 8 6th Grade class photo, with Room 8 front and center

      Almost every year the 6th grade class photo featured Room 8 prominently, front and center.  The most desired job in class was Room 8’s feeder.

      Word got out.  News cameras would show up the start of each new school year to capture Room 8’s image and return.  He got fan mail; thousands of letters. Students, acting as his secretary, sent return notes. He was featured in Time magazine, Look magazine, My Weekly Reader and on Art Linkletter’s show.  Leo Kottke wrote an instrumental called “Room 8” that was included in his 1971 album, Mudlark.

      I pledge allegiance to … Room 8<?>

      Room 8 was – and probably still is – the most popular cat in America.

      In the mid-60s Room 8 got into a cat fight.  He was injured and came down with feline pneumonia.  His health waned.  A family across the street offered to take care of him, and that’s where he stayed … only when school was out.  The school janitor would gently carry him across the street at the end of each school day.

      As a part-time stray, it’s likely that Room 8 had burned through 8 lives.  Only one to go.  Finally, one sad day, August 13, 1968, Room 8 ran out of lives. He’s buried at the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park, in Calabasas, CA. (Coincidently, quite close to where Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others perished in a helicopter crash, January 26, 2020).

      It’s estimated that Room 8 lived his terrestrial life for 21 years.

      Room 8’s final resting place

      Elysian Heights Elementary is still in the same place, and, based on Google Street view, it looks much the same as it probably did in 1952, when Room 8 first ambled in and made himself at home.  It’s now a K-6 Arts Magnet School.  Its school logo, included on their website and official correspondence, still has the image of a cat.




      Hard to believe that Boulder and Denver were once completely different cities with different cultures from each other.  Boulder’s beginning as a town, snuggled up against the Flatirons, placed it where Boulder Creek exits the front range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.  Denver lies some 30 miles to the southeast, and, relatively speaking, out in the prairie.  Its origin was also somewhat water-based, lying at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek.

      Boulder and the University of Colorado, near the Flatirons of the Front Range

      In Colorado’s early statehood, Denver won the designation as permanent State Capital, wresting it from several other candidate-cities, including Cañon City, Colorado Springs, Gunnison, Pueblo, and Salida.  Boulder won the right to be the seat of the State’s flagship university: The University of Colorado. [1]

      For decades they each evolved and grew their own merry ways. Yes, they were linked by railroad and stagecoach.  Both were awkward. Rail lines were mostly set up to move product from scattered towns, mostly coal mining and grain or flour.  When cars came along, the road from Denver to Boulder generally followed the old meandering Cherokee Trail, before turning abruptly north in modern day Broomfield, and heading toward Wyoming … then to the gold fields of California.  To get to Boulder, cars would usually turn due west, at 9-mile corner, along Arapahoe Road.


      In 1927 CU Engineering Professor Roderick Downing began a campaign to build a direct highway between Denver and Boulder.  Cars were growing more prevalent, and traffic ‘twixt Boulder and Denver was growing too.  Between them lay nothing but widely scattered farms, and a few old mines.  He pressed for a turnpike (as it could not be funded, it would require tolls to pay off bonds) for decades.

      But the Depression and the Dust Bowl years hit. Progress faltered. Still, Downing pushed on.

      Following World War II, with America’s increased consumption and growing love of the automobile and freedom to travel, the movement to build a turnpike between Denver and Boulder gained additional backing and momentum. Finally in July of 1950 the deal was sealed and over 6 million dollars in bonds were sold. Construction began, and at a near breakneck speed.

      Shortly after construction on the new highway began, a young stray dog began hanging around the workers and equipment.  He was engaging and friendly.  The workers took to him quickly.

      The stray was clearly part Shepard, so that’s what they named him: “Shep.”  He made the rounds at mealtime, getting tidbits and handouts.  Maybe that’s why strays like hanging around construction sites.

      Life was good for Shep.  At least as long as the building was underway and there were lots of “friends” around.  Someday soon, though, the construction would be complete and cars would be speeding along.  No place for a dog to be rambling around looking for friends… and handouts.

      Beginning in 1952 the turnpike was open, running from Federal Blvd in north Denver to Baseline Road in Boulder. There was a single tool booth, at the halfway point near the new intersection. Toll fees? Exiting halfway, it was a 15-cent toll; going all the way required an extra dime.  At two bits for the full length, that’s about $2.50 today – quite a bargain.  The booth site and interchange was at the current location of Wadsworth (CO-121) and the US-36, AKA “the turnpike.”

      Developers and investors noted that the new intersection and the new turnpike highway made a very amicable and likely location for a new bedroom community to spring up.  And one did, just a few years later; first called Broomfield Heights, and now known as Broomfield, my current hometown.

      Early Turnpike, built to near-Interstate standards, before there were Interstate Highways

      Obviously, there were no RFID readers, or computer cameras to read license plates, or credit card swipers … or anything electronic.  So, when the turnpike opened there were cash toll collectors working 24/7 in the booth.

      As turnpike construction came to a close, the dog-friendly construction laborers made sure that the toll booth workers knew all about Shep.  And to take care of him.

      Well, Shep being a people-dog, it didn’t take him any time at all to connect with the operators.  And of course, they always shared part of their meals with him.

      Colorado is known for cold weather, especially at night.  It can happen almost any time of year. One especially chilly night, the toll workers began to worry about Shep. He was outside, trying to sleep. The workers wooed Shep into the booth, where he slept comfortably. And the tradition began.  Shep would ever sleep inside the toll booth, and the booth keeper would ever have a companion.

      In short time, the regular turnpike drivers also became fond of the friendly furry critter in the booth. They began bringing him food.  Some donated extra coins for a “Shep Fund.”  Others brought dog toys.  Shep cheered them up.  Shep became the “site to see” of the turnpike.

      Shep at the toll booth, making sure everything goes well, and everyone gets to see him

      The workers put up a bucket on each side of the booth to collect coins for Shep.  Kids would fight over who got to toss in coins.  People even got out of their cars to have their pictures made with the mascot of the turnpike.

      Although Shep enjoyed all the attention, he would always be a stray.  Curious by nature, many days he would just drift off to explore the wildlife, terrain and farms around the toll booth – much to the disappointment of drivers who passed by when Shep was away.  The toll booth workers often worried about Shep too, but he always came back … eventually.  Probably most often right around dinner time.

      Shep with bandaged foot at toll booth

      By the summer of 1958 communities were starting to spring up near the turnpike.  But there was still plenty of space to roam.  And there were farms. Apparently, Shep had made an enemy of a nearby farmer somehow.  He was shot in the foot.

      Broomfield veterinarian, Clyde Brunner, donated his services to treat the celebrity, Shep.  It took a while, but Shep healed and was back to his usual shenanigans.  Brunner was a good vet.  Shep and Brunner became friends; Brunner took care of Shep for the rest of his life.

      Shep lounging around on a sunny day

      No one knew when Shep was born, but by 1964 it was clear his final days were counting down. He was a very old dog: deaf, nearly blind, sleeping most of the day and sometimes incontinent.  It was a difficult truth for the toll booth staff, but the reality was that Shep would get one, and only one, more visit to Dr Brunner.

      A burial plot was established for Shep right next to the toll booth.  It seemed proper.  A donation then came in for a tombstone. Shep’s grave was protected by a low metal fence.

      Shep’s headstone: “Part shepard, mostly affection/”

      So popular had cars and personal transportation become that the turnpike was paid off 13 years early, in 1967. So, a toll plaza was no longer needed. The highway was no longer, technically, a turnpike. But Shep’s grave site remained. Motorists would often point it out to visitors and newcomers, especially when fresh flowers had been laid there.

      The area around where the toll booth had been continued to be developed.  Traffic volumes grew.  The “turnpike” and the interchange with Highway 121 were expanded. Population and traffic continued to grow.  Decades later, a new ramp was needed; it would go right through Shep’s gravesite.  What to do?

      The new ramp for the intersection was built, but not before Shep’s remains and grave were re-located to the Zang Spur Park in Broomfield, right next to the Broomfield Depot Museum.  We’ve ridden our bikes over to the park and museum several times.  Certainly, we visit Shep and pay our respects to the loyal and friendly dog.

      Although Shep and Room 8 were contemporaries, Shep never achieved the wide-spread notoriety of Room 8. Yet, he was loved and cherished by just about everyone in the Denver-Boulder area.  (Well, except for whoever shot him).

    • _____________________________________________

      We do love our furry friends.  As we go through our own rapidly changing times, let’s hope that all those adopted “Pandemic Pets” also continue to be loved and cherished by faithful owners.

      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] the University of Colorado was actually founded and placed in Boulder several months before Colorado officially became a state, in 1876.

      [2] The roads that followed the old Cherokee Trail in the area was also awkward, as it was not a straight line, and didn’t even go to Boulder.  From Denver it roughly followed current US highway 287, i.e. from near downtown up Federal Blvd, west on 120th then turning rather abruptly near what was then “downtown” Broomfield (i.e, what passed for a train depot), toward points north: Lafayette, Ft Collins, Virginia Dale and Wyoming … eventually meeting other trails heading to either the California gold fields, Utah or Wyoming.

      [3] Room 8’s gravesite

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

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

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.

Hugs and Kisses

Typical Card Page 1

XOXO Alert!

It’s almost St Valentine’s Day, February 14th, hereinafter called “the day.” This year the day somewhat coincidently comes one day after the Super Bowl. Don’t allow that extravaganza to make you forget your sweetheart and cherished ones.

The coincidence is because the “big game” is occurring about a week later this year than most others in recent history. That’s because the NFL, like other professional leagues – in their never-ending quest for money – has decided to add a 17th game to each team’s schedule.  [Don’t even get me started on the NBA and their addiction to China’s money, see here, here, here, and many others.].

The day is often annotated with flowers, candies, dates, proposals, photos, notes and cards with images of Cupid, the cards and notes often signed off with XOXO.

Less often are references to the massacre of that day and name, administered in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in north Chicago, in 1929.  Lore has it that the gore can be attributed – directly or indirectly – to Prohibition.

Who was St Valentine?  Historians and theologians disagree on just how and why to connect said saint to this romantic date, mostly because there were three Saint Valentines – all three were martyrs, executed by the Roman emperor.

St Valentine, 3rd Century

The most likely story is that of a Saint Valentinus (ca 225-270 CE).  He was a priest in what would be modern day Italy. He was sympathetic to the romantic inclinations of young men who were serving in the Roman military.  The Emperor, Claudius II, believed that single men made better warriors.  As Valentinus knew that love knows no bounds, he married the smitten men to their beloved sweethearts clandestinely.  He might have believed that this helped keep them more chaste when far away from home.  His secret was eventually discovered; he was beaten, tortured and beheaded.

The day? Whether legend or truth, or perhaps related to one of the other “Valentines”, the day of Cupid and putting love and loyalty on the calendar this particular day, is that it is presumably the date of his execution.  At least in the west; in eastern Christianity it falls on July 6th.

Or, the day could be related to the Roman celebration of Lupercalia, which by Christian times, had evolved into something of a pre-spring fertility festival.  Lupercalia was celebrated around the Ides of Februarius, which was regarded as the last month of the year for ceremonial purposes. Should we mention that fertility and “love” are related? Early Christians were pretty good at appropriating the dates of existing rituals to help with conversions and make proselytes feel more “at home.”

Linguists might notice the “Lup” in Lupercalia and wonder if there is a wolf involved.

Well, there is a wolf involved.  Historically, going back a few centuries BCE, the party festivities were to honor Lupa, the she-wolf who nursed and nurtured Romulus and Remus – the mythical founders of Rome.

[By the way, I’m pretty sure that Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with the urban slang meaning for she-wolf, which is “promiscuous woman”, or worse: “prostitute.”]

And Cupid?  The cute chubby fellow who adorns so many cards? He’s the Roman god of passionate love and physical attraction. He’s that cherubic and precocious imp who shoots arrows that, upon hitting their human target, provoke physical and emotional feelings: in short, uncontrollable desire. In one mythologic tale he accidently shoots himself, and thus he himself must suffer the ordeal of love.  How apropos.

Modern Day Cupid

Cupid, like many Roman Gods, was “stolen” from the Greeks, whose name for the corresponding god was “Eros”.  Eros to Greeks meant the same as what Cupid was the god of: passionate physical love.  Romans’ Latin even stole the very word Eros: from which we get the English words erotic, eroticism, erogenous and the like.  Etymologically, eros is both the Latin and Greek word for physical, passionate, sexual love.

One might wonder why Cupid, a god who can rule over one of mankind’s strongest emotions, is most often depicted as a winged, tubby little pre-pubescent lad. Why not a strong muscular figure? This transition seems to have pre-dated Christianity and even the Roman adoption of Eros as Cupid.

Wings? Well, he is a god, so the wings make sense, I suppose.  But better is the line of thought that people who fall in love are “flighty.”

A flabby whiskerless boy? With a little bow and arrow? He is a mere boy because, like youth, love can be so very irrational.  The mighty physique of early Eros was replaced with a bow and arrow to show he still had power.

Speaking of eros, eroticism and such. In Christian tradition, there are four types of Love (most languages, like English, don’t have enough words for this rich domain of emotions).  One is Eros, which is the special intimacy that exists between wife and husband.  Two of the other three are Agape and Charity.  I forget the 4th.

Anyhow, that’s a bit of a path to near to the end of this essay and the end of any Valentine’s Card, where you might find XOXO.  [This is also inscribed at the end of notes, or, nowadays, within text messages].  We all know this means hugs and kisses – or kisses and hugs – right?

Until recently I’ve always had this backward, thinking that O meant kiss (looks like a mouth to me) and X is the hug (looks like 2 arms crossing).  But no, ‘tis ‘tother way ‘round.

Seems as though the X comes from the time not so long ago when most people were illiterate but were required to sign a legal form or document.  So, they wrote just “X.”  They could have made any symbol, but the first letter in the Greek word for Christ is χ. That’s Chi, which looks like an X.  (Pronounced “K-eye”, or “kai”). The symbol was meant, in effect, as attesting before Christ the Lord that your “signature” was a true testament: a sacred vow. Then, to establish validity, they then kissed the X – as in “sealed with a kiss.”  That might be legend, but it’s as good as any other explanation.

Speaking of the Greek letter χ, it is near the end of the Greek alphabet.  The way the coronavirus is mutating, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of the chi-variant before this is over.

Back to XOXO.  As for O in the XOXO script, it’s a “hug” because it’s supposed to be two sets of a pair of arms, each individual pair forming a semi-circle. Linked together, they form a full circle. Looking down from above, it’s two people in full hug, – well, the arms form a distorted loop, or circle. And, if the arms make a circle, which symbolizes true love – no beginning and no end, they’re like a wedding ring.  Another legend has it that many Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated into America were also illiterate.  Upon entry they also had to sign documents.  Seeing Christians mark their documents with an X, they went the opposite way and used O.  Which offsets the X, but doesn’t convey quite the same thing as hugs and kisses.

Despite all the above—the legends, the myths, the lore and the gore, the guesses and the tangents – this much is true: February 14th is Valentine’s Day.  And – truth – it’s as good a day as any to show special people in your life just how important they are.  Card or note? Sure. Sign it “Love”, mark it with an X, an O, or an XOXO. And we’re not playing tic-tack-toe here.



Joe Girard © 2022

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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

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[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

Shore Up

See the source image

Ernie Shore, circa 1917

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Fenway, pre-Green Monster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Girard © 2021

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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 (

The Big Tease

“One Robin does not a Spring make”

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

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

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

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

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

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

March is intensely connected to St Patrick in America and Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Joe Girard © 2021

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

February Amore: When in Rome, you amateurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Joe Girard © 2021

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

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

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

Presenting: The Tippi-Review, the Trailer too

The One

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

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

You’re never too old to change.

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

Nancy and Sluggo. Famous cartoon characters since 1938

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

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

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

But, I did even disgust myself.

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

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

Nails, Nails, everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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:

Forgotten Fragments

“Mr. Watson, come here. I need you!”

Alexander G Bell, age 29

A.G. Bell, inventor of telephone age 29 (most photos show him much older)

Memory.  One way those of us without photographic memories can maintain the vitality of some facts fresh in our minds is to repeat them often to ourselves, like flashcards.  Sometimes we do this by sharing with others; story telling is a form of memory re-enforcement.  For example: the date, time and place you met your true love.  “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Perhaps the date of an election: 1948, “Dewey Defeats Truman!” 

Likewise, key facts of our nation’s founding and early years are kept fresh by repetition; they are well-known and often repeated. 

  • 1776: Declaration of Independence. 
  • 1781: Victory at Yorktown. 
  • 1787: Constitution is written. 
  • 1791: The first 10 Amendments, AKA the Bill of Rights, become part of Constitution. Et cetera, et cetera.

Gonna shake the tree here, maybe turn over some rocks, and see if we can get a few more interesting, fragmental facts rejuvenated.

The thirteen “original” American colonies.  Why only 13 colonies?  Could there have been more? Weren’t there?

At the dawn of the US’s independence, let’s say we go south, and recall both Floridas: East Florida and West Florida, divided by the Apalachicola River. La Florida had been claimed by Spain since 1565. Spain had made an ill-timed poor decision to enter the Seven Years War (or French and Indian War, according to your preferred history) on the side of France near the end of that war.  Through the British victory and the 1763 Treaty of Paris, both Floridas became British possessions. (As did all of the French lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, and all of Canada). In fact, the Floridas became British colonies. Yet, the Floridas did not join “the thirteen” for Independence; they had yet to build up a sense of disdain for Britain and the Crown: they had only recently been acquired and were lightly populated. But they were certainly British American colonies.  So, already up to fifteen British colonies in the New World.

Henry Knox, about age 56. Somehow he failed to maintain his figure, perhaps too much good living [Painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1806, Public Domain]

What about Vermont?  Your mental Rolodex and flashcards will quickly show that Vermont was not among “the Thirteen.”  Yet – thanks to Ethan Allan and the “Green Mountain Boys” – they fought with the Americans against the British, helping Benedict Arnold win an important early revolutionary war victory at Fort Ticonderoga in May, 1775.  The 60 guns captured there (brilliantly transported over hill, dale and frozen river, by Gen Knox in his “Noble Train of Artillery” about 250 miles in wintery conditions) led to the American rebels ability to fire upon, and surprisingly dismiss, the British Navy from Boston Harbor in March, 1776. [Knox was only 25 at the time. ]

How did Vermont even come to exist?  Why was it not part of “the Thirteen?” Conflicting charter definitions left the area we know as “Vermont” in limbo: the colonies of New York and New Hampshire both laid claim to it.  And, at one time, even Massachusetts.  Even Quebecois traipsed fairly freely through the area, setting up camps, exploring and fur trapping.

Vermont took the opportunity presented by such disorder to become a de facto separate colony, beginning in 1770.  The “cities”, i.e. centers of administration, for New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts colonies were distant, and Vermonters felt no connection to them at all. The aforementioned “Green Mountain Boys” defended Vermont’s “independence” from other colonies fiercely.

Knox Cannon Trail. Many walk/hike this 250 mi trek to commemorate Knox’s achievement. Historic towns along the way offer lodging and refreshment options

When “America” formally declared its independence from England, the Vermonters deigned not to join, and formed their own Republic, in 1777 (although they continued a military alliance with the rebel Americans).  Much later, when New York finally acceded to Vermont’s discrete separateness, the Green Mountain Republic folded its tent and was incorporated into the union, in 1791 – after 14 years of formal independence.  It became, coincidently, the 14th state.

Aside: The only other state I can think of that was subsumed directly from independent nation status into the US as a state is Texas.  Any others?  [Hawaii went from independence through a lengthy Territory status].

Vermont was never formally granted its own charter of any sort by Britain.  So, it was not a “colony”, per se.  Our historical scavenger hunt did turn up some revolutionary factoid fragments: Ethan Allan and his Green Mountain Boys, Vermont’s short lived independence as a republic, the defeat of the British at Fort Ticonderoga and Boston Harbor, and Henry Knox’s 250-mile Noble Train of Artillery.

Our New World Colony tally remain at 15; i.e. “the Thirteen” plus the two Floridas.

But were there more?  Well, we mentioned Canada. Canada is surely part of America – North America. The Canadian half of me is a bit ill-at-ease by lack of thorough knowledge here, but we’ll give it a shot.  In 1776 Quebec had been its own chartered provincial colony since 1763.  As was St Johns Island (later Prince Edward Island), split off as a separate chartered colony from Nova Scotia in 1769.  At this period we should also count Nova Scotia and Newfoundland as colonies.  The Hudson Bay Company had also been granted a special charter, but I don’t believe it was of anything like formal colony status.  [Notes on Canada and British colonial status in footnotes below].   

So, how many Colonies did the Brits have in America at the time of the US War for Independence?  I count 19, or perhaps 20.  Not including Vermont.  And that’s just mainland colonies.  We’d find more British American colonies in the Caribbean, like Jamaica, the West Indies, the Bahamas, and others. So much for 13. But that is the number we tell ourselves, on our mental flashcards, over and over.  13 … 13 … 13.

The Bill of Rights.

We know the Bill of Rights as the original ten Amendments to the US Constitution.  Lost in the shuffle is that there were twelve original amendments passed by Congress in 1789. Twelve was the number of Amendments submitted to the states for ratification.

Turns out Amendments #1 and #2 failed.  Well, sort of.  The remaining ten – which we Americans fondly study and recite – were ratified by the requisite number of states (three-quarters), finally, in December, 1791.  These thus became formally part of the nation’s Constitution … these are the first 10 of its 27 Amendments.  So, our current #1 was actually originally #3.

Strangely often forgotten are Amendments numbered as #9 and #10. These clearly imply that the power of the federal government is limited; and suggest that the “Founders”, including James Madison, the principal author, clearly feared a powerful and unrestricted central federal government. You can refresh your memory here and here.

Well, what about the original first two Amendments? 

Amendment 1.  What happened?  Didn’t pass.  Probably a good thing. It would have allowed the House of Representatives to grow to approximately one representative for each 50,000 inhabitants.  Positives? On the one hand, it would have had at least two benefits.  First: it would certainly give us much more granular representation, possibly eliminating the drive for gerrymandering.  Second, it would have adjusted the Electoral College to almost entirely obviate the advantage of smaller states. But it had a serious downside: the House of Representatives would currently have to accommodate up to about six thousand butts and noses (that’s 6,000 – compared to 435 now).  With some foresight, the states did not ratify this.  [More here].

The original Amendment #2 has a significantly different story – although for nearly two centuries it followed the same moribund track as #1.  This originally proposed Amendment  #2 concerned Congressional salaries.  It forbade any sitting Congress from voting itself a pay raise.  They could, however, vote for an increase for the next and following Congresses.  I don’t know why it didn’t pass, but it didn’t. Seems like a good idea.  In fact, at this very time, in 1789, Congress voted itself a 17% pay raise (from $6/day to $7). Passed by Congress, but unratified by the requisite number of states, it lay in limbo, like a genie in a lamp. 

Jump to 1982.  An otherwise regular and inconspicuous student at the University of Texas, young 19-year old Mr Gregory Watson, was doing some research hoping to find a good topic for a term paper for his government class.  He stumbled across this proposed Amendment. 

“No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

He found, upon further investigation, that this amendment was still “alive”; seven of the Thirteen states at the time had ratified it.  But, it had no sunset. It was still alive. That is: it could still be ratified by the states without going back to Congress.  What a novel idea!  Congress cannot vote itself a pay increase. Now, let’s get it ratified by 31 more states.

Watson proposed such a revival in his essay.

His professor thought he was rather silly and gave him a grade of “C” – that is: average.  Grades were inflated a bit even then. In short: He was regarded as below average. [Greg Watson, the bad grade that helped change the Constitution]

Gregory Watson, in 2017

Undeterred, Watson undertook a one-man campaign to get the amendment passed.  With enough letters and phone calls, and ten years of persistence – and more than a few states getting pissed that Congress continued to vote itself pay increases – it eventually got momentum.  The number of states that ratified went from 7, to 10, to 20.  To 30. 

It took a decade.  In 1992 Michigan became the 38th state to ratify the amendment. It has passed the ¾ threshold.  It passed!  It became part of the Constitution and is now the 27th Amendment.  It’s the law of the land: A sitting Congress cannot vote to increase their own pay.  It remains the last change to the US Constitution.  It was ratified and became law 202 years after it passed Congress; a record that will surely never be broken. [Watch recent video of Watson and his story here.]


Our lost fragments of history can be significant.  Our past is much more interesting and its texture much more complex than our day-to-day notions give credit to it. And more than our flashcards of rote memory. Not only that: it shows that a diligent, young, energetic, inspired and undaunted person – one who is blessed with fortitude and idealism, whether Henry Knox, Alex Bell or Greg Watson – can change the nation.  Even if it’s just one thing. 

To all the lost fragments … let’s not lose the threads of our past, nor the possibilities of our future. 

And to all the potential Greg Watsons out there.  Just do it! Be Greg Watson.  Wherever you are, Mr Watsons of the world, we need you.

Peace out

Joe Girard © 2020

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Status of British colonies in Canada at time of American Revolution:

Upper and Lower Canada formed 1791, to account for influx of Loyalists from America

Quebec Province was a colony from 1763 (when it was taken from France) until the forming of Upper and Lower Canada, in 1791

Nova Scotia was a British Colony from 1654 until 1848, when it received significant self-governing status.  It later became part of the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867 (Canada Day, eh?)

Newfoundland was a British Colony from 1610 until 1907, when it attained Dominion status.  It was confederated into Canada after WW2, in 1949.

Prince Edward Island was acquired during the Seven Years War, from France, and formally became a British colony in 1769.  The French called it Saint John’s Island (Île Saint-Jean).  The Brits retained the name until formally changing it to PEI in 1791. Excessive debt drove the colony to seek confederation with Canada, which became official on Canada Day, 1873.

New Brunswick was part of the British Empire during the American Revolution, but not a colony itself; it was attached at the time to Nova Scotia.

Labrador, to my knowledge has never held colonial status.  It is currently attached to Newfoundland.

To my knowledge and research, neither the Hudson’s Bay Company nor any part of Rupert’s Land was ever a colony.  These were pure business propositions from their founding up through the American Revolution.

Other stuff

Who Really Invented the Telephone?     

Henry Knox: The Noble Train of Cannons is also called the Henry Knox Cannon Trail.

Plaque noting where Knox’s Canon Trail saga ends
Sketch of Knox Winter transport of cannons, artist unknown, US Military Archives, Public Domain

Correction:  A few essays ago I wrote in Driving me Dazy that no state has an Interstate Highway with the same number as a US (Route) Highway number.  Wrong!  Wisconsin now has I-41 (which overlays US-41 over its entire length, to avoid confusion).  I-41 stops in Green Bay, but US-41 continues well north into the Keweenaw Peninsula on Michigan’s UP (Its other end is Miami: no confusion there).  And Arkansas has US-49 in the eastern part of the state, and a few fragments of I-49 in the far west part of the state.  Those happened long after I lived in those states.  Sorry.

Post Election 2020 Thoughts – Part 1

“You’ve come a long way, baby! ”

— Virginia Slims cigarette slogan, late 1960s [1]

An abbreviated list of firsts: Jackie Robinson, Yuri Gagarin, Orville Wright, Louis Brandeis, Hattie Caraway, Barak Obama, Jeannette Rankin, Kim Ng.

All are significant modern era historic firsts: All of these people are remembered as much for what their personal achievements represented as much as the individuals themselves.

And now we can add Kamala Harris to that list, come January 20, 2021.

That such “breakthroughs” would happen was never in doubt. And, maybe these aren’t the specific persons many would have hoped would be first.

Vice President Elect, Kamala Harris

Many would have perhaps preferred: Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige to Jackie Robinson; perhaps John Glenn or Alan Shepard to comrade Yuri; brother Wilbur, Samuel Pierpont Langley, or even the German Karl Jatho to Orville. And on and on.

In the end, it does not matter who was first, just that these breakthroughs did happen – although we tend to remember these “firsts” much more than other nearly equal very worthy contenders. For sure, we recognize all these breakthroughs as individual achievements that history will keep indelibly recorded, and – to various amounts – as team achievements as well. More important, each marks a breakthrough for humanity. An expansion of possibility for America, or more importantly, for humans. Each marks a broadening of our hopes, imaginations and expectations.

Congratulations to Kamala Harris. I join the nation and the world in wishing her well.

Last week the Virginia Slims slogan of the ‘60s flashed into mind (top quote). Now, finally, Kamala Harris, a woman – and a person of color, no less – has been elected to be vice-president of the United States. Ladies: you’ve come a long way! And thereby so have all of us; so has our nation.

I feel a similar sense of pride to what I felt watching Barack Obama take the oath of office, standing in our friends’ house just outside Amsterdam, Netherlands, on January 20th, 2009, to become the 44th President of the United States. [Here is an essay from my old website to honor the 2008 election]

To all the above I say: Great, great and … great! Accomplishments and events like this show us what is possible for humanity. They show that talent, meaningful participation and leadership can be found, and are being found, everywhere and anywhere in all humans.

My soapbox here. It is simply impractical and inefficient by any measure – morally, intellectually, economically, politically, culturally – to restrain any fraction of the nation’s intellect and potential, whether it be leadership positions, education, service or any sort of employment. In the case of female participation: Why would any society aspiring to reach its maximum potential also limit fully one-half of its talent from contributing in any way they can?? I submit that this is a reason that some cultures, for example mostly Islamic countries, have lagged in all these areas, including intellectually and economically.

A fair system, with a “wide net”, will capture all sorts of interesting and diverse individuals.

Kamala Harris is just the latest obvious observable example of breaking through and reaching potential. Not hers. Not women’s. But society’s. America’s. The world’s. The whole race’s potential.

In fact, it was bound to happen. It was inevitable. Just the latest indication: an aged dam cannot hold back an immeasurable and growing ocean of water forever. First a crack, then a trickle, then a deluge.

What am I talking about?

Consider first women’s representation in Congress. It is absolutely zooming. The first plot here shows the fraction of Congressional seats occupied by females since 1920; that’s 100 years ago (coincidently when women got the nationwide right to vote, via the 19th Amendment). The numbers are Representatives plus Senators. (In this 1st plot, which is linear-linear, slight fluctuations in number of total seats over time. [1] Lower house grew from 435 to 436, then 437 in 1959 as Hawaii and Alaska added, then reduced to 435 after 1960 census; [2] Upper house Senate seats expanded from 96 in same period for these new states, and 100 ever since).

Plot 1: Women in US Congress since 1920 elections, % of seats available

In 2021-22 women will make up over 26% of the 117th Congress, an all-time high. Although this is barely over half the 51% of American adults who are female, the growth in participation is exponential.

Plot 2: Logarithmic plot of women in Congress as % of seats available. X-axis is log of year since 1920

This 2nd figure shows women’s congressional participation in a log-log (logarithmic) plot, dating back to the 1968 elections. Straight lines in log-log plots indicate pure exponential growth. With a straight-line coefficient of determination (R2) of at 0.97 this is clearly exponential growth in these 5+ decades.

Of course, this exponential trend cannot continue indefinitely, since the total number of seats in Congress stays (for the foreseeable future) quite limited.

One assumes that at some future time — within a decade perhaps –the curve will turn to be more or less level with 50%.

Or perhaps more than 50%.

Reason #2 for the inevitable breakthrough, and a good reason to expect a higher “plateau” than 50%, comes from looking at graduation numbers beyond secondary education. Women exceed men at every level — from Bachelors, to Masters to PhD degrees and law degrees — and most areas and levels have done so for quite some time.

Women are getting basic university degrees at a rate about 50% above men (roughly 59% of college bachelor degrees are going to females; only 41% to men). Although college degrees are certainly not necessary for service in high office – examples such as Harry Truman and Scott Walker have demonstrated this – it is certainly a very, very good indicator. Especially, for some sad reason, Law degrees. (Sorry, you lawyers). Women have outnumbered men in Law School and law degrees for several years, although the margin is slimmer here, roughly matching the US adult population at 51-49%). Not just bachelor’s degrees; Women are earning more advanced degrees of almost all sorts than men, including medical degrees. [3]

This education disparity indicates that female participation at all levels of society will continue to accelerate in all areas. That’s good news.

As a short side note: if participation in many advanced areas shoots much past 51%, and stays there, then a deep study of educational data and experiences might well suggest that we are currently giving young men short-shrift in opportunity development. However, these things can take decades to reveal themselves.

A healthy, growing society welcomes and encourages input, participation, leadership, and ideas from every single one of its citizens. And it develops potential. To do otherwise is to limit itself. Regardless of your politics, Barak Obama, Kamala Harris and Kim Ng, et al, are indications we are doing just that.

Good luck America.

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

[1] Virginia slims cashes in on the women’s lib movement with a cigarette and ad campaign directed at women
[2] Women get far more degrees than men; even at PhD Levels
[3] Women earning more advanced degrees than men
And: More women in medical school than men


“Vote early, and often”

— attributed to many

Firstly, I must make it clear that voting is important. If you are of age and registered: vote! And vote only once. Please.

Voting’s importance is not because your single vote could sway a governor or presidential election; those odds are less than trivial. One in trillions. More on that later.

Voting is very important. Healthy turnout numbers legitimizes our democracy. When large numbers of voters “sit out” an election, that election result suffers reduced credibility, both at home and in the eyes of the world. My son took the time recently to convince me that 400 Electoral College Votes could have gone to Did-Not-Vote in 2016 (only 270 EC Votes needed to win).

In 2016 voter participation ranged from a low of merely 42.5% in Hawai’i to a high of only 74.1% in Minnesota. The 2008 turnout across the nation was a paltry 56%. In 2008 and 2012 national turnout was only 58.2% and 56.5%, respectively. This deprives both winners and losers of credibility, and validity.

So, secondly, larger tallies on each side allows winners to claim more support, while also encouraging them to also recognize that there are significant differing points of view. Well, we can at least hope on that second part.

One vote will never tip an election, but the votes of you and a few of your friends could be enough to trip a re-count.

Please do vote. We cannot be an authentic democracy without healthy turnout.

The good news is that across the country preliminary numbers suggest 2020 will have much higher levels of participation. For instance, as of October 29 Texas had already recorded more votes than were cast in all of 2016, when only 51% voted there.


The quote atop this essay is most often attributed to Chicago’s murky election past, during the last ½ of the 19th century and the first ¾ or so of the 20th century. Some actual Chicagoans who have said this range from gangster Al Capone to mayors William “Big Bill” Thompson and Richard “The Boss” Daley.

Historians have more accurately traced “Vote early, vote often” further back to the first half of the 19th century, when it was first used publicly by John van Buren – son of our 8th President, as well as one of his senior advisors. Perhaps that’s an indication of electioneer shenanigans through that century as well.

The history of ballot box stuffing and vote buying notwithstanding (especially in “political machine cities”), is a thing of the past (so far, for several decades, thank God), and the command is said rather tongue-in-cheek.

Although some vote fraud will certainly occur, I have no great concerns that it will sway any statewide election, let alone the Presidential election (which is essentially 50 statewide elections, plus DC – thus sequestering “good” state results from sullied or doubtful ones).

Worriers will point to three statewide election elections that have been agonizingly close in recent history.

1) 2004, Washington state: Christine Gregoire defeats Dino Rossi for Governor by 133 votes (or 129, depending on source and date). This is the closest governor race in US history and was decided only after two recounts, several court challenges and a few court cases. In the end, over 1,600 counted votes were determined to be cast fraudulently, although there is no indication that the fraud was intentional, nor that it would have changed the outcome. [1]

[Aside: this election was among 2nd wave of indications – the 1st was in 2000, with defeat of 2-term incumbent Slade Gorton for Senate by Maria Cantwell – that a giant blue political tidal wave was rolling up on Washington, a condition that will continue well into the foreseeable future, and making November elections there quite easy to predict.]

2) 2008, Minnesota: Comedian Al Franken defeats Norm Coleman for US Senator by 225 votes, or 312, depending on whether we take the State Canvassing Board results, or the ad hoc panel of three judges chosen per constitution by the States Chief Justice. In any case the margin was a squinty eye-watering wafer thin one, indeed.

Very similar to the Washington case, later analysis found that almost the same number of fraudulent votes had been cast and counted, about 1,670. Again, this was not necessarily intentional, and no we can’t know how they voted; or if it would have changed the outcome. [2]
Minnesota was also turning blue, and still is.

As interesting asides: (a) Norm Coleman is the answer to a trivia question; he not only lost a Senate race to a comedian, he lost a Governor race [1998] to a professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura. Oh, the ignominy. (b) The months’ long delay in deciding the winner cost Presidential Obama a bit of momentum, as Franken’s vote would become the 60th filibuster-breaking vote on the Dem side of the aisle, allowing them to steamroll legislation without inter-party compromise for about 18 months.

3) 2000, Florida: George W Bush defeats Albert Gore for president by 537 votes [coincidentally remarkably close to the total Electoral Votes available: 538]. This provided Bush with the state’s entire slate of 25 Electoral Votes and gave him a “victory” in the Electoral College by the slimmest of margins: 270 to 268. (As of 2012, Florida now has 27 EC votes).

Much has been written about each of these elections, and I don’t really wish to pick at old scars and turn them into open wounds, yet again. We are in enough drama and pain as it is.


How important is your vote? Well, even though each vote is very important (as stated above), the likelihood of any single vote changing the outcome for a state’s electors is mathematically insignificant. In that regard, the Florida voters of 2000 no doubt cast the weightiest presidential votes in history.

Again: How important is your vote? It is common for small population states and large population to complain about balance of power in choosing presidents. The most repeated refrain is that a very large state, say California, is under-weight when compared to a small state, say, Wyoming. Simple math suggests this is true: divide the state’s Electoral Votes by its registered voter total and we find that a vote in Wyoming is about 3.1 times more “electorally powerful” than a vote in California.

Electoral votes per state, 2012-2020

I submit that is indeed simple. Too simple. To truly evaluate a single vote’s “weight” the scoring must be more dynamic. One must consider not just Electoral Votes and total voters; one must consider the vote spread between winner and loser.

Such slightly advanced math deeply erodes the value of a Wyoming voter. Why? Currently Trump has an insurmountable 38% advantage. Add Wyoming’s low EC weight, and a single Wyoming voter’s weight falls from the top to near the middle.

Using average polling data from October 1 to 27th, I attempted to weigh each state’s voter’s relative effect on the outcome. It’s a simple formula: take the EC votes and divide by the expected difference between winner and loser.

To get an estimate of maximum single voter effect, I did a parallel calculation, reducing the expected difference by the average Margin of Error across all pollsters. [To avoid dividing by zero – such as when the MoE is equal to or larger than the expected spread – I used a small number (537) … hence the max impact in those states is roughly equivalent to that of a Florida voter in 2000].

The results were interesting. For ease, I have ratioed all the values relative to the top single voter power of all states. The top 13 States are shown in this figure. It tells us that (a) these are the states to watch come election night (and the days, weeks to follow); and (b) if you must skip voting these are the states your absence or neglect will have the most effect.

Three low population and low EC states (3 votes each) Alaska, Montana and South Dakota remain near the top, but get nudged down by expected differentials. (e.g. Alaska, Trump +6.0%, MoE ±5.7).

States’ Single voter relative power

Since many of these states are in the eastern time zone, we should get a fairly good idea of how the Presidential election will turn out early on. In the Central time zone Texas and Iowa will let many west coasters know likely results before they’ve even voted. If it comes down to Pacific time zone, only AZ and NV have real potential impact.

[I have casually and unapologetically lumped Nebraska and Maine into the same model, even though they assign single EC votes based on their few Congressional Districts.]

And next, are the bottom 13 states, ranked by single voter power. Note: these fall to the bottom not particularly because these are states with disproportionately few EC votes or such high populations; it’s because the outcome is not in doubt.

[Their “Max Power” ratio drops, since Texas could be so high. In effect, even at their most powerful (thinnest margin), their effect withers further if a larger state ends up close: these voters always weigh less than 1/1000th the power per single voter in a contested state].

States with weakest single voter power

Even smaller states like Connecticut, Maryland, DC and Mass that are heavily weighted by the simple ECVotes/population computation get pushed to the bottom of significance, alongside California and New York, due to high expected win/loss margins. You can color in your Electoral College map early for these states. Well, any state not in the top 13 as well. {Rhode Island may well lose an EC Vote after the 2020 census, and will drop into this group}.

Things and order jumble about, but only slightly, if we re-calculate assuming that the full Margin of Error is realized for each state. For example, big Texas — now a battleground state — jumps from #8 to #1. Georgia drops from #1 to #4. Details in the two tables at the bottom.

I must admit that this is a concept that I adopted and simplified from an extensive effort over the past few decades by Andrew Gelman, a statistics professor at Columbia University (cue Abe from “The Amazing Mrs Maisel” here). He’s been joined recently by Gary King and John Boscardin, as well as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, to determine the odds that your single vote will decide the entire election, based on where you live. Of course, the odds are astronomical, but statistically quantifiable; the inverse of that possibility is a measure of the state’s single voter power. My results, arrived at with simpler math to account for my simpler mind, has much the same results (although I don’t think they’ve done it yet for 2020) [3]

These high-powered statisticians take into account far more than I have. For example, likely voter turnout. And odds the election is even close enough for that single state to make a difference (which further de-rates low EC vote states). That is too much computing, and voter turnout (abysmal and getting drearier for decades) will be a wildcard in 2020, with most areas now expecting record turnout.

In any case, like they say: “Every vote matters; count every vote.” My ballot’s in already. I know it won’t make any difference as to who wins; but it’s a vote for democracy. And that’s important.
May there be peace. Fingers crossed.

Until next time,

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

[1] Gregoire wins by 133 (or 129) votes, with over 1,600 votes deemed to be fraudulent., Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 5, 2005

[2] Franken win tainted?; 1,670 fraudulent votes tallied, The American Experiment, July 1, 2016

[3] When One Vote makes a difference (but never in a statewide race)

Table 1. All States at Nominal Power per single voter

StateNom Strengths
4North Carolina0.0146
12South Dakota0.0021
16North Dakota0.0018
18New Hampshire0.0016
19South Carolina0.0016
23New Mexico0.0013
28West Virginia0.0011
37Rhode Island0.00069
43New Jersey0.00058
49New York0.00038
Table 1, Relative single voter weight, all polls nominal
A single voter in Georgia is ~3,800 times more significant and powerful as one in DC

Table 2. Relative single voter weight, all states at max strength per voter (i.e. poll margins reduced by average margin of error).

StateAll Max
5North Carolina0.395
16South Carolina0.0015
17South Dakota0.0014
19New Hampshire0.0010
20North Dakota0.0010
26New Mexico0.0007
27West Virginia0.0006
40Rhode Island0.00033
41New Jersey0.00032
49New York0.00018
Relative Single Voter Strength if each state is at Max power (I.e. full Margin of error reduces final vote difference)… A single Texas voter is 9,100 times more powerful than one in DC

Driving Me Dazy

Driving on highways is different wherever one travels.  The US has large expanses of land, and most major cities have many miles between them, hence national highways are sort of laid out and numbered in a grid pattern.  Look at national maps for even the largest European countries, like France and Germany, and it can look like that pot of spaghetti you spilled on the kitchen floor while trying to “help” your mom when you were 9 years old.

United States Interstate traffic carries ~25% of all vehicle miles, and ~80% of all commercially transported product, by value

It’s OK.  You felt bad when you spilled dinner, but mom made it a learning experience and you are a better person for it.  Now we’re going to make a little sense of those European “spilled spaghetti” highway maps.

Although these countries individually generally do not lend themselves to a US-style grid and grid-number system, both because of history and geography, they do indeed have patterns.  These are not very useful, if you want my biased opinion.  Well, perhaps useful for rote memorization.

European countries all have several “levels” of highway, just as in the US.  And each level will carry different amounts of traffic, depending on demand and the level.  For example, in the US, the Interstate Highway system has very high demand, and has the highest standard.  Although comprising only about 1% of all US highways by mileage, the Interstate highways carry 25% of highway traffic by vehicle miles.  That’s astounding.  A little more on this later.

I’ll use the two largest European countries, France and Germany, as examples here (um, “largest” not counting Russia).  Each also, naturally, has multiple levels of highway.  Or Classes.  Each has an “A”, or top level “motorway.”  In Germany the A stands for Autobahn.  Of course.  In France it is A for an Autoroute.  These are limited access, high speed, and high standard roadways; in France there is often a toll involved – and they are quite expensive. 

Each has a second-tier highway as well. In France, it’s the N highways, or Route Nationale.  Germany’s second-tier are “B” (which makes more sense, B following A), for Bundesstraßen – or Federal Roads.  These are often quite nice as well.

Speaking of expensive. Beware of radar speed detectors, especially on the B or N roads.  Speed limits rise and fall rapidly around mid- and smaller-sized cities.  Where it falls suddenly – often with scant warning – there is almost sure to be an automatic radar speed detector. If you flinch when you see a sudden flash (usually blue), you’ve been nicked. Your car rental company will make sure you get all of these resulting traffic tickets, while the ticket processing fees are inevitably pinned to your credit card.  Sneaky European bastards. You can generally ignore the tickets themselves; they make nice wallpaper, or fire starters, tools to study another language, whatever. (I hear Italy is the absolute worst). The money grabbers, er, ah, traffic officials will try to collect for about 6 months.  Ignore them. They will give up…eventually. But the processing fees for the car hire company are unavoidable. Those cost about $25 a pop.

As much of the highway patterns initially look like spilled spaghetti to an American European-car-vacation beginner, one cannot imagine at first that there is a numbering pattern.  The routes generally link larger cities and often follow – or run roughly parallel to – centuries’ old trade routes.  Often newer, higher standard “A” routes run near the “B” or “N” routes, but bypassing the snarled urban areas. But … an actual numbering pattern?

France’s Autoroute (A) network. Spokes leading to/from Paris

Well, of course there is a pattern.  We are talking Germans here.  How could Germans not have a pattern? And the French would hate to be outdone by their European rival brother. 

Germany’s single digit Autobahn A highways are border to border (except 2, apparently)

In both countries highway number sequences are assigned by region.  It’s that simple.  In France, the major highways near Paris seem to get most of the lower numbers; and they sort of radiate out from there, like crooked spokes on a banged up old bicycle wheel.  In Germany the single digit “A” autobahn highways have single digit numbers if they run across the entire country – border-to-border, so to speak.  The rest are assigned by region: for example, any Autobahn in Bavaria has an ID number in the 90s.

Yet, the Europeans have demonstrated a sort of “Highway-Pattern-and-Numbering-Envy”.  “Envy of whom?” you ask.  Of course, the United States.

In September 1925 – nearly a century ago – a small committee of national highway officials met at the Jefferson Hotel in downtown St. Louis. One of their tasks? To assign numbers to the new federal highway system. Other related tasks involved national highway standards: e.g. widths, grades, surfaces, signs and markings. This would become the US Highway system.

Until then, as in Europe, major roads – and later highways – followed older trails: in the US either old Amerindian, pioneer or fur trade routes. And, to make it complicated, each state had their own system for numbering highways (sometimes letters or names), even if  they “linked up” with a highway in an adjoining state.  They were twisted too; they often directed motorists on less than efficient paths, in order to promote commerce in remote, but politically well-connected, towns and villages. [many US highways retain these rather anachronistic vestiges, wandering through downtown and business sectors of towns, villages and cities].

Well, in what seems to have been accomplished in a single day, September 25th, a small committee of five Chief State Engineers (from Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Carolina) devised the US Highway numbering system.  With few exceptions, it’s still in use today. 

Ah, the beauty, power and efficiencey of small but powerful committees.  China, anyone? Anyhow …

These mighty five decided that highways leading mostly north/south would be assigned odd numbers, with the lowest starting along the east coast. These odd-numbers would increase as you moved west, with the highest odd-numbers being along the west coast. The longest and/or most important N/S routes would end with the number five.

Routes that went mostly East/West would be assigned even numbers; with lower numbers in the north, and increasing to larger numbers in the south.  The longest and/or most important E/W routes would end with the number zero. For example: the first transcontinental highway, also called the Lincoln Highway, was US Highway 30. 

The beloved and ballyhooed highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, which we know as “Route 66”, was originally to be numbered Route 60.  But Kentucky governor William Field wanted the more important sounding 60 to run through his state. Route 66 is officially retired, but signs and the famous song still commemorate “66”, and its representation for our attraction for the open road.

This is the US Highway numbering system still in use today.

A few decades later, in the 1950s, when President Eisenhower got the nationwide super highway system approved (the so-called Interstate Highway System, officially called the “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”) the numbering scheme for the new system was kept more or less intact.  With one major twist.

Key to Interstate Highway numbering: these shown end in 5 or 0; to they go border to border, or sea-to-sea, or sea-to-border. See extra figure in footnotes.

To avoid number confusion with the US Highway numbers, the lower numbered North/South Interstate routes would be in the west, instead of the east, increasing as the numbering moved east.  And the lower numbered East/West routes would be in the south, instead of the north, increasing as the “grid” progressed north.  [They wanted no number ambiguity or confusion, which was possible in the middle of the country: fly-over country. So they made a rule that there are no duplicate US numbers and Interstate numbers within the same state. This is the main reason there is no Interstate 50 or 60. And the north/south number confusion was solved by having so many highways in the more densely populated east.]

Although mainly sold as something to facilitate national defense, the Interstate system by far has had its greatest effect on commerce, and next tourism. Up to 80% of the nation’s commercial product (by value and mile) is moved to market, or between suppliers and factories, along Interstate highways. Its effect on individual or family travel: Driving across many states, or the entire nation, has been a summer vacation right-of passage in many families for decades. Many commuters use it as well.

US Highways (left) and Interstate Highways (right) have different markings and colors. US 40 (or Route 40) runs near Interstate 70 (or I-70) across much of the country, from the east coast, across the Rocky Mtns to Utah.

A few asides on the numbering systems. [Recall there is a difference between US Highways (often called “Routes”) and Interstate Highways.]

(1) The US coastal highways do not follow the “5” designation for major N/S routes: US 1 runs along the entire east coast, with US 99 and 101 running along, or near, the west coast. Neither end in a 5. [See add’l map in footnotes].

(2) Three-digit US highway numbers show highways that are sort of alternates to the original: for example, US 287 which passes through my neighborhood, goes north/south through the same regions as US 87.  Both go from the CAN-US border in Montana down to the Texas gulf coast. Both US 85 and US 285 also pass near our home. 85 goes from the US-CAN border in North Dakota all the way to the Mexican border in El Paso; 285 branches off from 85 in Denver and winds down to dusty west Texas as well.

(3) For the Interstate system, three digit numbers generally indicate loops or by-passes if the first digit is even (I-405 loops around Seattle, but otherwise is on the I-5 path) or, if the first digit is odd, it denotes spurs that shoot out to facilitate transport and commerce (I-190 in Chicago connects I-90 to O’Hare airport).


The United Nations was formed in 1945 at the close of World War 2 to help countries peaceably work together.  Well, in short order the UN had a commission for pretty much everything.  One of those was the UN Economic Commission for Europe (or UNECE). 

Around 1950 the UNECE looked first at the many highways in Europe, noting that they – like in the US before the 1925 St Louis Commission – often changed identification as they crossed boundaries. National boundaries in the case of Europe.  They noticed the numbering systems were messy and inconsistent. They also anticipated economic growth as recovery from war progressed, which would require more and better roads.  The vision was vast, eventually reaching from the UK and Ireland (island nations!) to Central Asia, and beyond … almost to China. A potential for a vast grid and simple, consistent numbering based on the cardinal directions! To wit: Copying the US approach.

These are the “E” highways shown on maps.  It is a separately numbered set of highways, much more often than not simply using existing highways. The “E” numbers were just placed alongside the “A” — and in some cases the “B” or “N” — numbers on signs and maps.

With some exceptions, they followed the US example for the “E” highways.  Generally North/South are odd; East/West are even. They have secret codes for loops and spurs and local funkiness, just as in the US. The “E” highways are generally “A” class: that is, limited access and high speed.  Yeah, there are exceptions, and lots more tedious details, but it’s kinda cool that this system extends from Ireland to Kyrgyzstan. In fact, the E 80 goes from Lisbon to Tokyo!

E highways even span the the North Sea (although the UK refuses to implement them; the M, for Motorway, system is quite satisfactory — you know: Brexit, not using the Euro and all that).

The E network throughout Europe and much of Asia, with numbering patterns based more or less on the US highway system

A consistent and logical numbering system for a huge grid of highways. Says the US: You’re welcome.  Bitte sehr.  Prego.  De nada. Molim.  Hey, have fun with it.  It’s working for us. Hope it continues to work for you.

Until next essay, I wish you safe travels with simple and uncomplicated maps and highways. Yes, even with simple easy to understand highway numbering, keep your GPS/SatNav on and up-to-date.


Joe Girard © 2020

Note of thanks to John Sarkis for his St Louis history blog, which provided many details and inspired this essay.

For my European friends and family — feel free to make corrections, additions or suggested edits in the comments on the A, B, E, N parts of the essay.

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

Extra figure showing US vs Interstate Numbering scheme.

US routes have low numbers in north and east.
Interstate numbers have low numbers in south and west.
US 10 used to run to Seattle, but was gradually replaced and de-commissioned as I-90 was completed in segments.

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

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] 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.

Whether the Weather

“Without a doubt, chain of command is one of the most durable concepts in military organizations.” [1]

Clarity: It is critical that each warrior be responsible to a single set of orders; and that those orders ultimately flow through a single person: a designated leader. Often, it is likewise with briefing and council of such leaders: well considered, well delivered and filtered information is better than too much information; it must come through a single responsible person.

Red Sky at night: sailors’ delight.
Red sky at morning: sailors take warning.”

Not long ago. ‘Twas before weather satellites. Before weather apps sent us instantaneous forecasts and updates – for free. Before flocks of powerful computers, powered by speedy powerful, parallel processors, loaded with forecasting programs and access to over a century of meteorological data. Before all that, people relied on little bits of wisdom, like that captured in this poem couplet, to help foretell the weather. 

The insight of this this poem has been used for millennia.  One of the earliest written records is this reply to a demand for a sign from heaven:

It is one thing to gage likely weather for smallish things like picnics and hikes, and larger things, such as if a ship should leave the safety of port. It is something completely different when the future of the world depends upon predictive correctness. Yet, decades before the space age, satellite imagery and the internet, a small group of people – led by an enigmatic man – made the most important and unlikely, yet correct, two-day weather forecast in the history of the modern world.  Working with similar information, teams of weather scientists only a few miles away made different forecasts.  The world-changing consequences were immeasurable.


The enigmatic man was James Martin Stagg. He was born to a plumber and a homemaker at the dawn of the 20th century, June 30th, 1900. His first name was that of his paternal grandfather; his middle name matched his mother’s maiden name. Hometown: Dalkeith, a small market town, some 15 miles south-southeast of the big city of Edinburgh, quite near the Firth of Forth – close by the North Sea. It’s a place where one becomes accustomed to the capriciousness of weather.

James Martin Stagg

His parents were stern Scots. They raised him to be disciplined, thorough, hard-working, and accountable. He was also considered rather bookish and unemotional. Humorless. These were all traits that would serve him, and the world, well.

By age 15 James had received as much local education as possible in Dalkeith. Clearly bright and promising, he was sent off to further his education, in Edinburgh.  By 1921 he had earned a master’s degree from prestigious Edinburgh University. His career began as a teacher and science master at George Hariot’s School (primary and secondary boarding school), also in Edinburgh.  He also began post-degree research in a field that would fascinate him for the rest of his life: Geophysics.  In particular, he studied the earth’s magnetic properties.


Whether the weather be fine,
Or whether the weather be not.
Whether the weather be cold,
Or whether the weather be hot.

We’ll weather the weather,
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not!


Weather forecasting was improving steadily during the first few decades of the 20th century, well beyond simple poems, owing largely to the development of powered flight – for commercial and, later, military purposes. Reasonable forecasts – wind, precipitation, cloud cover – were invaluable to pilots and navigators.  And flight gave opportunity for a bonanza of further atmospheric data collection and observation.

The century had already dealt humanity horrible calamities due to inaccurate forecasts. In the US this included deadly hurricanes (such as Galveston, 1900; and the Long Island Express, 1938) and lost aircraft: commercial, private and military.

A mixture of art and science, weather forecasting was evolving rapidly.  Some schools of thought promoted using centuries of meticulous records (even Thomas Jefferson kept detailed weather logs) and then trying to fit current readings with known patterns observed over time.  Others were promoting a rigorous science-based approach, with the belief that given enough data the weather could be forecast days in advance, based solely on atmospheric data and physics-based mathematical models.  Without high speed digital computers and data base programs, both approaches were handicapped as World War II broke out, September 1, 1939, and continued for six years.


Even in the 1940s, Americans who dwelt in the Midwest, or in the east, would be astonished at how feeble weather forecasting was for the British Isles and much of western Europe, from the coasts of France to those of Norway. 

Why? Two major factors.

Factor one: Geographic location. Americans from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast reaped some under-appreciated major benefits here.  One was the mid-latitude Westerlies: a general motion of west-to-east wind and weather patterns between 30 and 60 degrees latitude. Another geographic benefit was the sheer immenseness of the continent.  From across the country – from cities and towns and airports and major rail stations – weather observations were constantly wired to the National Weather Service.  Usually throughout each day. 

Formed in 1890, the NWS was staffed with hundreds of dedicated hands-on human data processors who would manually amalgamate an astounding mountain of data – air pressure, temperature, wind speed and direction, cloud cover and type, precipitation amounts and rates – and concoct a pretty reasonable weather forecast for the few days ahead.  The country – from farmers to aircraft – relied on these forecasts.

The second fact simply is that the North Atlantic is not a continent. There were very, very few weather reports from which to synthesize forecasts in “the pond.” It is as much a weather generator as it is weather receiver. Any details gleaned from shipping vessels were invaluable.  Weather reports from Maine to Newfoundland, from Goose Bay, and from Thule to Iceland, were scrutinized for every possible detail.  Remote stations in Ireland, Scotland, islands in the Irish Sea and along the Welsh coast could provide, perhaps, at most, a half day’s alert. The Atlantic dynamically battles with the Arctic here: ocean currents, the Jetstream, and vagaries of high latitude weather formation over a cold swirling ocean were simply not fully understood.


Although degreed in Geophysics, James Martin Stagg’s eclectic career and training earned him high praise, and he received an appointment at Britain’s Meteorological Office (usually just called “the Met”) in 1924.  His responsibilities, experiences in travel, life and career, and the respect of other scientists continued to grow.  For example, in 1932 he led a one-year expedition to arctic Canada, where he gained first-hand experience of weather variability north of “the Westerlies.”

His career flourished.  In 1943 Stagg was appointed the Chief Meteorological Officer to Allied forces in Western Europe. The main mission: learn enough history and patterns of north Atlantic weather sufficiently well to make predictions for an invasion – the invasion to liberate western Europe. Today we call this D-Day and Operation Overlord.

Stagg’s partner and righthand man at this task was Donald Yates, a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point. The US Military has always been great at identifying and developing potential: as an officer, Yates went on to earn a master’s degree in Meteorology from CalTech before joining Stagg.

Chain of Command.  The allies were blessed with capable generals from many backgrounds; – yet, more than a few were prideful and bullheaded.  Think Patton and Montgomery. They also had widely varying backgrounds. But only one person could be the supreme leader of all Allied military operations in Europe.  President Roosevelt, counseled by eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner George Marshall, and Prime Minister Churchill chose wisely.  They quickly settled on Dwight D. Eisenhower (affectionately known as “Ike”) for the singular role, even though he had only minor actual leadership experience in battle.

Ike was just one of hundreds of possible candidates.  Scores were more senior and battle-hardened; and many of those looked askance at this choice – and at Ike. 

But Ike was gifted.  He understood logistics and intelligence; he possessed superior organizational, administrative and people skills.  Above all, he showed excellent judgment. In many ways he was likeable, and considered jovial and friendly; in times of critical decision he was pensive, careful and largely unemotional.

Likewise, the allied Allied weather staffs were full of capable yet strong headed individuals from various backgrounds. But only a single person could be responsible for advising General Eisenhower. The person selected was James Stagg.  Assisted by Yates – the two acted largely as equals – Stagg’s job was to assess and make recommendations based on input from three independent teams of meteorologists. 

Those three teams represented: (1) the United States Army Airforce; (2) the British Meteorological Office (or the Met); and (3) the British Royal Navy. Stagg – like Ike – was seemingly unqualified for the job to many close observers.  His appointment as the single person responsible for meteorological advice – like Ike’s – was unappreciated by many highly trained and more experienced meteorologists, most of whom considered themselves to be superior.  Yet – like Ike – Stagg had a long reputation for exceptional judgment, and a record for careful, unemotional decisions.

Single person chain of command. Ike on the overall mission to take Normandy and western Europe.  Stagg on weather forecasts presented to Ike.  Simple. 

A quick overview on D-Day, judgment, and the weather. Since early 1942 Europe and Stalin awaited the opening of a military front on the Third Reich’s west.  They would have to wait until at least the spring of ’44, before Ike and his staff thought they could pull it off. In fact, Ike was not formally in charge of European operations until January of that year. The secret chosen location was a 50 mile stretch of beaches in Normandy, west of the Seine estuary near La Havre, and east of the Cotentin Peninsula. 

What were the required conditions (besides secrecy and overwhelming force) for success of the largest landing invasion in history? 

First and foremost, relatively calm seas so the landing craft could navigate the English Channel and get to the Normandy coast.  Upon this hung any chance of success. And this depended almost solely on Stagg and the teams of meteorologists.

Second, dawn tidal conditions to suit the Higgins Boats (landing craft): a rising tide shortly after a low tide.  The rising tide would help carry the craft into shore; the lower tide would help them avoid German defense obstacles. This condition could be met with a nearly full moon, or nearly new moon.

Third, mostly clear, calm skies. This would assist pilots and their cargo – about 14,000 paratroopers and 4,000 glider troops – and give the best chance to hit drop zones. These would come in the dark pre-dawn hours; the first jumps came shortly after midnight.  Again, this depended on Stagg.

Fourth and finally, as a “nice to have”, but not a requirement: a full, or near full moon; again, to help paratroopers and their pilots.

May was an extraordinarily calm month, yet Ike did not think they were quite ready yet.  June 5th, one day before a full moon, was chosen.  All Allied – and German – meteorologists watched the weather, collected data and daily drew hundreds of charts by hand.

The glorious, calm, balmy western Europe spring suddenly turned nasty on June 4. Stormy skies and seas, with high winds and waves, and driving rain, pelted the British Isles and the Channel. 

Stagg consulted with his three teams. There was bitter debate and ridicule among and within the teams on the weather outlook.  The USAAF team, led by Irving Krick – who, coincidentally, had also earned a PhD in meteorology from CalTech – was “gung ho” for June 5th.  The two British teams weren’t so sure: one cautiously optimistic, the other firmly against.  The situation looked unsettled.

Outside of the weather, everyone really wanted to go June 5th.  To stand down could be most discouraging.  The men were mentally and spiritually as ready as they could be.  Many craft were already loaded and in the water.  The battleships were ready, staffed and ready to cruise.  The planes were all checked out.  Infantry, paratroopers, coxswains and pilots wrote wills; they wrote what could well be their last letters to family, wives and girlfriends.

Ike called in Stagg.  What about the weather? Quite possibly the outcome of the entire war in Europe hung on Stagg’s shoulders. On one hand, if he recommended a No-Go, i.e. a postponement, then the invasion might not occur for weeks, or even months. The weather looked to be settled in for a long stretch of ugliness. Could the Allies maintain the surprise that long?  What, meanwhile, would befall the beleaguered civilians in occupied Europe? On the other hand, if he recommended a Go for June 5, it was possible that the weather could cause catastrophe for the invasion – in fact, it might self-destruct.

Stagg recommended a postponement. Ike pushed him: really?  Are you sure?  Yes, he was. Like everyone, Ike really wanted to go. But, he acquiesced: he’d give the order to stand down.  But what about the next day, June 6?  There was a likely window of a few hours in the morning when the landings would be possible.  Standby.

German forecasters, with similar access to history and data – although not quite as extensive – came to a similar conclusion.  There would be no invasion on June 5.  The weather looked so bad, in fact, that they forecast no likely invasion for at least two more weeks. Consequently, many German officers left their posts for personal leave, or to attend war games in Rennes. Many troops were given leave also. Erwin Rommel, the famous German general (The Desert Fox) who had been made commander of all Atlantic defenses even went home for a few days, in order to surprise his wife on her 50th birthday.

Krick’s team was so disappointed in the June 5th stand-down order that they tried to go around Stagg and get to Ike through back-channels.  Good thing it didn’t work: the tradition of military chain of command stood firm. That day, as it turns out, would have resulted in a tragic outcome for the Allies. The German defenses would have barely had to fire a shot. Weather would have thwarted most flights, and tossed the Allied boats and ships to-and-fro all over the Channel. Battleships in the channel, pitching and rolling, could not have shelled the German bunkers with their big guns along the coast.

Weather chart for June 6, 1944

Later that night, Ike called for Stagg again. So: what about June 6th?  To varying degrees all three meteorological teams supported taking the chance; each with differing and various concerns and caveats – except Krick, who was still gung-ho. It seemed that a high pressure was edging up from the mid-Atlantic, with just enough relief to offer a good possibility for the morning of the 6th

Normandy Beach (Utah), June 6, 1944

Would it be perfect?  No. Mixed, intermittent clouds (scattered in east Normandy, thick in the west), ground fog, and breezes would surely make it rough on paratroopers and their pilots (most sticks did miss their DZs — drop zones).  But the landing craft could probably get to the beaches. Ike considered Stagg’s and Yates’ inputs, concerns and recommendation. 

Ike conferred with his top leadership team to consider Stagg’s report. The three highest ranking members of this team were all Brits: Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (British Army); Commander-in-Chief of Naval Operations, Bertram Ramsey (Royal Navy); and Air Marshal Arthur Tedder (Royal Air Force). The first two leaned toward GO. But Tedder was against June 6th — the possibility of cloud cover was too risky. Ramsey then reminded Ike that the 7th could not possibly work, as many sea vessels would have to return to port to refuel, postponing a possible attack many days.

Ike considered all inputs an opinions. Then announced: June 6th was a GO. 

Had Stagg or Ike been more cautious and postponed yet again, the next possible dates were June 19 & 20. The tides, of course would cooperate, but it would be moonless. 

The Allies continued to put similar effort into weather forecasting after the successful June 6th landings.  Air Force sorties and trans-channel crossings with supplies went on almost daily, quite dependent on their dependable forecasts.  June soon turned stormy again. Yet the forecasts for June 19 were for relatively calm skies and seas.

Had the Allies stood-down again on June 6th, then almost surely the three teams, Stagg and Yates would have recommended that Ike go ahead with a June 19th invasion.  Especially after postponing twice. Ike would have accepted that and issued the invasion “Go” order.

That would have been one of the worst disasters in military history. It was called “A Storm from Nowhere.” Tremendous winds and waves lashed across the Channel and crashed into Normandy.  The large temporary Mulberry harbors were damaged, one of them destroyed completely.  

Sometimes you need to be good AND lucky.  June 6 was a good choice.  And it was a lucky choice. Ike and Stagg were the right choices for their roles. They played the odds, trusted their guts, rolled the dice and chose well.  The world is better for it.

After the war, Ike of course went on to serve two terms as US President.  Between the war’s end and the presidency he held multiple leadership roles, first as Governor of the American Zone in occupied Germany; here he is most noted for ordering thorough photographic evidence of Nazi death camps, as well as organizing food relief for German civilians. Ike also served as Army Chief of Staff (succeeding Marshall), the first Supreme Head of NATO, and President of Columbia University.

Yates was awarded membership in the US Army Legion of Merit, and France’s Legion of Honor.  He ended up a career military man, transferring to the newly formed Air Force in 1947. Through his career he held leadership and technological positions, working in both weather and rocket research. He also commanded Patrick Air Force Base, in Florida. He retired in 1961 as a Lieutenant General (3-star).

Stagg, the hero of this essay, was awarded membership in both the United States Legion of Merit, and in the Order of the British Empire.  After the war he served as a director in the British Meteorological Office, until his retirement in 1960.  He also was an elected a member of the prestigious Royal Society of Edinburgh, and president of the Royal Meteorological Society.

There were many heroes and personalities from the European Theater of WW2.  Some are obvious; they will never be forgotten.  Here’s to some lesser known heroes, including the Scotsman James Stagg and the American Donald Yates.

Wishing you health and happiness,

Joe Girard © 2020

[1] Army War College publication, by Michael Piellusch & Tom Galvin

Excellent resources:

Book: “The Forecast for D-Day”, by John Ross

And some good internet sites (there are so very many)

Some omitted but cool items:

From Krick to Petterson, many senior Allied weathermen later wrote disparagingly of Stagg. But not of Yates. Regardless, Stagg made the right calls, and the responsibility fell on his shoulders.

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.


End of the World?

Halley’s Comet – named for Sir Edmond Halley, the English bloke who used Newton’s new art of calculus to surmise that frequently seen comets in history were, in fact the same comet – returns to the inner solar system once every 76 years or so, on average. [1] When this occurs, it is usually quite visible with the naked eye for weeks at a time.

76 years is quite a short period for a comet that can be so easily seen.  It is the only one that can be seen twice in a single human lifetime.

Alas, the only appearance during my lifetime – in 1986 – was far less than spectacular.  Earth’s and Halley’s orbits were sort of “out of synch” and thus minimized earth’s view of the comet when it was brightest. I was most disappointed, since I had read about it so much and had been very let down by the “flame out” of Kahoutek in 1973-74.

Such has not always been the case.

In 1066 the Comet portended the defeat of English King Harold II to William, the conqueror from Normandy at a battlefield near Hastings[2A] So important was this astronomical sign that its significance and image are captured on the magnificent 70 meter (230 feet) long tapestry that that tells the story of conquest, and still survives in Bayeux, Normandy. [2B]

Over the millennia, many other occasions of Halley’s return and sighting have been recorded in several cultures. As there was no effective difference between astronomy and astrology, a comet’s appearance (exceedingly rare as they are) are usually associated with some momentous decision, or a historical event.

Could that event be the end of the world?

The year was 1910, and the comet’s return was certainly expected. Based on its path through the solar system since its 1835 appearance, astronomers and physicists predicted it would appear in spring. [3]

And yet, in January, a comet brighter than anything anyone had expected appeared!  Was this Halley’s?  Appearing early? Astrophysicists re-worked and labored over their calculations again.  As they did, the comet got so bright it was visible during the day!  It’s brightness rivaled that of famously bright evening and morning “stars” – Venus and Jupiter –  but with a tail painted across the sky. 

Soon enough scientists announced: No! This is not Halley’s.  This is an unrecorded comet, probably with a period of 50,000 to 100,000 years!  People alive then were fortunate to see such a spectacle. That 1910 comet is often referred to as “The Daylight Comet.”

Historians regularly call 1910 “The Year of Two Comets.” Just a few months after the Daylight Comet faded away Halley’s made its scheduled appearance in April. 

Astronomers first sighted it in early April, and it could be seen with the naked eye starting around April 10. They tracked it, and – again – many scientists and astronomers made their calculations and observations.  Those who calculate did their calculations: Each orbit of a comet is different, and everyone wanted to know how bright the comet would get, and how close it would get to earth.

From the Dallas Star, May, 1910

On April 20 the comet reached perihelion – its closest approach to the sun – and became very easily viewable from earth with casual unaided observation.  [On cue, Mark Twain passed away[3]]. After perihelion they predicted an Earth-comet approach so close that on May 18th Earth would pass through the comet’s tail. Now that’s astonishing!

What would happen then?  How should this news be treated? Should they let everyone, and anyone, know?  Would panic and hysteria ensue? What about the news that spectroscopic surveys of the tail suggested the tail was comprised of a high percentage of cyanogen, a precursor to cyanide? 

A few scientists suggested that this could make the entire atmosphere fatally toxic! But most scientists thought that there was no danger.  Yet, we couldn’t know until we actually passed through.

What do you do when the world might end?  Many people just stayed home, preferring to spend their final hours with their families. Factories shut down for want of workers. Yet, in many places around the world the answer was: have a party.  A big party.  Get all your friends, family, food and booze together and enjoy yourselves like there might be no tomorrow. Humans around the world wondered what might happen, … while partying. It was a delicious time: while the vast majority had little or no fear of the “calamity”, they took it as an opportunity to have a good time, enjoy this singular event: a few spectacular hours of passage. And by doing so – maybe – mocking those who were in hysteria.

It might have been the last time until now (the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, March 2020) that the world has been more or less united in the same activities.  Mankind united by a single set of events.

Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet. When it was over, of course, nothing happened.  They had simply witnessed and experienced an event that probably no other human had!  And no other human will for a very long time. [5]

Well, perhaps more than that happened.  Quite a few probably had hangovers – and there might have been a mini-baby boom in early 1911. (There was, in fact, a few percent jump in US births in 1911 over 1910; however, (1) that was a time of such massive immigration; and (2) birth numbers jumped consistently from 1900 until 1918 [insert WW1 comment here], so it’s not clear what we should attribute this mini-baby boom to.) [4]

Anyhow, one way or the other, this SARS-CoV-2 thing (and the illness it causes, COVID-19) will pass. Some of us have panicked.  Nearly all of us will survive, although many of us will be changed; maybe with larger waistlines.

Unlike extraordinary 1910 – with two brilliant comets, and with Halley’s extremely close-approach to Earth – an epidemic or pandemic will occur again.  For some of us, perhaps, within our lifetime.  What will happen next time?  Much will depend on what we have learned. And what we remember.

I hope it’s not the end of the world.  But in any case, we can have a party.

By the way: Halley’s is predicted to appear again in the summer of 2061.  I don’t think I’ll hang around for that one.  Gotta join ol’ Mark Twain sometime. But if I do make it to then: we’re having a heck of a party!

Until next time, I wish you peace and health

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

[1] Halley’s orbital period varies a bit with every orbit; and the variation is random.  Why? A) The comet sheds a fraction of its mass with each inner solar system pass due to solar heating; and B) the comet is tiny and light, and thus subject to (usually) slight gravitational perturbation by planets.  Halley’s once had an orbital period of many tens of thousands of years, falling from the Kuiper Belt – or more likely the Oort Cloud – but after repeated close encounters with planets, it has been captured and now strays only about as far away from the sun as the 8th planet Neptune at aphelion – it’s farthest distance from the sun. 

[2A] My son Aaron and I walked the battlefield in April, 2010. It is actually quite far inland from Hastings. There is a lovely town there now, with a beautiful Abbey. The town is called, appropriately enough: “Battle”

[2B] My wife and I were fortunate enough to have time to walk along and see the entire tapestry during our Normandy tour, in May, 2018.

[3] Mark Twain was born in 1835, with Halley’s Comet visible in the night sky.  As he aged, he grew weary and bitter – he had lost his fortune, three of his four children perished before him, and then his wife went. In such a dark cloud he predicted his own demise in 1910, concurrent with Halley’s reappearance.  He was correct.

[4] US Live Birth Statistics

[5] Deaths from Halley’s.  There were quite a few deaths associated with Halley’s, almost all of them due to the hysteria.  I read a report of a 16-year old Canadian girl falling to her death from the roof of a building where an “end of the world” party was being held.

[6] Author’s note: My disappointment with Halley’s 1986 appearance was greatly relieved by Hale-Bopp in March and April, of 1997.  On a spring break trip to the Arizona desert, with perfect viewing, Hale-Bopp was magnificent.  And its brightest night was almost exactly the same as a lunar eclipse and – right next to the moon – Mars in perfect and brilliant opposition

Wells, Welles, Wells: Patterns

Wells, Welles, Wells: what have we here?

Dawn Wells won the title of Miss Nevada in 1959.  She went on to star in TV, live theater and movies, most memorably as Mary Ann in the Gilligan’s Island TV series.  Still a beauty at 81, she and Tina Louise (Ginger) are the last surviving actors in that ‘60s TV show – which continues to live on in re-runs.  Wells was born in October 1938.

Also, in 1938 – just a few days after Miss Wells’ birth, on the Sunday night right before Halloween – a series of “news” flashes and reports were broadcast nationwide over the Columbia Broadcasting System.  The news went out as part of a regular show: Mercury Theatre. But unless listeners were tuned in at the very beginning, they might well have not realized that the “news” was a spoof — part of an entertainment show. [2]

Orson Wells, on CBS’ Mercury Theater

The news shocked and, briefly, terrified more than a few people – and a bit of panic broke out. (The panic was not nearly as widespread as legend has it[3]).  Even some who understood that the “news reports” were fake did not understand it was actually a radio show dramatization of H.G. Wells’ famous novel, “War of the Worlds.”  

The creator and producer of the 1938 radio show? Orson Welles. (He also played several voice-roles in the dramatization.)

So, Welles produced a show based on a novel by Wells?  Put on the air the same week as Wells’ birth?

Wells, Welles, Wells. These are simply coincidences.  A sequence of events and names that present a curious pattern of no significance.

But as humans, we cannot help but notice such coincidences.  Coincidences look a lot like patterns.  And humans have evolved to be probably the best pattern recognizers in the world – outside, perhaps, of advanced Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning Algorithms. (Such as: whatever on the internet seems to know what I might be shopping for?)  As humans, we’ve used pattern recognition to help us survive and thrive, evidence of Darwin’s theory. We hunt prey, avoid predators, plant, harvest, and socialize – including finding mates – according to evolved inherited skills of pattern recognition. 

One of the most important is patterns for weather forecasting. We recognize “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning.  Red sky at night sailor’s delight”.  It was already ancient when Jesus said “When it is evening, you say ‘it will be fair weather for the sky is red.’  And in the morning: ‘it will be foul weather today, for the sky is red.’  O hypocrites. You can discern the face of the sky, but not the signs of the times!” [Matthew, 16:2-3].


Long ago humans recognized patterns of movement in the night skies.  For example, every 780 days the red-orange planet Mars appears very bright in the sky, and almost directly overhead at midnight.  (This phenomenon, called “opposition”, would likely have been tracked by counting lunar months, and predictably occurred every 26 lunar cycles, plus 19 days).  Such celestial movements and tracking have meager connections to our lives, try as astrologists might to make them.  On the other hand, the single biggest influence on ocean tides is the moon.  Plus, constellations and the north star have been trusty navigational tools that pre-date history. So, our planet and our fates are not fully disconnected from all celestial patterns.


In 1894 Mars and Earth met in their regularly scheduled dance of syzygy. Astronomers were ready and turned their telescopes toward the planet named for the god of war.  Their observations, sketches and conjectures helped inspire a novel: “War of the Worlds”, by H.G. Wells. 

Percival Lowell saw the great Canali on Mars and fancied that they were massive water projects, undertaken to manage water by a civilization on a nearly barren planet that was drying up.  H.G. Wells’ imagination: Would they be interested in coming to water-rich earth? 

Further exciting scientific speculation: great flashes of light were seen on Mars during that alignment.  From the respected astronomer Perrotin in (Nice, France) to the Lick Observatory in the hills outside San Jose, California, Mars-gazers confirmed to each other that the bright Martian lights were real.  H.G. Well’s imagination: Might these flares of light be the firing of a giant gun, to send a spacecraft to earth at this opportune planetary alignment?

Like most science fiction writers, Wells was pretty well attuned to scientific developments.  And world affairs.  Thus armed scientifically and culturally, and with a great imagination, Wells wrote “War of the Worlds.”  Initially published as a series in 1897, the work was published as a novel in a single volume in 1898. 

I’m not sure why the title has the word “Worlds”.  In the Wells novel, per my recollection and re-perusing of the fairly short book [1], the only locale inflicted with invasion and destruction of the Martian “heat ray” was southeast England, in and around the London area. [4]

In Welles’ 1938 radio show, the Martian invaders’ destruction was mostly limited to New Jersey and around New York City, although he does make brief passing mention – almost like an afterthought – of Buffalo, Chicago and St Louis. [2]  

I’ve seen the 1953 movie a few times, mostly as a kid, and the “invasion” was limited to California.  Writers can be so parochial.  If it were really “War of the Worlds”, the whole human race would have been affected, and united in an effort to fight (or at least survive) the invaders. [5]

Alas, uniting our race would have done no good in any of the versions of the story.  The Martians were virtually indestructible. The annihilation from their heat ray was total. Their only weakness was that they lacked an immune system adapted for earth.  At the end they all perished due to exposure to simple common germs.

Martian Death Ray — War of the Worlds movie, 1953

Virology was not even in its infancy when Wells wrote his novel; the very existence of anything like a virus was postulated (and indirectly proven) only a couple years before that Mars-Earth alignment.  Scientists and novelists knew, of course, about bacteria.  But those are usually many, many times larger than most viruses, and had been observed under microscopes.  Humans would not truly “see” a virus until 1931, with the development of the electron microscope.

If Wells had known about viruses when he wrote his novel, he might well have included them in earth’s “victory” over the Martians.  If he wrote the novel today, he might have included a “novel virus” (ha, pun intended) as the “hero.”

Returning to patterns (like novel & novel), and the current novel virus (AKA SARS-CoV-2 and 2019-nCoV – the “n” indicating “novel”), we can understand a bit how the US under-reacted, at first, to this threat. 

The virus that causes COVID-19 is a “new” virus (that’s what novel means) but is closely related to the corona viruses that caused SARS in 2002-3 and MERS in 2015.  From a US-perspective, these were mostly well contained to Asia and the Middle East, although a nasty outbreak of SARS occurred near Toronto. 

More novel viruses will come.  They mutate easily and quickly. Some will be worse than SARS-CoV-2 or even the H1N1 variant that caused the pandemic of 1918-19 … more fatal and more transmittable.  Concurrent with another existential catastrophe, they might even threaten the species.  Not sure when … next year … next decade or in a few generations. But they will come.

In my imagined minor and more modern re-write of Wells’ story, it is a virus that saved the Homo Sapiens species.  In future, perhaps the lessons-learned from this 2020 virus pandemic will save us too.

Mary Ann and Ginger, again

Final thought: By the way, from way back in the ‘60s until today, I always preferred Mary Ann over Ginger. No contest. Is it because she was a brunette, or because Mary Ann was … well she was Mary Ann?  Or because she was Dawn Wells?

Be well, stay healthy, be nice.


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

[1] Wells’ novel, War of the World, is in the public domain and can be read many places, including  here:

[2]You can listen to the 1938 Radio show here:
or here:

[3] There was not widespread panic caused by Welles’ production of WoW, as legend has it. 

[4] Backstory spoiler: Wells was disheartened by the methods and human impacts of British worldwide colonization and empire building.  So, in his novel, the roles are flipped. The Brits are set upon and invaded by strange and powerful foreigners who have come to take their resources, without regard for human life, or for destruction of a civilization.

[5] Screenplay Script, War of the Worlds, 1953 movie:

The Coronademic and Words

Most of us are fortunate to dwell in some land that is run by governments described with three words: Liberal Democratic Republic.  Let’s ignore the first and third words for today and focus on the second – Democratic – since it will help us address the hottest topic in the world these days, the Corona Virus, and start us on the path to decode the difference between the two similar and frequently heard words: Epidemic and Pandemic. [1]


As the English language evolves ever more rapidly many words have been discarded on the wayside. They languish there – grass and debris covering them, yet not quite dead – calling out from time to time to passersby. “Use me! Use me! I’m perfect for what you want to say.” Most of us usually ignore them.  Our minds and vocabularies have moved on. Or we’re rightfully afraid that no one will understand us; or they’ll think we are pretentious. These lonely plaintive words get scant attention.  They lived vibrant lives once. Occasionally we stumble across a few in an old text, or perhaps in a more contemporary passage tapped out by a witty writer; one equipped with either an English Degree, or a thesaurus. Or both. Or me.

Generic Corona Virus: This is a CDC image in the Public Domain

Other words remain but get morphed so mischievously that they now mean something quite different.  For example, Jealous and Envious – and their cousins: Jealousy & Envy. Until recently, these used to mean pretty much the exact opposite of each other. Jealousy meant to aggressively guard what you have. And envy meant to covet what somewhat else has.  [e.g.: The jealous girlfriend imagined the envy of her friends every single waking moment. And why is it always the jealous girlfriend, not the jealous boyfriend?].

Anyhow, now it seems acceptable that Jealous should always mean what Envious used to mean.  And Envy seems to have all but vanished from modern lexicon, left on the side of that road of language evolution. [Random person: “I’m so jealous of your trip to the Bahamas.” —
Envious, in a faint Whoville voice: “Use me! use me! I’m perfect for you!”]

Back to square one for today: Democracy.  The -cracy ending simply means a form of government, or a ruling structure.  Just think of theocracy, bureaucracy, and aristocracy and you pretty much get the idea.[2] The first part tells you who has the power.  In the painful-to-watch, but occasionally funny, movie “Idiocracy” the idiots ran the world.

In Democracy, the people have the power.  Demos is Greek for “the people.” This also gives us a key to the words of the day: Epidemic and Pandemic.  -Demic: Something that is of the people, or affects the people. 

There are some other unrelated words that end in -demic, and this moment is propitious for a note of caution: the -ic ending can confuse us, because it means “having to do with.” For example, “academic” is only faintly related to ‘demos’, or the people.  Here the -ic indicates it has to do with “academy’; which also comes directly from Greek. Academy: It was a public garden, as in a place where Plato would conduct his classes (which does indeed have to do with the people).  But the word “academic” arrived late in English’s evolution, around the 16th century, from “academy.” That was long after academy had anything to do with public gardens, and everything to do with education – I guess thanks to Plato, and other Greek academics.

Back to “epidemic” and “pandemic”, which sound so much alike, and whose meanings are so similar, that they are often used interchangeably.  That’s Okay, I suppose, as the rules in English fade away and sometimes appear in new places.  But in these times of COVID-19 – or Wuhan Virus, or SARS-Cov-2, or 2019-nCoV, or whatever you want to call it (maybe “the big panic”, or the great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020) – it might be a bit useful to know the difference between “epidemic” and “pandemic.”

For “epidemic” go to the prefix – “epi-“ – and think “epicenter.”  Epi- means having to do with a specific, singular location.  Think about when a significant earthquake occurs; among the first two details reported are the magnitude and the epicenter.  Not just “how strong?”, but also what specific location on the earth’s surface is directly above the earthquake’s focus? That’s Epi-.

So, “epidemic” is something that has to do with “the people” and is fairly local.  Limited to a geographic location.  When the COVID-19 virus first appeared, it was clearly an epidemic.  Limited to Wuhan province.

Outbreaks don’t have to be viral or microbial to be epidemic. There have been, sadly, epidemics of suicide in some school districts, and epidemics of avocado accidents at some emergency rooms.  “Epidemic” doesn’t even have to be medical in nature – although usually people use it that way.  At my place of employment for some 34 years the misuse of the word “adverse” was epidemic among management.  Yes, I cringed, but that was neither the time nor place to correct my superiors.  The main thing is: epidemic is some phenomenon related to people that you can draw a circle around and say “it’s limited to this region.”

By now you can guess that “Pandemic” is an epidemic that is no longer limited to a region.  The prefix “pan-“ simply meaning all, or everything.  Long ago, a few hundred million years ago, all of earth’s landmass was co-joined and contiguous.  You’ve heard scientists and geologists refer to that single continent as “Pangea” (suffix as a slightly modified “Gaia”, meaning earth). 

Or for Pandemic, thick Pan, as in Pandora’s Box: all the sickness and troubles that could plague the world are set free. Such pandemonium was no longer quarantined within her box, spreading to all of mankind. Truly one of the most evil gifts ever given, even if it was mythology.

And of course, you can guess that the COVID-19 outbreak is now well beyond epidemic, having graduated to pandemic status. I think the CDC defines pandemic as three or more separate geographic locations. Continents surely qualify as separate locations. So, pandemic?  We’re there.

Another appropriate word of that day – one with identical letters at the beginning, but a totally different origin – is PANIC. Empty shelves of toilet paper; stock prices losing 10%, then20% of value in a few days.  Is this panic?  Probably.  We recognize the -IC ending as “having to do with.”  But in PANIC, what is Pan?  Students of Greek mythology and chaos (or readers of Tom Robbins) will love this.  Pan is the god of the wild: the woods, the hills, the un-tamed places. When Pan was disturbed his shouts would terrify those who heard it. Any weird or unexplainable sound heard outside the cities and villages was attribute to the anger of Pan – a very unpredictable fellow. This terror would spread orally among the people, with little apparent reason or validation.  Panic: widespread terror with little reasoning.  No toilet paper. 

For reference: The Spanish Flu of 1918-19 killed 25-50 million people in 25 months. Total deaths are pretty well gauged, but infection rates are a SWAG at best. It’s estimated that one-third of the world’s population might have been infected.[3] Those numbers, or anything close to them, are astounding! That was definitely a pandemic.  Especially since world-travel was so limited in those days (outside of travel related to World War 1), it’s hard to imagine how it became so widespread.  And deadly.  Advanced evolution? Could anything like this happen again?

With any luck, the current pandemic will serve as a warning for those to come.

At this point, I’ll call the Coronavirus a Panic-Pandemic. English has few rules, and the rules permit me to make up a word: Panic-Pandemic. Unplug the TV, turn off the radio, and behave like adults.

Wishing peace and good health (and clean hands and no nose picking) to all of 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


[1] I wrote on Democracy vs Republic some time ago, here:
I do plan to publish a study on “Liberal” soon.

[2] Theo = God, or of God.  Theocracy is run by those who are believed to be divinely guided by god.
Bureau and Bureaucaracy: think of an office.  A really big slothful office with lots of internal rules and procedures.  Full of faceless unelected people fulfilling government roles.  Like the Department of Motor Vehicles.  In a bureaucracy, these people are in control.  Hmmmmm…
Aristocracy: Aristocrats are the wealthy, privileged and upper crust of society. 

[3] Fatality rate of 1.4% from these numbers.  That is pretty astoundingly high. (World Pop in 1920 about 1.75 billion, even after the killing fields of WW1). 

[finally] – a pretty cool website for etymology (or “how words got their meanings”) is

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

Of Disruptors and Keyholes

Recently the brand new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, suspended parliament at a moment in history that portends a possible keyhole event: a “Hard Brexit” is about to occur.  Technically the term is prorogue.  That is to say: “Johnson has prorogued Parliament.”  He simply sent them home for a few weeks.  Although not all that uncommon for a new government – it comes shortly after his placement as PM – the timing has made many Brits uncomfortable, to say the least.

One supposes that my writing has been sort of prorogued of late – not much publishing anyhow.  I don’t think many readers are uncomfortable about that. 

You can look back through a keyhole, but you can’t go back through one

I have a pair of terms for events that are so transformational that things can never return to the way they were; not even ways of thinking can return: Wormholes and Keyholes. Either way, when we pass through them – either as individuals, families, communities, cultures, countries or the entire world – a new reality emerges.

A possible alternative to keyhole and wormhole is “Rubicon”; or the full phrase “crossing the Rubicon.”  Way back in 49 BCE, a Roman general named Gaius (of the patrician clan “Julia”) took his powerful and famously successful army across the River Rubicon. When he did, he also created a keyhole through which he, his army, and Roman culture passed and could never return.

Rubicon: Reality was irreversibly changed.  A civil war ensued.  At its conclusion, there was no more Roman Republic, although it had endured nearly 500 years with a slight flavor of democracy.  It was replaced with the Roman Empire, to be led by a sovereign head of state named “Caesar” (the first one being the aforementioned general).

“Crossing the Rubicon” is a term that means total commitment, and no turning back. You’ve gone through the keyhole. Although, for Julius Caesar, there was an strong element of personal choice in the matter. That’s not always the case.


Using the theme of keyholes, I will touch upon many a quaint and curious story of forgotten lore [1], including brief biographical glances at the lives of three individuals.

These are but three people among countless.  Passing through the same keyhole in history.  An entire nation of millions was transformed by that keyhole, through which nothing – no person and no part of American culture – could return to their previous state … forever transformed. These three people made history because of their transformations – and society’s – brought about by a major disruption to American national culture.

  1. Hattie had a sweet personality and an even sweeter voice.  And she had a quality of magnetic personality mixed with pizzazz, or panache.  Today the name “Hattie” is rather obscure – in fact, it almost completely disappeared in the 1950s and ‘60s.  It was not an uncommon name at all across American cultures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Hattie Caraway (ARK) was the 1st woman elected to the US Senate, in 1932. Our Hattie was born in Wichita, Kansas, to parents who had been slaves.  Although the name Hattie would later virtually disappear, her own name would not.
  2. Born and raised of pure German descent, Henry hailed from the German neighborhoods on the southside of the great beer-making city of St Louis.  But he usually went by the nickname “Heinie” (or “Heine”), since it was German and rhymed with his last name: Meine.  Of course, it was Americanized to “High-nee My-nee”; you can’t get a much more memorable name.  Nonetheless, he’s virtually forgotten, although Heinie came through the keyhole and left his name in the record books. 
  3. A first generation Italian-American, he preferred to go by “Al” rather than his given “Alphonse.”  Born and raised in Brooklyn, he’d make his name in Chicago. Known for many things – including feeding over 100,000 Chicagoans each day during the Great Depression’s early years –  Al was not known for being very faithful to his wife. That’s too bad, because she was extraordinarily faithful and loyal to him.  At least he was loyal: he treated her well and never spoke poorly of her. That, and his Depression-era food lines, are among the few good qualities we can credit to him.

On a geological scale, the biggest disruptor to life on earth was almost certainly when the 12-mile diameter Chicxulub Asteroid slammed into the earth at 40,000 kilometers per hour, near the Yucatan peninsula (modern day Mexico) about 66 million years ago.  Scientific estimates of the energy released approached one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) Hiroshima atomic bombs.

The asteroid event is probably the biggest reason, among many, that between 99.9% and 99.999% of the all species that have ever lived are now extinct.

Dinosaurs had ruled the earth; they had for some 250 million years through advanced evolution which tracked the earth’s warming climate. (Consider how far humans have evolved from advanced apes in less than 1/1000th the time).  For most of those many millions of ”dinosaur” years, the earth was generally a very warm, even rather tropical, CO2 rich environment.  Literally, in a very few years (perhaps a handful) all had changed.  The world, relatively speaking, became a frigidly cold “ice box.” 

The asteroid, as agent of disruption, had altered reality so suddenly, and so irreversibly, that the world and its reality was forever immediately changed.  We should be thankful.  That stupendously, mind-boggling cataclysmic event permitted the survival and prominence of tiny mammals – and eventually to us: we humans and our many friends like horses, dogs, cats – over dozens of millions of years.

I should hesitate to even suggest candidates for “disruptors” in the human era – especially in our post-industrial age era.  But, eventually we must get to our three protagonists:  Hattie, Heinie and Alphonse.  Therefore, I submit some examples, starting with —ta da – the internet.  It has spawned on-line commerce and “the sharing  economy.”

The “sharing economy” starts with the simple idea that we, as humans in a free-market economy, have assets that are lying dormant. In economists’ terms: non-performing assets.  Our houses. Our cars. Our time.  The sharing economy idea suggests we can put those assets to work. Over just a very few years, this simple idea has disrupted how we consume, travel, commute and vacation.  Many of us now think of Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, CrowdFunding as powerful and preferred alternatives to “traditional business models.”  The value of Taxi Cab medallions in New York City has fallen by some 85% since their peak value of $1.3 Million in 2013. Entire industries must now behave differently – or die.

The sharing economy has been co-joined on the internet with our lust for connectivity and ease. Amazon has put booksellers out of business. Thanks to the internet, we often now shop in the comfort of our homes, in front of our computers – often clad only in our underwear (if we are dressed at all – sorry for the visual).

Merchandise is delivered to our front door, sometimes within hours – while many old and drab strip malls slowly, silently go vacant and “turn-over”, their dull slots replaced by the equivalent of pre-human mammals that are mostly just cheap “creature comforts”: nail salons, micro-liquor stores, tattoo and/or piercing parlors, micro-breweries, tobacco-friendly stores, massage parlors, pot shops (where legal), second-hand and antique shops, etc. And that’s if the vacant spaces are filled at all.  There is no telling which will survive to coming generations, if at all: evolution, disruption and their effects have their ways of being unpredictable… that is their very nature. [2]


In American culture, looking back over the past 125 years, or so, I cannot think of any more forceful disruptor – outside of the Internet, the Depression, and the Great Wars – than Prohibition.

Prohibition. The 18th Amendment. The Volstead Act. The culmination of decades of effort by the Temperance Movement, the Women’s Movement, and Cultural Conservatives. 

I’m sort of a fan of Prohibition. Why? It was, in effect, a vast significant social scientific experiment.   It made being anti-government-control very cool.  It made counter-culture cool. It made “shoving it in The-Man’s-face” cool.   For many cultural icons and movements – from the obvious, like craft beer brewing and craft alcohol distilling, to the Beatniks, to Elvis, to The Stones, to Jay-Zee, to tattoos, to piercings, to sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll, sexual licentiousness, the prevalence of Sugar Daddies, and even NASCAR, (America’s most popular spectator sport) – Prohibition helped paved the way.

To me, on balance, those are good things. But every die comes with many sides: it also gave more profit and respectability to the mafia and the underworld. 

Our protagonists: In order of how famous they are today:

#1. In 1913, Young Al dropped out of school at 14, after slugging his teacher.  He then worked odd jobs while falling in with various young gangs of hoodlums.  Eventually, he got connected to the local mobs, and began working his way up the mob ladder – getting a nasty razor gash across a cheek in one episode – before finally getting in so much trouble that he was sent off to a different “branch of the business” in Chicago, along with his wife (the one he was not quite “totally committed” to) and young son.

Propitious timing: Prohibition was about to start.  Chicago is where Alphonse – Al Capone and Scarface to us – made it big. Really big.  Prohibition provided almost unlimited opportunity to make money … either through booze itself or through protection schemes.  Capone inherited the top position of a major Chicago crime syndicate, at age 26, when boss Johnny Torino retired and went home to Sicily.

After various deals and “take outs”, like the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, Capone’s gang ruled supreme in Chicago and Cook County. 

Al Capone, king of Chicago ~1926-1931

“Scarface” (a nickname he hated) escaped criminal conviction many times.  But Prohibition Agent Elliot Ness and the government finally got him on income tax evasion; his lifestyle and braggadocio were just too conspicuous during a time such as the Great Depression.  Yes, he daily fed many thousands in the early years of the Depression.  But everything ended on October 17, 1931, when Capone was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.

While in prison – eventually at Alcatraz – Capone’s old cronies in the Chicago mob did quite well.  But he didn’t fair so well himself, even though he was released for “good behavior” after serving only about 7 years of his term.  It turns out his good behavior was probably because he developed advanced dementia caused by syphilis. Evidently it had been attacking his nervous system since his teens – considering that his only son, Alphonse Jr, was born with congenital syphilis.

Capone’s wife, Mae, remained loyal, and took great care of him until his demise, in 1947, only one week after his 48th birthday.  He was probably not aware of that or much else, as he was given to talking to inanimate things and people not present.  Their son Al Jr, an only child – who lived quite deaf since infancy on account of surgery for syphilis-caused infections – changed his name to “Albert Brown” in 1966, to distance himself from the infamy of his father. “Brown” was an alias his father had sometimes used.


2) In 1895 came Hattie McDaniel into this world. She was the 13th and last child born to Susan and Henry McDaniel, both former slaves. Her father was a freed slave, who fought in the Civil War and suffered the rest of his life from war injuries.

Originally from Wichita, Kansas, the family moved to Ft Collins, then Denver, Colorado seeking opportunity – as Henry had a difficult time with manual labor on account of his war injury – about the time young Hattie was 5 or 6.  There, in school and in church, her phenomenal musical skills were discovered. 

By age 14 she had a professional singing and dancing career … and she also dropped out of Denver East High School.  As feature vocalists for various bands, mostly Blues, Hattie had made something of a name for herself.

In 1930 she found herself in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as part of a traveling theatre troupe on the Show Boat production. Then, disaster:  The Depression struck. The show and tour were abruptly canceled, leaving Hattie and the rest of the cast abandoned … and nowhere near home.

Hattie found employment as a restroom attendant at Club Madrid, a not-so-secret speakeasy run by Chicago gangster Sam Pick, just outside Milwaukee’s city limits, and just across the county line. Why there? Because that jurisdiction was largely rural and had virtually no police force. Prohibition was still in effect. 

Club Madrid was famous for great entertainment, as well as a great stash of alcohols.  It was a place to visit and be seen for politicians, high rolling businessmen and other wealthy gangsters.

Word had gotten around Club Madrid that Hattie was extremely talented; but Madrid was a “whites only” establishment. They kept her in the restroom.  Until one night when an act didn’t show.  Desperate to keep the lubricated and influential guests engaged, Sam brought out Hattie.  She brought the house down … and did so for over a year.  Her income and notoriety soared.

Whereupon her skills as a performer were noticed by Hollywood.  She’d go on to a rich film career of over a decade, most notably as Mammy in Gone With the Wind.  In perfect Hattie pose and poise, she was virtually “playing herself” as the only truly likeable and reasonable person in the entire saga. 

Hattie McDaniel was honored by the US Post Office with her image on a stamp, 2005

For that performance she was justly awarded an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  Hattie McDaniel was the first Black to receive an academy nomination, and the first to win an Oscar.  Bravo Hattie.

She remained popular, and used that popularity to serve in World War II, entertaining troops and performing at War Bond rallies. 

At the end of the war the role of blacks in America was about to dramatically change. Truman integrated the military with a stroke of his pen.  There was a loud popular cry to end the stereotyping of black characters as obsequious, simple-minded submissives in movies. The cry was heard.  Unfortunately for Hattie, she had already been well typecast into such roles, and her Hollywood career faded.

Not so for radio, and Hattie signed on to play a maid on the nationally popular regular radio show Beulah.  Another first: she was the first black to have a weekly appearance on any media. [3] Her years were running out, however.  Too young and too late she was discovered to have breast cancer, and she succumbed in 1952, aged only 57.


And #3. Henry “Heinie” Meine is surely the least famous of the three who actually achieved a significant level of fame.  Born in Saint Louis in 1896, he was a sports enthusiast who took to baseball well.  He played a lot of local sand-lot and then semi-pro ball as a young man, mostly as a spit balling pitcher.

By 1920 word got around that he was pretty good – especially with his favorite pitch: the spitter. He’d been noticed by legendary scout Charles “Charley” Francis Barrett, and he was signed to a minor league contract with the St Louis Browns of the American League.  In 1922 he was called up briefly to his hometown Browns and pitched in one single game — a mop up effort in a late season blow out.  Unfortunately for Heinie, the spitball had been outlawed as an unfair pitch; and was now being enforced. His major league career seemed over.

He bounced around the minor leagues for a while, gaining a reputation for a “rubber arm”; he was kind of an energizer bunny, as he regularly pitched 250-300 innings a season during those years in the minors. Finally, Meine just gave up, retiring at the end of the 1926 season after learning he’d be demoted to the Single-A level for the 1927 season.  It seemed he had no path to the majors, especially without his spitball. There were other options: he intended to make money in his beer-happy hometown of Saint Louis running a Speakeasy. Prohibition provided opportunity.

Like Pick’s Club Madrid,  Meine’s “soda bar” was located just outside the city limits, in a German neighborhood that was known for some reason as Luxemburg. His drinking establishment was so popular, he got the nickname “Duke of Luxemburg.”

When other major league teams came to Saint Louis (the city had two teams then, so it was often), Luxemburg was a frequent stop for refreshment.  After a few drinks the players often teased him about being a good minor league pitcher, but not being good enough to make it in the majors.

This was motivation. He’d show them! After a layoff of nearly two years, Meine returned to baseball. He was determined to make it as a “control pitcher”, one who could make the ball move any direction, who could constantly change speeds and hit any spot on the edge of the strike zone.  He became an early effective “junk” pitcher. He didn’t strike out many batters; they just hit soft grounders and popups. After a couple minor league seasons, he was eventually acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

As a 33 year-old rookie, Heinie Meine made his major league debut in 1929.  Unheard of even in those days.  After two moderately successful and contentious seasons with the Pirates (including missing much time with a bad case of tonsillitis) he set the baseball world on fire in 1931, leading the league in wins and innings pitched. A phenomenal record for a Pirate team that managed only 75 wins against 79 losses that year.

Henry “Heinie” Meine

Meine was a holdout for the 1932 season – one of the first to successfully do so – demanding more money.  Starting the season over a month late, after a contract renegotiation, he still managed 12 wins and nearly 200 innings.

But Meine was now approaching 37 years old.  His rubber arm was wearing out.  Still, he managed 15 wins and 207 innings in 1933, impressive totals for any age in any era. All the league’s pitchers with more wins than Meine were aged 31, or younger.

The next year, 1934, would be his last, as Meine was getting past his prime.  He still put up a winning record, at 7-6, but he knew the end of his career had come. If he’d stayed for just a small part of the next season, he’d have seen a national superstar who was well past his prime have one last unlikely and very dramatically successful day at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. A very wobbly 40-year old Babe Ruth hit three home runs in one game in late May … the last three he’d ever hit. Then promptly retired a few days later.

But by then Meine had already retired to run his saloon business full time.  With Prohibition over and his reputation for Gemütlichkeit, Meine’s career as saloon keeper was safe for years to come. And with some thanks to Prohibition and the customers who teased him, he had made his place in baseball’s record books.


Well dear readers, that was quite a ramble. Perhaps even a Keyhole for you.

I was long overdue for an essay and had a lot of thoughts in my head to somehow string together.

I hope you feel fulfilled and inspired, or at least changed for the better. 


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] With apologies to Edgar Allen Poe fans.  Lifted almost verbatim from verse #1 of “The Raven.”

[2] Strip Malls have a rather interesting history in the US (and Canada).  Briefly: The preponderance of Strip Malls exploded in the 1950s in North America, along with the expanding post-war economy and our love affair with cars.  Ubiquitous on the edges of urban areas, and within the new suburban areas, they were a “strip” of available business spaces in a single building with parking in front.  Sometimes “L-shaped”, they lined major and semi-major roads, near residential areas, but seldom near central business districts.

They provided convenient, if not “drab”, space for respectable businesses like pharmacies, butcher shops, barbers, and sellers of fresh produce and groceries … where everyone seemed to know everyone else and friendly chit-chat was interwoven with business. In an America that no longer exists.

But cars got bigger and ever more plentiful.  Available parking for strip malls was too small. So then came the “Big Box” strip malls, with huge parking lots anchored by one or two major retailers, like Walmart, or Home Depot.  The small strip malls lost business, tenants and most public interest.  Also came the super malls … and strip malls were just so-o-o 1950s and ‘60s.

If not already scraped away, strip malls still exist, but ever more with spaces that are vacant, or populated by the likes of businesses I listed above. Always drab.  Always an eyesore.

[3] At about this time, only about 10% of US homes had televisions. Nearly 100% had radios, and people built their daily schedules around radio shows. By 1960, this had reversed: nearly 90% had TVs, and Americans lives revolved around their favorite shows, on only 3 networks.

Regarding Strip Mall history: One of the better sources I found was here.

Other stuff:

Heine Meine Biography:

Popularity of name “Hattie”:

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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Dark and Light

The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”

— President George Washington

There are many places that are dangerous to look, like your spam folder. Who knew so many people would be so interested in me, my pleasure and my anatomy? Dangerous also are boxes of old handwritten letters you’ve received and stashed (relics of some distant past that this generation will seldom know the joy of) because you are someone who doesn’t throw such things away, like some sentimental fool or a hoarder.

It just occurred to me that perhaps hoarding is – in effect – some manifestation of sentimental foolery. That topic is a dangerous place I shall not look soon.

Occasionally we are sufficiently motivated to look in dark places anyhow; perhaps from idle curiosity (Danger! Danger Will Robinson), or perhaps we feel the need to know something … and carefully looking in a dangerous place offers a chance we could learn something useful.

9/11 Commission Report

I have a copy of the 9/11 Commission Report, which I’ve read thoroughly once; I’ve scanned over my notes and highlighter marks at other times. It is an exhaustive account of what happened both inside and outside our government. What happened outside could happen largely because of the missteps inside our government.

If you trust our government, it is indeed a dangerous place to look. Fear of government is as justified as respect for it, and probably much more. And that’s regardless of who is president, who runs the Houses of Congress, and who dons the robes and hears arguments at #1 First Street Northeast, in Washington, DC.

Learning from dark places: The 9/11 Report reminded me to beware of the consequences of what appear to be actions taken with good intentions. For example, it was government direction that put up a “firewall” between the CIA and FBI regarding sharing information gathered overseas pertaining to individuals currently on US soil – including those ID’d as likely terrorists. The 9/11 Commission that authored the report, airbrushed away that one of its own members, as Assistant Secretary of State, had authored the latest version of that directive. The CIA had identified many individuals involved in the 9/11 attacks, and their global movements, including into the US, but were not permitted to communicate the information to the FBI.

As a slight aside, I once started research into the 2008 economic meltdown for a multi-part essay. I got so discouraged – looking into dark, dangerous places – that I abandoned the project for the sake of mental health.

At some point, I suppose, that at least perusing the Mueller Report will have to be done. You know, curiosity and a desire to understand just what’s in there – not what someone (with a bias) tells me.

Casting an eye further into the past, we come to United States foreign policy. Many rightly consider that to be a dark and dangerous place as well. But we’re curious, and often want to know how we got to where we’re at.

The Viet Nam War for example. Few issues have so violently and viciously divided American public opinion since the Civil War. Looking back, it’s easy to find more reasons to not trust our government: from the Gulf of Tonkin “incident”, to supporting a dictator, then organizing his overthrow (and hence abetting in his assassination), and further support of leaders chosen in completely rigged elections.

But we shall have to go even further back, to 1946 to get slightly better perspective of that bit of foreign adventure.

President Harry S Truman was the president: the last US president to not have a college degree, whose middle name was literally “S”, and who, as Vice-President, assumed the duties of President when FDR died in April 1945. Immediately post-WW2 Truman was concerned and alarmed at the world’s prospects for freedom and economic growth. The Soviets clearly intended to violate any promise regarding their limited “sphere of influence” and to export Marxist-Leninist Communism wherever possible.

That’s when Truman invited Winston Churchill to come give a talk at tiny Fulton College, in central Missouri. And that’s when the world came to know of the “Iron Curtain” that the Soviets had draped across Europe.

Moving forward to 1949. The Soviet Union was exporting Marxist Communism around the world. Thanks in part to their espionage on both the German and the US/UK Manhattan nuclear bomb projects, they were successfully building and exploding atomic weapons. The Soviets blockaded West Berlin from all supplies – hoping to starve out freedom – for one year. Of course, they failed, thanks to the Berlin Airlift (Die Berliner Luftbrücke).

1949: China, recently a WW2 ally under Chiang Kai-sheck, had fallen to the Mao’s Reds, and they seemed intent to seize gentle and defenseless Tibet as well. They soon did.

The Cold War was real. Truman and most of the west believed that any losses in that war meant that many millions would lose their chance at individual freedom and economic prosperity.

In late June 1950, the North Korean Army stormed across the 38th Parallel in an unannounced and unprovoked war against their peaceful neighbors – South Korea – who were promisingly well on their way to a true liberal democracy (except for that nasty bit about suppressing communists).

Truman sent the order for MacArthur and US army divisions in Japan to support Korea. The UN stepped in to support, too (thanks largely to the Soviets boycotting the UN at the time). The Cold War had turned Hot, and – by early 1953 – South Korea’s independence was preserved. Thanks largely to (mostly) US troops stationed there, it remains that way. It is a remarkably successfully country, with the world’s 11th largest economy, one of the largest GDP per capita, trade around the globe and extensive individual rights.

The Korean War, and our continued military support for South Korea, can be viewed as a resounding success. Veterans of that war, like those of WW2, were and always have been respected and highly regarded.

When Truman issued the orders to support South Korea, he also issued another military executive order. The first US military “advisors” were sent to Viet Nam (then French Indochina) to help the French in their struggle against mostly communist guerillas, led by Ho Chi Minh, in restoring their pre-war colonial base there.

And thus, in this context, we can begin to understand The Truman Doctrine. Essentially to fight communism wherever and whenever it tried to expand.

By mid-1954 Viet Nam was split in half at the 17th parallel. The French, after Dien Bien Phu, had departed – and the US had not done any more to support them, despite serious consideration by then-president Eisenhower to do just that – including the use of atomic bombs. There was a communist North and a separate non-communist South with some potential (it was hoped and believed, anyway) to become a liberal democracy.

The next president, Kennedy, felt especially pressured to continue the Truman Doctrine. Partly because that was how he campaigned against Nixon, and because of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion (April, 1961) following the communist revolution in Cuba. This was quickly followed by Kennedy being berated and “savaged” (his own description) by Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev at the Vienna summit meeting, in June. Two months later came the sudden erection of the Berlin Wall, an attempt starve out freedom.

And then the October surprises. Previously, Krushchev had threatened the West with his claim of “we will bury you”, and he showed they could, too; in October 1961 the Soviets detonated of the largest nuclear bomb in history: the yield was an astounding 58 Megatons … over 4,000 Hiroshima bombs! We cannot forget the Missiles of October (1962) when the Soviets deployed nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba.

It was as if Krushchev intended to win the Cold War by virtue of his superior belligerence.

The Soviets and China were supporting the North Viet Nam communists. Kennedy had the comparatively “measured response” of expanding the number of “advisors” in Viet Nam to 16,000 by the time of his assassination. President Johnson eventually expanded the troop tally to well over 500,000; mostly after the 1964 “Tonkin incident.”

With hindsight the judgmental and self-righteous have regarded this engagement negatively. That may be fair, but that was a different time. With different fears, and with different circumstances than we live with today.

The Viet Nam War in many ways was not that different than the Korean War. Fight Communism. Support a fledgling “free” country that could be expected to be nurtured to liberal democracy. Win the Cold War. We Americans come to liberate and protect, not to conquer.

And yet it turned out so much different. Especially for the veterans. Sadly, they were generally disrespected for many years. In fact, they were suspect. They were damaged goods. We spat on them. We called them Baby Killers. Otherwise, we didn’t talk to them. Vets were not properly honored, even disrespected.

This was particularly true in Hollywood and entertainment, where for several years both the Viet Nam War and Viet Nam vets are almost always shown in a negative light. Contrarily, we never saw then, or see today, anything like that about veterans of the Korean War or WW2. ‘Nam Vets were often shown as addicts, alcoholics and/or the prime criminal suspect – or even the actual villain. They fought in Viet Nam, so they were naturally just mentally unstable and untrustworthy.

Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” is a deeply disturbing, fanciful take on what happens to people when they go to Viet Nam (if not a rather creative re-make of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Oliver Stone gave us “Platoon” and “Born on the 4th of July.”

None of these gave a positive or encouraging image of Viet Nam soldiers or vets. Also include: Outside In; Welcome Home Soldier Boys; There is a No 13; The Boys in Company C; and Rolling Thunder. In The Deer Hunter all of the movie’s vet characters ended up wounded and disturbed.

Message: The Viet Nam veteran is mentally deranged, unstable and not to be trusted. Even Coming Home has a mixed dark message about Nam vets.

Yes they could have been trying to lecture us about how bad war is. I get that. And the Viet Nam War especially so. Still …

Today, decades past the 1973 “Treaty” that supposedly ended the war, and the 1975 fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), it’s now generally acceptable – and to a large extent expected – to openly show gratitude to Viet Nam War vets. And they are now more willing to wear caps and jackets identifying them as Vets. This is fitting. Regardless of the war’s intents and outcomes, those men gave “the best years of their lives” in doing what they thought was right and fulfilling a duty: putting muscle behind their country’s attempts to stop communism’s infringement on individual rights around the globe.

Robin Williams, in Good Morning Viet Nam (Image contained per Fair Use)

Things started to change for the better in the ‘80s and I want to finish up by giving credit where it’s due.

  • 1987 – The movie “Good Morning Viet Nam.” Robin Williams portrayal of a DJ for AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and TV Service) was a touching and sensitive telling of life in Saigon … albeit before the major escalations.

  • 1980 – 88 – The TV series “Magnum PI.” Insanely cool and good looking

    Main Cast of Magnum, PI (Image contained per Fair Use)

    Tom Selleck as Tom Magnum, and his merry bunch of fellow Viet Nam vet friends, including “TC” (Roger Mosley) and Rick Wright (Larry Manetti) are in Hawai’i and have successfully moved on with their lives. Yes, the past is there, but that doesn’t stop them from solving crimes and enjoying life – such as somehow being able to drive a red Ferari 308 whenever you want and live in an Oahu mansion. They are never suspected of any crime or being mentally unstable.

Congrats to those who wrote, produced, directed and acted, including Robin Williams, in these productions. It was finally becoming somewhat respectable to be a Viet Nam vet again. And I don’t think Rambo had anything to do with that.

Now, I have to include some “real life” special people.

  • When President Clinton decided it was time to put an embassy in Viet Nam again, he needed someone special. He chose Doug “Pete” Peterson. Peterson had spent nearly seven years as a POW in Viet Nam. Talk about losing the best years of your life! His attitude was healthy: Although he could never forget the “bad old days” and his years in captivity, those dark memories should not stand in the way of the future. Despite still bearing the mental and physical scars from his torture there, he helped build a formal international relationship with Viet Nam. It’s now a partner in trade and security in the dynamic and dangerous western rim of the Pacific. They have also cooperated in returning bodies of many MIA.

  • Of course, there were many thousands of American POWs, but I shall only go on to include John McCain. His grandfather and father were both navy admirals, thus he was a prize catch for Viet Nam. He did not escape significant torture either during his 5-½ year stay in the “Hanoi Hilton.” Despite his enduring memories of that time McCain put them aside, and, together with fellow Senator and Viet Nam vet John Kerry, was one of the earliest strong proponents of normalizing relations with Viet Nam – including re-opening the Embassy, easing trade restrictions and the nomination of Peterson as ambassador.

Even in the dark places we can find some light.


Joe Girard © 2019

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Hate and Love: A Brief Essay on Race in America

Hate and Love: A Short Conversation on Race in America

The Clayton area of Denver is a historic neighborhood of vast cultural and architectural diversity, dating back to around 1880 – just about the time Colorado became a state. Unfortunately, Clayton currently also has one of the highest rates of crime of any of Denver’s 78 neighborhoods.

This past weekend a really awful crime was committed on personal property in Clayton; a family’s home was defaced with racist graffiti, shown here. As reported in the Denver Post, the family has decided to leave these most distasteful markings on display to show what is going on in their neighborhood. [1]

Hate graffiti, Denver. By Sam Tabachnik, Denver Post

Racism exists. It’s a fact that we’d often rather not be reminded of – especially in normally placid neighborhoods and social gatherings of white-collar light skin people – across the country.

Racism. It can be explained as ignorant; but that does not excuse it. It can be explained as something that is learned from family, or peers; but that does not excuse it. No explanation can excuse it.

Despite regular occurrence and reporting of such “real” hate crimes, I bring hope. A fair look at ourselves shows trends that among we Americans such dark, putrid idiocy is becoming a waning part of who we are as a country.

For evidence, I will herein only address the topic of interracial marriage, and our attitude toward it.

When, in 1967, the Supreme Court pronounced its unanimous 9-0 decision in Loving v Virginia – thus giving the Lovings and every other couple the sacred human right to marry whomever they love, regardless of race or where they live – only about 3% of marriages in the US were interracial. Today that number is over 17% – or more than one of every six. That is astounding, and it is good news.

Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving

More important, I believe, is the overall acceptance of interracial marriages. In 1958 approval of mixed black-white marriages stood at 4%. Today it is near 90%. Those ignorant bastards are a shrinking minority, and the trend is irreversible. I say: Good.

The internet has helped. So many seekers have gone in quest of extra-racial soulmates that sites have sprung up just for such searchers. Supply meets demand.

It’s not just apparent to me as I walk through airports, stores, museums, parks and zoos. I’ve noticed that TV ads, cereal boxes and store posters regularly show mixed-race families… With children.

Add to that the increasing frequency of inter-faith marriages. According to Pew Research, this has more than doubled from 1960 to 2014: from 18% to 39%. One easily suspects it is even higher now.

Taking both together (interfaith and interracial) the arithmetic says that well over one-half of marriages in the US are now very mixed by any standard, especially standards before 1960. This is a good thing, and a great positive point to keep in mind when confronted with the divisiveness so prevalent in our modern media and communications. The evidence suggests that most people can see through differences and get to agreement … even love.

On another tangent, I presume there are additional mixed couples who cross political boundaries. Well, good for them! In the current environment, it’s understandable that those numbers seem to be dwindling.

Back to interracial marriages and their beautiful mixed-race offspring. I will cite three of the most accomplished and good looking:

  • Barack Obama (½ black, ½ white);
  • Jennifer Lopez (Puerto Rican with mostly unknown mix of Spanish, Amerindian, Black); and
  • Tiger Woods (½ Asian, ¼ Black, 1/8 White, 1/8 Amerindian).
  • — [Let’s leave politics and life-style choices aside … but I’ll venture to mention that Woods did take a very blonde Swedish wife … who infamously did take a 9-iron to his car’s rear window – and to part of his cheek bone.]

I don’t expect that racism and the stupid, ignorant, hateful acts that come with it will completely disappear in my remaining lifespan. Or even my children’s. But the trend is real and irreversible. Thus, I do have hope that the simple, honest light of human love and dignity will continue to shine into the dark corners of hate whenever and wherever possible, and thereby extinguish that darkness before the 21st century ends.

Or, more simply: React to hating with Loving.


Joe Girard © 2019

Update note: the 17+% interracial marriage statistic includes all possibilities, not just black-white.  This is: all possible pairings of Amerindian, Asian, Black, Latino and European White.

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[1] Hate Crime / Spray Paint in Denver:

[2] About the Clayton Neighborhood, Denver:

[3] Another source on frequency of interracial marriages:

Eternal Life

Something has definitely changed.  Or maybe it’s just me.  Outside of a funeral or memorial service (of which I’ve attended far too many lately), when was the last time you heard about, read about or discussed the topic of Life After Death?

Wasn’t this an infatuation of humans about their temporary condition for – oh, I don’t know – forever?  Maybe it’s me and the change is that I haven’t been paying attention.  If this topic is much less of a curious passion of our attention than it used to be, then that is probably one of the few good things to come out of the recent decades of self-awareness and self-absorption: living the life we have now – and doing it right – rather than for the life we don’t know about.

Personally, I profess to harboring a sense of ambiguity – or perhaps a resigned agnosticism – on the subject.  I don’t know a thing about it (Greek: a = not/non; gnosis = to know) and yet accept that there is probably some form of post-death existence that defies human description.  Can God completely and eternally allow something – someone – He loves to be destroyed for evermore?

In a less spiritual sense, can we deny that the world is changed by the existence of each and every one of us?  And once changed, the world is irreversibly changed.  It can’t go back.  Each of us affects the others in our life, who in turn affect and change the experience of others in their lives.  Is that not a form of Eternal Life?  The memories of our ancestors is carried on in our descendants … if we take the time to pass along their stories.

A few such stories surpass those of all the rest.  The names and stories of some people become part of everyday life, become part of everyday thought and become part every person’s consciousness –- and thereby bring a form of not only life after death, but eternal life.

I bring you three short stories, each very different.

— – —

1. Is it Life after Death if  your name is spoken nearly daily by every English speaker hundreds of years after you die?

John Montagu was born in the early 18th century in the flats near the coast of the English Channel in northeast Kent, England.  Born to the large land-owning upper classes of British society, he was well educated at the renowned schools Eton and Trinity College.  He went on to distinguish himself in service to His Majesty’s government.  He was a delegate to the Congress of Breda [1] and Ambassador to the Netherlands.  Returning home, he served as First Lord of the Admiralty (in effect the civil head of the Navy).  Later, he also served as Secretary of State for the Northern Department and also as the Kingdom’s Postmaster General.

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich

Though impressive, it is not for any of these achievements or services for which Montagu has become immortal – and for which his name is spoken virtually daily by every English-speaker.  Montagu’s father was an Earl, and Montagu inherited his title.  That flat region of northeast Kent is called Sandwich.

Montagu was the 4th Earl of Sandwich. One evening at a social engagement (some say a session of gambling) the Earl is said to have asked his orderly to bring him a slice of meat between two pieces of bread – as a matter of convenience to keep from getting grease on the cards.  Although the facts of the story – in fact its very occurrence – are often contested, the Earl’s name was eternally lent to an emerging fad: The Sandwich.

— – —


2. On Christmas Day, there was born to us a wonderful gift.  A gift direct from heaven.  For on December 25, 1821 a tiny girl was born in a simple house on a farm in rural south central Massachusetts.  From a young age she developed the knack – and the love – of caring for others in medical need.  First her family, and then the people of her community.

When the Civil War first broke out, she began tending the wounded near Washington DC, especially after the Confederate rout of Union troops at Bull Run (Manassas).  As the war continued its deathly spiral she was able to get medical supplies directly to the bloody front lines herself — a task that, disappointingly, no man was able to conceive and achieve.

After the war, she traveled the country, speaking about her experiences and the need for proper and better medical care. She explained that it wasn’t just wars and battles that led to the need for medical care on a massive scale.  Disasters of all sorts bring this need.  We could be prepared for such disasters and the human need they bring.  Finally she was heard, and in 1881 the American Red Cross was founded.

Clara Barton’s name graces schools and streets and communities across the United States.  In 137 years the American Red Cross has provided unmeasurable support to people in every sort of disaster, in every sort of way.  From wild fires, to earthquakes, to floods – and from hurricanes to HazMat spills – the Red Cross provides medical service, housing, food, transportation and counseling to those in great need.  Foresightfully, the Red Cross also helps prepare communities for disasters well before they occur.

— — – —

3. For a complete change of pace we look to Annelies Marie, born in Frankfurt, Germany.  She was indeed a very precocious child.  Like many intelligent, witty and maturing pubescent girls, she was quite a handful for her loving parents, who were trying to steer her through the awkward years from gangly youth to comely young lady.  She acted up and acted out as she experimented with her self perception and with her outlook toward the world and her family (parents and one older sister).

To help cure her of what her parents perceived as an over-developed attention to herself, they gave her an autograph book as a gift on the occasion of her thirteenth birthday.   Autograph books, considered quaint and old-fashioned today, were used at the time to collect autographs of friends, family, acquaintances and any famous people you could get to sign it.  In addition, it was customary to collect their writings, quips, quotes and even poetry.

But Annelies would turn even the autograph book into an ongoing investigation of herself.  No, she decided. It would not be an autograph book used to focus on others; instead it would be her diary.  In it she shared everything about herself and her life: from the most mundane details of her life as a frustrated teenager, to her unabashed desire to metaphorically live forever – to create or do something so majestic and so wonderful that, even after she died, the world would not (could not) forget her.

Annalies Marie died tragically young, just before her 16th birthday.  Yet, her name and her life are known the world over. And always will be.  Annelies and her Jewish family left Frankfurt in 1938, due to the severe oppression imposed by the Nazi regime.  They relocated in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, where young Annelies wrote not in German, but in a beautiful expressive Dutch.  Her father’s family took its name from the ancient tribe of Charlemagne (Karl der Grosse), a tribe that also gave name to the city of her birth: Frankfurt.  The Franks.  …. Yes, that Frank.  Yes, that Anne Frank.

We cannot forget you.  We must not.

The Earl of Sandwich.  Clara Barton.  Anne Frank. Like everyone else who has ever lived, they have a sort of earthly life after death.

Live large my friends. Think big. Do the right thing. Don’t spend much energy wondering what others think. Any Life After Death may give us a form of eternal life.  But our physical life here is short.  Very short.

Joe Girard © 2010, 2019

[1] Congress of Breda:

On the Border — a Library in Defiance

The US-Canada Border Runs Through this Tiny Library.

Meet the only library that operates in two countries at once.

by Sara Yahm (c) of Atlas Obscura

Rumor has it the 18th-century surveyors who drew the official line between the U.S. state of Vermont and the Canadian  province of Quebec (*) were drunk, because the border lurches back and forth across the 45th parallel, sometimes missing it by as much as a mile. But the residents of the border towns didn’t particularly mind, mostly because they ignored it altogether.

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House stands athwart the US-Canadian border, on the Derby Line

{Link to the entire article here.  For copyright purposes I did not want to cut and paste the entire piece.}



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* Editor note: actually the British colony of Lower Canada.  The line was to be surveyed as the international boundary per the Treaty of Ghent at the conclusion of the War of 1812, which was signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, and formally ended the war.  We will never know what would have happened if Col Andy Jackson and his ragtag army, allied with locals and pirates, had not defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans, just a few weeks later.

On State Sizes and Power

Anyone who has glanced at a map of the United States has had this thought: Look at all those big states with straight lines, something like Tetris assembly blocks.  Perhaps you’ve expressed it out loud: What’s that all about? — All those straight lines?

All US States have at least part of their borders made up of “straight lines”

Perhaps none draws your attention more than my home state of Colorado, and not just because it is somewhat large; in fact the 7th largest of all states south of 49 degrees.  It’s because its boundaries are four perfectly “straight” lines (as is Wyoming): two east-to-west, spaced exactly 4 degrees of latitude apart; and two north-to-south, spaced exactly 7 degrees of longitude apart.  [Since the world is curved, the east-west lines are, of course, not perfectly straight].

Tetras Blocks

Now why is all of that?

The history of state shapes — and straight line boundaries — long precedes the incorporation of western states into the union.  It’s a fact that the shapes of each of the original 13 states also had straight line boundaries, mostly along lines of latitude. And each of those, in turn, got their straight lines from charters issued by the Monarchs of England, in the 17th and 18th centuries.

All of the original 13 colonies that made up the original US had straight lines in their colonial borders

Those original colonial charters, issued well before the Declaration of Independence, laid down much of the DNA for the political conflict we suffer today, now well into the 21st century.

Hearkening back to those original charters, with boundaries following straight lines as well as hill crests and river channels, led to colonies of vastly different size and population.  When the colonies’ representatives assembled in the Continental Congress – eventually to seek independence from England – the smaller colonies (think Delaware, Rhode Island, and 9 more) were wary of the potential political power from larger, more populous and economically more brawny, muscular colonies, especially Virginia and New York.

Once independence was attained – de facto after victory and Yorktown in 1781 and officially by the Treaty of Paris 1783 – the 13 independent states hammered out their differences by many compromises to became a single nation, which we generally respect today as the Constitution of the United States; it became the federal rule book on March 4, 1789.

When the Paris Treaty was signed the new government immediately had some very important questions regarding states’ relative powers to address.  How to administer all the new land west of the Appalachians, and what are the details of how new states are to be transformed from territories to state stauts?

A top criterion for this evolution was that no state should have excessive power over the others.  This was a lesson learned through the tribulations of the Continental Congress. Sadly, this is largely unwritten and not in any legislation that I know of or could find.  Nonetheless, upon entering the Union, a state would necessarily be comparatively weak, since only 60,000 residents were required to apply – most original states had many times that.  But, by allocating a fairly consistent amount of land area to new states, their power could be constrained to reasonable limits as their populations grew. Expecting that it would take many generations to populate “the west”, and believing that the climate was consistent with reports of “the vast American desert”, most of the western states were allocated larger areas.

In short, new states were allocated area commensurate with the expected ability to grow a population that would make them all roughly equal in political power.

There were a few errors made here, including: 1) the westward emigration occurred much more rapidly than expected; and 2) without a full understanding of various western climates, they could not accurately forecast what the full and final population of these new states would be. Spend much time in the vast lands between the Pacific coast and the Appalachians and you can attest that they are much more varied than anyone in 19th century DC could expect.

To address these needs of expansion, new states and balancing state powers:  there was first the Land Ordinance of 1785 followed by its sister legislation the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which allocated five states in the new Northwest Territory (north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River). These eventually became, in order: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.  Removing the quirk of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula we can compare their landmasses and today’s Electoral Vote power as shown in the table here.  I’ve also included the first two “western states”, Tennessee and Kentucky, which joined the Union before Ohio, under the same general guidelines.

Land Area and EC votes of first 7 States admitted after independence (but not Vermont: a freak of history)

Although there is certainly some variation, it is not nearly as wide as the original 13. Among those, Virginia had area of 67,000 sq miles* to Rhode Island’s 1,500sq mi.  And an Electoral College weight of ten to R.I.’s three votes.  In fact, Rhode Island was so put off and fearful that they did not ratify the Constitution until 1790, and hence their Electoral Votes, although it mattered little, were not counted in George Washington’s first election. [* – This is not the exact area of the original Virginia; I have stripped off most of the lands west of the Appalachians that was removed as part of the 1st Bank of America compromise; this also happened to other original states, especially North Carolina and Georgia. These sizes can be seen in the second map, above].

The allocation of most subsequent new states was intended to keep a balance between the states more or less in order.  Using lines of latitude and longitude, a long and established practice dating back to the monarchs, was continued with each and every new state (with the exceptions of Hawai’i and Alaska: the latter’s eastern border was established by treaty) as this was a convenience in the drawing of territory and state lines.  Although this approach had very little regard to geography (for example, the towering Rocky Mountains run right through the middle of Colorado) it was easy to assign areas in this way.

[A coincidental oddity: the border between Colorado and New Mexico, along the 37th parallel, passes within a few feet of the peak of Raton Pass]

There were certainly some anomalies, and in some regard, they curse us today.  Of course, Hawai’I and Alaska, admitted in 1959, were freaks of history.  But, they are quite small with regard to population and will forever remain that way.  But there were others.  “Free” West Virginia was split off from Virginia during the Civil War.  Virginia’s area was further reduced to 42,700 sq miles and West Virginia comes in at a relatively puny 24,200 sq mi.

Before the bloodletting of the Civil War, two other states were admitted under relatively “unplanned” circumstances.  States that bore no resemblance to the unofficial rule of keeping states’ powers relatively balanced.  Those two were Texas and California.  And the circumstances were directly related to haste — and in trying to cement the United State’s ownership of these lands during and after the Mexican-American War.  The California Gold Rush (“In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for mine; dwelt a miner, 49er and his daughter Clementine … “) added to the urgency of speeding California into the union, in 1850. The government played up the urgency of admitting them rather quickly without regard to (and without understanding) how large their populations could grow.

These two, Texas and California, came in massively at 268,600 and 163,700 square miles.  Wow. So much for planning and vision. Their populations have since swelled so (California far more than Texas) that they carry much more sway on national politics than was ever envisioned in our country’s long history.

At the time those states (CA and TX) could conceivably have been split into 3, 4 or even 5 territories, each slated to become a state at some point.  However, that would have disrupted the delicate balance between the number of slave and free states.

So we carry these historical relics and artifacts with us today in our national politics.  The impacts on things like the Electoral College and political clashes is huge.  Most people have a complaint about how it is working out.  Many workarounds have been suggested.

As of today, eleven states, plus DC (Colorado is now on track to become the next) have passed legislation to join a Compact wherein they are committed to giving all their Electoral Votes to whoever wins the national popular vote.

As during the Constitutional Convention, most small population states will remain wary of the larger states, especially California — especially as the size of the Compact grows — and as the Compact threatens to drown out their their Whoville voices. At some point, perhaps only Horton will hear them. As of now, the 18th century constitutional compromise that protects smaller states from the massive vote generating capability of the larger states still protects them … at least for now.

Anyway, that’s the short story on all the straight lines, how we got them and how it affects us today. Thanks for reading — and there’s a final note below with plots showing that, overall and excepting CA, TX, HI, AK and the original 13, the allocation of state sizes and shapes was actually done pretty well.


Joe Girard © 2019

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Final Thoughts.

  1. I must acknowledge a fun little book by Mark Stein that gave me some factoids and insights, called “How the States got their Shapes”, Smithsonian Books, (c) 2008
  2. For completeness and visualization: Below I have plotted the states’ area vs their number of electoral votes.  In the first plot, all 50 states are included.  The visually obvious Electoral outliers with extraordinary power according to the founders, are (in order) California, Texas, Florida and New York.  California and Texas — and to a certain extent Florida — are freaks of historical circumstance.  New York is of course one of the original states.  (California currently gets 55 votes; New York and Florida 29, and Texas 38).

In the second plot, the original 13 have been removed (as have West Virginia and Maine, since they were spin offs of original states) and the historical freaks.   Florida is retained.  The 2nd plot is on the same scale as the first, so that one can see that these remaining states make a nice little cluster and one can deduce that, odd historical circumstances aside, the federal gov’t did a pretty good job of controlling and normalizing states’ relative power.  A few states have very low Electoral Votes (e.g. the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana), and that’s understandable, as the government did not really understand how these areas could not support much population.

Scatter of State sizes and Electoral Vote Compared: 2nd Plot does not include original 13, TX, AK, CA.

I contend the Electoral College method of choosing presidents and Veeps would be nearly bullet proof with a few changes; and the first change would be to make the total cluster plot of states population and power look like the second plot, and not the first. It can reduce the likelihood of winners losing (and losers winning), and respect the choices of smaller states without completely doing away with the Electoral College, which is effectively what the States Compact does.



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 ma