Category Archives: History

How lieutenants and sergeants saved the day at Omaha

If you’re a newspaper editor, you know that if you don’t say something about major historical events on their anniversaries, you will catch hell from some readers. And good for those readers; ignorance of history is one of the many things wrong with our country.

I don’t have to worry about that these days, but I hate to let June 6 pass without an acknowledgement. Some would call that day in 1944 the pivotal point in the past century. To some extent, that’s just Western-centrism. The Russians were keeping the Germans pretty busy on the other end of the continent. In fact, many of the “Germans” on those bluffs defending Normandy were from Ost battalions — conscripts from Eastern Europe forced into their conquerer’s service. But even Stalin had impatiently waited and nagged us to open our Second Front, because he expecte it to make a monumental difference. And it did.

But even if you set aside the huge strategic significance, it was an impressive feat. To put 175,000 men on the beach in one day (at least that was the plan, I’ve seen different numbers as to how many did land, but the lowest I’ve seen is 133,000). I’m no great scholar of military history, but I don’t think there’s anything in the annals to match it. Anyway, there was plenty of hard fighting ahead after that day, but the Germans were basically on the retreat from then on.

So I certainly wanted to say something. But it seemed corny to put up yet another clip from Band of Brothers, as much as I love that show.

Then I saw a tweet from Richard M. Nixon (one of my favorite feeds on what’s left of Twitter), and was moved to answer it, so I thought I’d share it here:

What Ike was talking about was the fact that all that planning that he and so many others labored over for two years was essential to winning Normandy. But the effort would have failed on that first day — at least on the one beach, which would have had a terrible effect on the overall operation — if not for the fact that American junior officers and non-coms could think, and act, for themselves.

Once the action starts, you can ball up the plan and toss it. Because not only does the enemy get a say in what happens from that point, but you have an uncountable number of other unpredictable factors that change the situation radically from moment to moment. You have to deal with those, not the events you had anticipated.

At Omaha, especially on Easy Red Sector, the defenses were just too strong for the plan. All those guns, presighted upon every square inch of sand. By midmorning, the landing was a shambles, our men were either lying dead at the water’s edge or cowering and confused behind any bit of cover they could find.

Out on the cruiser USS Augusta, Gen. Omar Bradley watched and listened in horror as the reports came in: “disaster,” he heard, along with “terrible casualties” and “chaos.” He began to consider, privately, withdrawal. But that would have been impractical, and perhaps impossible. “I agonized over the withdrawal decision, praying that our men could hang on,” he would later say.

The guys on the beach were stuck there, with death and confusion all around them. They knew their only way out was forward, and the lower-ranking leaders started giving commands based not on any plan, but on what they were facing. And their men got up and followed. A few at a time at first, they got off the beach and triumphed.

You can draw all the lessons you’d like about American initiative and ingenuity, and there would be a lot to that. American infantry troops are trained to think, and improvise as necessary. Not all armies train that way. And obviously, flexibility and initiative are not words you think of to describe Ost defenders standing at their guns with German sergeants pointing pistols at their heads to ensure they stayed at those posts and kept firing.

So “Nixon” was right in his tweet. And so was his old boss Dwight Eisenhower, all those years before…

And He did it with no mass (or social) communication

If you’d come today
You could have reached a whole nation
Israel in 4 BC
Had no mass communication…

— Jesus Christ Superstar

After persusing the various papers I subscribe to this morning, and finding little to engage my interest, I turned to my daily (well, most days) Bible readings for the day, and this was in the Gospel:

“If I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is not true.
But there is another who testifies on my behalf,
and I know that the testimony he gives on my behalf is true.
You sent emissaries to John, and he testified to the truth.
I do not accept human testimony,
but I say this so that you may be saved.
He was a burning and shining lamp,
and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light.
But I have testimony greater than John’s….

And it occurred to me that it would be great to know a lot more than we do about John the Baptist. We know he was this highly countercultural dude who lived in the wilderness and wore camel fur and ate locusts and honey. And he baptized people, most famously Jesus himself. And he came to a horrible end on this Earth.

But that isn’t enough to fully explain how big a deal he was in his day. Or apparently was, anyway. To a lot of people who lived in that place and time, it seems like he was even a bigger deal than Jesus for awhile. I infer that from the fact that so often in the New Testament, Jesus is explained to people in terms of his relationship to John. There seems to be an assumption at times that the writer of the Gospel or epistle knows people knew about John, and uses him as a launching point. For instance, The Gospel of Mark starts with John.

It would be great to be able to read a biography of John that’s as in-depth and detailed as a modern book such as Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, or David McCullogh’s John Adams, or Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex. And then go from there to fully grasping the foundation of Christianity.

But we can’t. The sources just don’t exist. And not just about John, but about any historical figure from before, say, Gutenberg came along. In fact, we should be grateful that we have more info on John that we do a lot of the more obscure Roman emperors.

Still, to a modern person, it’s frustrating. So we can all dig Judas’ complaint in “Superstar,” about Israel in 4 B.C. having no mass communication. Or even a printing press.

But you know what? That’s what makes Jesus more impressive. You don’t have to be a believer to grasp how awesome his achievement was. This rabbi from the boondocks took a local religion that was only embraced by this one tribe on the borders of an ancient empire, and made it into the dominant faith of the world (yes, Islam is big, but…). And he did it with word of mouth, for the first generation. That, and a few letters written by others.

Which, to me, is exactly the way God would do it. It’s more impressive (and certainly more dignified) than building a rep on “American Idol” and inspiring a billion tweets.

It’s sort of like the way I view evolution. I shake my head at all the arguments between creationists and Darwinists. Of COURSE evolution (and geology and cosmology and all that other stuff) is the way God would make the world. The abracadabra opening of Genesis is a great way to tell an allegory, but come on, people. Look at the sheer, gradual majesty of doing it through subtle changes over billions of years.

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking while doing today’s readings…

St. John the Baptist Preaching, c. 1665, by Mattia Preti

December 6: Any Martin Cruz Smith fans out there?

Pearl Harbor on Dec. 6, 1941. Found this on the East Tennessee Veterans Honor Guard FB page.

Call this a sneak attack, coming on the eve of the date that will live in infamy.

I just had to write down today’s date for some reason, and it got me to thinking about Martin Cruz Smith. Well, specifically, one of his less-known novels, December 6. You ever read it? Here’s a synopsis from Wikipedia:

In late 1941, Harry Niles owns a bar for American and European expatriates, journalists, and diplomats, in Tokyo’s entertainment district, called the “Happy Paris”. With only 24 hours until Japanese fighters and bombers attack Pearl Harbor, Niles has to consult with the local US ambassador, break up with a desperate lover, evade the police, escape the vengeance of an aggrieved samurai officer and leave the island, the exit points from which are all closed. Having grown up in Tokyo, Niles is fluent in the Japanese language and culture, and is highly streetwise.[2][3]

In other words, he’s streetwise for a gaijin, which is a word that comes up frequently in the book as Japanese folk interact with him. But it’s been awhile since I read it. I’ve never reread it as often as I have Rose and some of his Arkady Renko stories, especially Red Square. Although the one that pulled me and so many others toward his work was his amazingly brilliant first Renko story, Gorky Park.

So — are any of y’all fans? I’d like to have a discussion about his stuff sometime. The dude can tell a story. His characters are a bit repetitive — it’s like the same people crop up in both 1870s Lancashire and 1980s Russia — but he makes it work. It’s actually kind of fun to see a familiar character, just with a different name, show up in an entirely different situation…

What’s your first political memory?

I got a couple of ideas out of this week’s Matter of Opinion podcast from the NYT. I’ll write about the other later when I have more time, but at the moment I’ll just share this little interlude where they asked kids (ranging in age from about 17 to a vague “under 30”) to call in with their first political memories:

And we’re back. So we have something else up our sleeve this week, in lieu of a Hot Cold. We recently asked our younger listeners to send in their political awakenings. So let’s take a listen now….

And the callers weighed in with their thoughts on recent events (one first took note of the political world on Jan. 6, 2021) that to them seem to have happened quite some time ago.

Which got me to thinking back a bit further, although I wish they hadn’t used the word “awakenings.” It has a disturbing flavor of ideological orthodoxy, like asking “When did you get your mind right?” I would simply have asked them to recount their “first awareness,” or simply first memory, of politics. That interests me more.

What is yours? Mine was from 1960, at more or less the very moment when I reached the age of 7. I’ve told it here before, but can’t find it at the moment, so I’ll just tell it again. I watched the presidential debates, and I decided I was for Nixon. That was based on my immature assessment of what I perceived as Kennedy’s aggressive tone on the subject of foreign policy. I don’t recall now what he said about the Soviets, but he sounded a lot more like a guy willing to go to war. And not a cold one. Of course, he may have said nothing of the kind. But that’s the way I heard it.

Thinking back on the impression now, I assume — if I heard it right — he was trying to sound that way because he was very young and widely regarded as inexperienced in comparison to the vice president. Maybe he was pushing the tough talk a bit in an effort to create a visceral impression of being a strong leader. But I didn’t know about things like that. I just knew my father was a naval officer, and Kennedy sounded more like a guy who would send my Daddy off to war.

I was quite serious about it, and took the election result hard, and rather, well, childishly. My mother watched Kennedy’s inauguration on the black-and-white in our Woodbury, N.J., apartment, and I protested loudly that I wanted her to change the station to something else (not that there would have been anything else at that moment). She ignored my requests, so in protest I hid behind a chair where I couldn’t see the screen. My mother told me to stop being ridiculous, but I persisted. Basically, I acted like a Trump supporter, although I didn’t storm the U.S. Capitol.

Anyway, I got over it, just not that day.

Speaking of my Dad, his first political memory was of his own father arguing loudly with a neighbor out on the sidewalk in front of the family home in Kensington, Md. The subject? FDR. The neighbor thought he was great, and I gather from his vehemence (which embarrassed my grandmother and caused her to call out to tell my grandpa to stop and come into the house) that he thought Roosevelt would be the ruination of the country. I’m guessing there, because my Dad was too young to understand and couldn’t explain it to me. I’m guess this was early in FDR’s time in office, so… maybe mid-30s. My Dad was born at the end of 1928.

Anyway, what’s your first political memory?

Hey, alla you kids — get offa my century!

This really cracked me up. Remember the anecdote I told about the conversation I overheard awhile back between two students? To keep you from clicking and reading through that long post again, here it is:

I’m reminded of a conversation I overheard on the USC campus back when I worked in an office, and took long daily walks around the campus and downtown area. These two boys were walking behind me, and one of them was bitching about having to take a course in stupid history — as if anybody cared about that.

His friend, however, protested that learning history was important to understanding our world, and he got the first kid to agree, reluctantly. I almost applauded, but in keeping with my lifelong habit of hanging back and observing, I didn’t (anyway, they may have found that a bit… condescending).

But then I heard the first kid say, “Yeah, OK. But this was, like, 500 years back! Who needs to know about that?”

The friend felt compelled to walk back his position: “Well, maybe not 500 years! Let’s not be ridiculous…”

I just kept walking…

Well, that kid who was willing to defend history — up to a point — was an absolute classical scholar compared to the one who wrote this note:

The 1900s! Had they developed writing that early?

I wonder what he would think about Paul’s 20th-century speakers? He’d probably confuse them with Cato the Elder, if he’s heard of him.

Ever since I read that, I’ve tried to reconstruct the train of thought that led to that question, but I haven’t arrived.

Did he think the prof would respond mockingly, saying something like “Hey, why dontcha cite the Magna Carta, or… I know!… the Code of Hammurabi!…”?

I’m thinking about quoting the sages William “Bill” S. Preston, Esq., and Ted “Theodore” Logan here, but that would take us all the way back to 1989…

A Lyric Just in Time

I had a fun little exchange on Twitter with a friend a couple of weeks back, when he posted this quote:

Hey, it’s always fun when people start quoting Elvis Costello. For me, anyway.

So I listened to the song several times, and got to thinking about how that one line is more than just fun:

He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege

You know how I frequently make the point that it’s harder and harder to get the kind of people who ought to run for elective office to run anymore? Reading those books from the late 19th century lately has driven home the point so much more painfully. Why do we almost never see the likes of Teddy Roosevelt or James Garfield — or, to reach higher, Abraham Lincoln — step forward any more? Or for that matter, the extraordinary men who served under them, in key positions — John Hay, Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge?

Well, I know why — because of 24/7 TV “news,” and more recently and intensely, social media. Things that climb all over you and mobs that can’t wait to cancel you for the most trivial things. Consequently, instead of people who set brilliant careers aside to give back to the country by sitting down with other serious people and working out the country’s real problems, you get people who don’t give a damn about any of that. They don’t want to work out problems with anybody. They just want to posture for their respective bases.

And to gain the “privilege” of doing this, they spend every moment between elections raising the money to pay for it.

I even felt a moment of gratitude today when I heard the House GOP had gone behind closed doors to nominate a new speaker. No strutting or posturing for the mob. And they came out with Scalise, which I think is better, or at least not as horrible, as the alternative. Which isn’t much to celebrate, of course.

Anyway, Elvis said it better than I have:

He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege…

I’ll close with the video:

ANOTHER witch in the family! Allegedly, I mean…

“We have a witch in the family. Isn’t it wonderful?”
— Aunt Petunia

I’ve told you before about my wife’s ancestress, Elspeth Craich — one of many, many characters I’ve found who make building a family tree fascinating (to me, anyway). She lived in Scotland from 1631 to at least 1656.

And she was a witch. Allegedly — although she confessed for reasons unknown. I very much hope the reason wasn’t that it was tortured out of her. I like to think she was being crafty. And the record says she “voluntarlie confesst” (for what that’s worth).

This isn’t family legend, by the way. I found documentation, here and here. As it happens, she was fortunate enough to be charged during a time in which Cromwell (Oliver, not Thomas) had banned the execution of witches. (Actually, other sources I glanced at were vague on this, but he was no fan of witch-hunting. He seems not to have believed in witches.)

This put the local authorities in a fix. They had her locked up, but didn’t know what to do with her. Finally, they had to just let her go. Why? Well, she apparently was eating too much. The record complains of “the great trouble that hath been susteaned be the inhabitants of this burgh in watching of Eppie Craich, witch, within thaire tolbuthe this quarter of this year bygane, and the great expens that this burgh is at for the present in susteanyng and interteanyng her in bread and drink and vther necessaris, and finding it to be expedient to dismis hir.”

You’ll notice they kept her in the “tolbuthe,” which is to say, toll booth. Made me think the town, Culross, had an inadequate tax base. They couldn’t afford to feed Elspeth, they couldn’t afford to send her to Edinburgh and let them deal with her, and they couldn’t even afford a jail. (But seriously, folks, that’s what they called a jail in those days. It was apparently a sort of multipurpose public building, like Andy Taylor’s courthouse, where Otis would sleep.)

Anyway, I’ve told you about her before.

Over the weekend, we discovered another such family “scandal.” And this time, it’s on my side of the family.

My grandchildren take varying levels of interest in the family tree, but one of them is into it enough to enjoy sitting by me as I rummage through our thousands of forebears. With her watching, I was poking around in the branch occupied by my great-great-great grandmother Isabella Telford. I actually have a photo of her — which is unusual with people back that far, which is why I went to that part of the tree to show it to my granddaughter. But I knew little about her, beyond the fact that she lived in New York state, making her one of very few ancestors I have who hailed from the North. I had her, and maybe a generation or two of her Telford antecedents.

I saw I had some “hints” from Ancestry on those people, so I decided to show my granddaughter how to add someone to the tree. I was looking through the hints for Isabella’s grandmother (and my 5th-great grandmother) Margaret McCaulay (who married a Tilford, a variant spelling). Ancestry had more than a dozen such clues to offer with regard to Margaret, who for some reason was nicknamed “Betty.” I was skimming down to see if she had a Findagrave page, as those are almost always helpful, when my granddaughter made me stop and go back to another hint I had skipped. “It said ‘witch’!” she told me.

So, you know, here we go again.

I went back and grabbed that document, and resumed searching. A moment later, I saw she did have a Findagrave page, and in place of the customary obituary, it displayed… the story of the witchcraft charge.

Mind you, this wasn’t in far-off Culross, Scotland, in the benighted 1600s. This was more than a century later, in the land of the free, during the American Revolution. And it happened in Salem! No, not Massachusetts — it was Salem, NY.

“It began when Archy Livingston’s cows began producing cream that couldn’t be churned into butter.” Ol’ Arch, a neighbor of the Tilfords, or Telfords, figured he needed some expert advice. Lacking a university-based agricultural extension service, he went to see a shady character named Joel Dibble, who “told people’s fortunes by cutting cards.” Wouldn’t you, under the circumstances?

Dibble worked his magic with the cards, and then broke the bad news to Archy — either the milk or the cows were bewitched. And being the oracle that he was, he could describe the witch: “a short, thick, black-haired woman who had a red-haired daughter.”

This described Margaret Telford to a T. Archy promptly shared the shocking news with everyone he knew, and the community was in an uproar. They were all like “We’re in the middle of a war, and now this!”

Archy’s father-in-law stuck up for the Telfords, and apparently gave Arch a piece of his mind for listening to a “malevolent designing scoundrel” like Dibble. But not everyone agreed:

However, others began to shun the Telfords. Some parents forbade their children to associate with the Telford children. The local magistrate refused to get involved. Or perhaps he was not asked — the Presbyterians might have thought that would have violated the separation of church and state. Because both families were members of Dr. Clark’s church, they agreed that the church was the proper authority to decide the matter.

The Presbyterian pastor initiated a formal investigation, and witnesses were called. Fellow church members testified that Margaret “was an upstanding Christian woman and her moral character was exemplary.” Nevertheless, Rev. Clark called expert witness Dibble:

During the examination, Dibble said he had learned his art in French Canada, and had paid good money for his lessons. He defended the art of cutting of cards on the grounds that, like any other art or trade, it had rules. He said he wasn’t naming any names. He just followed the rules of the cards and, through them, learned indications. With that, Clark cut off the examination, saying there was “nothing tangible here for the church to take hold of.” In Robert Blake’s account, he indicates simply that “the matter was still before the Church and undecided when Dr. Clark moved away.”

The matter was never resolved, and as one chronicler said, over the course of four or five years, “the subject was prudently dropped.”

I’d like to end the narrative on that encouraging note. But sadly,

Even after “the excitement died away,” Margaret continued to suffer from having been accused of being a witch. Many neighbors made life difficult for the family. The young Telford folks were shunned from many parties and merry-makings. When George and Margaret ‘s son John became engaged to Sarah Rowan, many of her friends and relatives opposed the match.

Nevertheless, Margaret and her husband George stuck it out in that community, and soldiered on, and from what I can tell, folks generally respected them for that. And in the end:

George and Margaret are buried in the “Old Cemetery” in Salem, so they must have remained members in good standing of the church that the Rev. Dr. Clark founded.

Of course, it might have helped if the minister had stood up and loudly denounced the nonsense, but I guess he felt he was in over his head. Or something. Sorry I don’t have a totally happy ending there for you (and for that portion of my family I’d never heard of before building my tree). But I think you can see what I mean about family history being interesting.

If you want to know what actually caused the problem with Archy’s cows, don’t look at me. We Telfords had nothing to do with it…

So what do we call THIS era?

I’d always liked Sargent’s “El Jaleo,” and was greatly surprised to find it suddenly before me in Boston last year…

You can only know so much about history. Life is short, and in truth one can never have total knowledge and understanding even of the periods we focus in upon most obsessively.

And in my life, I’ve bounced around from one intense interest to another. When I was a kid, it was the Second World War. It was the thing that loomed over the world in which I grew up, and made that world I knew seem uninteresting in comparison. After I started taking Latin in high school, I got into ancient Rome — or at least, the end of the republic and the first few emperors. When I was in college, I was riveted by the early days of our own republic — not so much the Revolution, but what came after: The Constitutional Convention, leading through the administrations of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Quincy Adams (before the standard dropped so sharply with Old Hickory). I used to go around saying I would love to go back and live in that time of brilliant ideas, if only they’d had more indoor plumbing — yes, an undergraduate’s notion of wit.

Lately, though, I find myself living vicariously in the Gilded Age, bleeding over a bit into the Progressive Era.

This is a period I had mostly ignored in the past — it was after The Recent Unpleasantness, and before the more relatable politics of the 20th, both of which had always seemed more interesting. I just saw it as a time of boring prosperity in the North, and postwar trauma in the South (the rise and fall of Reconstruction, Tillmanism, rich Yankees coming down and buying up plantations as hunting estates, etc.). It was always kind of a blur.

But lately, over the last year or so, I’ve found myself drawn back to it over and over. My recent reading has included:

  • Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard. My elder son gave me this last year — he had assigned himself the task of going through one book about each president in our history, in chronological order, and this had been his favorite. It was about James Garfield, about whom I knew pretty much nothing, which was shameful on my part. It painted a picture of an extraordinary man who was like a dream POTUS — a brilliant self-made scholar and war hero who turned to politics. When he showed up at the Republican national convention to nominate another man in 1880, he ended up being nominated himself, unanimously, but against his own wishes. He then won the election, but his administration had hardly begun when a lunatic (a nobody who outlandishly imagined that Garfield should have named him ambassador to France) shot him. He would have survived, except for the stunningly, inexcusably bad medical care he received. Along the way, the story encompassed other major figures of the period (including Alexander Graham Bell, playing an important role in trying to save Garfield), painting amid the tragedy a bright picture of a country on its way up.
  • Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill. Also by Candice Millard, because I’d liked the Garfield book so much. This was also very enjoyable and enlightening, although not quite as much so, since I had recently seen the 1972 film “Young Winston,” which for a movie did a pretty good job of covering the same portion of Churchill’s life. It’s available on Prime if you want to watch it. But I still definitely recommend the book.
  • Artists of the period. Our trip to Boston last year — specifically, our visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — intensified an already-growing interest in such artists as Isabella’s friend John Singer Sargent, and similar painters such as Anders Zorn — who painted an arresting portrait of Isabella, which I initially mistook for the work of Sargent. Both of them were definitely chroniclers of the Gilded Age, painting famous portraits of heiresses (here’s my favorite, which I like even better than Madame X.) From them, I’ve started branching out to other, similar artists such as George William Joy, whose painting of omnibus passengers I liked better than Zorn’s. It reminded me of the kinds of photos I sneak of fellow passengers on subways — the pictures one of my granddaughters insisted I stop taking. She’s right, but I find the habit hard to shake.
  • Theodore Rex — Still making my way — my slow and steady way — through this, the second book in Edmund Morris’ trilogy about Teddy. It’s pretty awesome. He breaks down Roosevelt’s time as president almost day by day, and in rich detail, and it never gets dull or tiresome (TR wouldn’t have allowed that). Extra bonus: The portrait on the cover is, of course, by John Singer Sargent. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times lately, and will no doubt mention it even more as I proceed. It’s great nourishment for the mind to see issues of actual importance discussed with an intelligence that should make us all envious as we are bombarded by the Kulturkampf of left and right in our own day. And then see them acted upon effectively. We were a nation of such promise then, with a political system that worked.

For all that, I didn’t seek this stuff out on purpose in a deliberate effort to study the period. I just wandered from one to another, and only realized quite recently how wrapped up I had become in this time.

We’ve had a number of prominently named historical periods since the Progressive, such as:

And now, finally, I get to my point, which is that after the heady days of the ’90s, things got kind of fuzzy.

I mean, what do we call THESE times? And does it involve words that can be used on a blog that observes the conventions of what we used to call a “family newspaper”?

For that matter, with the atomization of society due to the profusion of media, is it even possible to make any sort of coherent, widely acceptable generalization about a world that is divided into so many camps that see the world so differently?

I’ll offer one possibility: The Schizophrenic Era. I’m not making a clinical diagnosis here, so don’t correct me with a bunch of quotes from the DSM. I’m thinking in terms of the Greek etymology of the term, meaning “splitting of the mind”… because that fragmentation explains our period as much as any.

I’m not going to suggest any other terms right now, because mainly, I’m curious as to what y’all would call it…

James Garfield, a potentially great president, was shot by one idiot and treated by another…

Wikipedia on the Thirteen Colonies

Sure, Alexandria had a nice library, but that was peanuts next to Wikipedia…

A lot of people criticize Wikipedia. Ironically, if you’d like to know what they say about it, the most convenient thing to do is to read the “Criticism of Wikipedia” article on, of course, Wikipedia. It begins:

Most criticism of Wikipedia has been directed toward its content, community of established users, and processes. Critics have questioned its factual reliability, the readability and organization of the articles, the lack of methodical fact-checking, and its political bias….

And so forth. The article goes on and on.

But I appreciate it, greatly. That’s why I responded positively to one of the service’s periodic fund-raising appeals several years back, and that’s why $3.10 flows out of my credit union account monthly. It is, quite plainly, the least I can do.

First, this is the greatest reference work in the history of humanity. I remember that on “Cosmos,” Carl Sagan used to go on and on about the burning of the library in Alexandria in antiquity, which was surprising for a show that was about science, not history. He seemed to regard it as the worst thing that had happened, ever. And no doubt it would have been better if someone had had a fire extinguisher handy. But while I have no way of quantifying this for you number people, I suspect that the library’s store of knowledge was peanuts compared to what you find on Wikipedia.

I LOVED these…

Do you always find everything you wanted? No. That’s impossible. But it gives me what I’m looking for far more reliably than any other reference work I’ve ever encountered. And I’m a long-time connoisseur. I used to pore through encyclopedias before I could read — and when my parents purchased the Golden Book Encyclopedia for me when I was 6 (as I recall, a grocery store had a promotion going that sold them on a sort of subscription basis, and you got another volume each week), I was engrossed, reading and rereading what I imagined to be the compendium of all knowledge. To me, this was fun.

Later, after I started working at The State, I wrote the “South Carolina” articles each year for the yearbooks of a grown-up encyclopedia. I’d tell you the name of the encyclopedia, but I don’t recall, and don’t see them around me on my bookshelves, because why would I need them now?

Let’s face it: Encyclos were pathetic compared to Wiki — as flat and dead and limited as a folded-up, tattered map from the gas station in 1957, compared to Google Maps.

Generally, I rely on it mainly for the most basic bits of routine, objective information — say, if I’m trying to remember who Adlai Stevenson’s running mate was in 1956 (just now, I was thinking “Estes Kefauver,” and I’m glad to see I was right), or the details regarding that miraculous Wednesday night in 1965 when “Lost in Space,” “Green Acres” and “I Spy” all premiered (a big deal to an 11-year-old). For the most part, I guess, I use it to look up things I think I know to make sure I know them, before I make a fool of myself by writing the wrong thing.

And while there are many sites that provide medical info, if a doctor prescribes me a new medication, I find Wiki far more helpful in giving me an overview of key information such as chemical makeup, what it’s for, contraindications and side effects. Needless to say, I haven’t consulted a PDR in many years. It tells me everything I’m looking for in a structure that makes it all eminently accessible.

Anyway, what got me onto this subject? Just a routine lookup this morning. I don’t remember now what got me thinking about it, but I wanted to check and make sure my memory of which states were among the original 13 colonies was correct (I was thinking, everything on the Eastern Seaboard except Maine and Florida, plus some of those sad little landlocked New England states). I was for some reason doubting myself on Maine, but was quickly reassured.

But I found something a little unusual. I only needed a list of the 13, but what I found was an article, “Thirteen Colonies,” that had something else I love, but seldom seek from Wikipedia: wholeness. This might not strike you when you read it, but it hit me rather forcefully.

I’m not saying this was elegant, novel-style story-telling, but it tied things together in ways that would lend understanding to the reader, not just a hodgepodge of facts. There were some facts I didn’t know, but not that many. What impressed me was that whoever was involved in putting it together, he or she (sure, it could have been any number of people, but there was a unity to it that suggested a single mind) helped the reader grok the big picture, in the way it briefly told the stories of the 13 colonies and how they became the 13 states.

Since what I’m trying to describe here is something holistic, it’s hard for me to give you quotes demonstrating what I mean. But take a look at this graf about how the French and Indian War was simultaneously a unifying experience, but at the same time led to loyal British colonists deciding to declare independence in a remarkably short time:

The British and colonists triumphed jointly over a common foe. The colonists’ loyalty to the mother country was stronger than ever before. However, disunity was beginning to form. British Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder had decided to wage the war in the colonies with the use of troops from the colonies and tax funds from Britain itself. This was a successful wartime strategy but, after the war was over, each side believed that it had borne a greater burden than the other. The British elite, the most heavily taxed of any in Europe, pointed out angrily that the colonists paid little to the royal coffers. The colonists replied that their sons had fought and died in a war that served European interests more than their own. This dispute was a link in the chain of events that soon brought about the American Revolution.

Among other things, you’ll notice how well and simply the piece sets out the paradoxes. How could it be both a unifying and supremely divisive experience? Well, here’s how, in few words. And it’s very understandable. Or I think so, anyway.

By now, if you got this far, you’re going, what the hell am I reading? This topic isn’t just out of left field, it’s beyond the bleachers, and apparently originated in a cow pasture a couple of miles from the ballpark.

But I just was impressed by this small, obscure thing, and thought I’d say, “Way to go, Wikipedia!”

Also, as I’ve no doubt mentioned before, I believe that gross ignorance of history is possibly the greatest problem facing this country and endangering its future. I’m not talking dates and names and facts — I’m talking about real understanding of history, how it all fits together and what it means.

And I thought if I can get one person out there to stumble across this and read that Wikipedia article, that would be one person who would better understand this nation’s origin story…

Another way to look at our loss of the Garden of Eden

Hey, Michelangelo: I thought they were wearing fig suits when they left the garden…

The Gospel reading at Mass yesterday got me to thinking about ancient agriculture:

“A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path,
and birds came and ate it up.
Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil.
It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep,
and when the sun rose it was scorched,
and it withered for lack of roots.
Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.
But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit,
a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.

Back in those days, it seems, farming was kind of haphazard. Seed was scattered in ways that today would seem quite haphazard. Whenever I read that passage, I think, why didn’t they put the seed IN the ground? Had the dibble not been invented, or what?

Which reminded me of my theory of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

It suddenly hit me as I was reading one of those books about the history of our species, from hunter-gatherer days until now — which as y’all know I frequently mention. I don’t remember whether it was Sapiens, or Guns, Germs and Steel, or what. But it was one in which the idea that the big move to agriculture was a decidedly mixed blessing.

Oh, it afforded advantages to the cultures that embraced it, in a competitive sense. As Jared Diamond stressed, the peoples who moved the earliest, and the most successfully, to food and fiber production dominate the world today. That’s how Pizarro conquered the Incan Empire with a handful of Spanish soldiers. He not only had the guns and the steel, but smallpox had spread ahead of the Conquistadores and had hit the Incas pretty hard just before he arrived. More than that, he had writing — not him personally, but the scribes he had along. He knew how Cortez had taken down the Aztecs, and followed suit. Emperor Atahualpa hadn’t known either the Spanish or the Aztecs existed.

It’s why Maori conquered and wiped out the Moriori — former Maoris whose forebears had moved away and gone back to hunter-gathering — on Chatham Island. You may not have heard about that, though, since the Maoris themselves were eventually dominated by European newcomers.

But that’s not my point. The point is that some of these things I’ve been reading make the argument that the big advantage that farming offered had a steep price. Basically, the farming life sucked compared to hunting and gathering. Before agriculture, people worked less each day, and on the whole ate better. They went about and gathered what they needed, and had plenty of time to chill after that. They didn’t think about the future. They didn’t worry about their land, or the weather over the coming months, or the price of cotton. They weren’t the slaves of the farms they worked day and night to keep going.

I was thinking about that, and suddenly it hit me — that’s what the first chapters of Genesis were about. In the Garden, Adam and Eve could just stroll around naked and eat their meals off the bounty of their property, and life was good. Then they fouled up — they couldn’t obey one simple rule — and got booted out. And then they were cursed with farming, in no uncertain terms:

Cursed is the ground because of you!
In toil you shall eat its yield
all the days of your life.

Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you,
and you shall eat the grass of the field.

By the sweat of your brow
you shall eat bread,
Until you return to the ground,
from which you were taken;
For you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.

Which certainly sounds like a raw deal to me.

And it hit me: The people who composed the story of Adam and Eve — and later wrote it down — were on some level remembering the switch to agriculture, and saw it pretty much as Yuval Noah Harari did, thousands of years before he wrote that “the Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.” And they saw it as the ultimate human fall from natural grace.

So did I make some great discovery? No way. This was too obvious, and had been too obvious for ages. Search for “garden of eden hunter-gathering,” and you’ll see this idea all over the place. I liked this summary:

Apparently, the trauma of this transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers had a huge and lasting impact on humanity. We’ve never forgotten it. It’s burned into our consciousness. And, that’s why it’s the subject of the Bible’s foundational story. The Torah tells us that when humans were first created, we lived in the Garden of Eden, where we ate the fruit that God provided for us. We didn’t have to work hard or grow anything on our own. In other words, we were hunter-gatherers….

I don’t know where I was when everybody else was talking about it. All I can say in my own behalf is that I realized it on my own. All the talking that people do about Adam and Eve — usually, unfortunately, in the silly arguments between biblical literalists and those who think a story about the Earth being created in six days means all faith is bunk (both sides seem to have trouble grasping the concept of allegory) — and I’d never heard a reference to this.

And it sort of blew my mind. I love it when I see connections to things I had not previously seen as connected — such as the Bible’s foundational story of life on Earth, and the findings of secular scientists and philosophers in our own age — and this was the Mother of All Connections. It tied everything about the origins of humanity and our world together.

And the most amazing thing is that it appears as though the originators of the Eden story had some memory — consciously or unconsciously — about what had happened to people ages earlier, long before writing, before Abraham, much less before anthropology, archaeology, DNA testing or carbon-14 dating.

I marvel at it…

When did people get here, and how?

You know, it’s hard to find accurate pictures of those earliest boats. So I went with this one…

I’m making a point of reading new books these days — by which I mean books I haven’t read before. For instance, right now I’m reading Theodore Rex, the second volume in Edmund Morris’ trilogy on TR, released in 2001. I’m getting to it about a decade after reading the first book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. But I guess that’s OK, since it took Morris way longer to get to writing it; the first book came out in 1979. I’m very much enjoying it, but at a leisurely pace.

That doesn’t mean I no longer indulge in my favorite way to waste time — reading the same books, over and over. And lately I’ve been drawn back to books about homo sapiens and how the species and our world developed. Right now, Guns, Germs and Steel is sitting on the kitchen table, and I thumb through it while eating (something I wasn’t allowed to do as a kid, but I’ve made up for that lost time).

And that got me onto this subject. I was reading a passage about the settlement of this continent, and Jared Diamond made a brief reference to archaeological discoveries that place humans here way before the Clovis culture came along. You see, the conventional thinking as he was writing was that people got here in about 11,000 B.C. Meanwhile, we have sites, including right here in South Carolina, that show indications of human presence as early as tens of thousands of years before that.

Diamond, writing in 1997 — well before some of the more startling claims about Topper — was sort of dismissive of these kinds of sites:

I wondered whether Diamond would be any more impressed by these more-recent claims. But I don’t know Diamond, and I don’t have his mobile number. So I reached out to the only archaeologist I know around here, our own Lynn Teague. I went over to her Twitter feed, and changed the subject by asking about what was on my mind. Looking back, I suppose I could have shown a little more interest in what she was writing about, but you know, the number count is limited on tweets. Lynn answered right away:

Yeah, just what I was thinkin’, Lynn. But I went on to ask…

Lynn’s answer satisfied me as much as one can be satisfied with regard to this question. Of course, that’s a minimal level of satisfaction. If I ever get a time machine, one thing I’d like to use it for would be to take a bunch of Dick and Jane books to the first modern humans just as they prepared started to break out of Africa and into Eurasia — long before they got here, by anyone’s reckoning — so that they could take up reading and writing and leave us some records.

I figure that by now, their books would be available in paperback, and maybe even free on Kindle…

Some opportunities to learn some history, TODAY

This isn’t the tunnel rat who will be speaking, but another guy who did the same thing, and it captures the essence…

Before I get to my work today, I need to post one more quick thing. Or two or three quick things, since Paul has reminded me that today is June 30…

Lately, my attention has focused less on the things that seem to get folks stirred up today, and more on history. And that’s made me take even more interest in the communications work I do for the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. And in the next few days, they have several really interesting things going on — and two of them are happening today

  • First, at noon today, there is a free lecture by a guy who is a real-life Tunnel Rat — or was a real-life Tunnel Rat, back during the war in Vietnam. That means he made a regular practice of doing something I cannot imagine myself ever doing — plunge deep down into a hole in the ground, alone, with nothing but a flashlight and .45-cal. pistol, to search for the Viet Cong who (equally unbelievably) lived down there. He gave this same talk a couple of years back, and as I recall, he got somewhat into having a less-than-positive self-concept in those days that at least in part led to such self-destructive behavior. But the fact that anybody did it, for any reason under any circumstances, is what blows my mind. Anyway, you can hear him speak in just a little over an hour from now. Here’s the release I wrote about it
  • Something else is happening today that you have more time to take in. A new exhibit is opening, and the remarkable thing about it is contained in the headline of the release I wrote: “Actual photos of Revolutionary War soldiers!” It’s no joke, and there’s no time machine involved. Or maybe, in a way, there is. It’s the display of some remarkable, high-quality daguerreotypes of men in their 90s who had fought in the Revolution when they were in their teens, or at most their 20s. This one particularly grabbed me because I’m fascinated not only by military history, but by early photography. I just love it that someone thought to take, and preserved, these photos of these men at the very ends of their long lives, and the very beginning of photography — two things that barely overlapped for a very few years.

There’s another one I want to tell you about, but it’s a few days off, and I’ve gotta get to work…

Here’s one of those early photos from the impressive collection of W.C. Smith III.

Remember Orison Whipple Hungerford Jr.?

This is how time gets wasted. And consequently, why I post so seldom, among other derelictions of duty.

The other day I had an earworm, and I was trying to figure out what it was. You know how those torment me. Rather than a pop song, it was an instrumental piece, of the grandiose sort. I decided it was the theme music from one of those blockbuster war movies from the 1960s or ’70s, with every actor from the A list, but apparently no writers, and no directors capable of demanding decent acting. You know, like “The Longest Day.”

But it wasn’t that one. No play on Beethoven’s 5th. For a moment, I reached into the ’70s, deciding it might be “A Bridge Too Far.” I went to YouTube to check the theory, but before the first notes sounded, I stopped the video. I had realized it was from “The Battle of the Bulge.” And, as I clicked around trying to confirm, I became unsure it was actually the theme. It was an instrumental version of the “Panzerlied” — which does crop up in the theme, briefly (go to the 29-second mark in this), and is the only memorable tune that emerges. It’s the song those young officers sing while stamping their feet to prove to Robert Shaw vat gut little Nazis zey all vere.

That made me start thinking about what an abominably disappointing film it was. It wasn’t quite the greatest insult Hollywood has ever flung at my late father-in-law’s war service. That distinction belongs to “Hogan’s Heroes.” (My father-in-law was captured in the Ardennes, and spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp. A real one. There was nothing cute or amusing about it.)

But it was pretty bad. I got to pondering what made it so bad. Was it Henry Fonda? Of course not. How could I be critical of Mister Roberts (although don’t get me started on how he was more than 20 years too old for that role)? Although the prig colonel played by Dana Andrews, whose job it was to scoff at Henry’s premonitions, was pretty insufferable. Telly Savalas? Well, the cuteness of the black marketeer’s relationship with the impossibly pretty Belgian girl (yeah, like she’d go for Kojak) was utterly absurd. Both he and Robert Ryan were more fun in “The Dirty Dozen” (of course, as much as I loved that one as a kid, I assure you it didn’t hold up well over the years, either).

As I ran through the cast, trying to thing of the scene or role or actor that best exemplified how little the filmmakers cared, I settled on the guy who played the leader of one of Otto Skorzeny’s units of German soldiers disguised as Americans during the battle. The guy who looked like he’d be equally at home playing one of the non-speaking surfers standing behind Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in one of those beach movies with Eric Von Zipper. I seemed to recall the same guy appearing in “P.T. 109,” with his hair dyed blond, as JFK’s XO Leonard Thom.

Yep. Ty Hardin. He had also starred in one of the less-well-remembered Warner Brothers TV westerns. To check this (as I do everything, all day long), I looked to Wikipedia. Yep, he starred in “Bronco.”

But that’s not the good part of what I read in Wikipedia. The good part was that his real name (you already realize it wasn’t really “Ty Hardin,” of course) was Orison Whipple Hungerford Jr.

No, not making it up.

I’ve always taken something of a dim view of people changing their names, which I see as sort of disrespectful to their parents — especially if they are “juniors.”

But I think I might give ol’ Ty a pass on this one. He had a career to think of, such as it was.

OK, I’ll go do some work now…

I’d forgotten Adolf Hitler was ‘woke’

McMaster et al applauding the Scout deal. Photo from Henry’s Twitter feed.

If I ever knew it, that is. Guess I need to go back and read my history some more, after reading this this morning:

Gov. Henry McMaster on Monday defended South Carolina’s $1.3 billion incentive deal with Volkswagen subsidiary Scout Motors after a group of conservative lawmakers this month criticized the company as “woke.”

Woke? Scout Motors? The subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group? Here’s how that company got started:

Volkswagen (meaning ‘People’s car’ in German) was founded in Berlin as the Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH (‘Limited Liability Company for the preparation of the German People’s Car’, abbreviated to Gezuvor) by the National Socialist Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labour Front) and incorporated on 28 May 1937.[14][15][16] The purpose of the company was to manufacture the Volkswagen car, originally referred to as the Porsche Type 60, then the Volkswagen Type 1, and commonly called the Volkswagen Beetle.[17] This vehicle was designed by Ferdinand Porsche‘s consulting firm, and the company was backed by the support of Adolf Hitler.[18]

Whatever der Führer‘s role (and see the photo below), if you say a company got started in Berlin in 1937, the last word I think of is “woke.” Although there was, to be sure, an element of populism in the production of an affordable “People’s Car.” But as we all know, populism is a persistent feature of both the left and the right.

Folks, I can think of reasons to oppose this Scout deal, if you press me. But I can also think of a number of reasons to support it, and I suppose those win out.

But this “woke” business?

You learn something new every day. Or at least  I do…

1938: Hitler lays the foundation stone of the first Volkswagen plant…

Are we about to send ‘advisers’ to Ukraine? Seem familiar?

I guess we’ll have to repaint them first — some none-desert color.

The Ukrainians need heavy tanks to fend off the increasingly desperate efforts by Vladimir Putin to crush their country.

I’m glad they’re about to get them. And I hope and pray that a peaceful solution can soon be found — not the kind of “peaceful solution” Putin would like, in which Ukraine is under his thumb and the world trembles in fear of him, but one in which it is a safe, self-governed nation, living next to a Russia that will never do this again.

But right now, they need the tanks. So it is a good thing that the Germans are going to provide Leopard 2s, and allow other European nations to share theirs. But they refused to do it if we weren’t in it with them, so we have decided to hand over some Abrams main battle tanks.

The Pentagon had been unwilling to do this, “citing concerns about how Ukraine would maintain the advanced tanks, which require extensive training and servicing.” By contrast, the Leopards are relatively simple to maintain and operate, or so I read.

But since the Germans wouldn’t agree without our participation, we’ll be sending the M1s. They mostly likely won’t arrive until the fall, but that’s not the point. The Leopards are what is needed to help resist the expected spring onslaught. They’re a gesture of solidarity. To the Germans, this gives them the ability to say to Putin, “Hey, don’t just blame us…” That’s the point of all this.

Assuming, though, that we follow through, and assuming also that they are impossible to keep running without having a bunch of experienced people maintaining them, it seems highly likely that we’ll soon have “advisers” in Ukraine. They may just be maintenance crews for the most part, but it will be a presence we don’t have now.

(Mind you, I’m no expert on tank operations and maintenance. I couldn’t change the oil on an Abrams any more than I could repair a television. And maybe we can teach the Ukrainians everything they need to know before the tanks arrive there. But it doesn’t sound like the brass over here think that can be done. At least, they didn’t think so last week. It’s one thing to teach people to drive the tank and fight with it. It’s another to keep complex machinery going once it’s deployed, and that doesn’t sound to me like a long-distance procedure.)

There have been Americans in uniform there before now. But this will be different. It won’t be combat troops, but it will be people who are essential to the war effort, even if mainly in a political and diplomatic sense. Meanwhile, we have elements of the 101st Airborne Division right next door in Romania. And soon the 10th Mountain Division will also have a presence there.

Is this the moment that historians will look back on, 50 years from now, as the one that the “Ukraine Quagmire” began? Assuming historians still exist then. I mean, assuming this (or something else) doesn’t lead to the nuclear exchange that we worked so hard — and successfully — to avoid during the Cold War. Which is what enables us to sit around and argue now about how that was accomplished.

Will this be like when JFK sent the 500 advisers in 1961, to reinforce the 700 Ike had sent in 1955? (A sort of follow-up to the ones Truman sent in 1950 to help the French, but the French ignored the advice.) By the end of 1963, there would be 11,000 Americans in-country.

Today, the consensus is that boy, we really screwed that up. Correct me if this is not what you would say, but I can imagine most Americans saying, “We just kept sending more of our boys over there to a place where we had no business being.”

And Americans tsk-tsk about the foolishness, and worse, wickedness of it all. And they’re so sure they’re right, and that they are so much wiser then the Best and Brightest who got us into Vietnam, and couldn’t get us out. Or refused to get us out, until Nixon came along and saved the day by abandoning Saigon.

Myself, I can — with the benefit of hindsight — point to a truckload of mistakes and miscalculations made that got us deeper and deeper into a conflict that was simply not going to turn out our way. But I also look back and see how every mistake was made, and how it didn’t look like a mistake to those making it.

A lot of people around me think they know better. I guess I’m writing this to make sure they’re noting this as it happens — assuming I’m reading it right, and something similar, or at least analogous, is occurring. Yes, the situations are different in a thousand ways. But what I’m pondering here is the bits that seem familiar.

It would be great if we, as a country, could have foresight that is half as perfect and accurate as everyone’s hindsight is regarding Vietnam. That would lead inevitably to a happy ending in which Ukraine and the rest of Europe are safe, and Russia has learned the lesson we’d like it to learn.

But we don’t have that, and right now — in light of this and that and the other thing in the real world we’re looking at — it seems right to send the Abrams tanks. I hope and pray — yep, I’m repeating myself — that it is…

This is what a Leopard 2 looks like. This one was just a prototype, but it was the only image I could find in the public domain.


2022: The Year in Obits

That headline may seem odd, but I was just trying to think of something that sort of addressed my topic, but wouldn’t sound as nekulturny as “Top Five Dead People of 2022.” Which would have reflected the post more honestly.


This is a time of year when newspapers and other outlets crank out “Best _____ of the Year” lists. I’m not sure why they still do it. In the dead-tree days, we had a reason: It was the time of year when you had the greatest amount of space (on account of all the Christmas-shopping ads) and the least amount of real news. But I guess the beast still has to be fed. We also did it because at that time when content was badly needed, a lot of people were taking end-of-year vacations, before things got busy in January. And this didn’t require reporting — someone just needed the patience to dig through the year’s pages.

Such non-news stories generally mean little to me. “Best Books of 2022” means nothing to me, because I’ve never been interested in the hot books of the moment. When I read, I’m going to choose from the best (or at least, most engaging to me) of that which has been published since (and frequently before) Gutenberg, knowing that I’ll never live long enough to read everything I’d like to read from the best of the 19th century, not to mention other eras. Why waste time on the latest tattle, or the hottest young novelist?

And as I’ve grown older — and especially since COVID — I’ve gotten the same way about current movies. Why go see the “Avatar” sequel when I didn’t much like the original, and I can stream something like “The Grapes of Wrath” or “His Girl Friday,” or “Is Paris Burning?” far more cheaply and conveniently, and without some popcorn-munching kid kicking the back of my seat? (By the way, those three aren’t my three fave films. They just popped into my head, for different reasons. They are: the film I won’t let myself watch until I finally finish reading Steinbeck’s original, which I have steadily failed to do; my actual fave comedy; and a film I’d always meant to see, but didn’t see until recently, and I was more impressed than I thought I would be.)

But you know what does interest me, aside from Dave Barry’s always-entertaining review of the year? The annual list of who died. I like to be reminded of the passing of people who have left a significant mark on our world — not so much because it tells me something about the past year, but because it provides a fascinating, personal perspective on the entire time in which they lived. It’s an interesting, fresh way of being reminded why the world I live in is the way it is, told through the lives of people who played memorable roles in making it that way. These deaths bring history to life, you might say.

And occasionally I’m surprised by the deaths I have missed. I was particularly surprised to learn that Bette Davis had left our presence in 2022, when she would have been 114. (She actually died at a more reasonable age in 1989.) It took me a moment to realize why The State had placed her picture with this story, and initially the search function was unhelpful. But then I searched on “Davis” instead of “Bette,” and found that someone associated with publishing the “Extra” pages of The State‘s e-edition didn’t recognize that the screen legend was not Miles Davis’ wife, Betty. So it was worse than simply misspelling “Bette” in the cutline.

But we all make mistakes — you’ll probably spot some below — so let’s move on from that before I get embarrassed, too.

Looking back, here are the Top Five People Who Actually Died this year, in my view…

Dang it! I don’t have time to whittle it down that far! With apologies to Nick Hornby, here are the Top 25. Of course, I’m putting them in order, so you can see what would have been my Top Five. But I thought those would all be boringly obvious, and it was more interesting to keep going:

  1. Elizabeth II — I doubt I need to explain this, except to say that I had to think for a moment before putting her ahead of the first pope to abdicate in 700 years. But still, she was such a part of our lives for SO long. She set too many records to get bumped to second place. And Pope Benedict only held on for less than eight years before, you know, quitting. Lilibet wasn’t one to quit. And she was a good queen.
  2. Pope Benedict XVI — Oh, and since stories I read this morning failed to name him, to my frustration, the last pope to quit, without external pressure (unlike Gregory XII), before this one was Celestine V, in 1294. He only lasted five months. I suppose I could write a book about the more recent ex-pontiff, but since I’m just getting started on my list and need to move on, I’ll just say nothing against him, but note that I’m glad our pope is now Francis.
  3. Mikhail Gorbachev — On another day (that is, a day on which Benedict had not just died) I might have put Gorby in second place, and debated whether to put him in first. He had more effect on the world than any Soviet leader since Stalin, only in a good way. Don’t try telling Putin that, though.
  4. Pelé — As you know, I’m constantly trying to throw in a little something for sports fans out there, conscious that most of y’all care more about athletics than I do. But I didn’t have to strain myself on this one. This guy was a superhero, and his superpower was football. (Real football, the kind where you use your feet.) Not having been a big fan of this sport, the first thing I usually think of when Pelé’s name comes up is that scene from “Vision Quest” when Elmo the cook talks about seeing him on TV. That was great…
  5. Jerry Lee Lewis — He wasn’t the King, but he knew the King. There are a lot of things to remember about The Killer — hammering the piano with his feet, marrying his 13-year-old cousin. Great balls of fire. But you know what I always think of? The time when he was arrested trying to break his way into Graceland. He had come to show E who the real king was. Well, he wasn’t the King, but he knew the King, you see.
  6. Sidney Poitier — I wrote about his passing earlier, and thinking back, it hits me that I still haven’t seen “A Raisin in the Sun” or “Lilies of the Field.” But I’ll tell you this: I definitely intend to see them well before I shell out money to see that “Avatar” sequel. In fact, I’d much rather sit and watch “To Sir With Love” another five times, back-to-back, than see that CGI nonsense.
  7. Madeleine Albright — She and Dick Riley were my two favorite members of Clinton’s Cabinet. Hers, of course, was the weightier position. She came along at the time when Democrats were going on about the “peace dividend,” and reminded us that in keeping with the liberal notion of America’s postwar role, we were still “the indispensable nation.” That ticks some of y’all off, I know, but not me. I appreciated it.
  8. Loretta Lynn — I was never a big fan myself, but I’m fully cognizant of her impact on our culture. I also enjoyed the movie. My favorite part was the way Levon Helm (see Ronnie Hawkins, below) absolutely embodied the Coal Miner himself.
  9. Wolfgang Petersen — My favorite Clint Eastwood movie wasn’t directed by Clint Eastwood. It’s Petersen’s “In the Line of Fire.” He also gave us “Air Force One,” and before that, “Das Boot.”
  10. Ray Liotta — One of the people who are here because they were “so young,” not so long ago. And he had a distinctive quality on screen. The first time I saw him was in Jonathan Demme’s action-comedy “Something Wild.” Jeff Daniels was funny, Melanie Griffith was sexy, and Ray Liotta was scary. Of course, he expanded on that in later roles, especially “Goodfellas.”
  11. James Caan — From Sonny in “The Godfather” to the Dad on the “naughty list” in “Elf,” he made his distinctive mark on the Hollywood of his times.
  12. Tony Dow — Yeah, I know Wally was older than the Beave and me, but it’s still a shock for him to be gone.
  13. Dwayne Hickman — Again, youth personified when we knew him. Oh, and for you clueless kids out there — we’re talking Dobie Gillis here. You don’t know who that was? Next, you’ll say you don’t remember Maynard G. Krebs.
  14. Ivan Reitman — Not one of the great filmmakers of his time, but he certainly had an impact, via  Meatballs (1979), Stripes (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), Ghostbusters II (1989), Twins (1988), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and Dave (1993). My fave might be “Dave.”
  15. Hilary Mantel — An unusual character, but an impressive writer. And while I read and enjoyed Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I can congratulate myself that while she is gone, I still have the experience of reading The Mirror and the Light in my future.
  16. David McCullough — He not only told us, compellingly, the stories of Harry S. Truman, John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, and the Wright brothers. He also narrated Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.” Dude got a lot done in his 89 years.
  17. Meat Loaf — In drafting a list of notable names, how could I leave out this one?
  18. P.J. O’Rourke — A gifted commenter on our times, even if he was a libertarian. And don’t forget, he also was a frequent panelist on NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”
  19. Ronnie Hawkins — I don’t put him here because of his own music, about which I know little. I put him here because The Band’s first job of note was backing him up — before they did the same for Dylan. So nice work, Ronnie, because I do love those guys.
  20. Mark Shields — I enjoyed his commentary on PBS, and when he was spoken of upon his death as a decent man and a man of faith, that was no surprise. I attended Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York for the first time in 2004, when I was there for the Republican National Convention. At one point I looked around me, and saw someone familiar: It was Shields, sitting there alone. I suspect he was much in demand on the Sunday morning network political talk shows, but there he was at Mass. Not a big thing, maybe, but it made a favorable impression on me.
  21. Bill Russell — He may not have been as big as Pelé, but he was a giant in professional basketball (and not just because he was 6’10”). He was “the centerpiece of the Celtics dynasty that won 11 NBA championships during his 13-year career.” Red Auerbach called him “the single most devastating force in the history of the game.”
  22. Ronnie Spector — With the Ronettes, she gave us “Be My Baby.” And you can’t beat that, can you?
  23. Dirck Halstead — Another celebrity journalist. Don’t know him? Well, you’ve seen this picture, haven’t you? And this one? Does this guy look familiar?
  24. Nichelle Nichols — Better known to you as Lt. Uhura. I wasn’t a huge Trek fan, and I can’t say I knew her, but my old friend Burl Burlingame could. So I’m including her, as much as anything, as a way of remembering Burl.
  25. Sonny Barger — The only member of the Hell’s Angels I would have been able to name if you had asked me (you can thank Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson for that). Not that that’s a good thing, but he was a significant figure in the culture — and the nightmares — of the ’60s.

That’s enough for me. Who makes the top of your list?

Are people REALLY still fighting over ‘Happy Holidays’?

I suppose I’ve been too focused on such things as the actual war — you know, that thing in Ukraine. I didn’t even realize this conflict was still going on, until I saw this headline this morning:

The war on ‘Happy Holidays’ isn’t about Christmas

I reacted to that by tweeting, “People are still feuding over this?” Somehow, I had made it this far through the season without hearing about it. But that must be because I’m getting better at filtering out Kulturkampf nonsense. Anyway, my former neighbor and our sometime (but not in quite a while — ahem!) commenter Jen Fitz responded to my tweet thusly:

One day all the people working so hard to be offended this month will band together and just admit they can’t endure basic human interactions and everyday friendliness. Then they will immediately splinter again, but this time in vicious feuds over the correct way to take offense.

Yup. Anyway, back to what I was saying, if that “war” is still going on, I think maybe it’s now outstripped Afghanistan as “America’s longest.”

When did it start? I dunno. If you trying Googling that, you get an assortment of dates. You also get different accounts about who started it. I tend to think it was started by the simple-minded folks who started getting upset about “Happy Holidays” and launching verbal attacks on Starbucks. But even they were reacting to something, as the History Channel website notes:

Despite the commercialization of Christmas, it was still considered mainly a religious holiday for much of the 20th century. Over the last decade or so, secularists, humanists and atheists became more vocal about the separation of church and state….

When some popular retailers stopped using the word Christmas in their promotional materials and supposedly instructed their employees to avoid saying, “Merry Christmas,” it lit a fire under many Christians.

It also fired-up several cable news hosts such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, both of whom many believe took charge of the modern-day War on Christmas and made it a grass-roots campaign. As word got out, hordes of Christians signed petitions and boycotted the stores, forcing some to change their stance. Other stores continued to use general terms to refer to December 25….

That’s about when the actual “shooting” started in this “war.”

Libertarians and the Identity Politics crowd, of course, returned fire immediately, and this column, though coolly and civilly presented, reflects the ones-and-zeroes approach of so many on both left and right today, describing the “war” in these terms: “I am declaring my allegiance to one idea of America that opposes another: inclusive vs. exclusive.”

Unlike Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, Kate Cohen seems to be a kind and reasonable person. But she is still way too ready to draw battle lines and leap to choose a side.

My position is different. My position is, there is no war. Never has been. It’s particularly absurd if people who do believe in the war say it started in recent decades, with the adoption of “Happy Holidays.”

Because that was always with us. Or long enough for living, mortal humans to say “always.” The first date I come up with when I Google it is “by the 1860s.” I’m old, but that predates even me. I’m also a bit too young to remember the launch of the song “Happy Holiday,” back in 1942. Of course, Henry Ford would have had an immediate and nasty explanation for why Irving Berlin chose that wording. Folks may associate him with the F-150 today, but he’s probably our nation’s most prominent anti-Semite:

Henry Ford was an avid proponent of the idea that someone — or more precisely, some group — was waging a war on Christmas. “Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth,” according to The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, a widely distributed set of anti-Semitic articles published in the automobile magnate’s newsweekly during the 1920s. “People sometimes ask why 3,000,000 Jews can control the affairs of 100,000,000 Americans. In the same way that ten Jewish students can abolish the mention of Christmas and Easter out of schools containing 3,000 Christian pupils.”…

I was about 4 years old at the time the TV show “Happy Holidays from Bing and Frank” aired. But by that time, I saw and heard the phrase everywhere. I didn’t take any note of the John Birch Society’s screed in 1959 against the “assault on Christmas” carried out by “UN fanatics…” Of course, as far as could see, nobody during my childhood took much notice of that group except MAD magazine, which gave me a somewhat comical impression of the organization.

Anyway, the phrase was everywhere when I was growing up, and I don’t think it had anything to do with the ACLU — although the ACLU would later do what it could to stir up unnecessary fights over creches and the like. The phrase dates to a time before the Culture Wars. And it always made sense. And you didn’t have to be lighting the menorah to see that.

Even Christians — assuming they were knowledgeable about their own faith, and their own culture (which some Christian sects, and especially those individuals whose embrace of “Christianity” extends no further than having a cultural identity to cling to) — had, and have, good reason to say “Happy Holidays.” Particularly if they’re Catholic, or Anglican, or Lutheran or Methodist. But any Christian does. Let’s see… between the semi-secular Thanksgiving and the end of the 12 days of Christmas, in the Western church we have:

  • Advent, beginning four Sundays before Dec. 25. That’s right — despite almost everything you hear out in the commercial-cultural complex this time of year, it is not “Christmas” at the moment. Not yet. It’s Advent — which lasts longer.
  • The Feast of Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8. Although admittedly, this one’s not huge among most of our Protestant friends.
  • The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Dec. 12. Of course, I don’t suppose many of the folks who complain about “Happy Holidays” celebrate this one. They’re too busy being furious that people who do celebrate it keep trying to get into our country. Even though, since 1945, she has been the patron of all the Americas.
  • Hanukkah, which is going on right now. Not Christian, you say? Well, the three most prominent figures in the Christmas were Jewish, so it seems related to me. Hanukkah sameach, Jesus, Mary and Joseph!
  • The 12 days of Christmas, the first one being on Dec. 25. Of course, we don’t know what time of year Jesus was born, but these are the days when we celebrate the Nativity.
  • The Feast of the Holy Family, on the Sunday between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.
  • The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Oops, there we go again — being reminded that Yeshua bar Yosef was one of those Hanukkah people.
  • The Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6. Remember, we don’t sing “We Three Kings” before that day.

And according to my math, that means we Christians have multiple, plural holidays during this period that many oversimplify as “the Christmas season.” I may be leaving some holidays out there, but I need to draw this silly subject to a close at some point.

Which I will now do, leaving you with a “Merry Christmas” since that’s the next one up. But I also wish you happiness on all these other holy days. Yeah, folks, that’s the etymological root of “holidays.” We may have added a lot of secular meaning to them, but they are holy days.

So, you know, cut it out with the “war” nonsense…

What will we do on V-E day?

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Today is Dec. 7, which means it’s my father’s birthday, so of course I’m thinking about him. He would have been 94 today.

Others may recall that something else happened on the day my Dad turned 13. The above picture refers to that, of course. Dad helped a friend, who had a paper route, deliver extras about that news. Here he is at around that age. (Or maybe a little younger. I think boys were allowed to switch from knickers to long pants at about 13, but now — despite all the times he reminisced about that coming-of-age moment — I don’t remember exactly, and I can’t check by asking him.)

These dates from the 1940s still loom large, even in the mind of someone like me, who wasn’t born until eight years after the war ended. (OK, I realize there are a lot of people out there who are grossly ignorant of history — even such recent history as this — and the date might mean nothing to them. But it means a lot to me, and not just because of my father.)

This morning, I looked at an appointment card on the kitchen table my dentist’s office gave me the other day. I figured I’d better enter it into my Google calendar before the card gets lost. I found that I HAD entered the appointment on the right date already, but I had the time wrong. So I fixed it. Good thing I looked.

Anyway, that date, for my next cleaning, was June 6. So there I sat on Pearl Harbor day marking something down for D-Day.

I wonder what we’ll be doing on V-E Day?

Experience the stories of South Carolinians who fought in Vietnam

Occasionally, I have given y’all a heads-up about programs happening at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum — an ADCO client.

Well, the museum has something very special coming up on Friday, Veterans Day. It’s been in the works for years, enduring many setbacks, from COVID to the flooding of the space where it is located.

My own father, like many South Carolina veterans, played a small role, being interviewed for hours back in 2017 by Fritz Hamer, then the curator of history at the museum. We lent a few of his artifacts and souvenirs from those days.

Fritz Hamer interviewing my Dad in 2017 about his Vietnam experiences.

It’s called “A War With No Front Lines: South Carolina and the Vietnam War, 1965-1973.” The exhibit fills the 2,500-square-foot brick-lined, vaulted part of the museum that was once the water cistern for the Columbia Mills building when it opened in 1894 as the world’s first electric textile mill.

You can read more about it here, on the special website for this exhibit. Also, here’s a press release I wrote about the opening. On the “news” page of the site, you can read previous releases about recent events that have been building up to this opening, such as lectures by Vietnam veterans, and the huge, impressive diorama of Firebase Ripcord that’s stationed at the museum’s entrance. A lecture will be featured at noon Friday comparing the experiences of Vietnam veterans to those of servicemen who fought in previous wars.

And it’s all free on Friday and Saturday this week. It’s a good opportunity to check out the whole Relic Room, if you never have, but especially this new exhibit.

My father is gone now, but so many of these veterans are still with us, and it’s long past time for their service and sacrifices to be honored, and their stories told. I’m very glad the museum is doing this. It’s still coming together as I write this, but what I’ve seen looks good. I hope you check it out…

A tribute wall to South Carolinians killed in action.

You don’t have to ‘celebrate’ anybody; just know what happened

The start of the Columbian Exchange. It will not be a good deal for the folks on the shore.

I don’t think I ever have — but then I don’t work for the Post Office.

I mean, I worked yesterday. I’m pretty sure everybody at ADCO did. Although I just realized I can’t swear to that, since I don’t go in to an office any more.

But did you? And whether you did or not, what did it mean to you?

Yeah, I know the “holiday” for those who take one was yesterday, but the real day is tomorrow. Anyway, I write about it now because Hunter Limbaugh got me to thinking about it on Facebook this morning:

Columbus Day? Indigenous Peoples’ Day? Put me down for the latter. My take on Columbus is pretty simple: There was courage in the sailing into the unknown thing. Pretty much nothing else about him or what transpired as a result of his trips is worthy of honor or celebration. One doesn’t have to fret about judging historical acts by contemporary standards in order to conclude that even without demonizing the person, his actions ought not be celebrated.
(NB: America was only “discovered” from a Eurocentric perspective. The people who lived here were well aware of its existence).

Hunter, as y’all probably know, is a conservative Republican who served in the Legislature back in the ’90s (when being labeled “conservative” meant you were conservative, and not a lunatic who doesn’t think about anything, ever).

I wrote a response to that on my iPad at breakfast, but now I don’t see it. I was having some trouble on Facebook this morning. It’s not a straightforward, rational platform like Twitter. But enough about that.

Anyway, I’ll try to reproduce what I wrote here…

My own take on Columbus isn’t really “simple,” except in this regard: I don’t know why everybody has to react in terms of how they feel about the guy, or in ones-and-zeroes moral terms: He was a good guy, or he was a bad guy. He is my hero — or no, the “Indigenous Peoples” are my heroes. Stop worrying about whom you’re going to celebrate. You don’t have to celebrate anybody.

I think in terms of the significance of that moment in history, the start of what is known as the Columbian Exchange. Its effect on life on Earth was more than phenomenal, more than monumental. It was the biggest thing to happen since we had started speaking of years in Anno Domini terms. And when I say “life on Earth,” I’m not just talking about Homo sapiens. I mean all life — animals, plants, insects, microbes, and how all of them affected each other — sometimes in good ways, sometimes in horrific ways.

The quibble over whether he “discovered” America seems silly. He had never seen it before; the people who backed his voyage had never seen it. None of them had a clue this place even existed. So yeah, when he ran into those islands down there, he “discovered” them.

Not that he knew it. His whole expedition was based on an idiotic misconception. Far from being the sage who alone knew the world wasn’t “flat” — all educated people knew it — he was the doofus who thought it was way, way smaller than it is. He never let go of that belief, which is why these continents are named for someone else.

So why was his “discovery” a big deal? Nobody had made such a fuss about the Vikings when they came here, or the Irish monks who came before them. And of course, the world wasn’t taking note when some prehistoric Asians wandered across the land bridge from what would someday be Russia. It was 15,000 years ago (or whatever date you choose), and notes hadn’t been invented.

And that’s the thing. That’s what made it a big deal — the biggest of its kind that had ever happened. He didn’t just land and live the rest of his life here, or go back and forget about it. He went home and told everybody, and then came back. And multitudes followed him. And then people started zipping all over the globe, back and forth. I think of the way Charles Mann describes the moment, in his book 1493, when the globe fully became a village: It was quite a few years after Columbus’ voyages, but it wouldn’t have happened without him (or wouldn’t have happened as it did, when it did). In 1564, some Spanish ships met up with some Chinese vessels in the Philippines, and worldwide trade got started. Before long, you had Italians eating tomatoes and folks in India putting hot peppers in their food, and potatoes basically ending famine in Europe — and all of those things came from this hemisphere.

And yes, the American Indians (yes, that’s how I refer in the aggregate to the many cultures who lived here — I’m not going to second-guess Russell Means) suffered — far more than most people realize. It was so horrible, it’s hard to wrap your head around. It’s way bigger than a guy named Cristóbal Colón coming over here and being mean to the people he met. The people of this hemisphere had never encountered smallpox or other European diseases, and contact killed about 95 percent of the population from Alaska down to Tierra del Fuego — the microbes spread way, way faster than the white intruders did. Until recently, historians didn’t realize how populated this side of the world was in 1491, because it took several centuries for Europeans to spread to all parts of it, and by the time they encountered most of these cultures, everybody was long dead and gone.

Was this some demonic plot on the part of Columbus? Did he think, “Man, I hate those indigenous peoples over there, I think I’ll go kill them all?” Nope. He didn’t know how to be that evil. Not that he didn’t do his share of awful things in his life, in his quest for gold and glory. But not that. The germs just caught a ride, and unleashed hell on millions of unexposed people.

Bottom line, the whole thing is way more complicated than Italian-Americans making a hero out of this guy in the 19th century, or modern folks making him out to be a monster. He’s just this guy who stumbled into something, and changed the whole world.

And all of us should take note of these changes, if we’re to understand the world we live in. It’s not about the guy. It’s about what happened…