Category Archives: Personal

Remembering the night Nixon resigned

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Yeah, I’m a day late with this, but it was some hours-old Tweets I saw this morning that got me to thinking about it:

Then, later in the day, I wondered if I could see that front page again, and sure enough, Google delivered — although a small, low-res image. See the page above. (See how much wider newspaper pages were then?)

It was at the very start of my journalism career, when I was still in school. I worked nights at the long-extinct job of copy boy, although in deference to feminist sensibilities it was by that time called “copy clerk.” Basically, I was an errand boy, learning the business. And at that point in time — the waning days of hot type — the function was essential. In a time when everything was physical instead of digital, everything — news stories, pictures, proofs (and the coffee and meals that everyone in the newsroom had the power to send us for) — had to be carried to each stage of the process by hand. And it was a great way to learn the business. I knew some things that senior editors didn’t know about where things were and how they worked together (mostly, where to get the coffee).

And there were obstacles, and workarounds, that would confound anyone who started in the business just a little later. For instance, if you want to make a two-word headline stretch all the way across the page today, you just click and drag and it’s done. But back then a headline wasn’t ones and zeroes; it was a physical thing, set in heavy metal by a machine that could only make it so big. I think the biggest possible was either 72 points (an inch high) or 96.

So here’s what we did: The managing editor wrote “Nixon Resigns” on a scrap of paper and sent me to the composing room (on the next floor up) to get it set into type as big as we could. Then, we took a high-contrast proof (on slick paper instead of the usual cheap newsprint) of that metal-type hed and shot a picture of it on one of the cameras used to make press plates, which used page-sized negative film. Then we blew that image up to full-page width, and made a proof of that, which I then ran back downstairs to the M.E., so he could see how his headline would look.

This was not something you did every day. We were doing it that night because this was history. The editor was being creative.

When I brought the finished product to him, the M.E. looked upon his headline and pronounced it good.

By the way, here was the scene in the newsroom when Nixon was addressing the nation: A bunch of us crowded around the TV over the M.E.’s desk, and watched and listened. I forget the name of our Washington correspondent. Let’s say it was Clark Kent. Someone in the group wondered aloud where Clark was at that moment. Our gruff metro editor, Angus McEachran, snorted, “Watching it on TV, just like us!” There was some laughter.

Those who want to paint the newspaper business as already a fossil, left behind by TV, might point to that 1974 scene as proof.

But here’s the thing: When the show was over, all these people had to jump into action. I’d be running back and forth to the wire machines with the copy out of Washington. Editors would be editing that copy and putting it onto pages. Reporters would be calling Tennessee pols for reactions, and maybe even doing some man-on-the-street.

And the next morning, people would have a huge, in-depth package of stories about what had happened, explaining every detail and what it meant.

So what? you think. But you’re not thinking hard enough. That morning, that would be the ONLY source of reporting and commentary available to that reader. Maybe they saw the speech the night before, but that was over. There was no 24/7 TV coverage, babbling on endlessly. (And no DVR or even VHS so you could have recorded it and watched again. You saw it when you saw it, and that was it.) There was no Web, no social media. Other newspapers were not available to anyone unless they came in the mail a day or two later. The only source they had that morning for all the details and perspective on this historic event was their local newspaper. Other sources — weekly magazines that came in the mail and such — would be available later. But the newspaper was it on that morning, the one source of information about this huge thing that had happened.

So we had an important role to play for our readers, and I felt important playing the bit part I did. I got some extra copies of that headline proof and took them home. I got together with my soon-to-be wife and some friends and showed these proofs off. I felt like a big shot…

Managing Editor Bill Sorrels, at the desk where he was sitting when I brought him the headline proof.

Managing Editor Bill Sorrels, at the desk where he was sitting when I brought him the headline proof.

Red Cross says I’m tapped out; y’all need to step up and give

They showed me the numbers, and it just added up to too much plasma...

They showed me the numbers — two pages like this — and it just added up to too much plasma…

Well, it finally happened: The Red Cross says I’ve given them too many platelets, and I need to take some time off.

And you know what that means: It means some of y’all need to step up and give, because the need is still there. In fact, over the weekend I received this message in an email reminding me of my appointment today, and telling me how badly it was needed:

emergency

Yeah, they say that a lot, but here in SC, we’re generally in a shortage situation. I used to think that was a Midlands problem, but it seems wider than that. For instance, the two units I gave June 19 (that was two donations ago) went to Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in Myrtle Beach and Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg. Just think of me as the Scarecrow, and this is the Tin Man’s cue to say “Well, that’s you all over!

You can give platelets again after six days; they come back that fast. But I’ve generally been giving every two weeks. Last month, to keep them from calling me so often, I decided to go to a standing appointment — every other Monday afternoon.

And today was that Monday, but when I showed up, and started going through the usual series of questions that precede the donation, the young lady saw something on her computer screen that made her jump up, excuse herself and run for help. A moment later, someone came in and said that was it for me: I’d given too much in the past year, and I wouldn’t be able to give again until after Aug. 2. Which nixes my appointment on the 31st as well.

It’s not the platelets, though — as I said, they come back pretty quickly. It seems that over time they’ve taken too much plasma from me for my weight — 12,000 ccs. And I won’t be starting over in August, either — it’s cumulative, so this is likely to happen again if I keep giving at the same rate.

This respite will be a relief to my family and friends, who are always asking why I, personally, have to give so often. This is always my cue to go into my Gary Cooper routine and explain, “I’ve got to; that’s the whole thing.” I’m just that kinda guy, ya know. Man of action. Few words.

(Don’t look at me like that. For too many years, I was too scared to do this. Having overcome that fear, I’m going to milk this for all it’s worth.)

But now I’m out of action. And the need is still there. So it’s time for you to be the hero.

You just gotta.

Here’s where to sign up.

That's the thing: You just gotta...

That’s the thing: You just gotta…

The WSJ’s pricing pushes me over to the NYT

WSJ front 2

When I was in college, one of my journalism professors told me that The Wall Street Journal was perhaps the best-written paper in the country. I didn’t discover how right he was until decades later.

As editorial page editor, I had print subscriptions to the Journal and The New York Times, plus The Economist, Foreign Affairs, The Post and Courier, The Greenville News, The Charlotte Observer and so forth. And I’d try to at least skim the Journal and the Times (as about the only person on the board who wrote about national and international issues, I felt the need to keep up).

But I really got into the Journal when The State made a deal to distribute that paper along our circulation routes. As part of that deal, we got a certain number of comp copies, so I arranged to have one delivered free to my house, brought by the same carrier who delivered The State. I wanted to get the Times at home, too, but the guy who contracts with them in this area refuses to deliver on my side of the river, or so I hear (Samuel Tenenbaum, who also lives in Lexington County, drives to the Publix in Lexington each morning to get his copy.)

I really got hooked on it. This was during the years that Murdoch was turning it into a national-international reporting powerhouse as well as just a financial paper. Every day I looked forward to the three pages of opinion, and on the weekends there was the wonderful Review section, always a feast for the mind.

The Journal wasn’t just a boon to me; my wife took the old copies with her when she tutored a Somali Bantu boy whose family our church was sponsoring, to help him with his English.

But after I got laid off, I had to make a decision whether to keep getting it and paying for it myself. And somehow, I managed to scrape along and keep doing it until sometime late last year, when my subscription ran out and they were not giving me a good-enough deal to keep it going.

To give some perspective: For the last two or three years, I’ve been subscribing to The Washington Post for $29 a year. Online only, but that’s fine — not only do they not circulate here, but I read all my papers on the iPad now. By contrast, I’ve been offered “deals” by WSJ for as much as $400-plus a year.

I chalk that up to the Journal continuing to be a paper that people pay for through their work expenses — or, if they pay for it themselves, they can afford it. I can’t.

To be fair, they kept offering me “professional courtesy” rates, usually about $99 for six months. And I’d think about it and shake my head — $99 for a year, maybe (which I think they offered me in years past). But not six months. Not when I’m getting the Post for $29 a year, and at a time when Jeff Bezos has been investing in the newsroom, and the paper’s political coverage is at least as good as it has ever been. Meanwhile, the WSJ has ditched the Arena section I use to enjoy on Fridays.

It was easy to pass up on these offers at first because, for some reason, the Journal was still letting me read the paper on my iPad app. Since that’s the way I prefer to read it anyway, no problem. But eventually — several weeks ago — they got wise and cut me off there, too.

So, I started reading The Guardian in the mornings in place of the Journal. It’s free, although they keep asking me to be nice and pay. But they don’t do it the right way. I think The Guardian‘s a great read, but they pitch it as though I’d want to support their editorial view, and I can’t go there.

Then, last week, The New York Times came at me with a proposition I couldn’t refuse — I could get the whole paper online for $7.50 a month — or $12.20 a month if I wanted the crossword, and one additional subscription for a friend. Why was this a good deal? Well, I was already subscribing to the NYT crossword iPad app, and was paying $6.99 a month for that alone. (Which I thought was really exorbitant, since I get The New Yorker on my iPad for only $5.99 a month, but hey, I enjoy the crosswords — at least, I do on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.)

So basically, I’d still get my crosswords, and then get the rest of the paper for only $5.51 — or $66.12 a year. With the offer expiring on Sunday, I pulled the trigger Saturday night.

Now, some of you will say — you won’t pay for The Guardian because of its editorial position, but you switch from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times — the national icons of the right and left, respectively — as though they were interchangeable?

Yep. Because they’re both great, well-written and -edited papers that bring me the world, and offer me something I enjoy reading on every page. Including the editorial pages. I probably disagree with both papers’ editorial boards about equally. But the opinions, especially the op-eds, are lively and though-provoking. And I’m not one of these people who has to agree with a view to enjoy reading it — in fact, I don’t understand such people.

Anyway, it had gotten to where my favorite columnist in the WSJ was Bret Stephens — and he just moved over to the NYT. As I start reading the paper daily, I expect my favorites will be the ones who skew right — Stephens, David Brooks, Ross Douthat — even as my favorites in the WSJ were more to the left, on the rare days when such was to be had.

Anyway, y’all will likely see me citing stories in the Times as much as I used to from the Journal. (Y’all had probably long ago noticed that I point you to the Post a lot.) I’m sure y’all will give me a heads-up if you think I’m getting reprogrammed…

nyt

Anybody else almost have a wreck here?

park and taylor

For 30 years now, I’ve been pulling out of the St. Peter’s Catholic Church parking lot, turning right onto Park, then left onto Taylor to head home. I also frequently make the same move at the same intersection heading home from work during the week.

As you are no doubt aware, the part of Taylor to the left of Park (heading west) is one-way — four, later widening to five, lanes all heading down toward the river.

To the right (the east) of Park, Taylor is two-way. If you look at my crude graphic above, you’ll see there’s a concrete divider going off to the right, but none to the left.

For 30 years, I’ve had no trouble. Heading north on Park, I pull up to the intersection and stop, look carefully to my right to make sure no one’s coming and trying to change lanes suddenly leftward where it becomes one-way, and then turning left into the closest lane, the way you’re supposed to do.

And I’ll confess that, having done this perhaps thousands of times without incident — and being reluctant to turn away from the direction I expect other cars to come from — I’d gotten to where I’d start rolling out slowly out into Taylor even as my head was turning in that direction. And for 30 years, this bad habit did not cause any problems.

Until a couple of weeks ago. And then, twice in one week, I had to stomp on the brakes to avoid a head-on collision with a car coming up the hill, the wrong way, in my lane!

Twice in one week! The first time I saw as an anomaly, the second time I’m starting to look upon as a trend. (Once more, Jerry Ratts would say, and we can give it to Lifestyles — if we’re still alive.)

Needless to say, I look very carefully to the left now before letting my vehicle start to roll. I’m a little obsessive about it, now. But one near-collision didn’t fully teach me that, and the second time, the other guy and I had to hit our brakes so hard that smoke came from the other car’s tires.

It scared the bejeebers out of both of us, and he started yelling at me, and I started yelling at him, and then… I shut up, and slowly rolled forward so that our windows were next to each other, rolled down my window — being careful to seem non-threatening — and told him, “This is one-way.”

He started to protest, gesturing toward the concrete median dividing the road behind me, and I said, “Yes, that’s right — it’s two-way behind me. But from here on down to the river, it’s one-way. Really.” He seemed to believe me — at least he didn’t yell any more — and we both went on our ways.

If I’d had more presence of mind, I would have asked him where he was coming from, so I could figure out where the system had failed. Is there a missing one-way sign that had always been there before?

I don’t know. But I’m wondering whether any of y’all have encountered this heart-stopping phenomenon on that stretch of Taylor.

If so, maybe we need to lobby the city to do something…

wider

I’m stuck here, but my platelets are at the beach!

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I enjoy getting these little notes from the Red Cross, letting me know where my platelets have gone:

Thank you for being an American Red Cross platelet donor. Your platelets may be a lifesaving gift to patients in need, including cancer and trauma patients, individuals undergoing major surgeries, patients with blood disorders and premature babies.

After first ensuring local needs were met, your donation on 5/22/2017 was sent to Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, SC to help patients in need. Your donations are on their way to change lives!

Platelets have a very short life span – only 5 days! It’s critical for us to collect platelets continuously to ensure they’re available for patients when they need them. Your ongoing donations are greatly appreciated.

On behalf of the hospitals and patients we serve, thank you for being a Red Cross platelet donor!

Sincerely,

Mary O'Neill, M.D.
Mary O’Neill, M.D.
Chief Medical Officer
American Red Cross

I give about every two weeks. (Unlike with whole blood, you can give platelets every six days, but I like to give myself an extra week to recover.) My last donation was Monday. So I’ll give again around the 19th.

Any time y’all would like to help out, jump on in. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.

You might want to ease into it. It would be awesome if you were up for giving platelets right away, but I’ll admit that’s pretty hard-core, and I had to work up to it. It can take almost three hours, from the time you walk into the donation center until the time you walk out. Giving whole blood is much easier, and much faster — and you can’t give again for eight weeks, so it’s less demanding that way, too.

After you do that a few times, you might be ready to step it up. But I know in my case, I had to get desensitized to the process before I was ready for platelets. I had to get over my tendency to get faint at the very idea of the needle going in…

We have public libraries. Why not public broadcasting?

Last night's reception at the library.

Last night’s reception at the library.

Last night I was pleased to attend a reception unveiling the remodeled portions of Richland Library, which also served in a way as a celebration of the fact that the library was recently named one of the nation’s best.

The library is indeed something that we have to be proud of in this community, even though some of us (ahem!) aren’t allowed to check books out because we sleep across the river. Seriously, though, it’s awesome. (At this point I must note that ADCO did the library’s rebrand awhile back, and my daughter-in-law works there.)

Anyway, this came back to mind this morning when I was reading George Will’s Sunday column harrumphing about funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (“Public broadcasting’s immortality defies reason.”)

He trotted out all the usual libertarian, market-oriented objections, such as:

  1. It might have been all well and good in the 1960s, when it was started as part of LBJ’s Great Society (about which, as you’d expect, Will has snotty things to say). Back then, it increased most people’s TV choices by 33 percent. But if it were gone today, it would reduce folk’s choices from, say, 500 channels to 499.
  2. The elite snobs who like it are generally affluent enough to pay for their chosen recreation and edification themselves, without forcing Joe Sixpack to cough up taxes for it.
  3. If Big Bird et al. have value (and Will is willing to stipulate that they do, in a market sense, which to him is what counts), advertisers and broadcasters would line up to eagerly purchase them and take over would CPB cease to be.

Here’s how I answer those:

  1. That’s like saying we don’t need libraries because there are (or used to be) bookstores, and Amazon. Well, yes, those things are fine enough for those who can afford them, but they have a tendency toward the lowest common denominator — reality TV and other garbage. Occasionally, commercial TV has started to do what CPB does — remember how A&E and Bravo started out, before sliding into what Will would term inanition — but the market has yet to produce anything that regularly airs such material as “King Charles III” or “The Civil War” (just to name a couple of personal faves; you may have others.)
  2. Sorry, but even if everyone doesn’t want it, public amenities — from parks to libraries to public schools — are there to better our communities in ways that the market will not. And Joe Sixpack has the same ability to vote for what he wants our tax money to be spent on that I do. Not everyone will agree with every expenditure, but these are the little trade-offs involved in living in communities rather than as hermits. The government (in this country) is not some separate thing out there doing things to us. It is us, and every one of us has the right and the obligation to express what we want it to do — which I am doing at this moment. (Oh, and not all elite snobs are made of money, just as an aside in response to an assertion that is neither here nor there.)
  3. Yes, they may, and then we’d have to watch commercials every 10 seconds. And eventually, all that we would get would be the content that maximized profits, and we’d lose other things that might make a little money but not enough, things that very well be the best of the lot. The marketplace gives us all sorts of wonderful things, from iPads to, um, iPhones (if I had more time, I’d surely think of something else), but I think an important function of the public sphere is to give us good things that the market will not. And if you wonder what sorts of things those might be, go watch some PBS or listen to NPR.

Finally, Will makes a point that in the abstract is devastating and unassailable, especially if you’re a journalist:

America, which is entertaining itself to inanition, has never experienced a scarcity of entertainment. Or a need for government-subsidized journalism that reports on the government. Before newspaper editorial writers inveigh against Mulvaney and in support of government subsidies for television and radio, they should answer this question: Should there be a CPN — a Corporation for Public Newspapers?

Well, no, of course not. But then, we’ve long made a distinction between the press and the use of the public airwaves. The Fairness Doctrine and so forth.

Still, it’s a powerful argument: Government-run news, globally, is the mark of the totalitarian, repressive state.

But then we have the actual fact, right in front of us, of PBS and NPR news programming. And to any objective observer (especially a professional one), they are of such such vastly higher quality than commercial broadcast news that it’s stunning. They are every bit as fair and impartial if not more so, and the depth and quality puts everything (except the better print outlets) in the shade.

It shouldn’t be so. But in reality, it is.

I’m reminded of something The New Republic published a few years back: “Enough Acton: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, except when it does not.” (Of course, some of my friends will object that the magazine said so in support of the Iraq invasion, so there’s that — but it was still a very true observation, a warning against overgeneralization.)

Government-backed media is a scary thing. Except PBS news is so very good. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know that — as an informed observer of news — I’d be sorry to lose that source. (Also, consider — this is news that gets a subsidy from government. As disturbing as that sounds, it’s a far cry from government-run news, which is something I do take an absolute, Actonesque stand against.)

And ultimately, that’s what I have to say about public broadcasting overall. At our house, except for maybe the weekly cold open on SNL, PBS is the only broadcast TV we watch at my house. We use our TV for that, and Netflix and Amazon. That’s it. And the reason why is that the rest of the broadcast universe offers nothing else as good.

And whatever the abstract arguments presented pro and con, I don’t want to lose that. So, to the extent I get a vote, I say let’s keep it.

Library 1

I’ll call this one ‘Cardinal Wolsey’

Cardinal

Christmas before last, my wife received a bird feeder for our deck. Things were going pretty well with the Wagner’s Eastern Regional Blend, except for the squirrels.

Initially, we defeated them by swinging the boom holding the feeder out over open space off the deck, but a few months back they figured out how to defeat that, and basically whenever we weren’t looking, they emptied the thing. I don’t know what it was they were so crazy about; maybe the sunflower seeds.

So a month or so ago I bought some seed at Lowe’s that would only attract smaller birds — and cardinals.

So what’s happened? The cardinals tend to hog it, and run the sparrows and wrens off.

And some of them have gotten pretty fat.

Get a load of this guy. Yeah, his feathers are kind of fluffed out, but he’s still rather large.

And he’s not even eating. He’s just sitting there, staking out territory. Very political, very wordly for a bird of the cloth.

I think I’ll call him “Wolsey”…

How long is a generation? Longer than I thought…

Coronation of Charlemagne

Coronation of Charlemagne

We hear a lot of silly generalizations about demographic cohorts that we refer to as “generations,” which become particularly absurd when you look at how they are defined. For instance, the only really cool generation, the Baby Boom, supposedly includes people born in 1964.

Which is ridiculous. How can you possibly be a Boomer if you can’t remember JFK’s assassination, the arrival of the Beatles or the introduction of the Ford Mustang? It’s obvious; you can’t — if the Baby Boom has any cultural meaning.

But there’s another problem: Even with that overbroad definition, the “generation” only lasts from 1946 to 1964 — 18 years.

That’s not a generation.

So what is a generation? Not having made a study of it, I’ve tended to think it was in the 20- to 25-year range.

That made particularly good sense to me, since my wife and I had our first and second children at ages 23 and 25. Yes, I’m aware that most people of our generation were a bit slower than that, but I figured that in earlier times, people married and had kids even earlier than we did, so historically, 20 to 25 years made sense.

But today, it struck me to use my family tree to find out how it works in reality — and I was surprised at the result.

I decided to go back as far as I reliably could — to Charlemagne, from whom I (and every other person of mostly European descent) am directly descended. He was, calculated the way I first discovered the connection, my 38th-great grandfather (I’ve since discovered quite a few paths back to Charlemagne, which is a mathematical certainty when you go back that far).

So that means he’s exactly 40 generations back.

Charlemagne was born in 742. I was born in 1953. I subtract one from the other and get 1,211 years. Divide that by 40, and the average generation is 30.275 years.

Even going back through the Middle Ages, when life was supposedly so nasty, brutish and short! And maybe it was, for poor people. And no doubt, most of my ancestors in the 8th century were peasants. Unfortunately, I can’t trace back to them; the records don’t exist.

So I’m stuck with 30 and a quarter years. And it would seem reasonable that the more recent generations were even longer.

And they were, slightly. Let’s go back just 10 generations, to about the time my ancestors were moving to this country. Let’s consider some of my 8th-great grandfathers:

  • Walter Chiles II, born March 20, 1630 in Middlesex, England. (Died in Jamestown, Va.)
  • Capt. Luke Gardiner, born Jan. 11, 1622 in Oxfordshire, England. (Died in Maryland.)
  • Sir Ambrose Crowley III, born Feb. 1, 1658, in Staffordshire, England. (Died in England, but his daughter emigrated.)
  • Richard Pace II, born about 1636, Charles City, Virginia. (Grandson of the famous Richard Pace who saved Jamestown.)

The average length of a generation going back to them is, respectively, 32.3, 33.1, 29.5 and 31.7 years.

So, an average of 31.65 years per generation.

Yes, these are all great-grandfathers; the mothers were usually younger, which might reduce the average if there were more female links in the chains (I later checked, and found those were mostly male connections). I just went with male ancestors for the one-to-one comparison. (Also, when you go back that far, there tends to be a bit more information available about them.)

It just seems to defy reason. Yeah, my notions may seem skewed by having had a child at 23, but our youngest was born when we were 35 — and by the time she started school, when we went to PTA meetings all the other parents seemed way younger than we were. Which argued that most of them didn’t have their kids at 35.

Anyway, that’s what I find. As Bryan likes to say, your mileage may vary…

Talkin' about my generation -- the only cool one, of course.

Talkin’ about my generation — the only cool one, of course.

Valentine’s Day has to get better from this point on…

potted-tulips

Last night, I gave platelets, and the morning after I often feel a tad out of it — not quite the thing, you know?

And then the alarm woke me when I was deep, deep into a stress dream — one of those where you’re trying to get a big, complicated (in fact, truly impossible in this case) thing done, and worrying over how to do it, and because you were awakened in the wrong part of the cycle, you have trouble shaking the worried feeling, like part of your brain still believes that you have to solve this problem

OK, maybe you don’t do that, but I do.

When my wife got up, I told her a little about it, and she sort of chuckled at the sillier aspects, which helped put it in perspective a bit, but I still hadn’t shaken the feeling of needing to deal with it when I headed downtown to have breakfast, thinking coffee ought to sort me out…

Well into my second cup, something came to me. Moments later, I Tweeted this:

And I’d been so on top of this! I’d bought those potted tulips on Saturday, way earlier than I usually think about Valentine’s Day.

The day has to get better from this point on, right?

What’s in a name: ‘Horse-Swapping Billy Smith’

My ancestor was sort of an Eastern version of a Pony Express rider.

My ancestor, I take it, was sort of an Eastern version of a Pony Express rider.

Made a lot of progress on the family tree over the weekend. I started on a trove of material on my son-in-law’s family that my daughter brought back from Tulsa over the holidays, and added more than 70 of his kin to the tree — thereby giving my twin granddaughters a nice start on knowing that side of their heritage.

I spent the rest of my time filling in recent gaps in my own side of the family. No delving back into the Middle Ages — no Strongbow or Ragnar or Charlemagne; I stuck to the realm of great and great-great grandparents. I even added a few people who are still alive (which I find are much harder to get basic information on than dead people — although Facebook has made it easier to find photos of them). Recently I’ve discovered that, since I now know a lot more about searching the Web for clues, I’m often able to quickly identify connections that eluded me in the past.

Also, I finally gave in and paid for a six-month membership to Ancestry.com, so I was pretty much drinking data from a firehose with regard to the last century or two. (I only signed up for the U.S. data, so I don’t get anything about ancestors before they crossed the Pond.)

Here’s my favorite discovery of the weekend: My great-great-great grandfather William Burns Smith, who was born in 1803 in North Carolina, and died in Marion County, SC, in 1897. He was my mother’s mother’s mother’s father’s father.

I had already known who he was, and he had already been on my tree. But over the weekend I discovered the fun part: He was known as “Horse-swapping Billy Smith.”

I love finding an ancestor with a catchy sobriquet, such as “Strongbow” or “Shaggy-Breeches.” This one came with a fun anecdote. Horse-Swapping Billy delivered the mail by horseback between Marion and Bennettsville (the town where I was born). The local postmaster was sufficiently impressed by the job he did that he bothered to record this story:

“There is another family of Smiths, below Marion, which I understand is in no way related to those hereinabove noticed – I refer to the late William B. Smith and his family. He, as it is said, came when young from North Carolina, and settled below Reedy Creek Baptist Church, on an apparently poor place; he was called “Horse-swapping Billy Smith” — he was a great horse trader, and in that respect his mantle has fallen upon his sons, Nat. P. and Henry…

William B. Smith, away back in the 50’s, carried the mail on horseback from Marion to Bennettsville, by way of Catfish, Reedy Creek, Harlleesville, Selkirk, Brownesville and Clio to Bennettsville, and back the same route, once a week — at which time the writer was postmaster at Reedy Creek; he went up one day and came back the next; sometimes one of his boys, James or Nat, would carry it.

The writer remembers on one occasion, the old gentleman went up; his horse sickened and died at Bennettsville, and the next day Mr. Smith came back, walking and carrying the mail bags on his shoulders, and went on to Marion that evening. I suppose he was then fifty years of age, and the distance traveled on his zig-zag route was at least sixty miles. One of the men of the present day, much younger than Mr. Smith, would not think of such a trip. Mr. Smith had much of the “get up” in him, and whatever he undertook to do, he did it, and if he failed it was no fault of his; he was accustomed to labor and hardship, hence it did not hurt him….

I love it! There was no keeping Horse-Swapping Billy down! He was just full of the “get up!” And it he failed at anything, don’t blame him, because you know he gave it 110 percent!

My frustration, though, is that the chronicler doesn’t bother to explain fully why he was known as “Horse-Swapping Billy.” In what way was he “a great horse-trader?” Did he have a side business in horse-trading, or was he into it as a hobby? Or was it a broader metaphor, as in he was a guy good at making deals, whether they literally had to do with horses or not? Or, like the Pony Express riders of about that time, did he swap horses at various points on his mail route? If so, he should have made a swap before he got to Bennettsville that one time.

It’s a small thing to give me such delight, but it’s stuff like this that keeps me going with this hobby…

When I discovered this, I called my uncle (who lives in Bennettsville) to share, but to my disappointment he already knew about Horse-Swapping Billy. But we got onto other family matters, and he told me that he’d always heard that the Browns way back on his mother’s side of the family were at some point connected to the Browns on his father’s side.

And… here’s the good part… ultimately they’re supposedly all related to the legendary “Cut-Face” Brown.

I spent an hour or so digging around, but didn’t arrive. I’ll look again when I have time. I’ve just got to find out how I’m related to a guy with a name like that

Belated Top Five List: Best Christmas toys ever

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Technically, this list is not late, as this is the ninth day of Christmas. In any case, I didn’t see the inspiration for it until today. Also, it’s a slow news day.

My fellow former Cosmic Ha-Ha Dave Moniz posted the above photo on Facebook last week, with this caption:

Patrick and Monica somehow found this vintage “electric baseball” set. What a lovely Christmas gift. Unlike its first cousin, “electric football’ this actually works without little plastic men running in hideous circles or clumping in immovable scrums.

My first thought was, I’d like to try that game out. My second was, I hated to see him run down electric football, which frankly, I liked better than real football. Any of y’all remember those? You’d put your little plastic players on the line of scrimmage, with one of them holding the little felt football, and hit the switch, and the whole stadium started vibrating like mad, causing the men — whose bases were perched up on thin, flexible blades of clear plastic, would start moving independently, one hoped toward the goal line. But really, they went wherever they wanted — which quite frequently was backward.

It was a pretty wild toy, both in concept and execution.

Actually, here I am describing it like something from the distant past, and apparently they still sell these things! Which was a surprise to me. But if you’ve never seen one of these in action, here’s video of a fancy modern version.

Bottom line, I loved my electric football game.

Which got me to thinking: What would be my Top Five Toys Ever, with an emphasis on those received from Santa. Here’s a hastily assembled list, which I may amend as we proceed:

  1. My BB gun — To be specific like the kid in the movie, my Daisy Model 1894 authentic saddle gun. This was probably the greatest surprise of my childhood, as my mother had always assured me I would never get one because — and she actually used this line — I would put my eye out. This was a beautiful rifle, the metal parts a nicely blued steel, with the stock rendered in plastic that at least looked like wood from a distance. The moment I found it under the tree was special: Santa had laid out my new sleeping bag that I was expecting, and the rifle was slipped inside it. This, of course, proved the existence of Santa, because I got it when we were living in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and I don’t think there was a store on the entire continent of South America where my parents could have bought this. I had a lot of fun with it, and never did put my eye out.
  2. Any Official Boy Scout gear — All through my Cub and Boy Scout years, nothing could top any gift that had an official Scout logo on it. These were items that a guy had to have to make his way in the world, to Be Prepared (I had never heard of the Zombie Apocalypse, but I instinctively sensed that every boy should be prepared for it), and the Scout emblem, to my mind at least, spoke unfailingly of quality. I received a bunch of stuff from this category over the years. Some items that stand out are my official Cub Scout pocketknife, and my official Boy Scout mess kit and canteen (which I think I got the same Christmas as the BB gun and sleeping bag, so I cleaned up that year).
  3. Tabletop hockey — As I worked on the list, I thought of something I liked better than electric football. That was the non-electric hockey game my brother and I had — this kind, which had the metal rods that you’d move in and out to move the players across the “ice,” and which you would spin to make them shoot the puck. We had some pretty furious, active games with this, which we would play for hours. I still remember with shame how petulant I got the first time my brother — who is six years younger — beat me at this. But mostly, it was fun.
  4. Cowboy six-shooters — This is a whole category because I had a lot of them in the ’50s and ’60s, but I’m going to zero in on one particular product. Do you remember the Mattel Shootin’ Shell system? The Shootin’ Shell was a three-part piece of ammunition. It had a brass shell with a spring inside, a gray plastic slug that you’d push into the shell until it clicked, and a little round paper cap that you’d stick on the back of the brass shell. When the gun’s hammer hit the back of the shell, the shock would cause the spring to eject the little gray slug out the barrel of the gun, and the cap would go off to provide a semi-realistic sound. Here’s video. Anyway, at one point Mattel released a mechanical adversary with which to have gunfights. He was this villainous-looking little mannequin who, when you pulled a string, would start to draw. If he fired before you, you were “dead.” If you managed to draw, fire and hit him with your Shootin’ Shell slug before his arm got to a certain point, his arm would stop. No, I am not making this up. I was able to shoot from the hip and stop him. And yes, boys of my generation were really into violent toys…
  5. The see-through submarine — This was another one that we got when we lived in Ecuador, which speaks to extra exertions by my parents — they no doubt arranged to get these things from the Base Exchange up in the Panama Canal Zone, via the monthly C-47 that brought nonperishable groceries down to U.S. personnel. Anyway, this was an impressive toy. I had forgotten the name of it, but Google has identified it as the Remco Barracuda Atomic Sub. It was about three feet long, and had a motor that moved it on discreet wheels along the floor (water would have destroyed it), while it automatically fired torpedoes out of the bow. The coolest part, though, was that it had a transparent top deck that you could remove, and move around the little blue plastic crewmen inside. For whatever reason, I seem to recall you could also rearrange the bulkheads — which made it more like a Napoleonic-era warship than an actual sub. A friend of mine, also a Navy brat, had a huge toy aircraft carrier made by the same company. It had a pretty powerful catapult for launching aircraft, but that’s not what we used it for. This kid also had a construction set for building skyscrapers. We’d build a skyscraper, and then launch leftover plastic girders at the building from about six feet away to knock it down. A lot of trouble, but eminently worth the effort.

Honorable mention: Hot Wheels. These came along a little late for me, but I had an awesome time playing with my brother’s Hot Wheels — and my sons’, and my grandson’s (every time I go into Walmart today, I have to fight against the temptation to buy him another — they’re only 94 cents apiece, and they’re awesome!). I had grown up on Matchbox cars and thought they were pretty cool, but Hot Wheels just blew them away. Matchbox would later ape the fast-wheel technology, but they were just playing catch-up from then on.

Yep… guns and war toys and fast cars. But I was an actual kid, not a hypothetical one, and that’s what I liked, and I was lucky enough to come up before these things were thoroughly frowned upon. So there.

Now… what are the vintage toys that make you wax nostalgic?

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Weak links in the family tree: The problem of Betty Crowley

OK, here’s another post in which I’m indulging private obsessions, what with this being a slow news week. Most of you will likely be uninterested, but I’m hoping Lynn Teague or someone else — preferably someone as besotted by genealogy as I currently am — will have useful advice, or at least be able to commiserate.

In recent months, I’ve made some pretty exciting (to me) breakthroughs in researching the family tree, some of which I’ve mentioned here. Most branches on the tree peter out when you get back to the Old Country, if you can get even that far. For instance, I can get back to the last Warthen — or as it was spelled then, Wathen — to live and die in England. He was Sir Charles Wathen, my 9th-great grandfather, who died in Bristol in about 1658.

There the line ends, which is anomalous. Most of my family tree, like everyone’s, is pretty common. But if I can get back to a Sir So-and-So or a Lady Whatever, I usually start a streak that can in some cases go back at least a few centuries. Which is fun. As I race through the centuries on one of those, I feel a rush that I suppose gamblers feel on a lucky streak in Vegas.

By the way, I don’t see having lords and ladies in my background as any reason to put on airs (although pictures of their castles on Wikipedia might make me slightly wistful). Pretty much anyone of European extraction will get there if they have the diligence and luck to go back far enough. For instance, I was excited when I first traced a line back to Charlemagne (38th-great grandfather, calculated one way). Then I read that, if you’re European, you’re definitely descended from Charlemagne, and through multiple lines:

If you’re vaguely of European extraction, you are also the fruits of Charlemagne’s prodigious loins. A fecund ruler, he sired at least 18 children by motley wives and concubines, including Charles the Younger, Pippin the Hunchback, Drogo of Metz, Hruodrud, Ruodhaid, and not forgetting Hugh.

This is merely a numbers game. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. But this ancestral expansion is not borne back ceaselessly into the past. If it were, your family tree when Charlemagne was Le Grand Fromage would harbour more than a billion ancestors – more people than were alive then. What this means is that pedigrees begin to fold in on themselves a few generations back, and become less arboreal, and more web-like. In 2013, geneticists Peter Ralph and Graham Coop showed that all Europeans are descended from exactly the same people. Basically, everyone alive in the ninth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne, Drogo, Pippin and Hugh. Quel dommage….

So I decided that if all Europeans are descended from Charlemagne (and from pretty much everyone else alive at the time), the point of the genealogy game was to figure out how. And I did, so I win. My next great accomplishment was to discover double, triple, and more grandparents. You see, if you get back that far, you are descended from some people several ways, because if you keep exponentially increasing ancestors — 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, and so on — after a few centuries you have more ancestors than there were people on the planet. So your branches start intertwining, collapsing onto one another; the same people keep popping up.

I was excited when I found my first double ancestor. Now, it’s routine. I think I’m now descended from Charlemagne about eight ways — just as you probably are.

So I know I’m not special, but I get a kick out of making the connections. The thing is… if you’re a commoner like me, you have to get back to the people who were prominent enough in history to have their own Wikipedia pages. And that almost always entails getting through some people who did not leave such definite tracks in history. That means there is almost always at least one weak link you can never be sure of.

An example: A couple of weeks back, I got on yet another exciting streak. I made a couple of breakthroughs on the Benton line. My great-great grandfather, Nathan Benton Warthen, got his middle name from his mother’s family. Once I’d gotten the Bentons back to the first generation in this country, I made a leap that got me to such fun discoveries as:

  • De Clare coat of arms

    De Clare coat of arms

    Richard “Strongbow” de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, (1130–1176). I wrote something about this 24th-great grandfather last week. He was the first of the Normans who would conquer Ireland, which means he caused a lot of trouble that has reached to our own generation. He did so with the help of one of the Irish kings, Diarmait of Leinster — known by the dubious sobriquet “Diarmait of the Foreigners” for his ignoble role in helping start the English domination of his country — whose daughter he married, making Diarmait my ancestor as well. My wife is descended from the Irish chieftains Strongbow defeated to take Waterford, so this caused some awkwardness at my house.

  • FitzWarin coat of arms

    FitzWarin coat of arms

    Sir Fulk FitzWarin III, Marcher Lord of Whittington and Alveston — This 24th great-grandfather rebelled against King John and was forced to become an outlaw. Who does that sound like? Yep, his story seems to be one of the possible sources of the Robin Hood legend — or at least, a parallel story. Interestingly, he and John had grown up together, after Fulk was sent to King Henry II’s court as a boy. But they fell out over a childhood game of chess and never reconciled, indicating that one of them was probably a very sore loser. At least, that’s the account in the “romance” written after his death, called Fouke le Fitz Waryn.

  • Sir John Oldcastle

    Sir John Oldcastle

    Sir John Oldcastle, MP, Baron Cobham — This one’s not a direct ancestor — his sister Alice was my 18-great grandmother — but he was a fun discovery anyway. Apparently, Uncle John was originally the inspiration for Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, there is evidence that he was even called by his true name in early versions of the plays, but Shakespeare had to change the name because Oldcastle had prominent descendants who had pull at the Elizabethan court, while John Fastolf did not. He’s actually a more serious character than the sometimes buffoonish Falstaff — he was a prominent practitioner of Lollardy, a pre-Reformation dissenting religious movement. Eventually he was burned for heresy and insurrection — which made him a hero in Protestant Elizabeth’s reign.

Fun stuff, huh? And it was particularly exciting because all my previous forays into the Middle Ages had been through my great-great grandmother Jane Hearst Chiles Bradley, a very well connected lady. All of my paths to Charlemagne — as well as to interesting contemporaries such as my 5th cousin once removed Patty Hearst — start with her. This was a whole other branch, virgin territory, and that made it special. New vistas opened before me.

But… these enchanting Medieval romances are built upon a rickety foundation. I refer to the problem of Betty Crowley.

According to my researches of various online databases, I am about as certain as one can be about such things that one Joseph Benton (1684-1752), was my 6th-great grandfather. I only have one source for this, WikiTree, but the particulars add up logically. WikiTree tells me that his parents were John Benton and Betty Crowley.

Betty is the ancestress who gets me to all of the aforementioned romantic figures of the 1200s. Once I get to her father, Sir Ambrose Crowley III — an ironmonger who appears to have played a significant role in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution — it’s pretty smooth sailing back to the Middle Ages, with multiple sources for each generation, and lots of specifics.

For instance, I can read about Sir Ambrose himself here and here and here and here and here. So he is the kind of ancestor I love to find, because it means I’ve hit another hot streak.

But here’s the problem, or one of the problems: Only one of those five sources — again, WikiTree — acknowledges that he had a daughter named Betty. Geni.com lists a daughter named Elizabeth, so one naturally thinks, “There she is!” But this Elizabeth married John, 11th Baron St. John of Bletso, and I see no indication that she ever left England.

Worse, WikiTree shows Ambrose and wife Mary Owen as having both a daughter named Elizabeth, and our Betty. Which seems highly unlikely. I doubt these folks were illiterate, and I just can’t see them not knowing that “Betty” was a diminutive for “Elizabeth,” or deliberately giving two daughters — both of whom grew to adulthood — the same name. Maddening.

My third and final source of worry: WikiTree shows both Betty and her husband John Benton dying in Reno County, Kansas, in 1718. This is the kind of error that just makes me want to bang my head against a wall. I don’t see how anyone could have in seriousness entered such a bogus “fact” without realizing it had to be wrong. This is almost a century before the Louisiana Purchase. There were to my knowledge basically no white people in Kansas in 1718, much less a married couple from New England. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado had passed through in 1541, but he hadn’t stuck around.

So, Betty Crowley presents a problem. But there’s always a problem like Betty, when you try to go back so far.

On the one hand, what does it matter? Whether I’m actually related to all of these people way back when or not, I’m having fun, and I’m learning so much more about history from studying the contexts in which they lived. And besides, even if I had in hand birth and death and marriage and baptism certificates on every one of them, there’s always the chance that one or another was a bastard and it was hushed up. People were not necessarily paragons of virtue in the past (Sir Thomas More may have been writing of my 19th great-aunt Lady Eleanor Talbot Butler, who apparently had an irregular connection with King Edward the IV after the death of her husband, when he referred to “the holiest harlot in the realm,” because she was always in church when she wasn’t in bed with the king. Or if he wasn’t referring to her, it may have been to my cousin Elizabeth Woodville, whose second husband was that same King Edward IV. It’s good to be the king…)

Still, I hate loose ends, and it would be cool to tidy them up. So if anyone has any hints on how to solve the problem of Betty, I’d love to hear them…

Perhaps it’s just as well the electors stayed ‘faithful’

Benedict Cumbatch as Richard III in "The Hollow Crown: The Wars of The Roses."

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of The Roses.”

When I was editorial page editor at The State, I would from time to time go in to work of a morning all fired up to do something really out there, something that, to a less caffeinated person, might seem terribly imprudent, something that would not be good for the newspaper and its credibility in the long run.

And my colleagues — a smart, sober, sensible crew if ever there was one — would talk me down in the morning meeting. They’d grab ‘hold of my coattails and pull, steadily and relentlessly, until they’d dragged me back from the precipice. They were all like, Put the idea down and step back, slowly…

I sort of counted on them to do that. Because ultimately I’m a conservative sort of guy, even though I’d get these wild impulses from time to time.

I don’t have them to do that for me any more. But I have y’all.

If you’ll recall, I came in all charged up on the morning of Dec. 7 (an infamous date for following ill-considered impulses — just ask Admiral Yamamoto), and wrote “Electors, your nation needs you to be ‘unfaithful’.”

Filling the roles of editorial board members, y’all immediately started calmly talking me down. As Phillip wrote in soothing tones, “As much as I fear the coming Trump Presidency, though, this would be a terrible idea,” and went on to explain why. Dave Crockett, saying, “I have to side with Phillip on this one,” poured additional oil on the troubled waters.

And I immediately realized they were right, admitting, “Everything you say makes perfect practical sense.” And I thanked them, in my way.

In any case, off the blog (you’re either on the blog or you’re off the blog), out there in Meat World, the electors met yesterday and were meek and mild, and everything Alexander Hamilton did not intend them to be. In any case, no revolution. And it’s probably just as well, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment.

But to be clear, I wasn’t being a revolutionary. I was being, if anything, reactionary. I wanted to go back to the original spirit (since the original letter is no longer operative) of the Electoral College, in which the electors served as a guarantee that no gross incompetent under the sway of a foreign potentate — ahem — would become our president. I was invoking Hamilton’s sort of conservatism, extolling his mechanism for preventing something imprudent from happening. (I’m so much that way that, as I’ve confessed here in the past, while I fervently embrace the corniest, most cliched sort of patriotism, I often worry that had I been alive in 1775, I might, just might, have been, well… a Tory. I would have had a strong aversion against taking up arms against the duly constituted authority, especially over something as absurd as taxes. Shooting at my lord the King’s soldiers would have seemed to me to be tearing at the fundamental fabric of civilization. I’m talking about before the Declaration. After that, I might have been OK with it — Take that, jolly lobster!)

Anyway, though, y’all were right and I was wrong, and it’s just as well that most of the electors yesterday were too timid to do the right thing — I mean, to cause trouble.

And I’m more certain of that now than when y’all talked me down a couple of weeks ago. That’s because of two things I’ve spent a lot of time on recently — watching TV and working on my family tree.

First, there’s the TV watching… I’ve been enjoying “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses” on PBS. It’s a three-part production of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” parts I and II, and “Richard III.” And it’s pretty great so far (still awaiting that third part).

But boy, does it make you glad you didn’t live in those parlous times. Just to give you an idea of the political instability and its murderous consequences, so far:

  • King Henry VI of the House of Lancaster, an unstable weakling (but a gentle soul), is trying in his own feckless way to hang onto the crown that his father — the “Band of Brothers” speech guy (see how all my posts connect up?) — left him when he was only 9 months old. He marries the French noblewoman Margaret, which looks like a good match but isn’t.
  • The Duke of York — father of, among others, Richard III — asserts that he should be king, and a lot of nobles decide he’s right and line up behind him. After all, he is a Plantagenet, and they held the crown much longer than these upstart Lancastrians.
  • There’s a terrible battle in which Somerset’s head is cut off by the York faction, which is just as well because he was fooling around with Margaret behind the King’s back. (He’s played by the guy who played the guy who was fooling around with Princess Margaret in “The Crown,” so I guess he’s typecast.) York and his posse have a great time tossing the head around and cracking jokes.
  • The followers of York rush to Westminster, where the King later arrives to find York literally sitting on his throne. The King is like, “Get off my chair!” and York is like “Make me!”
  • At this moment, Exeter, who’s always been one of the King’s main guys, says You know what? Maybe York does have a greater claim to the throne. And the King’s like, “What?”
  • The King offers a deal: If they’ll let him remain king while he lives, he’ll give up the crown on behalf of his descendants, letting York and his sons succeed him.
  • Some of the nobles tell the King he’s a loser and march off to tell Queen Margaret.
  • Margaret, who has a young son she was counting on being king, essentially reacts like, WTF!
  • She goes out and leads her own army against York, and cuts his head off, and puts it on a pike.
  • Then things swing back the other way, and… well, suffice to say York’s is not the last head to be used as a decoration.

Anyway, that’s Henry VI. The first two parts anyway, and part of the third. (I didn’t finish part 3 until after writing this.)

Then there’s the genealogy thing…

Over the weekend, I learned that I’m possibly descended from Richard “Strongbow” de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke — the guy who pretty much started the Norman conquest of Ireland in the 12th century. (And even if I’m not related to him at all, the moral of this story still stands.)

This caused some Henry-and-Margaret-style tension at my house, for this reason: My wife’s maiden name is Phelan. The original Gaelic name is Ó Fialáin. The Ó Fialáins were the head honchos in County Waterford until a certain Norman lord came along and conquered and trashed their city.

The particular Norman lord who did that was, you guessed it, my great-granddaddy “Strongbow.” If he is my great-granddaddy — and even it he’s not, he’s the guy.

Yeah… awkward.

Strongbow was driven to this by circumstances. He had inherited the Pembroke earldom and lands from his father Gilbert, also called “Strongbow.” But Henry II — one of those Plantagenets — took them away from him because my ancestor had sided with King Stephen of England in a bloody dispute — a war, not to put too fine a point on it — against Henry’s mother, the Empress Matilda, over who would be monarch of England.

Thus dispossessed, Strongbow went over and did a deal with the Irish King of Leinster, who was having problems of his own, to go together and take Waterford. Which they did. Henry II, eager that these new Irish properties become the crown’s, did a deal with Strongbow in which he got his old title and property back. Which was good for him, but not so great for my wife’s folks in Waterford.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

For so much of human history, no one had much of a sense of loyalty to a country, much less to a system of laws. They couldn’t even be relied on to be loyal to a certain lord for long. Everybody was always looking for the main chance, ready to kill to gain advantage even temporarily.

Our 240-year history, our country of laws and not of men, is a blessed hiatus from all that. We may descend into barbarism yet — and yes, the election of a man who shows little respect for the rule of law is not a good omen — but so far the Constitution has held.

So maybe it’s safest not to tear at the fabric, even a little — even if, like Exeter, we can say maybe the law is on our side. Seeing York’s point of view and encouraging him in his claim did no one, including York, any good. Getting all legalistic in invoking Hamilton’s original intent could have wreaked a great deal of havoc as well…

The earldom of Pembroke came with this cool castle, so you can see why Strongbow wanted it back.

The earldom of Pembroke came with this cool castle, so you can see why Strongbow wanted it back.

Great images of Lynn’s Mama back during the war

Says Lynn: "Here is my mother (2nd from right) dressed in a way that would have suited General Patton."

Says Lynn: “Here is my mother (2nd from right) dressed in a way that would have suited General Patton.”

This is certainly the most awesome thing you’ll see on this blog this week.

Back on Friday when I took note of the 72nd anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Bulge, mentioning my late father-in-law’s experience then and there (being deployed on the front line at the very center of the overwhelming German assault, he would be captured and spend the rest of the war in a POW camp), Lynn mentioned her mother’s experience thusly:

My mother was a nurse with the 95th General Hospital during the Battle of the Bulge, and was a member of Veterans of the B of the B until her death. She had some very sad stories, among them soldiers with terrible injuries from frostbite, along with the other wounds of war. She managed to be personally chewed out by Patton twice. Once was for not wearing a helmet, apparently a common event. The other was for being among the unit officers after they managed to get lost behind German lines for three days. I can’t imagine that anyone trusted my mother with a map. Very bright woman, hopeless with a map.

We were all glad that she shared that, and I asked her for pictures. Today, she obliged. Here’s her narration, slightly edited:

Lt. Tommie Dukes

Lt. Tommie Dukes

Just caught up with the blog and saw your request for photos. I have a few photos of my mother during the war… One [right] is a regular portrait photo that I’m pretty sure was made soon after she became an Army nurse. [Below] is one of my personal favorites — Mama and two of her friends on the Champs-Élysées the day of the parade for the liberation of Paris. A French shopkeeper came out and suggested that she might want to try on some frivolous things after all her time in uniform, and this is the result. As you can see, it is in uniform, plus. She had leave, but wasn’t actually supposed to be in Paris. She and her two friends couldn’t stand not being in the city for the big event and hitched a ride from the hospital. They tried to be inconspicuous, but a French general saw them and pushed them into the parade, so they ended up marching down the Champs-Élysées in front of the tanks.

What great stories, and even greater pictures!

Y’all know how I feel I was born in the wrong time, having missed the titanic events that shaped the world I grew up in. So now I’m jealous of Lynn’s Mom, who was There When It All Happened. (And yes, ere my antiwar friends tell me that these fun pictures are not what the war was about, I know that. I just wish I’d had the chance to Do My Bit when it truly mattered — I feel like a freeloader not having done so.)

Envious as I am, I wish I could have met her and thanked her for her service…

lt-tommie-dukes-2

 

What am I, if I’m not a reader of books?

A few of the books I have either bought for myself, or received as gifts (most of those being ones I ASKED for), but have not finished reading.

A few of the books I have either bought for myself, or received as gifts (most of those being ones I ASKED for), but have not finished reading.

Back when we were first married, my wife gave me a coffee mug that I deeply appreciated, to the extent that I never drank out of it, wanting to preserve it. It had a picture on it of a young boy sitting with his back against a tree and his nose in a book, with the caption, “The sky above and a book to love.”

That really described me as a kid, which I was touched by because she hadn’t known me then — she could just tell. That’s who I was.

But lately… I feel like I’m less myself.

Recently, I Tweeted out (with unintentional irony) an essay in the WSJ about how we all need badly to turn back to reading books:

We need to read and to be readers now more than ever.

We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy. We shop endlessly for stuff we don’t need and then feel oppressed by the clutter that surrounds us. We rarely sleep well or enough. We compare our bodies to the artificial ones we see in magazines and our lives to the exaggerated ones we see on television. We watch cooking shows and then eat fast food. We worry ourselves sick and join gyms we don’t visit. We keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends. We bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages. We even interrupt our interruptions….

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page….

This brought to the fore one of the many perpetual guilt trips I live with: All the wonderful books I already possess — as a result of telling people I wanted them as gifts, and my loved ones acting upon that stated desire — and have not read.

Recently, I confessed that I still hadn’t read Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow — although I’d had it ever since Fritz Hollings insisted I must read it 12 years ago, and I put it on my wish list and received it soon after, and put it on the shelf.

Well, I’ve started it now, and have been reading it for several weeks, and it has all the ingredients of the kind of book I love — I keep stopping to read aloud good bits to my wife — and I’m all the way up to… Chapter 5. Hamilton has just joined Washington’s staff in the midst of the revolution.

Obviously, as fascinating as it is, I can put it down.

Awhile back — more than 18 months ago, I see — I confessed to y’all that while the First World War is one of those areas I really, really feel that I should learn more about, and I had started on it several months earlier and written about how awesome it was (especially that first chapter, which sets the scene), I still hadn’t finished The Guns of August.

Well, I still haven’t. I bogged down somewhere around the time that it shifted to the Eastern front (although I read enough of that to conclude that Tsar Nicholas’ government was too incompetent to run a lemonade stand, much less such a vast country).

When I mentioned that and several other things I needed to read more about at the time, some of y’all very kindly suggested some books to check out. And I was grateful, but at the back of my mind was this awful, nagging doubt that I’ll have the discipline to get around to reading them. The shelves of unread books that I really, really wanted and already possessed groaned with the combined weight of the books themselves… and my guilt.

And I was right. I still haven’t read them.

Sitting around my house and on my iPad, begun but not finished, are the Hamilton book and The Guns of August; The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of M16 — Life and Death In the British Secret Service, by Gordon Corera; The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, by David McCullough; The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo, by Roy Adkins; Trotsky: Downfall Of A Revolutionary, by Bertrand M. Patenaude; A Tale of Two Cities; The Grapes of Wrath; and Moby Dick. That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more.

All of them, with the possible exception of the Trotsky book (I’ve officially given up on that one), started with great promise.

It’s not that I don’t read. I read — or at least skim and dig into the stories that interest me — at least three newspapers a day, plus all the many items that social media draw me to. I suspect I read more news and commentary each day than at any time during my long newspaper career — because so much is immediately available.

And it’s not that I don’t read books. I obsessively reread Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, and occasionally some of my favorites by Nick Hornby, John le Carre (his early stuff, from The Night Manager back), Martin Cruz Smith and, yes, Tom Clancy. I can pass a pleasant moment with them and put them down, because I know that happens next. Ditto with faddish stuff from my youth, such as Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land.

And I occasionally finish a new book, the most recent being, let’s see… Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, by Anthony Beevor. Months and months ago, I now realize.

Why can’t I seem to commit to a new book, and see it through? I suspect it’s because of a number of factors, starting with all that time spent with ephemeral stuff via iPad.

It’s other things, too. I’ve gotten so obsessed with genealogy that I actually spend huge amounts of time on the weekends building my family tree. Several months ago, I had fewer than 1,000 people on it, now I’ve more than 2,600. And just this weekend, I’ve made some surprising discoveries: For instance, one of my apparent ancestors — who rebelled against King John and was declared an outlaw — may have been one of the inspirations for the Robin Hood legend. Really. So I find it hard to tear myself away from that stuff. I’ve learned a lot about dim corners of history I did not know before, just reading context on ancestors. But that reading, so far, has seldom gone deeper than Wikipedia.

The most humiliating reason of all is that, well, there is so much compelling television these days, sucking up my leisure hours. That is something I thought I would never write, especially as a reason for neglecting books, my lifelong love. But while broadcast television (with the exception of ETV and PBS) is a more wasteful wasteland than ever (with some exceptions — I enjoy “Bluebloods,” and don’t forget “The West Wing” was on broadcast), Netflix and Amazon Prime have almost enough offerings to occupy my evenings completely. And I just can’t seem to get around to canceling HBO NOW, despite my best intentions.

Still, I’m almost sure I watch less than most people. Nielsen reported a few months ago that the average adult American consumes media — using tablets, smartphones, personal computers, multimedia devices, video games, radios, DVDs, DVRs and TVs — a total of 10 hours and 39 minutes each day.

Read that figure again, and think about it. It’s not a typo.

This is embarrassing. It’s actually worse than that. It’s an identity crisis. Who AM I, if I’m not reading books? Maybe the Internet has retrained my brain, making it less patient. For whatever reason, an occasional long-form magazine piece, in The New Yorker or some similar venue, is about as long as I go. And most of what I read is no longer than a newspaper column.

I don’t know what’s happened to me. But it’s disorienting. And I need to do something about it…

Some of the books I've lazily read and reread over the years, rather than read something new.

Some of the books I’ve lazily read and reread over the years, rather than read something new.

German attack in the Ardennes started 72 years ago today

on-the-way-to-the-bulge-12-2016

Bryan sent me the above photo a couple of days ago, with the comment, “Check out the heavy fog. It’s pea soup. It looks pretty darn cold, too.”

Yep, it was extremely cold in that time and place. According to Wikipedia, this is what the photo shows: “American M36 tank destroyers of the 703rd TD, attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, move forward during heavy fog to stem German spearhead near Werbomont, Belgium, 20 December 1944.”

A Nazi soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward with companion in territory taken by their counter-offensive in this scene from captured German film. Belgium, December 1944.

A Nazi soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward with companion in territory taken by their counter-offensive in this scene from captured German film. Belgium, December 1944.

Four days earlier, the Germans had attacked the center of the American line with 20 divisions we didn’t know they had, much less that they were in that area. What followed would be the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in the Second World War, popularly called the Battle of the Bulge.  (Those 20 German divisions — 13 infantry, 7 armored — attacked a mere 8 Allied divisions, mostly American. By the end of the battle, the Germans would have 24 divisions in the fight, to our 30. Back then, a division usually included between 10,000 and 20,000 men. So, more than a million men were involved.)

The center, in the Ardennes forest in Belgium, was a quiet area. The American line there was manned by green American troops. It was a place to put them where they could get used to being in a combat area, living in foxholes under rough weather conditions, without being tested by heavy fighting of the sort that was going on to the north and south.

My father-in-law, Walter Joseph Phelan Jr., was one of those green troops. He had been thrown into the new 106 Infantry Division at the last minute before being sent up on the line.

The 106th was occupying the position where the very tip of the German spear struck on Dec. 16, and rolled right over the Americans. My father-in-law, plus novelist Kurt Vonnegut and thousands of other soldiers of the 106th, were captured and spent the rest of the war freezing and starving in German Stalags. Like the guys in the photo taken by the Germans, below.

This is how the war ended for thousands of Americans. The photo above shows the beginning of the American counterattack, which led to victory over the next month, and the breaking of the Siegfried Line.

When I get home tonight I’m going to hunt for his written account of Mr. Phelan’s experience, and scan it and post it…

ADN-ZB/Archiv, II.Weltkrieg 1939-45 Die Ardennenoffensive der faschistischen deutschen Wehrmacht beginnt am 16. Dezember 1944 gegen die alliierten Truppen in Westeuropa. Nach anfänglichen Erfolgen müssen sich die deutschen Truppen bis Ende Januar 1945 auf ihre Ausgangsstellungen zurückziehen. Eine Kolonne gefangengenommener amerikanischer Soldaten. (Büschel) 125-45

Even my earworms are commenting on the election

In recent days, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” has been sort of playing in the background of my mind when I was thinking about other things. I kept finding myself silently mouthing, “pocketful of mumbles,” without bothering to think about it.

Well, in the shower (that font of inspiration) this morning, I suddenly realized why, when I thought of the context:

I am just a poor boy
Though my story’s seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises
All lies and jests
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.

Of course, the last two lines are the most pertinent. For a generation now, people have been rejecting Moynihan’s dictum that we’re not entitled to our own facts, and insisting that they have a right to them. This was the election in which that dynamic, men hearing only what they want to hear, has manifested itself most dramatically (and destructively).

But the rest of it fits, too — the meaninglessness of political promises (which I dislike in the best of times), the predominance of lies, and so forth. And who was Fareed Zakaria’s column reaching out to but “poor boys” who feel that their stories have gone ignored?

I seldom hear that song without thinking of a church youth group that I attended some when I was in high school in Hawaii. It was in an architecturally unassuming (a low, frame building probably left over from WWII) Navy chapel up the hill from Pearl Harbor, somewhere between my house in Foster Village and the Sub Base gate. (I just tried to find an image of it using Google Maps Street View, but first, I think it’s gone, and second, Street View stops working with you get to the edge of a military installation. This was actually off base back then, but now all all Navy property seems to be sealed off.)

It was led by a chaplain of that sort we’ve all met, who is really, really trying to reach out to the kids where they are. I can vaguely picture him, and the only thing else I can remember about him was that he once told us about ministering to Marines during a siege in Vietnam when for awhile it looked like they were all going to die. (Khe Sanh, perhaps? Or maybe some smaller action that’s less well known.)

Anyway, one week he urged us to bring our favorite songs to the next week’s meeting, where we would play them and then discuss why they were important to us.

I couldn’t really think of a favorite song. A year or so earlier it would have been easy — “Let it Be.” But I wanted something more contemporary, so I took my copy of the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album and asked him to play “The Boxer.” I didn’t even know why I picked it then. I think maybe I thought, as a boy starting out in life, to be sort of profound in a self-absorbed young man kind of way, and even literary — the protagonist struck me as a more humble Nick Adams, or something. Maybe I thought it would impress somebody.

Anyway, it’s been there in the background a bit this week…

sg-greatest-hits-other-side

There’s really nothing anyone can say that helps, apparently

tragedy

Today, I read the newspapers with which I start my days (The State, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal) with far less interest, less avidity, than usual.

That’s because no one had anything to say, or to report, that offered any way forward out of the extreme darkness into which Tuesday’s result has plunged this nation.

A large part of my reading every day is opinion, which I suppose is natural enough given my background, but it’s also because I feel that I get more out of journalism that makes an argument — whether it’s one with which I agree or disagree. I learn better when my mind is challenged.

Anyway, none of the opinion or analysis pieces I read today were helpful. There were all these smart, well-meaning people trying to make sense of what’s happened and offer a way forward, and they pretty much all fell flat. Because really, at this moment there’s nothing to be done, and we’re all braced, waiting for the awfulness that is to come.

The only thing that has spoken to me at all today is this piece published yesterday in The New Yorker, because it fairly well sets out the awfulness of what has happened. So at least this resonates; at least it has a ring of truth. Oh, bits of it are off-key from my perspective: Being a liberal New Yorker, this writer is far more concerned than I about what he is pleased to call “an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court.”

But other parts seemed to fit quite well. Excerpts:

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety….

All along, Trump seemed like a twisted caricature of every rotten reflex of the radical right. That he has prevailed, that he has won this election, is a crushing blow to the spirit; it is an event that will likely cast the country into a period of economic, political, and social uncertainty that we cannot yet imagine. That the electorate has, in its plurality, decided to live in Trump’s world of vanity, hate, arrogance, untruth, and recklessness, his disdain for democratic norms, is a fact that will lead, inevitably, to all manner of national decline and suffering.

In the coming days, commentators will attempt to normalize this event. They will try to soothe their readers and viewers with thoughts about the “innate wisdom” and “essential decency” of the American people. They will downplay the virulence of the nationalism displayed, the cruel decision to elevate a man who rides in a gold-plated airliner but who has staked his claim with the populist rhetoric of blood and soil. George Orwell, the most fearless of commentators, was right to point out that public opinion is no more innately wise than humans are innately kind. People can behave foolishly, recklessly, self-destructively in the aggregate just as they can individually. Sometimes all they require is a leader of cunning, a demagogue who reads the waves of resentment and rides them to a popular victory. “The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion,” Orwell wrote in his essay “Freedom of the Park.” “The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”…

That’s probably as far as I can go without violating Fair Use; perhaps I’ve gone too far already.

But the parts I quote were spot on. And I think before the vast numbers of people who did all they could to prevent what has happened can move forward, they need to come completely to grips with just how bad the situation is. Plumb the depths, you might say.

One other phrase from the piece that wasn’t included in the excerpts above: “Trump is vulgarity unbounded…”

In that vein… I haven’t spoken to any of my children or grandchildren yet about what has happened to their country. I’m not sure what to say when I do. I want it to be something that helps, but I don’t know what that will be. So I’ll close with the Clinton ad that more than any other hit right to the heart of why it was utterly unthinkable for this man to become president of the United States:

What I ended up saying to Rotary

capital-rotary

Your suggestions — especially Kathryn’s — led more or less directly to my drafting the words below, which I delivered to the Capital Rotary Club at the Palmetto Club early this morning.

I pretty much zipped through the prepared stuff in order to get to my favorite part — questions. But here’s what I started with:

I was asked to come talk about the current election, and I hardly know where to start.

I think I’ll start with PREVIOUS elections.

We’ve been talking quite a bit on my blog this week about The State’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton on Sunday – or rather, to put it more accurately, The State’s endorsement of the person running against Donald Trump. The paper has no love for Secretary Clinton.

Of course, my responsibility for The State’s endorsements ended when I left the paper in 2009, but it remains a subject that highly interests me.

It was noted in the editorial that this was the first time the paper had endorsed a Democrat for president since 1976.

Someone – a person I’m pretty sure almost always votes Democratic [is that fair, Kathryn?] – asked on my blog why we endorsed all those Republicans. Which is a fair enough question to ask me, since I don’t like either party, and think they have both been enormously destructive to the country in recent decades.

I could only answer for the elections in the years when I was on the editorial board, so here goes:

In 1996, We liked Dole better than Clinton – although by the end, I had my doubts about Dole, and asked Tom McLean, who was then editor, to write it instead of me, which he did. But personally, I still voted for Dole.

In 2000 — We liked Bush better than Gore – as a board, anyway – personally I was rather noncommittal. I was lukewarm on Bush because I had much, much preferred John McCain to him, and had argued very strenuously for endorsing McCain in the primary. We had endorsed Bush instead, which was probably the biggest argument I ever lost as editorial page editor. Also… I worked in Tennessee in the 70s and 80s and got to know Al Gore, interacted with him a good bit, and liked him. But after eight years as Clinton’s vice president, I liked him less. On election night, I remember the lead changing back and forth, and at each point, I couldn’t decide how I felt. I only knew that when the Supreme Court decided Bush had won Florida, I was relieved, and grateful to Gore for promptly conceding at that point.

2004 — We disliked Kerry more than we disliked Bush (if you look back, you’ll see most of the editorial was about Bush’s flaws, but ultimately we didn’t trust Kerry on national security – and for me, that tends to trump everything)

2008 — My man John McCain was running, although we liked Obama a lot. That was really an unusual election for us at the paper. For once, the two candidates we had endorsed in their respective party primaries back at the start of the year faced each other in the general. So we were happy either way, but I had been waiting 8 years to endorse McCain, and I wasn’t going to miss my chance. Besides, Obama was untested. We trusted McCain’s experience.

In 2009, I was laid off from the paper for the sin of having too high a salary when the paper was desperate to cut costs. So I wasn’t involved in 2012, or this year.

Another way to explain our preference for Republicans over the years, a very simplistic one: we were essentially a center-right board, and as long as the GOP remained a center-right party and the national Democrats were so ideologically liberal, we would tend toward Republicans. But I don’t like that overly simple explanation because I don’t like the liberal OR conservative labels, and we prided ourselves on being pragmatic. [I then went on a brief digression of our official point of view, which we called, rather oxymoronically, “pragmatic conservatism.”]

This brings us to today.

The general thrust of the editorial page remains the same as in my day. The core of the editorial board is Cindi Scoppe, and the joke during our many years working together was that we were two people with the same brain. Of course, there are different people involved along with her (Mark Lett, Sara Borton, Paul Osmundson), but the general editorial positions remain the same.

And in this election cycle, the paper did the only thing it could do under the circumstances: It endorsed the only person on the planet in a position to stop Donald Trump from becoming president of the United States.

As I said, the paper was pleased to endorse Republicans as long as it remained a sensible, center-right party. This year, the GOP completely went off the rails, and nominated a man who really isn’t any kind of conservative: an abysmally ignorant – and unwilling to learn – bully who considers attacking people who have criticized him personally as his top priority. A man who admires tyrants, who would abandon our allies, throw out nuclear nonproliferation policies that have served us since 1945, who plays to xenophobia, who would institute religious tests for entering the country, and the list goes on and on.

But that seems like a good place to stop and take questions. I’d love to get questions about local politics, but I can speak to national ones as well. Whatever y’all prefer…

My audience did not disappoint, but provided enough good questions to keep a likely interaction going until time was called. We pretty much stuck to national politics, which I guess was to some extent my fault, for having started us in that direction. But the discussion was interesting, relevant and civil. And you can’t beat that…

I thank my optometrist, Dr. Philip Flynn, for inviting me, and the Club for putting up with me this morning.