Category Archives: History

America in Five Cities

It dawned on me recently how the names and locations of the top 5 most populous cities in the United States tell the story of the nation:

New York, in the east, with the English name, representing the history of our relationship with England.

Los Angeles, in the west, with the Spanish name representing the history of our relationship with Mexico.

Chicago, in the north, from the Potawatomi for “wild garlic place”, representing the history of Native Americans.

Houston, in the south, named after Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, representing the history of the Wild West.

Philadelphia, in the east, Greek for “brotherly love”, representing the ancient origins within the founding of the nation.

This has a nice round feel to it. That is, until Phoenix comes for that fifth spot

Ötzi-quel

This ongoing saga of Ötzi the Iceman fascinates me. I first learned of him from Radiolab a few years ago, but turns out we keep learning more about this mythic Italian mummy:

The more scientists learn, the more recognizable the Iceman becomes. He was 5 feet 5 inches tall (about average height for his time), weighed 110 pounds, had brown eyes and shoulder-length, dark brown hair, and a size 7½ foot. He was about 45, give or take six years, respectably old for the late Neolithic age — but still in his prime.

Still kinda blown away science can figure this stuff out:

From examining traces of pollen in his digestive tract, scientists were able to place the date of Ötzi’s death at sometime in late spring or early summer. In his last two days, they found, he consumed three distinct meals and walked from an elevation of about 6,500 feet, down to the valley floor and then up into the mountains again, where he was found at the crime site, 10,500 feet up.

More to come, I hope.

Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

In addition to being one of two people to serve in the U.S. House and Senate, a President’s Cabinet, and the U.S. Supreme Court, L.Q.C. Lamar was one of eight senators featured in Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, which is one of those books you’ve heard about but never read.

A lawyer from Georgia, Lamar bounced between Georgia and Mississippi to practice law and teach before getting elected to the Georgia State House of Representatives in 1853, and then three years later in Mississippi to the U.S. House. (Pick a state, man!) When secession time came around, he resigned from the House and joined the Mississippi Secession Convention, drafting the state’s Ordinance of Secession and mustering a regiment. When bad health kept him away from the battlefield, Jefferson Davis appointed him Confederate minister to Russia and special envoy to England and France until the end of the war.

Once former Confederates were allowed to hold office again, Lamar came right back, serving in the U.S. House (again) and then Senate, where he earned his spot in Profiles in Courage by eulogizing Charles Sumner instead of caning him again and voting against the “free silver” movement. Grover Cleveland appointed him Secretary of the Interior in 1885, then two years later nominated him for the U.S. Supreme Court, where he died five years later.

Sources: 1, 2

Tom, John, Abby & George

The fourth episode of the John Adams miniseries (“Reunion”) contains two of the best scenes in the show. The first is John hanging with Abigail and Thomas Jefferson in Paris. It’s fun to consider now how these titans of American history would have interacted in their time, before they achieved titan status:

The second is when John Adams meets with King George III as the first American ambassador to Great Britain. Giamatti perfectly portrays the range of emotions Adams must have felt serving this role: pride above all, I imagine, in every sense of the word. To represent his new country in such a prestigious role also carried with it the custom of bowing deeply not once, not twice, but thrice, to the monarch he had so vociferously criticized:

Still delighted HBO chose to dedicate a series to the Founding Father who would not land on Mount Rushmore but had an undeniable influence in making it possible one day.

Refer Madness: A Name that Named Names

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

A patron who calls regularly — usually looking for the value of an old book or baseball card — had a pretty direct question for me today: “Was Lee J. Cobb blacklisted?”

Nope, but just barely.

Born Leo Jacoby (get it? Lee J. Cobb[y]?), Cobb most iconically featured in 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1957’s 12 Angry Men, two highly regarded and politically aware films that comment on the Red Scare paranoia of 1950s America. According to Victor Navasky’s 1980 book Naming Names, Cobb was accused of being a Communist in a 1951 HUAC testimony by actor and actual former Communist Larry Parks. Called to testify but refusing to do so for two years, Cobb finally relented in 1953 and named twenty former Community Party members.

Cobb’s reason for doing so, as told in Naming Names, is fascinating and blunt:

When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying. The blacklist is just the opening gambit—being deprived of work. Your passport is confiscated. That’s minor. But not being able to move without being tailed is something else. After a certain point it grows to implied as well as articulated threats, and people succumb. My wife did, and she was institutionalized. The HUAC did a deal with me. I was pretty much worn down. I had no money. I couldn’t borrow. I had the expenses of taking care of the children. Why am I subjecting my loved ones to this? If it’s worth dying for, and I am just as idealistic as the next fellow. But I decided it wasn’t worth dying for, and if this gesture was the way of getting out of the penitentiary I’d do it. I had to be employable again.

And he was, the next year, in On the Waterfront, written by Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, two other Hollywood figures who testified to HUAC.

Sources: 1

Herbert Hoover in the White House

By nature of their office presidents generally believe the press corps is working against them, but there is little question that in Washington in 1932 reporters and editors had a lively antipathy for Hoover, a disdain unmatched by any successor until the next Quaker to occupy the White House—Richard Nixon, some forty years later.

—From Charles Rappleye’s (excellent) forthcoming Herbert Hoover in the White House (which I’m reviewing for publication): a delicious irony that our nation’s only two ostensibly Quaker presidents were active players in a mutually antagonistic relationship with the press.

Guns Kill People

It is right and good that the New York Times chose, for the first time since 1920, to publish an editorial on Page 1. “End the Gun Epidemic in America” captures the zeitgeist well, at least that of reasonable human beings without a vested, monied interest in seeing the NRA-sponsored carnage continue.

“It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment,” the editorial reads. “No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.” Indeed, it seems the only right in the Constitution that has found itself immune from debate is that of the Second Amendment. The beneficiary of a modern-day gag rule, wherein even researching the causes and effects of gun violence is outlawed, our supposed right as American citizens to own unlimited military-grade weaponry is considered as self-evident and God-blessed as our country itself.

We need a John Quincy Adams. An incorrigible ramrod of righteousness with nothing to lose. Smart enough to use the system to the cause’s favor and intractably annoying to its enemies. We also need the truth to be spoken through the research—research!—that we’ve consistently denied because denial is bliss. When enough people finally open their eyes to this culture of death we’ve protected, the delusional, cowardly mania for guns will compare in the future’s unfavorable eyes to the same delusional, cowardly mania for slavery that gripped this country for far too long.

Little Big City

Imagine my surprise when fellow high-school classmate and garage band musician Aaron Shekey was mentioned in John McPhee’s latest essay for The New Yorker. McPhee quoted Shekey’s own essay from a few years ago called “It’s What You Leave Out”, about the curious case of the Madison skyline. “One of the more interesting things about the layout of my hometown,” Shekey wrote, “is a simple rule the city planners made around 1915: No building can be taller than the base of the pillars surrounding the capital building’s dome—that’s only 190 feet.”

This mandate, now 100 years old, is still in place, leaving us with a skyline a Madisonian who was around at the time of the edict’s passing would still recognize.

It’s a view I’ve grown used to, even bored of, having lived there until I left for college. But when I compare it to other lakeside skylines I’ve come to know, like Chicago’s, where even with the Sears Tower there is no clear focal point or guiding architectural principle except how high the buildings can reach and how many condos they can cram into the air space, I see the value of the Madison experiment—the “century’s worth of restraint” as Shekey called it. You could almost call it a civic humility, thought that’s not quite right. Not when the capitol building, the literal civic center, is the legally mandated center of attention.

madison-map

A bird’s-eye view tells the same story: the Capitol sits in the middle of the downtown square, in the middle of the isthmus that splits the lakes Monona and Mendota. You could loop around the Capitol all day on the one-way streets that revolve around it. And that’s OK, because it’s a beauty. Shekey again: “If you let your eye wander along the horizon, you’d see it—The capital. A tiny white light shining above everything else. You can see it for miles. Even from there it was breathtaking—a skyline defined by what it isn’t.”

I suppose it makes sense the center of government should be the nucleus of the city, the standard by which everything else is judged and modeled. But one person’s civic restraint is another’s stunted growth. Chicago is a storied architectural wonder (I’d highly recommend taking an architectural boat tour if you can), but that wouldn’t have been so if after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the city planners had imposed a vertical quota on the Loop.

When I tell people I’m from Madison, they often ask what it’s like and how I liked it. If they’re familiar with the area I tell them I’m actually, like Shekey, from the western suburb of Middleton, though I was born and raised in Madison through elementary school. But if they’re unfamiliar, I say it’s a typical college town: liberal (in Madison’s case very much so), lots of bars and bikes, and has lots to see around it if you know where to look.

I also like to call it a “little big city.” Like any big city it has a bustling downtown with distinct neighborhoods and adjacent suburbs, but it’s no Chicago or even Milwaukee. Driving on University Avenue through the Isthmus you can get from the westside of town to the east in 15 minutes if the stoplights and traffic are friendly. Besides the capitol building itself, the biggest things about Madison are the lakes it’s squeezed between—and the world renowned farmer’s market during the summer.

I’m sure Madison has “little big” friends in Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg, Missouri’s Jefferson City, Washington’s Olympia, and other cities: state capitals that aren’t their state’s biggest city. They don’t have the skyscrapers of Philadelphia, Kansas City, or Seattle, but they have beautiful capitol buildings visitors like me would love to see. This is even true in Washington D.C., where the U.S. Capitol, larger but almost identical to Madison’s pillared dome, sits atop a hill overlooking the National Mall and the much smaller yet more iconic White House.

It takes high regard for the built beauty of one’s own place to preserve the arrangement Madison has over a century of constant change. Perhaps one day Madison’s glass (or ice) ceiling will shatter and the capitol dome will shrink into a much taller skyline than it’s accustomed to. But until then it will remain a little big city with a little big horizon that ain’t bad to come home to.

(Photo by Steve Wetzel)

Wherein I Missed Third-Grade Field Day and Encountered Cosmic Futility

bart-chalkboard

In third grade I was on a three-strike system at school. Three infractions and I’d miss a fun class event. I was an absent-minded kid, prone to forget things at home like homework or a slip needing a signature or an extra pair of shoes to wear at school during winter. (I remember at least one day of walking around in winter boots all day.) This was also the first year I wasn’t in the same class as my twin sister, who, everyone involved quickly realized, was the one who reminded me about things like homework and signatures and winter boots.

My two co-teachers apparently thought this punitive system would make me a better student, more disciplined and less forgetful. There was no limit to the number of infractions I could receive and therefore no limit to the number of events I could miss. Theoretically this should motivate a kid, even one as young and flighty as me at the time, to become more disciplined so as not to miss fun activities.

Theoretically.

First, I missed Cave Day, the culmination of the unit on caves. The classroom was decorated like a dark cave, paper stalagmites and stalactites protruding from the ceiling and walls and a cool tunnel leading to the door you had to crawl through to get in and out of the room. I was not allowed to participate in the fun cave-related activities at all that day. Instead I was sent to the principal’s office to complete what was essentially busywork. (Insult, meet injury: at one point I needed to go into the classroom to get something—probably more busywork—but I had to crawl through the awesome tunnel and see the activities going on, yet not participate in them. I felt like a leper. A bitter leper.)

Second, I missed Jungle Day, which was a huge day in my elementary school. Huge. They’d bring (what felt like then) enormous jungle gyms into the gymnasium and turn the byzantine structures into a colorful, interlocking jungle, crawling with paper vines and canopies and animals that healed you if you got “bit” by a snake while climbing through the maze. Jungle Day was off-the-chain fun in my previous years, but I was yet again on-the-chain in my classroom not participating in it.

Finally, I missed Field Day. Everyone remembers Field Day because it was the last big event of the school year. It was the pinnacle, the prize for making it through the year. We played the entire day: relay races, water games, snacks galore… that’s what we lived for. Yet there I was in—you guessed it—my classroom doing—you guessed it—busywork. There was no point in me being there. The school year was over. I didn’t flunk the grade. Yet there I slouched beneath the flickering florescent lights, toiling through Lord knows what kind of fill-in-the-blank pabulum, and encountering for the first time in my young life the concept of cosmic futility. My sister, pitying her woeful twin, snuck away from Field Day and visited me as if I were in prison. She brought me a popsicle from the festivities, though I’m not sure how she smuggled it past the guards.

So whose fault was this? If we’re getting legalistic here, it was mine. Within the parameters set for my circumstances, I failed to meet the agreed upon standards of behavior. But did these punishments fit the crimes? Or were my teachers overzealous? I’d like some perspective on this, especially from teachers, because, clearly, I’m still bitter twenty years later about this series of unfortunate events. I wonder if my teachers were under some kind of pressure, even before No Child Left Behind and Common Core, to get me up to snuff. Or maybe it was their own idea.

Regardless, the thing about Edna Krabapple having Bart Simpson write a sentence on the chalkboard over and over is that it doesn’t work. It’s not going to reform Bart, and it’s going to make him resent school, teachers, and exercises in cosmic futility. Luckily, that didn’t happen to me (except for resenting exercises in cosmic futility). I mostly enjoyed my K-12 education and benefitted from it, and after getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree I’m currently employed in a profession I like. So why does this continue to stick in my craw?

I got a measure of clarity a few years ago when I visited that school for the first time since I left it in 1998. It was the end of summer, so the school was open for orientation and teachers meetings. My dad and I stopped by the administration offices first so I could ask permission to walk around and thus not become the pair of unknown men wandering an elementary school. The clutch of teachers chatting around the front desk asked who I was; I told them my name and those of my sisters, and one teacher said she remembered us. I rattled off the names of the teachers I had there over the years, and when I mentioned my third-grade teachers, specifically the one I disliked the most, one of the teachers present gave a look to another, as if to say: “Oh, that one…”

And suddenly I realized I, perhaps, wasn’t alone. Maybe Mrs. Three-Strikes had rubbed other teachers the wrong way too, made their lives unpleasant all those years ago. I greatly desired to share my tale of woe with those present, to commiserate and swap stories from the trenches, but decided against it. Instead, I wandered the empty halls, reminiscing about the many better times I’d had at the school that had hardly changed at all since I left it.

The library at the center of the school, now with newer books and no catalog, was still where my classmates and I had coveted Goosebumps books almost as much as Warheads candy. The gym, now seeming a lot smaller after I’d grown a foot or two, was still where once a year the wilderness of Jungle Day had reigned. The cafeteria, now with some upgraded kitchen appliances, was still where in fourth grade I lost in the sudden-death overtime finals of the all-school Geography Bee (congrats, Valerie). The computer lab, now replete with sleek, slim computers, was still where I learned how to use MS Paint on Windows 95.

It’s easy to look back through a telescope with the rose-colored lenses of memory and recall the good times, as I did while taking a literal walk through memory lane. But looking at specific moments through the wrong end of the telescope, as perhaps I’ve done with my misadventures in third grade, can  produce a distorted view disproportionate to everything around it. My tenure at that school was one collective memory of many that came before and after. It was a single ring in a tree that’s still adding layers of experience—triumphs and disappointments and everything in between—from other kids who have walked the same hallways I did.

Still, I’ll bet they got to go to Field Day.