Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Antietam: America's Bloodiest Day Of Battle

Bloody Lane, Antietam National Battlefield Walking Tour

Today marks the 152nd anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, a one-day Civil War clash in the Great Valley of Maryland near the town of Sharpsburg. It was a marginal victory at best for the Union, but it marked an end to Confederate success on the battlefield in the first year of the war. Furthermore, it provided President Abraham Lincoln an opportunity to issue his Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in all the states that had seceded from the Union. The outcome and opportunity at Antietam came at a huge cost as 
it remains the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. In little more than twelve hours of conflict, almost 23,000 were dead, wounded, and missing. 

Bloody Lane following the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862

There is much to be remembered at this sacred place. Some call the battle a turning point leading to Union victory in the war. Obviously, it is a monumental step in the evolution of human rights in the United States. Sometimes the memories are far more personal. For me, Antietam remains very close to my heart and soul. I was at most six years old when my mother and father took me there to walk among the fields and forests, along the old Sharpsburg Pike and Bloody Lane, and over Burnside Bridge. The old monuments loomed large over a small boy. There's no question that Antietam and a childhood itinerary of other Civil War sites in the region helped shape my future.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Tribute To "The Velvet Fog" On His Birthday

Scott Johnson, my kindred spirit when it comes to music history, posted a belated birthday tribute to Mel Torme in 2012. Johnson rightfully described Torme as "one of the great all-time American artists, too little known and vastly under-appreciated." Many readers may not know the artist, but they would certainly recognize one of his most famous compositions, The Christmas Song, from its opening line, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...."  That song is one of around 300 Torme wrote, but he also contributed to the world of entertainment as a composer, arranger, musician, actor and writer over his 65 year career. 

Torme left us fifteen years ago. His passing was the event that compelled me to listen more carefully to his music and appreciate the crisp timing, perfect pitch, impeccable diction, and playfulness.  Johnson writes a fine tribute and includes videos - the missing one is below - of Torme and friends delivering some fine entertainment. Hope you enjoy. 

And just in case you want to associate "The Velvet Fog" with his signature song - he called it his "annuity" -  here is Torme performing it late in his career.

This is a revised version of a post from 2012.

Friday, September 12, 2014

H.L. Mencken: Still Exposing The Booboisie Across America

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know - and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me - has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost office thereby.

After all these years, the Sage of Baltimore - Henry Louis Mencken - still has so much to tell us about the American experience. In his day he invented the term "booboisie" to refer to the masses who didn't read much, know much or even care much about their lives as citizens of a democratic republic. Today we could easily apply his term to the masses who are well-schooled but not well-educated, who apply emotion rather than reason and logic to their decision making, and who align themselves with coalitions of self-interests wrapped in collectivist totalitarianism.  Another term for the modern-day "booboisie" is "moonbat". I think Mencken would have a even more colorful term for them if were still with us. And oh would he have a time with our political and social landscape today.

Henry Louis Mencken, the "Sage of Baltimore,"  was born on this day in 1880. He was a leading journalist and author on the American scene, humorist, and a student of the American language. Mencken's stature seems to be on the rise over the last few decades. I'd guess it's because we experienced a concurrent rise in many nation-wide opportunities to watch logic, practicality, and skepticism destroy a multitude of political pretenders and their policies regardless of political persuasion. P. J. O'Rourke seems to have picked up the Sage's role as iconoclast and debunker in modern day America.

Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.

Mencken celebrating the end of Prohibition, 1933

As much as I enjoy reading all of Mencken's work, the autobiographical books remain my favorites. His three-part "Days" series, Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (19441), and Heathen Days (1943) should be essential reading. They cover life and times from birth through 1936, the most productive and positive time in his life. After the mid-1930's, Mencken fell a bit out of fashion as his curmudgeonly persistence began to grind on the American psyche. His perceived sympathy with German nationalism helped undermine his reputation into the 40's. In one of the great ironies in American literature, a stroke in 1948 rendered him unable to read, speak or write beyond simple phrases or sentences.  Although he regained some communications skills over time, he spent the next seven years enjoying music, listening to readings, and conversing with friends until his death in 1956.    

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.

Those who want the full Mencken story should read Terry Teachout's, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (2003). Teachout is a superb writer who treats his subject with objectivity and warmth. I also enjoyed a biography, Mencken: The American Iconoclast (2005), by  the eminent Mencken scholar, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, 

If reading isn't to your liking but you still want some immersion into the man and his times, C-SPAN's American Writers Project produced a fine two-hour program on Mencken that should not be missed. It is a thorough multimedia exploration.

I'm the third generation in my family to consider Mencken a favorite writer. Though the author as skeptic likely played a role in his popularity over the years, I think the humor sold him to the family - certainly has in my case. But there is a sad note to this story. In 1959 - I was 13 that year - two family members who were among the first generation to appreciate Mencken passed away just one day part. My dad was the executor of this challenging estate. The late relatives had shared a large home with other brothers and accumulated seventy years of cultural history within its walls. It seemed the only thing that left the house was weekly trash. Included in that history collection they retained were thousands of magazines. No institution or person wanted them as they had not yet achieved a patina of age, worth or "significance." I was given the responsibility of burning them and in doing so I watched a near complete, mint collection of The Smart Set and The American Mercury magazines rise up in smoke on a cold winter day. Both magazines were under the editorship of H.L. Mencken early in his career and featured many new writers who were to become famous in the decades to follow. Today, the collection could bring as much as six figures at a major literary auction.  So much wisdom up in smoke.  If the Sage of Baltimore were alive today, he would not be happy at this outcome, nor would he be surprised...

No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.


Democracy is....   "Notes on Journalism," Chicago Tribune, September 19, 1926;

Puratinism is....   " Sententae," The Citizen and the State, p.624;

If, after I....    "Epitaph," from Smart Set (December 1921);

No one ever....    paraphrase of the "Democracy" quote as noted in The Yale Book of Quotations (2006)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Still Crazy For Patsy Cline

On the last day of August I posted about the birthday and career of Arthur Godfrey, television's first superstar. Today we commemorate the birth of a music legend discovered and nurtured by Godfrey at the height of his career. You may recognize her name: Patsy Cline (1932-1963).

She was born on September 8, 1932 in Winchester, Virginia. In her early teens, she began singing locally on the radio, in clubs and at special events. By the mid-1950s, she was singing with a young Jimmy Dean on a popular country music show broadcast from Washington. A year after her network television appearance on The Grand Ole Opry, she auditioned for the nationally popular show, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. The public loved her. Godfrey loved her. He made Patsy Cline a star.  By 1961, she was at the top and still rising in popularity on the country music charts when her career came to a tragic end in a small plane crash near Nashville, Tennessee in 1963.  

I grew up with her music often hearing it over the radio all day at our family's summer haunt in Burlington, West Virginia. The village was on U.S. 50, just a dozen ridges and thirty-five miles west of her first home in Winchester, Virginia. That's a bit far to claim her as a neighbor, but still close enough to make one proud of a country kid who made it big. Now more than fifty years after her passing music fans still appreciate her marvelous voice.  Crazy!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Arthur Godfrey: A Celebrity Face In The Crowd

Godfrey at CBS Radio, 1948
Arthur Godfrey was born in New York on this day in 1903. Few people under forty years old probably recognize the name "Arthur Godfrey" or have any idea of his celebrity during the middle decades of the last century. He was a star of stars on radio from coast to coast, an ambitious man with a folksy broadcast persona who in real life turned hubris into a tyranny that eventually destroyed his career. Despite his shortfalls, he remains one of the most influential shapers of radio and television entertainment in the U.S. Although I never met the man, we shared common interests including flying, aviation history, the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Northern Virginia, his appreciation of Washington, D.C., and breakfast. You'll understand more about those interests by reading this revised post on Godfrey that first appeared in 2009.

Godfrey was introduced to radio during his Navy and Coast Guard careers. He broke into entertainment and civilian radio in Baltimore and Washington in the early 1930s. He also earned his pilot's license in 1931, an achievement that would lead to a distinguished role in military and civilian aviation. His Arthur Godfrey Time breakfast show was heard on radio coast-to-coast shortly after World War II. By 1952, it had joined his other program, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, on television. Godfrey developed a wonderful easy going, friendly on-air style that captured American radio audiences. That style, coupled with his big smile and his signature red hair made him a natural for television, and for print advertising. 

Godfrey with pilot George Cooper and former Ames Aeronautical Laboratory director Smith DeFrance at Moffett Field, California, 1948 
Without question, he was television's first star, rising quickly, then falling almost as fast, a victim of the darker elements of fame and ego. By 1960, he disappeared from regularly scheduled television and began a brief career in film. By 1972, the radio programs ended and his television appearances dwindled as the decade closed. He died in New York in 1983.

Godfrey was a local to this mill town kid. As a regional radio and television celebrity, Godfrey made his start in the big cities a hundred miles east of my home town. My parents had listened to him almost from the beginning of his career. In addition, fame bought Godfrey his 800 acre farm known as Beacon Hill, located on Route 9 just west of Leesburg, Virginia. He loved the place and spent most of his weekends there after four weekdays in New York. My family made many trips to the Washington area  when I was a child and we always passed the farm. My dad always pointed it out so we could look for the horses, another of Godfrey's passions. I came to look forward to seeing the place, maybe not so much for the horses as much as for the apples we'd buy at Senator Harry Byrd's orchard nearby if it happened to be Fall.

Another connection we shared was a passion for airplanes. Godfrey owned several planes that he flew either from the farm or from Leesburg's airport. I spent many long vacations and weekends at a lodge in Burlington, West Virginia, about 55 air miles from Leesburg. For about twenty years following the end of World War II, Burlington was home to an active airfield and I knew the owners, Georgia and David Baker, very well. The flying stories were endless and I was a willing listener.

Though he wasn't a frequent visitor, Godfrey made occasional fly-ins at Baker's Air Park. In the '50s, it was quite an honor to have "your" airfield graced by television's most famous celebrity. It reminds me of visiting small town museums where the treasured display shows an aging photograph of President Truman waving from his campaign train in 1948. Sometimes history comes at a slow pace. Nevertheless, Godfrey's visits were the talk of the town for Burlington folks. Late one afternoon, the little airfield may have saved his life. He and a passenger made a critical emergency landing at the airfield. With its mechanical issues resolved the plane continued on its final leg to Leesburg later in the week. I'll never understand how they got a twin engine aircraft out of that little dogleg of grass. They probably stripped it, released the brake, went balls to the wall, and sampled the tops of the wall of old sycamores at the end of the field.  Fifty or so years is a long time to remember, but it wouldn't surprise me if he didn't send the passenger home by car. For a pilot who at one time flew everything in the U.S. Air Force arsenal, "wheels up" at Burlington probably wasn't much of a challenge. It did, however, require a tempered ego to reduce the risk. 

We know for certain he had both a temper and an ego, not an unusual combination for super successful people. And Godfrey was surely super and successful. He knew how to transcend the airwaves and come into your house for breakfast, make you laugh, maybe even sell you something you didn't need. It was television in it's first real decade in the U.S. And Godfrey transitioned his leading radio talk show into the leading television talk show almost overnight. It was the equivalent of going from silent film to talkies twenty years earlier. He made it look easy. He put the mill town boy, his mom and dad, and millions of other listeners at ease, made good conversation, strummed the ukulele, sang a bit, made us laugh, then sent us off for the day. We had a good time. That's really because it was Arthur Godfrey's time.

Hard to believe this was a big national hit for the Old Redhead  in 1947. 

For a comprehensive biography, visit the Arthur Godfrey page on Wikipedia, especially if you're interested in the nasty details of his fall from television grace beginning in the mid '50s. For an equally comprehensive bio with additional information visit his enshrinee page at the National Aviation Hall of Fame. For more information on his impact in broadcast media see his page at the Museum of Broadcast Communication.

N.B. Godfrey's fall from grace was a hard one. He is often considered the inspiration for the character, Lonesome Rhodes, a "drunken drifter" in the landmark film, A Face in the Crowd (1957). Rhodes smooth talking, friendly style brings him fame and fortune through national radio and television exposure only to have it destroyed when his true character emerges. This great film brought Andy Griffith to stardom in a very powerful and unexpected role. If you like outstanding writing and editing on film, add this one to your list.

Source: Wikipedia entry, Arthur Godfrey

Photo Credits:

CBS photo, the Harris & Ewing Photo Collection, Library of Congress
Moffett Field photo, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Kennewick Man Revisited: He's The Most Important Human Skeleton Ever Found In North America

Five years ago, I began a blog post on this subject with these remarks:

For fifty years, I have walked a rather wide vocational path incorporating history, geography and anthropology and their expressions on the physical landscape. I find the study of human origins, dispersals, and the waves of settlement over time and across the planet simply fascinating. When there's a new bump in what has become the expected order brought on by political correctness, I have always enjoyed watching the jostling for position and reassurance. One of the latest and best examples was the discovery of the 9300 year old Kennewick Man on a bank of the Columbia River in the state of Washington in 1996. Official Native Americans claimed him under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, but there was a problem. Kennewick Man looked very Caucasian. It took nearly eight years to get a federal court ruling keeping the remains out of the hands of the official local tribe and the obscurity that would have followed. When the law says you're "first," there's no place for an interloper with DNA that could ruin your status. After more months of negotiation, a DNA test determined that the remains were most closely identified with the Ainu people of Japan. The results have reopened the debate on the origins of early Americans.
There were more remarks in a followup post in 2011:

[I have] never had much use for superlatives including the terms "first people" and "Native American." [I] was trained by the first generation of students of Carl Sauer and the Berkeley School of cultural geography where the study of origins, diffusion, and landscape reigned. There was nothing static about places studied under such a lens. Waves of settlement, often over thousands of years, modified landscapes. The people, objects, structures and sites in each wave left rich resources for study by anthropologists and archaeologists. The Sauer School took information from these and other fields to define places throughout the world. Also, by studying the diffusion of cultural items, geographers traced peoples and cultures to their supposed points of origin.

In this day and age of political correctness, being declared the "first culture" has its advantages, often dispensed in the form of privilege, property and money. When the declaration is by law, the limitations of such thinking becomes very evident. The best example in the United States is the term, "Native American." It is purely a legal term. If your tribe is recognized by the federal government, you are a "Native American." If your tribe does not meet the criteria for recognition, you will be forced to settle for the term, American Indian. All Native Americans are Indians, but not all Indians are Native Americans. The "natives" get the privilege, property, and money. The Indians may have the genes, but they don't get the recognition. So confusing. And what happens when those waves of settlement produce something that doesn't fit the legal model? [I think] the same question emerges when cultural geographers run out of evidence. Is this really the original? Could there be earlier waves lost to catastrophe?

Now the truth has come to light and Kennewick Man's story may very well rewrite the story of human settlement in North America.  It's an exciting time for anthropology and cultural geography, but there is opposition both from the federal government and Native American tribes. In the name of science and the search for truth, I hope the research continues.

Source: Instapundit, 8-27-2014

Instant Climate Change, Krakatoa Style

The Scream (of Nature)       Edvard Munch, 1893
Imagine waking up on this fine Wednesday morning to hear that a gigantic magnetic storm will disrupt much of the planet's electronics and communication networks on Friday. This event simply isn't going to break up your digital reception of Saturday's big game. It's going to require months of reconstruction - software and hardware - on power grids, communication systems and circuit boards on land, sea, air, and in space. I raise this issue not to alarm but to use coronal mass ejection (CME) and similar electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events as modern-day examples of climate issues that need to compete with the longer term phenomenon of global climate change. Furthermore, I am not about to deny or denigrate the existence and significance of global warming and cooling. It happens and I have no issue with mitigation and preparation for the consequences. On the other hand, sometimes our priorities don't seem to match the serious short-term and potentially catastrophic threats we face. Scientists and engineers already know of an event in 1859 that, had it occurred this morning in our high tech electronic world, would have caused widespread threats to social, political, and economic systems worldwide. There is a 12% chance of a similar event happening between now and 2022 [see citation in"1859" link].

Why raise the issue today? This day marks the 131st anniversary of the massive volcanic explosion of the Indonesian island known as Krokatoa. The event killed over 36,000 people, sent a measurable shock wave around the world seven times and produced the loudest noise
heard in recorded history, a noise heard in Perth, Australia, more than 2800 miles from the island. Geophysical impacts included a decline of over 2 degrees in the planet's average global temperatures and more than a decade of memorable atmospheric events including, vivid sunsets, lavender suns, and noctilucent clouds.

This was an astounding event in earth history and a modern-day lesson in the fragile nature of the planet and its inhabitants. As I've said before, nature in all her beauty can be a cruel mother. In light of the recent events like Mount St. Helens, record setting earthquakes, earth-grazing fireballs, and meteors, it's also a lesson that radical global climate change could occur tomorrow as well as a century from now. Granted, the sciences in question are little more than 150 years old but we have come a long way in understanding, yet we know there are some events beyond knowledge and control. 

Do keep the faith, my friends. There's a really good probability for sunrise tomorrow. The chances for more tomorrows are equally high because some of our finest earth and space scientists study and stand watch for these threats, short-term and long-term. I can't imagine a more exciting career than one exploring the far reaches of the planet and its journey in the universe.

N.B. Edvard Munch painted four versions of The Scream of Nature over a seventeen year period beginning in 1893. Some experts believe his depiction of the vivid orange-red sky came from his observations of similar sunsets caused by the explosion of Krakatoa a decade earlier.