Tuesday, November 03, 2009

"The Unfortunate Rake" and its many variants, including one of my own




Cab Calloway, here singing as Koko the Clown, performs a beautiful rendition of the "St. James Infirmary Blues," in Fleischer Studios' "Snow White," with Betty Boop in the title role.


My son James made a reference to the song on his Facebook page, and it got me thinking about the song and its song family. There are probably hundreds of songs in the family, and dozens of variations of each one. If we're to believe Wikipedia, the great granddaddy of the family was an eighteenth-century English ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake," about a young man dying of venereal disease. Its lyrics recall the line, "A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury," though for the man in the song, it was too late even for this dubious cure:


"And had she but told me before she disordered me,/Had she but told me of it in time,/I might have got pills and salts of white mercury,/But now I'm cut down in the height of my prime."


In 1960, Folkways Records issued an album with twenty variants of the song. including the one most familiar to Americans, "The Streets of Laredo," or "The Cowboy's Lament."


Which is a long way of getting around to my take on the song. During the 1990s, when Amtrak had more money than it usually did, presidents Thomas Downs and especially George Warrington squandered huge sums of it in trying to remake Amtrak's image. Downs decided to use a General Electric model and split up the company into "strategic business units." It made sense for GE, which was extremely diversified; Amtrak was just split into geographical regions, all of which were offering the same product. Warrington was heavily into "branding." Warrington dropped the headless arrow logo and gave us the three wiggly lines, as well as the Acela brand for the high-speed service.


The reservation offices were subjected to endless analysis by outside companies, especially MCI and CMC (a Memphis-based training company, which is no longer with us). CMC came up with having call center agents answer, "May I make a reservation for you?" The company wanted agents to be plugged in 100 percent of the time--taking one call after another. But to do a good job as an agent, you need to be off the phone occasionally, if only to cough, clear your throat, or take a drink of water. Thankfully, that craziness is over with--at least I think it is.

Sometime around the year 2000 the late lamented Amtrak Chicago Call Center had a cowboy-themed end-of-fiscal year celebration and I expressed my frustrations with the following ballad. Now that George Warrington has been gone from Amtrak for quite some time, and present Amtrak management is focusing much more on real customer service and safety, here's "The Dying Agent."

A few glossary notes first:

Six buckets--You know when you call Amtrak or the airlines and get a fare quote, then call back the next day and the fare's higher? That's revenue management--a way to apply supply-and-demand to transportation. The available seats for a given train and date are divided into "buckets." For instance, the fare from Bloomington-Normal to Chicago could be $12, $16, $21, $27, or $34. On a 200-seat train there might be 50 seats in each bucket. Once the $12 seats are sold out, it goes to the $16 bucket, and so on. The revenue management gurus adjust the number of seats in each bucket based on demand. There will be fewer in the lowest-fare bucket around holidays; more on slow travel days. (Amtrak has four regular buckets plus two others for miscellaneous fares.)

Thirty-eighth floor--The Chicago call center was on the 38th floor of the 55 East Monroe building until 2000, when we moved down to the 20th.

AFREND--The Arrow Front-End system. It was an experimental program to make it the reservation system easier to use. I used it during its last days of experimentation, and thought was a very good program that needed some more work. I was on the beta test team for the front-end system we got, called RailRes. It's a good system, but I thought a modified AFREND would have been better.

Forty-five minutes--The basic lunch period, of which 15 minutes were paid. While you wouldn't be brought up on charges for being late once, a few times could get you in trouble.

The Dying Agent
(Sung to the tune of “Streets of Laredo”)
 
As I walked out in the streets of Chicago,
As I walked out in Chicago one day,
I spied a young agent all wrapped in timetables,
Wrapped in timetables, and cold as the clay.

“I see by your T-shirt that you’re a res agent.”
These words he did say as I slowly walked by.
“Come sit down beside me and hear my sad story.
I’m fried in the brains and I know I must die.

“It was once in the office I was a top seller.
Once I was pride of the thirty-eighth floor.
But then MCI came, and CMC trainers,
My dialogue’s broken; I’ll plug in no more.

“Those CMC trainers, they plied me with trinkets.
Made me and my friends play ridiculous games.
I had to say ‘May I make a reservation for you?’
Which was awkward, insulting, tongue-tying, and lame.

“My team leader told me I wasn’t productive,
That ninety percent was just not the right stuff.
I struggled, I labored, I sweated six buckets.
I reached ninety-seven; it wasn’t enough.

“My fingers are callused, my shoulders hunched over,
I’ve festering blisters upon my rear end.
My carpals are tunneled, my eyes are all frazzled,
My system is down and I’m without AFREND.

“Get six burly redcaps to handle my coffin,
Get six coach attendants to sing me a tune,
Take me down to the train yard and lay the ties o’er me,
As the Zephyr rolls by on a gray afternoon.”

I heard the young agent tell all his sad story
Of pressure, harassment, the stresses and lies.
His story took longer than forty-five minutes.
I’m brought up on charges; I think I will die.





Friday, October 09, 2009


Latest Examiner story--Ferdinand Pinney "Affinity" Earle surely would have been a regular feature of "Entertainment Tonight" if it had been around in 1909. Check out the story of this early Hollywood artitst's marital and extramarital adventures here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dan Brown and the Hardy Boys






I admit it. I’ve enjoyed reading Dan Brown’s novels. And I’ve read all but one, from Deception Pont to The Da Vinci Code. It’s fashionable to disparage Brown’s writing, and some of the disparagement is merited. A few years ago, I read Angels and Demons, the first Robert Langdon novel (in the movies the order is reversed—The Da Vinci Code comes first). The book mentioned a secret passage from Castel Sant’Angelo to the Vatican. I asked my wife, who majored in art history, if there was any truth to it. She let me know there was nothing secret about it—everybody knew about it. Well, not everybody, as I clearly didn’t. Brown has a knack for turning facts into mysteries and mysteries into facts. And often he’s just dead wrong.

Any art historian will tell you that the figure of St. John in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper is male and that Leonardo intended him to be male. When the New Testament refers to Mary of Magdala as Jesus’ "companion," Brown’s protagonist says it’s a mistranslation: the Greek word should be rendered into English as "wife." But biblical scholar Bart Ehrman says the word means "companion." I trust Ehrman’s scholarship over Brown’s.

Still, Brown can write a page-turner. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief (except for the time in Angels and Demons when Langdon jumps from a helicopter without a parachute, falls over a thousand feet, and lives) and just enjoy the story.

Adam Gopnik writes about Brown in the September 28 issue of The New Yorker (p. 21). And like all intellectual critics of Brown’s he goes after the kind of thing that an intellectual would notice: that neither Harvard, nor any other university, has a department, or even a field of study called "symbolology." As Gopnik points out, Microsoft Word’s spell-check doesn’t recognize the word. The proper term for the study of symbols is "semiotics."

But Gopnik does something most intellectual critics don’t. He explains the appeal of Brown’s style:

Brown’s writing resembles less the adult best-sellers of the past, which popularized high literary forms—"Gone With the Wind" was a kind of kitsch Tolstoy—than the adventure stories that were once the staple of adolescent literature. Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys were always in the midst of compelling conspiracies; there was always a code that had to be cracked, and ancient Asian priests and ancient Asian cults invading their cozy American world.

And that may be the secret of Brown’s appeal: his books are as sweet-tempered as they are secret-minded. Langdon exposes horrible conspiracies, but it turns out that, with the exception of a few homicidal hotheads, who have maybe let the thing run away with them, decent, well-intended guys run even the weirdest cabals...

I didn’t grow up reading the Hardy Boys books, but I read them to all three of my children. And I enjoyed reading them as much as they enjoyed hearing them. They’re fun to read, as are Brown’s works. But instead of Frank and Joe Hardy, who manage to explain mysteries whose solution was beyond the ken of the local police, Brown gives us Professor Robert Langdon, who can outthink the Vatican police and the Police Nationale. And as a bonus, Langdon is usually accompanied by a beautiful dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who’s constantly astounded by Langdon’s insights. Funny thing: the beautiful dark-haired, dark-eyed woman I married can figure out the mysteries a lot faster than Langdon does. Maybe she should have become a "symbolologist."

I really can’t justify spending money on Brown’s latest bestseller, The Lost Symbol. But I’ve got a hold on a library copy. I’m only thirty-fifth in line.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Racer and the Dancer: New Examiner.com entry


I'm still working on my series about the first auto races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I discovered that racer Lewis Strang, who won the 100-mile race on August 20, 1909, was married to the dancer Louise Alexander, who electrified New York audiences with her "Vampire Dance:"
The drawing of Stran's victory kiss is by my wife, Kathleen Crews Wylder.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

From Hometown to Hippie: Evolution of AM Radio





When I moved to Elkhart 20 years ago, the local AM radio station, WTRC, 1340, was strictly hometown. If you wanted to hear the big game between the Elkhart Memorial Crimson Chargers and the Elkhart Central Blue Blazers, you tuned to 1340. You could always get the local weather, news and sports. For a couple of hours a day, there was a program called "Sound Off," where people called in with their opinions. There were the usual fix-it shows. Every morning the announcer would read local birthdays. On February 29, 1992, they even gave ages--based on the number of leap year birthdays. WTRC even covered one of the last meetings of the Ambrose Bierce Cynics' Society meetings, with a special appearance of "Ambrosia," a local Bierce fan who exhorted us all to read "A Horseman in the Sky."

All that changed in the mid-1990s, when WTRC switched to an easy-listening format. My wife, Kathleen, called it "All Barry Manilow All the Time." The format lasted a few years. There was still some local content, though. I'm not sure what the target audience was, but WTRC managed to drive away just about everybody who didn't care for Barry Manilow. But compared to the next incarnation of WTRC, it was a joy to to listen to.

Like way too many stations, it went to a right-wing talk-show format. I don't believe it ever carried Rush Limbaugh, who was the star attraction of WSBT-AM over in South Bend, but it had a guy named Garrison who was almost as obnoxious. One day in the fall of 2002, I was forced to listen to Garrison when I was riding on the the city bus. The driver had the show on full-blast. Garrison was denouncing all Democrats, especially those who dared to question George W. Bush's plans to invade Iraq. One caller said Garrison should make an exception for Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee. Garrison, as I recall, wasn't swayed. No exceptions for Democrats. The station had also carried G. Gordon Liddy's radio show, but dropped it--not because of Liddy's neo-fascist views, but because of his vulgar language.

So I was amazed to see an ad in the Elkhart Truth for "Hippie Radio 1340." Kathleen and I listened to it and were pleasantly surprised. It was an oldies station, but it played the likes of Judy Collins, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and The Mamas and the Papas. It had fewer advertisements than the FM oldies station, though that will probably change in time. The "Hippie Radio" format is nationally syndicated, but at least some of the programming is local.

The term "hippie," once carrying all sorts of associations with the drug culture, has long since been rendered harmless. I've been doing a lot of research about the 1968 Democratic Convention for the novel I'm working on, and "hippie" was the Chicago Tribune's term of choice for all of the demonstrators at the convention, from the nonviolent antiwar activists, to the Yippies, to the people who fought against the rampaging police. Nobody would dare start up a "hippie radio" station in Chicago, 1968.

During the 1960s, a lot of the people labeled "hippie" resented the term. In fact, closing event of the 1967 "Summer of Love" in San Francisco was a mock funeral called "Death of Hippie."

Hippie, of course, never died. It's now innocuous, a label for nostalgic baby-boomers, most of whom never adopted the countercultural lifestyle, much less went to San Francisco with flowers in their hair. I guess I'm one of them. I had the long hair, but never embraced Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out" philosophy. Instead, I sold "McCarthy's Million" buttons to my high-school classmates. I was "clean for Gene."

I still love the music on Hippie Radio. But please, people of WTRC--the next time you play "Light My Fire," play the whole song, not the Top 40 truncated version that cuts off Ray Manzarek's organ solo.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Forging ballots and Looking for Love: 1972

In the last post I wrote briefly of my work in 1972 on the Dick Clark senatorial campaign. I was an assistant to Pete Smith, the press secretary. I'm working on a novel I started a long time ago, for the Dickens Challenge. The idea was to write a novel in serialized form, as Dickens did--one chapter a week, with no going back. All but perhaps one of us never completed his or her novel. Rachel Green actually did finish Another Bloody Love Story, though I'm sorry to say it hasn't been published.

The novel I never finished when The Dickens Challenge was active (and which I intend to finish now) includes a chapter that talks about the Clark and McGovern campaigns of 1972. It's based on my experience that year. The narrator, Timothy Rymer, is musing about his true love, Helena McKechnie, on a 2005 train journey from Philadelphia to Chicago. She had disappeared at the end of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, only to reappear four years later:


Chapter 8: “Come Home, America”

The sleeping car attendant came with my meal. I tipped her, closed the door, and peeked through the window. We were at Cumberland, Maryland and about to start the climb into the Alleghenies. I said a blessing before eating the roast chicken I had ordered, and said a prayer for Helena, and for the man I knew only as Benét. After I finished, I called the attendant to make up my bed. Once she had gone, I lay down, though thought came before sleep.

I wondered once more why I was going to Chicago, and how I could change what had happened in 1968, or 1970, or 1978. I didn’t know which year was the key. I didn’t think the key year was 1972. But that was the year Helena came back into my life. I had finished my bachelor’s degree in history in the spring of 1972, and was planning to take a break before beginning graduate school. A friend from my McCarthy days had persuaded me to work in another seemingly quixotic campaign. Dick Clark (no, not the American Bandstand guy) was taking on the seemingly invulnerable Senator Jack Miller of Iowa.

Clark’s campaign office was in downtown Marion, Iowa, in a loft above a restaurant. When I joined the campaign, Clark was just beginning his walk across Iowa. It wouldn’t be a simple walk across the state, but a 1300-mile trek covering virtually all of the 99 counties. I spent my time in the press room, drafting news releases and position papers. But my first job for the campaign was to forge ballots. Nothing illegal--it was for a straw poll at the All-Iowa Fair in nearby Cedar Rapids, but I did have some qualms about it. The campaign manager would walk by the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s booth, pick up a few pads of ballots and bring them back to the headquarters. The ballot had the contests for president: Richard Nixon, George McGovern, and George Wallace (who turned out not to be a candidate in November); for governor: Democrat Paul Franzenburg and Republican Robert Ray; and senator: Clark vs. Miller. Of course, all of our forged ballots were for Clark, but I asked about the other two races.

“Yeah, I mark some for Nixon,” said Pete, the press secretary. “And sometimes I use a really hard mark and vote for Wallace, Clark, and Ray.”

“But,” said Connie, his assistant, “I try to mark as many for McGovern as I can.” I might have fallen in love with Connie, a gorgeous woman with long dark brown hair and brown eyes, if she hadn’t been 32, married, and with four children. Like her, I badly wanted McGovern to win, even though he had virtually no chance.

It seemed that some of McGovern’s supporters were his worst enemies. Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) did a lot to sabotage the Democrats, but they were pikers compared with McGovern’s friends. They were the ones who kicked Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley out of the convention. Sure, it was payback for 1968, but it meant that that Illinois and other traditionally Democratic states would go to Nixon. And their endless debating over minor points shoved McGovern’s acceptance speech into the wee hours of the morning. It was a beautiful speech, almost like one of the great litanies of the early Church. Most Americans never heard it. I saw it on a black-and-white TV in the little press room carved out of the big loft:

From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America.

From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.

From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick -- come home, America.

Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.

Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for this “is your land, this land is my land -- from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters -- this land was made for you and me.”

Less than a month after his nomination, McGovern’s running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri admitted he had suffered from depression, and had received electroshock treatments. And after saying he supported Eagleton “1000 percent,” McGovern faced the realities of 1972 and replaced Eagleton with Sargent Shriver. While McGovern’s candidacy was probably doomed from the convention on, I witnessed the final nail driven into his campaign’s coffin on October 26.

It was one of those beautiful fall days that almost makes up for the steaming Midwestern summers and brutal winters. I took the bus down to Iowa City to see McGovern. Clark and the other statewide Democratic candidates wouldn’t be there, as they’d be hurt by association with him.

The McGovern rally was held on the Pentacrest--the center of the University of Iowa campus, named for the domed Old Capitol building and the four great limestone halls that surrounded it. There was a huge crowd, reminiscent of the antiwar rallies of a few years before. People were sitting on the window ledges of Schaeffer and Macbride Halls, their legs dangling into the air. I was in the midst of the crowd, looking around for faces. There was a young couple holding hands--he with red hair like mine and she with luxuriant dark brown hair. I thought of Helena and wondered again what had happened to separate us.

The crowd roared when McGovern came out onto the Old Capitol steps. He said he had some good news. though. Henry Kissinger, who had been negotiating with the North Vietnamese in Paris, had announced that “Peace is at hand.” If this was true, Nixon could claim he had ended the war. Good news for the nation, but it ended even the tiniest hope of a McGovern victory.

McGovern gave his basic stump speech. I had heard it before. Still, I was happy to have experienced it. As the crowd dispersed, I stood there, trying to decide what to do until my bus left, I heard a voice from the past.

“You look dazed and confused.”

“Helena!,” I exclaimed, and we embraced amid the crowd.



P.S. I just worked for Clark through the summer. I went back to the University of Iowa the fall semester, and found love. I met an amazing young woman that fall. She was wearing a McGovern/Shriver button, as was I. We went to that McGovern rally in October--we're the young couple the narrator notices. (Yes, I had red hair once.) We've been married for 36 years now.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Edward Kennedy's Iowa Connection

I met Senator Edward Kennedy only once—at a farm in eastern Iowa during the summer of 1972. I was working for Dick Clark, who had been administrative assistant to U.S. Representative John C. Culver, and was running against Senator Jack Miller. Clark would win the seat in November, due in part to support from the Kennedy family.

Culver had been Ted Kennedy’s roommate at Harvard, and their friendship survived over the decades. When Culver entered politics, he did so with the wholehearted support of the Kennedys. In 1966 I rode with a group of Iowa City Democrats to see Robert F. Kennedy in Marion, Iowa, where he appeared with Culver. (I and most of the other Iowa Citians were disappointed with RFK because he had not yet broken with Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam.) Many of the Iowa Democratic congressmen who had been swept in with the 1964 Johnson landslide were swept out in 1966. But not Culver, who was able to fight off a Republican challenge in his northeast Iowa Second District. He stayed in Congress until 1975, when he won the seat vacated by Senator Harold Hughes.

“Iowa will go Democratic,” went the saying, “when Hell goes Methodist.” In 1975 Iowa had two Democratic senators with Kennedy connections. The moderate Republican governor, Robert Ray, got most of his ideas from the state Democratic platform. Both houses of the legislature had Democratic majorities. Apparently there were a lot of benighted souls in Bible study and prayer groups.

That progressive era in Iowa (and national) politics was short-lived. By 1978 Clark lost to Roger Jepsen, a conservative Davenport lawyer, whose victory foreshadowed the disaster of 1980. John Culver was challenged by Representative Charles Grassley of New Hartford. It was the year Culver’s Kennedy connection hurt him. Grassley’s campaign ran ads saying that when Edward Kennedy returned from Chappaquiddick, the first person he called was his old Harvard roommate.

For liberal Democrats like me, 1980 was Alaric’s sack of Rome. But the barbarians called themselves Christians,* and they swept into office with a passion born of religious fervor. Grassley became Iowa’s junior senator. In Indiana, where I now live, Senator Birch Bayh, the man who had pulled Edward Kennedy from the 1964 plane crash that nearly killed both of them, lost to a conservative congressman from Huntington, J. Danforth Quayle. Even New York, that hotbed of liberalism, elected conservative Republican Alfonse D’Amato to the Senate. And of course, the nation sent Ronald Reagan to the White House--a man who called the Vietnam War a “noble cause” and proclaimed that [our democratic] government was “the problem.”

Today, John Culver’s son Chet is governor of Iowa and Birch Bayh’s son Evan is junior senator from Indiana. Both men are up for re-election in 2010, as is Charles Grassley. We Midwesterners should honor Edward Kennedy’s memory by re-electing Culver and Bayh while sending Grassley back to New Hartford.

*Actually, Alaric's Visigoths called themselves Christians, too--they were Arian Christians who saw Jesus as divine, but lesser than the Father.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I'm now an Indianapolis History Examiner


Like a lot of my fellow bloggers, I've neglected my blog for Facebook. Recently I've started writing for the Indianapolis edition of Examiner.com. I'll be linking these articles here, as well as in my Facebook page. The best thing about my Examiner articles is that many of them include drawings by my lovely and talented wife, Kathleen Crewa Wylder. Here are links to my first two articles:






I'll still be posting here infrequently, on issues not relating to history. But I'll include links to the Examiner articles here as well.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Clio, William Aydelotte, and the New Left, or Why I Quit the History Racket and Joined the Railroad


While unpacking books I had brought back from Bloomington, I came across The Mystery Writer’s Art, edited by Francis M. Nevins, jr. (Bowling Green, OH, Popular Press, 1970). I turned to the article, “The Detective Story as a Historical Source,” by William O Aydelotte. The article itself really didn’t live up to its name. Professor Aydelotte spends most of the article trying to debunk myths about the detective story, in language such as this:

The charm of detective stories lies neither in originality nor in artistic merit, though they may possess both these qualities. It consists rather in the repetition of a formula that through trial and error has been found pleasing. We read these books, not to have a new experience, but to repeat in slightly different form an experience we have had already. Thus, for example, the “surprise” ending is not really a surprise. It is the ending we suspect and demand, and we would feel outraged if any other kind of ending were offered to us. It is true that many of these works introduce elements of novelty in the background and setting, and that the best of them show considerable skill in writing and construction. Such amenities, however, serve not so much to change the formula as to render it more palatable to the highbrow. The educated part of the detective-story audience shows no unwillingness to accept the formula but merely a fastidious distaste for its cruder expressions.

Aydelotte gets to his point in the next paragraph:

The interest of detective stories to the historian is that they shed light on the people who read them. By studying the fantasies contained in this literature, one may gather a description of its readers, in terms of their unsatisfied motivational drives. Thus these books are the more illuminating the more unrealistic and inaccurate they are. It is precisely by their inaccuracies that they reveal attitudes and emotions of the audience to which they cater…

Professor Aydelotte goes on to present what appears to be a Freudian analysis of the detective story reader. But rereading this 1950-vintage article brought me back to 1979, when I quit the history racket and joined the railroad, by way of Iowa City Transit, the French National Railroads’ Chicago office, and CIT Tours.

After graduating from the University of Iowa in December, 1976, I was accepted into the master’s program in the Department of History. There’s probably no good time to get a degree in history, at least from a financial point of view, but the late 1970s were certainly not the best. With thousands of other baby boomers swelling the ranks of graduate schools, it wasn’t the most hopeful prospect. Still, I hoped I could write about the history of rail passenger service in the post-World War II years. I had heard that while there were few jobs in history, there was a lot of interest in the history of technology.

Perhaps the first thing that told me that graduate school was a mistake was the cocktail party for graduate students, given at the home of one of the professors. I’m pretty shy and don’t do well at parties. And at least in those days, cocktail party skills were crucial to employment in the field.

I did well in classes—not straight A’s but a mix of A’s and B’s. But in conversations with the some of my fellow historians, I learned of a new trend in history: quantification. Actually, I knew about it, but wasn’t aware of how pervasive it had become in the field.

The quantifiers, armed with computer technology, were revolutionizing the field of history. And I must admit they did provide fresh insights into the past. Statistical analysis of records, once a tedious and time-consuming process, could be done quickly even with the computers available in the late 1970s.

There were some early missteps. In Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History (1964), Robert W. Fogel used statistical analysis to argue that the industrial development of the United States would have been the same with or without railroads. In the late 1960s, when American railroads were in decline, most historians thought Fogel had proved his point with the certainty of mathematics. Then Fogel published Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery (with Stanley Engerman), which suggested that American slavery was not so bad as had been believed. Historians revisited Fogel’s earlier book and found flaws in his reasoning.

By the time I was in graduate school, quantification was seemingly taking over history. In fact, there was one professor at the University of Iowa who told his students that if it couldn’t be quantified, it wasn’t history. At least that was the story I got from fellow students who had taken Professor William O. Aydelotte’s classes.

Did I want to get into a profession in which events and personalities were replaced by numbers? I knew very well that I’d have to deal with statistics and accounting methods in writing about railroad passenger service. But for me, history had to be more than just data. The Greeks dedicated a Muse, Clio, to history. Thus, in the broad sense of the word, history is music. And while scientific developments can be useful, the fascination of history to me is in its music.

“The past is a foreign country," wrote British novelist L.P. Hartley. "They do things differently there.” Would that foreign country be reduced to columns of numbers?

In spite of my doubts, I kept at it. In the 1978-79 school year, I took a seminar in contemporary American history from Professor Ellis Hawley. He was not of the quantification school, and the readings were fascinating. Each week we read and reviewed a book. We studied historical method, discussed various schools of historical thought, and even made a field trip to the Herbert Hoover presidential library in West Branch. (Hoover’s library also includes the papers of conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler—for a while it was taking in just about any papers of right-wing figures.) And I learned that the Hoover library had become a mecca for New Left historians.

I’ve never quite understood Hoover’s appeal to the New Left. My suspicion is that New Left historians appreciated Hoover’s unstinting belief in capitalism. He was, to them, true to his class. Had Hoover been re-elected in 1932, perhaps America would have had the revolution that Franklin D. Roosevelt prevented. FDR, who saved capitalism by instituting limited socialism, was anathema to the New Left. FDR was my favorite president.

The final paper for the seminar had a catch: Students would read and evaluate each others’ papers. It was, of course, a great way to learn the business of teaching. And I came to the conclusion I wasn’t ready for it. I had been under a lot of stress the previous year, and perhaps I wasn’t seeing clearly. But when I was assigned to read the paper of the sole New Left historian in the seminar, who was writing a paper on economics in the 1930s, I knew I couldn’t do it. Oh, I would have bent over backward to be fair to my fellow student, even though I didn’t agree with his politics. I just had very little understanding of economics and didn’t feel competent to evaluate his paper.

So I withdrew from school and took advantage of one skill the University of Iowa had given me: bus driving. Cambus, the school’s campus bus system, put me through undergraduate school and two years of graduate school. I first found a job with Cedar Rapids Transit and then was hired by Iowa City Transit. After a year of bus driving, Kathleen and I moved in with her parents in Davenport while I looked for something else. I went to travel school in Chicago, staying with a family friend. In the summer of 1981 I got a temporary job with the French National Railroads office in Chicago. When that job was about to expire in the fall, the position of Rail Coordinator at the Bensenville, Illinois office of CIT Tours (Compagnia Italiana Turismo), the agency representing the Italian State Railways, became available, and I got the job. Finally, in February of 1984, a new-hire class opened up at the Amtrak Reservations Sales Office in downtown Chicago. I’ve been working for Amtrak, in one capacity or another, ever since.

But Clio still calls out to me to resume our love affair. Now that I’m actually living at home, I plan to embrace her once again—either through the Indianapolis Examiner or perhaps by way of one of the local newspapers. Professor, Aydelotte, who has since passed on, was wrong about the future of history---at least so far. Clio still inspires historians—even some of those who rely on statistical analysis.

P.S. I should add that I find that the detective story, with its attention to detail, can be a wonderful historical source when trying to understand the habits, attitudes, mores, and beliefs of the past. R. Austin Freeman’s Doctor Thorndyke stories meticulously describe the medical and legal aspects of Edwardian England. To get a feel for everyday life in antebellum western Virginia, check out the Uncle Abner stories by Melville Davisson Post.. To understand the British class system in the 1930s, Margery Allingham’s Campion novels have a wealth of information. Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise is as good a description of the British advertising business circa 1930 as any nonfiction work. There are countless more examples I could cite. Perhaps, in an article about the 1960s folk scene, I can cite Elkhart-born mystery writer Thomas B.Dewey (as opposed to Thomas E. Dewey, who “defeated” Truman in the Chicago Tribune), whose novel, A Sad Song Singing, brings the era to life.

P.P.S. The image of Clio is a detail from Vermeer's The Allegory of Painting, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Robert McNamara, R.I.P.


When I was a high school student in Iowa City in the 1960s, I attended a number of antiwar rallies on the University of Iowa campus. In the spring of 1967, one of the songs we sang was "McNamara's War," an attack on Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, sung to the tune of "Macnamara's Band." It began, "My name is McNamara, I'm the leader of the war." That's all I can remember of it. But I do remember that there were people within the antiwar movement who criticized the song for declaring the Vietnam War to be McNamara's.

Robert Strange McNamara died peacefully July 6 at the age of 93. His death has prompted numerous retrospectives of the man who was one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War but who later came to question that war. But while he will best be remembered as the Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the chief architect of Vietnam War strategy, he was also a military planner during the Second World War, a successful Ford executive, and longtime president of the World Bank. Like so many Americans of the late twentieth century, he had an almost religious faith in the power of technology. Unlike many other technocrats, he possessed a conscience. Sadly for the nation, his conscience came into play decades after the war he managed was over.

As an assistant to General Curtis LeMay during the Second World War, he was involved in planning the firebombing of Tokyo, in which 100,000 Japanese lost their lives. He later said that had the Allies lost the war, he would have been tried as a war criminal. Perhaps that horrendous act did shorten the war. But McNamara clearly had more than a few qualms about it. LeMay's belief in the efficacy of heavy bombing may very well have influenced McNamara in Vietnam, where massive bombing never stopped the shipment of arms down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

After World War II, McNamara turned down a job offer from railroader Robert R. Young (I really wish he had taken it), to work for Ford. There he turned the company around by reorganizing its financial system and imposing a new management structure. He opposed the Edsel division and introduced the economical Ford Falcon. He probably saved the Lincoln brand by introducing the Lincoln Continental. He was named president of Ford in early 1960, but left it to become Kennedy's Secretary of Defense.

McNamara reorganized the Defense Department much as he had done with Ford, emphasizing efficiency and technological innovation. During the Cuban Missile Crisis he was a moderating voice, supporting the naval quarantine option, which Kennedy implemented, over air strikes or a military invasion.

Had it not been for Vietnam, McNamara might have been considered a great man, perhaps even a possible presidential candidate. But McNamara, like most of his colleagues in the Kennedy and Johnson Administration, believed in the domino theory--that if South Vietnam goes Communist, then Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, eventually all of Southeast Asia would fall like dominoes to Communism.

And he was a true believer in the lessons of Munich. On September 29, 1938, British prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler signed a pact ceding the Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia, to Germany. Chamberlain famously said the agreement would bring "peace for our time." Instead, by allowing Hitler to occupy the well-defended and militarily important Sudetenland (which included the Skoda auto works), his conquest of Europe was made far easier. The appeasement of Hitler had been a grave mistake.

But did the lessons of Munich apply to South Vietnam, which had been created by the 1954 Geneva Conference, and was supposed to be a temporary state prior to nationwide elections? The Eisenhower Administration scuttled the elections in 1956, as it was clear the Communists would win. For the Vietnamese, America had replaced the French as a colonial power.

But to McNamara and others, such as National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, South Vietnam was the Sudetenland, and to give it up was to appease the Communists. As McNamara later admitted, he saw a civil war as a key part of a global conflict.

In addition to McNamara's misunderstanding of the conflict, his very American faith in technology made the Vietnam war so much more devastating. His reliance on heavy bombing and the latest military theories, such as the Strategic Hamlet Program (which involved the forced relocation of villagers), turned friends into enemies. the struggle for "hearts and minds" failed in large part because of American reliance on the latest technology and military theory.
Still, McNamara had qualms about this war. His son was participating in antiwar demonstrations, as was his daughter's boyfriend. On February 29, 1968 McNamara either resigned or was fired from his Cabinet post. (McNamara himself was never sure.) Shortly thereafter, he became president of the World Bank.

In 1995 McNamara's book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, was published. Nearly thirty years after he left the Cabinet, he tried to deal his own part in that war. (Admission: I've only "read" the abridged audio version.) And while he claimed the book was not an apology, it seemed to me that it was something of one. Here was a man with a conscience, struggling to explain the unconscionable.

In the documentary, "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," directed by Errol Morris (which I haven't seen), McNamara lists eleven lessons he's learned. Courtesy of Wikipedia, they are:

1. Empathize with your enemy
2. Rationality will not save us
3. There's something beyond one's self
4. Maximize efficiency
5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war
6. Get the data
7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong
8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning
9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
10 Never say never
11. You can't change human nature

For me, the list is both wise and frightening. Most are surely wise. The fourth forgets that a totalitarian government can be extremely efficient, while the democratic republic is rarely efficient. Yet that very inefficiency gives it the ability to look at all sides of a question. No. 9 sounds like Dick Cheney.

But unlike Cheney, McNamara has agonized over the morality of his actions. For this we can thank him, and wish him peace.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Column Writing: The Toothbrush School vs. the Nymphomaniac School

I recently applied to write for the Indiana History Examiner. Examiner.com is a sort of online newspaper covering numerous cities throughout the United States. My fellow blogger Kellie Davis writes for the Anchorage Examiner, so I became interested in writing a local history column for the Indianapolis version. After applying, I got a response saying that Examiners are expected to write four to six articles of 200 to 400 words every week. That reminded me of Donald Kaul, onetime columnist for the Des Moines Register, who used to say there were two schools of daily column writing: the toothbrush school and the nymphomaniac school.

The toothbrush school was championed by Sydney J. Harris, who wrote a daily column for the Chicago Daily News and later the Sun-Times, from 1944 to his death in 1986. He compared writing a column to brushing his teeth in the morning. For him, it was a matter of routine.

Kaul then went on to quote another Daily News (later Sun-Times and the Tribune) columnist, Mike Royko, who quipped, "It's like being married to a nymphomaniac." (George Grizzard and Nora Ephron said the same thing--I'm not sure who said it first.) Like Kaul, I'll side with Royko, though not from personal experience.

So I gave a tentative assent to the Examiner offer, but only if I weren't subjected to the four-column minimum. That was a week ago and I haven't heard from the Examiner since. Perhaps the wedding is off.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Where I've Been

I've been out of the blogosphere for a while, thanks to changes in job. On May 30 I worked my last shift at Bloomington-Normal. Until July 6, when one of the South Bend ticket agents retires, I'm working Guaranteed Extra Board, based in South Bend, but also covering Indianapolis. And that's were I've been for most of the intervening time.

Amtrak isn't in the beautiful Romanesque Indianapolis Union Station, which is now part of the Crowne Plaza Hotel complex, but in a ground-level space shared with Greyhound. In the wee hours of the morning, it looks like something out of an Ashcan School painting, with all the gritty urban realism. I couldn't find a picture of the interior, but WikiMedia had a shot of the platform.

Unlike Illinois and Michigan, which have spent serious money on Amtrak service, Indiana is committed to the world of Fly-Drive. I can't even blame Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor, for my state's neglect of rail. The three previous Democratic governors weren't any better. So Indianapolis, with nearly a million people, has only the thrice-weekly Cardinal and the Hoosier State, which runs to and from Chicago on the four days the Chicago-Indy-New York Cardinal doesn't run. The westbound train leaves at 5:30 a.m. (normally 6:30, but while I'm working it's an hour earlier in order to allow for the CSX to work on the track) while the eastbound arrives at 11:50. My shift, starting at 11:00 p.m. and running through 7:00 a.m., covers both trains. I've pretty much adjusted to the hours, though it was tough staying awake the first week.

One more week (maybe two) of living out of a motel (thankfully, at Amtrak's expense), and I expect to be working out of South Bend and really living at home.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Riverside and Hills, Iowa--Switched at Birth?



I finally got to see the Star Trek Movie. I highly recommend it. But as someone who grew up in Iowa, I have to protest its depiction of the Hawkeye State. Iowa is not flat. Central California is flat--at least the part of California used for the Iowa parts of the movie. Apparently there were mountains in Iowa in one of the movie trailers. They seem to have been digitally removed in the final cut. The gaping chasm that the young James T. Kirk nearly falls into is wrong for Iowa as well. Both the mountains and the chasm could be explained by, say, the New Madrid Fault's Big One. But not the flatness.


The real Riverside, Iowa, declared the future birthplace of James T. Kirk, appears to be an oxymoron. There's no riverside. The English River flows nearby, but not in town. It's in a very hilly area. Just down the road, on the banks of the Iowa River, is the town of Hills. Not many hills. I suspect the railroad engineers (not the ones who drove the trains, but those who plotted out the route) switched the names on the map by mistake. The rail line now runs only from Iowa City to Hills, but had once gone through Riverside as far west as Montezuma, Iowa. I have no documentation for it, but it seems the most likely reason that Riverside has no river and Hills has no hills.


Star Trek shows James T. Kirk born not in Riverside, but in space. But then the movie seems to be following the lead of Alfred Bester, whose 1958 short story, "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed," suggested that while it's possible to go back in time to change history, the change would be in an alternate reality. Perhaps that can also explain why Riverside, Iowa looks like central California.
The painting above is Grant Wood's "Stone City, Iowa," 1930 (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Chance Meeting in Rome

It was early March, 1983, and Kathleen and I were in Rome. I was working for CIT Tours then, as Rail Coordinator for the Midwest office. CIT (Compagnia Italiana Turismo) was the official agent for the Italian State Railways, and I was on a familiarization trip. I had been allowed to bring Kathleen along, and to arrive a week ahead of time so we could do some exploring on our own.


We were in a little trattoria one night. The place was fairly busy, and a well-dressed man, who looked to be South Asian, asked if he could sit with us. We said yes, and we introduced ourselves. I don't remember his name, but he was an official at the Sri Lankan embassy. He was surprised that we, as Americans, even knew where Sri Lanka was, and that it was formerly known as Ceylon.


He was intensely proud of his country. Sri Lanka, he said, had the highest literacy rate in South Asia. Sri Lankans enjoyed a higher standard of living than Indians. It was literally the sacred island: "Sri" is a Sanskrit title meaning sacred, and "Lanka" is Sanskrit for island.

We may have talked only for half an hour or so, but all three of us enjoyed the conversation. It sounded like a wonderful country. And perhaps it was. But while Sri Lankans were more educated and prosperous than their other South Asian neighbors, they still harbored the ethnic prejudices that would tear that beautiful, sacred island apart.


Only a few months after our conversation with the Sri Lankan diplomat, the civil war began between the majority Sinhalese speakers and the Tamil speakers, who lived mainly in the north and east. After more than a quarter century the war is over, with the total defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil speakers remain in refugee camps. The nation is in desperate need of help in a time of worldwide recession.

We can only hope and pray that Sri Lanka will become what our friend in Rome proclaimed it to be.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

R.I.P. Compaq Elite 4/50CX

In the spring of 2000 I was writing a column for the Elkhart Truth: a monthly, and sometimes biweekly column focusing on local history. I was working at the Amtrak call center in Chicago at the time, and commuting four days a week on the South Shore Railroad from Michigan City. I'd drive from Elkhart to Michigan City, sleep on the train in the early morning, and work on my columns on the return trip. I needed a laptop. I found a used Compaq LTE Elite 4/50CX at a Jackson Hewitt tax office in South Bend. For the next three years it became part of my life. At the end of 2001 I was asked to do "The Way We Were," a compilation of stories from 25, 50, 75, and 100 years ago. I'd scour the South Shore train for a seat by an outlet, plug in, and copy bits of stories from the photocopies I had made the previous weekend. I'd put the text on a floppy, download it into my PC, and e-mail everything to the paper.

In late 2003, when the Chicago call center closed, I went to Philadelphia, and the laptop went with me. I wrote out a two articles I sold to Classic Trains, for which I was paid, but which the magazine never ran, and one for Remember the Rock, which was published, but did not pay anything. Since I've come back to the Midwest, I haven't had reason to use it, except when going to Chicago for Amtrak block training. I brought it with me this spring, and worked on Things Done and left Undone along with a new post for the blog. But I couldn't transfer it to the floppy. After buying new floppy disks, it was clear that the problem was the disk drive and not the disks.

It would cost too much, I'm sure, to repair the drive in my laptop. And pretty soon, the Windows 95 program won't be compatible with anything. So the old laptop will go into storage. It served me well.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

I've Been Possessed: The Trackside Professor Discusses Possessives

Kellie Davis, better known in the blogosphere as Tea N. Crumpet, asked me to do a post on possessives. Kellie writes for the Anchorage Family Examiner as a Family and Parenting correspondent. Recently she posted a column by one of her colleagues at the Examiner on her Facebook page. I responded, "The author is essentially right, though she needs to learn how to use punctuation, especially with regard to possessives." (Actually, after rereading the article, I'm not sure she is right, but that's another story.) Her problem was that she left out the apostrophes in most of her possessive nouns. (Ex: "Know your kids friends.")


I got the following response: "Can you do a post on this? I need to learn about possessives'. (I did that apostrophe on purpose, Professor!)"


After arming myself with Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss, and The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White, 2005 edition, I should be able to write this without any serious errors. But if not, any errors are mine.


Possessives in English are, for the most part, straightforward, at least for most singular nouns. No learning intricate rules for noun declensions. Just put an apostrophe and an "s" after a singular noun, and you've made it possessive. Stephen's blog, Kellie's column, Alaska's governor, the philosopher's stone. But English has exceptions--lots of exceptions--that confuse a lot of people.


The rule works fine until you get a singular word ending in a sibilant. And most of the time it still applies: Kellie Davis's blog, Charles Dickens's novels, the octopus's garden, the moose's antlers. But if you get too many sibilants, the rules of style call for an apostrophe at the end of the word: Massachusettts' governor, or for convenience' sake. Jesus and Moses usually merited exceptions: Jesus' parables; Moses' laws. But I've seen Jesus's a lot lately. And if you get a word ending with a silent "s" (usually a French borrowing), put the apostrophe at the end: Illinois' ex-governor, Des Moines' museums, Arkansas' Huckabee. That way you just say the one "s," and don't say anything barbarous, like Illinoise's. As for the Illinois city of Des Plaines, where they pronounce the final esses, I'd hold with the final apostrophe. Strunk and White suggest another way of dealing with too many sibilants: say "temple of Isis" instead of Isis' temple.


And then there are plurals. Thanks to William the Conqueror, better known to his contemporaries as William the Bastard, and not just for his parentage, English acquired a lot of French grammar and vocabulary. On top of the Germanic "s" for possessives, we also have the French "s" for plurals. What to do? For regular plurals ending in "s," just put the apostrophe at the end of the word: the Davises' house, the Wylders' folly, the dogs' breakfasts, etc. Irregular plurals not ending in "s" go back to the rule for singular nouns: men's room green and women's room pink.

With compound nouns, you apply the apostrophe and "s" to the last word: My son-in-law's Facebook page says he's Lt. Worf. I'm not sure about plurals, here: sons-in law, attorneys general. I'd avoid the possessive case and use a preposition: the meeting of the attorneys general.

If you need to show joint possession, the apostrophe goes with the last in the series: Steve and Kathleen's house, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice's bed, etc.

But it's the pronouns and determiners--especially "its"--that give English speakers the most problems. Our case system, unlike those of Latin, German, or the Slavic languages, is based on word order, prepositions, and, in the possessive, or genitive case, the letter "s" and an apostrophe. No tedious noun or article declensions. Except for pronouns and determiners. Lynne Truss conveniently provides a list of possessive pronouns and determiners:

Possessive Pronouns: mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs.

Possessive Determiners: my, your, his, her, its, our, your, their.

They're part of our Anglo-Saxon heritage, and they don't take an apostrophe. It's just that the word "it's," a contraction of "it is" or "it has," is pronounced the same, and has an apostrophe, though it's serving an entirely different purpose: to mark it as a contraction at the point where we've removed the letters. (Very traditional writers describe October 31st as "Hallowe'en" to remind us that it's All Hallows' Even.) Example: Even though the tree has lost its leaves, Kathleen knows it's a hackberry from its bark.

I wish there were a mnemonic for this, such as the one my generation learned for the order of planets: My very educated mother just served us nine pickles. (Doesn't work now, because Pluto's been stricken from the list of planets.) But I can't find one for its and it's. Once more:

"It's" is a contraction of "it is" or "it has." "Its" is the possessive.

I've noticed some confusion along the same lines between "your" (possessive) and "you're" (contraction of "you are.") and between "their" (possessive) and "they're (contraction of "they are.").

Examples:

You're never going to finish your novel if you keep wasting time on Facebook.

They're painting the passports brown. People with brown passports should apply for their visas at 1313 Desolation Row, just off Highway 61.

One more thing: Purdue University has a wonderful site on writing called the OWL. Check it out here. The page on apostrophes is here.

There you go, Kellie. Sorry so many of my examples date back to the 1960s (note: no apostrophe there-it's plural, not possessive). It's because I date back to the '60s (apostrophe there because I've left out the "19"). Now it's back to trackside.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Jennifer, Guinivere, Juniper, Ginevra











My daughter Anne sent me this YouTube link featuring Helen Mary, aka "Jenny" Boyd. I love the song, even though the lyrics are a bit sappy. Helen Mary, called Jenny by her older sister Pattie, the model, photographer, and ex-wife of George Harrison and Eric Clapton, inspired the song. Jenny was also a model in her own right, as the video above shows. It also reminded me of how much I disliked the Carnaby Street look, with the op-art dresses and overdone eye shadow. But I digress.
Donovan fell for Jenny during the 1968 trip to India with the Beatles. But like another famous Scottish poet, William Douglas, who wrote Annie Laurie, Donovan did not win his beloved. Jenny Boyd married Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood in 1970, divorced him, married and divorced him once again, before marrying antother drummer, Ian Wallace, formerly of King Crimson. She received a Ph.D in psychology from UCLA and co-authored a book on musicians and psychology called Musicians in Tune. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the above.)
But Wikipedia was wrong in its article about the song, "Jennifer Juniper," to wit: "The names "Jennifer" and "Juniper" are etymologically the same." But they clearly aren't--in fact, the Wikipedia articles about the names tell a different story.
"Jennifer" is Cornish in origin, and is related to the Old Welsh Gwenhwyfar (gwen: white, fair + hwyfar: smooth, soft). It's a cognate of Guinivere, the French form of the name. The name wasn't popular outside Cornwall until 1906, when George Bernard Shaw used the name for a character in his play, The Doctor's Dilemma:

RIDGEON. Thats a wonderful drawing. Why is it called Jennifer?
MRS DUBEDAT. My name is Jennifer.
RIDGEON. A strange name.
MRS DUBEDAT. Not in Cornwall. I am Cornish. It's only what you call Guinevere.

It became extremely popular as a girls' name after Donovan's song came out, and even more so when the heroine of the book and movie Love Story was named Jennifer.

Juniper, on the other hand, comes from the Latin juniperus, from junio, (young) and parere (to produce), literally "youth producing," but meaning evergreen. Wikipedia mentions an Anglo-Saxon name, Jenefer, that derives from juniperus, put it's clear that the name Jennifer is from the Cornish.
Donovan wasn't the first to use the juniper tree in conjunction with a similar-sounding woman's name. Leonardo da Vinci's painting of Ginevra de' Benci (circa 1476), uses the juniper tree as a background. "Ginevra" is Italian for juniper. The painting now hangs in the National Gallery of
Art in Washington, D.C.

Helen Mary Boyd acquired the nickname "Jenny" because her of her sister Pattie's doll, also called Jenny. So what became the most popular girls' name during the 1970s earned its popularity in part because of a toy.



Friday, April 24, 2009

In praise of Tourists





May Day is coming soon, and I'm sure the good people of Padstow, Cornwall are working frantically to prepare their village for the coming festivities. And for the throng of tourists who come to watch the procession of the 'Obby 'Orses.

Tourists get a bad rap virtually everywhere. They've spoiled countless places. The satirical paper, The Onion, once carried a headline, "Santa Fe Resident Pretty Kokopellied Out." referring to the ubiquitous flute-playing figure of Pueblo culture. And while Santa Fe residents may be sick of tourists, a lot of Santa Fe residents would be out of work without them.

And I wonder whether the wonderful May Day celebration in Padstow would have continued without the tourists. Countless villages had similar celebrations, but only Padstow, Helston, and a few other communities still observe them. I have a feeling the tourists have a lot to do with it. I mentioned this to Kathleen, and she said that it only takes one generation to dismiss such traditions as stupid, and they're gone. But Padstow, on the north coast of Cornwall, was a tourist attraction because of its location. The tourists went back to London, or Edinburgh, or Cardiff, and told others about the incredible May Day celebration, and pretty soon, tourists from around the world descended on Padstow each year. With the money they brought in, even those who thought the May festival was stupid would oppose it.

Of course, it didn't hurt that Padstow had a truly beautiful song. Steeleye Span, though substituting "King George" for "St. George," is true to the spirit of the song:



Thursday, April 16, 2009

Facebook: Assaulting the English Language Five Picks at a Time

I usually don't get upset at the singular "they." English has no singular non-gendered personal pronoun. "He" sounds sexist, "he or she" is awkward, and "it" isn't personal. In casual speech and writing, using "they" as a non-gendered singular pronoun seems acceptable. I've heard Harry Truman use it (well, I heard a recording of Harry Truman using it). Take the title of Tea N. Crumpet's recent post, " Clean up, clean up, everybody does their share. . . " No problem. But Facebook has taken the singular "they" to a new, and to my mind, unacceptable level.

I was wasting my time on Facebook last night, and took one of its "Pick Five" applications: "Pick 5 Cars You've Had." Once it came up with a picture of a 1972 Volkswagen Fastback (mine was blue, and not orange, though), I was hooked. But then my picks were posted on my Facebook page, with this legend:

"Stephen picked their (5) for '5 cars you've had...'"

"Stephen picked THEIR???" Have I become plural? And the sad thing is, there are so many ways to get around the pronoun. For instance, "Stephen picked 5 for '5 cars you've had.'" Or, "The 5 cars Stephen picked are..." I'm sure I could come up with a dozen more perfectly grammatical ways to express it.

Facebook is the preferred social networking site for Americans, and probably for the the planet. When Facebook (and as far as I can tell, "Pick 5" is an application designed by Facebook) says something outright barbarous, to use Orwell's phrase, a lot of people are going to assume it's grammatical. I have no idea how to complain to Facebook, so I'll just send this out into cyberspace.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Everybody's Polish: Dyngus Day at the West Side Democratic Club

In old Poland, the day after Easter was a sort of secular continuation of the Easter festivities, with more feasting and drinking. At a time when the Lenten fast was a lot more strict than it is now, two consecutive days of feasting wasn't excessive. And what must have been a pre-Christian spring ritual was incorporated into the celebration. On Dyngus Day, young men would get up early and awaken young women by dousing them with water and spanking them on the legs with willow switches.

When Poles came to the United States, they brought the tradition with them, but as Polish-Americans became more American than Polish, Dyngus Day might have gone the way of many ethnic customs. There isn't much water-throwing and leg-switching anymore in the States, but the feasting and drinking have continued in Polish-American communities, such as Buffalo, New York, and South Bend, Indiana.

Since 1930 the West Side Democratic Club of South Bend has held a Dyngus Day celebration. If you want to be elected as a Democrat in Indiana, you've got to be there, or at least have a representative to speak for you. This year there weren't any big names at the club, as there were last year, when former President Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea came to campaign for Hillary. But it was a lot of fun.

Kathleen and I got there at eleven o'clock Monday morning. We paid $8.00 each for admissopn plus a platr of food--kielbasa, Polish cabbage (like sauerkraut but sweeter and less acid), and Kluski--thick noodles in a chicken broth sauce. The food was excellent--the kielbasa was neither overseasoned nor bland, and wasn't overcooked, and the side dishes went well with it. Kathleen bought a Leinenkugel, while I stuck with Diet Dr. Pepper. (I've never cared for beer--I don't know what's wrong with me.)

We talked briefly with Dick Moore, the mayor of Elkhart, who later gave a brief speech. We sang Happy Birthday to him before he had to get back to work. He was planning to be at the evening Dyngus Day celebration at the Elkhart Knights of Columbus.

At noon the official program began with a blessing from a local priest, who transformed the pagan custom into a Christian rite by sprinkling the audience with holy water with an old-fashioned switch broom. We said the Pledge of Allegiance, and then we heard from the speakers. Jonathan Weinzapfel, the mayor of Evansville, had come all the way from the southwestern tip of the state to address the crowd. The rumor is that he's considering a run for governor in 2012, and wants to get his name in circulation.

The highlight of the day was the visit of the South Bend Washington High School girls' basketball team, which has gone to the state tournament for four consecutive years. Congressman Joe Donnelly presented them with an award, and read the remarks he had put in the Congressional Record about them. It's heartening that this all-black team was so warmly received by this mostly-white audience. Skylar Diggins, one of the nation's top players, got a special round of applause, as she'll be at Notre Dame next year.



Everybody's Polish.

Dyngus Day is here.

It's nine o'clock in the morning.

Let's have another beer.



begins the local anthem to Dyngus Day. I couldn't find any videos of this year's celebration, so here's a clip of last year's, starring Bill and Chelsea Clinton, courtesy of the South Bend Tribune:


Friday, April 10, 2009

Back to The City With a Heart

Tuesday night I couldn't sleep. It was a combination of the stress of moving, the long drive to Bloomington from Elkhart the night before, and the Pace Triple Pepper salsa I put on the tortilla I had eaten as a bedtime snack. Probably the last, most of all. So I go to the computer and check out the Amtrak job listings. Here's the essence of what I saw:

Job Posting #90102781
Ticket Clerk South Bend, IN
Passenger Services Dept.
Salary: Per Labor Agreement


It took me even longer to get to sleep after that. I was supposed to be notified if a job became available in South Bend. There's some uncertainty about what this job is--it appears it will be a guaranteed extra board job covering South Bend and Indianapolis. I talked to a woman in Human Resources Wednesday afternoon, and she confirmed I should have been offered the position, took the job down from Internet posting, and sent me a letter offering the job.

But, assuming I don't get another surprise, Kathleen and I won't have to move, though we'll have to move some stuff back. We can keep paying down the mortgage and line of credit on the big yellow house in Elkhart (credit Vainateya Deshpande for photo).

I've changed my Facebook hometown to Elkhart, and even joined the Northern Indiana network. Maybe I can write about some of the amazing Elkhartans, such as poet Kenneth Rexroth, cartoonist Ding Darling, and columnist and naturalist Maurice Frink. Maybe I can write an article about the 1969 Special General Convention of the Episcopal Church in South Bend, which displayed both the best and the worst of the 1960s.

I like the job in Normal, and the Bloomington-Normal area. It seems like it's an exciting place to be. But Elkhart has been home for almost twenty years, even though I've worked in other places for more than half of those years. I'm looking forward to living full time in the City With a Heart.


Saturday, April 04, 2009

Tales from the Three I States

Kathleen and I are in the process of moving at least some of our stuff from our house in Elkhart, Indiana to our two-bedroom apartment in Bloomington, Illinois. On Tuesday, we rented a cargo van from Enterprise, loaded it up, and drove to Bloomingon. After unloading it, we stayed the night, drove to Davenport, Iowa, where we loaded up an antique bed (1920s) along with a lot of books, papers, and VHS tapes. The next day we drove to Bloomington, nearly exhausted ourselves moving the extremely heavy mattress and box spring, and then drove back to Elkhart.


We're still in the process of getting the Elkhart house ready to sell. Right now, it's a moot point. We paid $68,000 for it in 1989, and owe about $60,000 now. Given the fact that there's a house with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a swimming pool listed for $59,000 in this town, we'll likely be stuck with mortgage plus rent for some time. Who knows, maybe a ticket clerk position will open up in South Bend in the meantime.

Elkhart, as Ground Zero of the Recession, is getting nationwide recognition. An Elkhartan was recently called by a charity asking for money. She said, "I'm from Elkhart." That was enough for the fundraiser to cease and desist. Our daughter Sarah, who is an instructor at the University of Maryland, asked a a prospective student where she was from.

"I'm from Portland, Maine," said the student. "Where are you from?"

"I'm from Elkhart, Indiana."

"THE Elkhart?" asked the student.


Iowa has been in the news lately because the state Supreme Court declared the state's marriage law unconstitutional, opening Iowa to same-sex marriage. In Iowa, a constitutional amendment has to be passed by two consecutive legislatures and then submitted to a popular vote. That means the Court ruling will probably stand until at least 2013. And it seems likely that the people of Iowa won't amend the constitution.


Once upon a time, Iowa was one of the most conservative states in the nation. But starting in the 1960s, it's become more and more liberal. My theory is that those right-wing Iowegians who used to vote for the likes of H.R. Gross moved off to places like Orange County, California. Yes, Gross's successor in the House, Charles Grassely, beat incumbent Senator John Culver in the 1980 campaign and has won re-election ever since then. But Grassley faces strong oppostion from Bob Krause next year.

Since the Iowa Hawkeyes didn't even make it into the NCAA this year, I'm happy to see that there will be a Big Ten team in the NCAA championship. I won't be watching the game on Monday, which is a good thing for the Spartans. Whenever I watch a game, the team I'm rooting for almost always loses.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Song My Father Taught Me

I was talking on the phone with my daughter Anne, and she asked about a song "Mom taught us," and then started on the "Drink, drink, drink, drink."

"I taught you that one, I said, mentioning I had learned it from my own father. Anne had talked with someone of Dutch heritage, who had mentioned prejudices against the Dutch. She immediately thought of the song. It turns out the the song's title is "The Goddamned Dutch." Wikipedia says, "it first appeared in the book Gentleman About Town, Immortalia in 1927," but I suspect the song is much older, probably dating back to the eighteenth century when the Netherlands rivaled Britain as a maritime power. There are dozens of versions--many of them a lot more offensive than the one I learned from my dad. Here's the version I learned:

Drink, drink, drink, drink,
Drank, drank, drank, drank,
Drunk, drunk, drunk, drunk

Drunk last night. Drunk the night before,
Gonna get drunk tonight like I never got drunk before,
For when I'm drunk I'm as happy as can be;
For I am a member of the Souse family,
For the Souse family is the best family
That ever came over from Old Germany.

Chorus:
Sing Glorious!
Glorious!
One keg of beer for the four of us!
Sing glory be to God that there are no more of us;
For one of us can drink it all alone, damn near.

There's the Highland Dutch, and the Lowland Dutch;
The Rotterdam Dutch, and the God damned Dutch.

Chorus

God made the Irish. He didn't make much;
But a hell of a lot more than the God damned Dutch.

Chorus

By the bar, where I smoked my first cigar
And the nickels and the dimes rolled away (rolled away).
It was there by chance that I tore my Sunday pants.
And now I have to wear them every day, damn near.

Final Chorus

The last stanza, a parody of the hymn, "At the Cross," isn't part of the traditional song, but, in the way of folk songs, found its way into it.

You can find several versions of the song on YouTube, including a cleaned-up version by Mitch Miller, and the University of California version sung after the "Big Game" with Stanford last November. (They sing it very well--I don't think many of them were drunk.)

There won't be a PBS special on "The God Damned Dutch" as there was for "Amazing Grace," but it would be interesting to trace this song back.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cassandra's Apologia: An Argument for Blogging

Nearly four years ago, I was working on a novel contest for White Wolf, and wanted to name one of my principal characters Cassandra, as she was someone who told the truth, but was not believed. But I wasn't sure of the Cassandra legend. I did a Google search, and found The cassandra pages, which not only gave me a brief summary of the legend, but introduced me to the world of blogging. In those days, it seemed, almost everyone was blogging. I was extremely lucky that the first blog I read was beautifully written and always insightful. And through the cassandra pages, written by Beth Adams, I met some other wonderful people, including Peter, of slow reads, and Patry Francis, of simply wait. I began this blog in large part because of my serendipitous discovery of Beth's.




But as Beth points out in a post marking the sixth anniverary of her blog, many of us have tired of blogging, or have spent more of our time on social networking sites, such as MySpace or Facebook. I have a Facebook page, and I enjoy being able to connect with friends and relatives on it. But the Facebook medium is one which promotes brief quips--epigrams, if you like. But it isn't conducive to kind of writing exemplified by Beth, Peter, Patry, and others. The kind of writing that makes you reconsider your own views.



I commented on her blog that I found that my best writing outside the blog was done while I was actively blogging. She replied in an e-mail to me:



I think blogging is a way of keeping in shape, so to speak. Journal-writing was like that for me too. If you keep exercising the writing muscles, then they're there both when you need a quick burst, or to make an endurance run. It's the same for me with music practice - when I let it go for days or weeks, it's so much harder to get back into it.



I'm hoping that in this case, Beth is not a Cassandra, and thoughtful blogging will not diminish on the Web.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

From the Myrtle of Venus to the Shores of Tripoli







Olivia, of "Olivia's Sunrise of New Beginnings," has been giving her readers a virtual tour of the museums and other attractions of our nation's capital. (And you could pay good money for a tour that's a lot less informative and interesting than hers.) A recent post included a tour of the Museum of American History, and a description of the original Star Spangled Banner--the one that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814, and which inspired Francis Scott Key, a prisoner aboard a British ship, to write the poem, "The Defence of Fort M'Henry," which became the words to our national anthem. It reminded me of the story of the poem, and of the only well-known tune that fit its meter and rhyme, "The Anacreontic Song," better-known by its opening line, "To Anacreon in Heaven."


"The Defence of Fort M'Henry" appears to be a reworking of an earlier poem Key had written in 1805, to celebrate the return of Stephen Decatur, jr., and Charles Stewart from the Barbary Pirates' conflict. Entitled simply, "Song," it follows the same meter and rhyme scheme, and ends each stanza with: "...mixed with the olive, the laurel shall wave,/And form a bright wreath for the brows of the brave." Even the phrase "Star Spangled flag" appears in "Song."

The Wikipedia article on "The Anacreontic Song" states that Key's brother, "on hearing the poem Key had written, realised it fit the tune of The Anacreontic Song." I suspect, though, that Key had the song in mind when he wrote the first poem, as it refers at the end of each stanza to the mixing of two plants. The final chorus of "To Anacreon:" "And long may the Sons/Of Anacreon intwine/The Myrtle of Venus/With Bacchus's Vine."

"The Anacreontic Song" was sung at meetings of the Anacreontic Society, an eighteenth-century London gentlemen's club for amateur musicians. It got its reputation as a drinking song because of a tradition that if a member could sing a stanza of the song successfully, he was sober enough for another round. And the difficulty of singing the tune, even when sober, has been one of the strongest arguments of those who wish to replace "The Star Spangled Banner" as our national anthem with something more singable, such as "America the Beautiful."


The late writer and scientist Isaac Asimov wrote a very powerful defense of "The Star-Spangled Banner," though even he had a problem with the third stanza. It's a little embarrassing to have the line, "No refuge could save/the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight,/or the gloom of the grave" in our national anthem. But, of course, few people ever get beyond the first stanza.

Another song with roots in the Barbary Pirates conflict is The Marines' Hymn, which makes reference to "the shores of Tripoli." Actually, the Marines never made it to Tripoli in that conflict, but they came close. Like "The Star Spangled Banner," the poem was written first, and a tune was found to fit it. And it appears that the Jacques Offenbach's "Gendarmes Duet" from the comic opera Genevieve de Brabant was the tune used. The men-at-arms who sing it are portrayed as, well, not exactly models of Marine Corps values:





I don't think anyone has suggested the Marines change their hymn, though. The tune works in spite of its beginnings. And it's not hard to sing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust-" Two Marriage poems.

After subjecting my readers to the Beat poem of the last post, I thought I'd post one of my favorite Beat poems, "Marriage," by Gregory Corso. The "She" in the final stanza is a reference to the novel She by H. Rider Haggard.

Should I get married? Should I be good?
Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?
Don't take her to movies but to cemeteries
tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets
then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries
and she going just so far and I understanding why
not getting angry saying You must feel! It's beautiful to feel!
Instead take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone
and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky-

When she introduces me to her parents
back straightened, hair finally combed, strangled by a tie,
should I sit with my knees together on their 3rd degree sofa
and not ask Where's the bathroom?
How else to feel other than I am,
often thinking Flash Gordon soap-
O how terrible it must be for a young man
seated before a family and the family thinking
We never saw him before! He wants our Mary Lou!
After tea and homemade cookies they ask What do you do for a living?
Should I tell them? Would they like me then?
Say All right get married, we're losing a daughter
but we're gaining a son-
And should I then ask Where's the bathroom?

O God, and the wedding! All her family and her friends
and only a handful of mine all scroungy and bearded
just wait to get at the drinks and food-
And the priest! he looking at me as if I masturbated
asking me Do you take this woman for your lawful wedded wife?
And I trembling what to say say Pie Glue!
I kiss the bride all those corny men slapping me on the back
She's all yours, boy! Ha-ha-ha!
And in their eyes you could see some obscene honeymoon going on-
Then all that absurd rice and clanky cans and shoes
Niagara Falls! Hordes of us! Husbands! Wives! Flowers! Chocolates!
All streaming into cozy hotels
All going to do the same thing tonight
The indifferent clerk he knowing what was going to happen
The lobby zombies they knowing what
The whistling elevator man he knowing
Everybody knowing! I'd almost be inclined not to do anything!
Stay up all night! Stare that hotel clerk in the eye!
Screaming: I deny honeymoon! I deny honeymoon!
running rampant into those almost climactic suites
yelling Radio belly! Cat shovel!
O I'd live in Niagara forever! in a dark cave beneath the Falls
I'd sit there the Mad Honeymooner
devising ways to break marriages, a scourge of bigamy
a saint of divorce-

But I should get married I should be good
How nice it'd be to come home to her
and sit by the fireplace and she in the kitchen
aproned young and lovely wanting my baby
and so happy about me she burns the roast beef
and comes crying to me and I get up from my big papa chair
saying Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf!
God what a husband I'd make! Yes, I should get married!
So much to do! Like sneaking into Mr Jones' house late at night
and cover his golf clubs with 1920 Norwegian books
Like hanging a picture of Rimbaud on the lawnmower
like pasting Tannu Tuva postage stamps all over the picket fence
like when Mrs Kindhead comes to collect for the Community Chest
grab her and tell her There are unfavorable omens in the sky!
And when the mayor comes to get my vote tell him
When are you going to stop people killing whales!
And when the milkman comes leave him a note in the bottle
Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust-

Yes if I should get married and it's Connecticut and snow
and she gives birth to a child and I am sleepless, worn,
up for nights, head bowed against a quiet window, the past behind me,
finding myself in the most common of situations a trembling man
knowledged with responsibility not twig-smear nor Roman coin soup-
O what would that be like!
Surely I'd give it for a nipple a rubber Tacitus
For a rattle a bag of broken Bach records
Tack Della Francesca all over its crib
Sew the Greek alphabet on its bib
And build for its playpen a roofless Parthenon

No, I doubt I'd be that kind of father
Not rural not snow no quiet window
but hot smelly tight New York City
seven flights up, roaches and rats in the walls
a fat Reichian wife screeching over potatoes Get a job!
And five nose running brats in love with Batman
And the neighbors all toothless and dry haired
like those hag masses of the 18th century
all wanting to come in and watch TV
The landlord wants his rent
Grocery store Blue Cross Gas & Electric Knights of Columbus
impossible to lie back and dream Telephone snow, ghost parking-
No! I should not get married! I should never get married!
But-imagine if I were married to a beautiful sophisticated woman
tall and pale wearing an elegant black dress and long black gloves
holding a cigarette holder in one hand and a highball in the other
and we lived high up in a penthouse with a huge window
from which we could see all of New York and even farther on clearer days
No, can't imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream-

O but what about love? I forget love
not that I am incapable of love
It's just that I see love as odd as wearing shoes-
I never wanted to marry a girl who was like my mother
And Ingrid Bergman was always impossible
And there's maybe a girl now but she's already married
And I don't like men and-
But there's got to be somebody!
Because what if I'm 60 years old and not married,
all alone in a furnished room with pee stains on my underwear
and everybody else is married! All the universe married but me!

Ah, yet well I know that were a woman possible as I am possible
then marriage would be possible-
Like SHE in her lonely alien gaud waiting her Egyptian lovers
o i wait-bereft of 2,000 years and the bath of life.

-Gregory Corso


Kathleen and I joked about having this poem read at our wedding. We did go to cemeteries before we were married. We kissed under the Black Angel, though not at midnight under a full moon. Of course, we didn't use "Marriage." We chose Shakespeare's Sonnet 116. It's pretty hard to go wrong with that:


LET me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.