A puzzling ban on licorice
The letter carrier brought one of those Figi's catalogues that
comes every year before Christmas, selling candies and cheeses and nuts and cookies and such temptations. One offering was
those little Licorice Scottie Dogs. They come in black or red.
But there was an asterisk beside the word black. It led to
a footnote: "Cannot ship to CA." I know that California is excessively fussy, but I wondered what the problem is with little
Licorice Scottie Dogs.
I e-mailed the Figi people in Marshfield, WI. I got a prompt,
friendly but clueless reply, suggesting, "When the item can't be shipped to a certain state it is usually because the product
is manufactured in that state. We apologize that we are unable to send those to California."
Assuming that a nutritional issue is involved, I investigated,
and found one medical web site that defines:
"Licorice root extract: A substance prepared from dried roots
of the plant Glycyrrhiza glabra. It is used as a flavoring in medicines, drinks, and sweets, and it is being studied in the
treatment of cancer. Licorice root extract contains several compounds that reduce inflammation, kill certain bacteria and
viruses, act like estrogen and other hormones, and may cause cancer cells to die. It is a type of antioxidant."
Many other sources say that licorice has anti-cancer possibilities.
But California lists licorice as a known cancer risk, and bans it in the California Health and Safety Code, Section 25249.6.
I e-mailed the California Office of Public Affairs, but haven't heard from them.
Just don't let anybody attempt to outlaw licorice in Philadelphia,
the home of licorice candy.
was a time when you could smell the piles of licorice root on the Delaware River docks, imported by MacAndrews & Forbes
in the days before Ron Perelman bought the company and used it as an umbrella for other companies he bought and sold.
Young & Smiley started spinning licorice ropes in 1845,
and Philly was full of chewers of what came to be called Twizzlers. Y&S also made medicinal hard licorice sticks that
had to be broken to pieces with a hammer.
In 1893, Quaker City Confectionary created licorice lozenges
coated in pink and white hard sugar, and called them Good and Plenty, the first ever registered candy brand name. When I was
a kid, the factory was on Germantown Ave. near 6th and Susquehanna. Also in '93, Thomas D. Richardson created after-dinner
Philly was a chocolate town, too. Stephen Whitman was making
chocolates in 1854. Henry O. Wilbur started his chocolate business here in 1865, and Milton Hershey had his first candy shop
in Philly in the 1870s.
And then there were the Goldenbergs, starting in 1890. They
invented the Peanut Chew in 1917. My grandfather, after he retired, worked as a night watchman in the Peanut Chew works. I
think the plant was at Second and Wyoming then.
Grandpop tried to convince me that licorice was made from the
sweepings off the candy factory floor. That's the kind of dumb thing grandfathers think it's funny to tell their grandchildren.
So, maybe somebody's grandfather told that to the Californians,
and that's why they won't let little Licorice Scotties into the state.
* * *
A day seven score and ten years ago
Imagine that you are living in Philadelphia 150 years ago.
It is Nov. 20, 1863. The temperature is unseasonably warm. The weather is fair.
Red, white and blue bunting and the 35-star flag of the United
States decorate many buildings, in honor of yesterday's ceremonies at Gettysburg. The new National Cemetery was dedicated.
there. Many Philadelphians made the trip to hear the oration by Edward Everett.
Some say it was the famous orator's greatest effort. The Evening
Bulletin printed Everett's speech in its entirety. It took up a page and a half of today's edition.
The Bulletin also described the procession and ceremonies,
and printed some brief remarks by President Lincoln. His talk filled about three inches of a column.
The war news is good, but not exciting. Gen. Burnside's men
are holding their own against the Confederate troops of Longstreet in Tennessee. Grant's army is at Chattanooga.
Here at home, the captured rebel steam ram Atlanta is moored
in the Delaware next to the Navy Yard, at the first wharf below Washington Ave. It is on display to the public. The admission
charges, 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children, are being used to provide meals at the Union Volunteer Refreshment
Saloon, at Broad and Washington, for troops passing through by boat and train.
The German Opera Co. is appearing at the Academy of Music.
Tonight the company is offering "The Barber of Seville." The big occasion was two evenings ago, when the company performed
Gounod's grand opera "Faust" for the first time in America. Local critics felt that, with a few improvements, it will be a
The big fad of the day is the sale of a photograph of three
charming young children. It is said to be a copy of a picture found clutched in the hand of a dead Union soldier at Gettysburg,
and that proceeds of sales of the copies go to the soldier's widow.
City Councils this week have been arguing over some controversial
issues. (There are two council chambers. Select Council has 24 members, one elected from each ward to serve two years. Common
Council's 72 members are elected for one year, their number being based on ward population.)
One issue is the bill to pave Broad St. from Columbia to Erie
Aves. It will cost $64,000. Opponents of the plan say that a well maintained dirt road will answer the purpose and not cost
more than $10,000.
The big controversy is over the public school budget. There
are presently a high school attended by 550 boys, a two-year normal school for the instruction of female teachers, and 302
lower schools. There are 940 teachers and 56,000 scholars.
Council had approved a budget for this year of $608,832. It
has already added $50,000 for "expenses," and $63,000 to increase teachers salaries.
Now the school board has asked for another $164,461. Items
in the new request range from $80 to repair the roofs of two schools to $30,000 to purchase the old Methodist Episcopal church
on 38th St. above Haverford Ave. for school use..
say they don't know where the money will come from. Some predict direly that the school budget could go as high as $850,000
* * *
A new coat for our golden girl
The Art Museum's "Developments" magazine came in the mail last
week with a full page devoted to Diana the Huntress, that statue with the bow and arrow, and the news that work being done
on her is concluding. It didn't say exactly when the scaffolding will come down.
The project that started last spring was to put a coat of gold
leaf on the old girl. She's been standing there at the top of the Museum stairs in the altogether (on one foot, yet) for 81
years, and it's about time she had something on, even if it's only gold leaf.
When she was brand new, in 1892, and playing weathervane on
the dome of the new Madision Square Garden, Anthony Comstock, the legendary blue-nosed leader of the New York Society for
the Suppression of Vice, went into a horrified tizzy and demanded that she be covered up. The Garden had a robe made for her,
but it blew away, and henceforth Comstock and his posse could only avert their eyes.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpted the 13-foot-high toe dancer
to adorn the tower of Madison Square Garden, which was designed by the great architect Stanford White. It was in the Garden's
rooftop restaurant, just below Diana's left tootsie, that White was shot dead in 1906 by Harry K. Thaw, a Pittsburgh millionaire
who felt that White was too friendly with his wife.
That was the second Madison Square Garden, and it was actually
at Madision Square, Fifth Ave. and Broadway. The first one was built there in 1879. The second Garden in 1891 was on the same
site, and it was where Diana made her debut.
In 1925, the third Madison Square Garden moved its name to
a new building at Eighth Ave. and 49th St, which left poor Diana without a roof under her toe. Sympathetic Philadelphians
took the rejected girl off the hands of the heartless New Yorkers.
And so, in 1932, she came to stand on the stairs of the rather
new Philadelphia Museum of Art, a ballet-posed archer in an stone arch, gently turning a bit green.
Then, in 1967, the New Yorkers took a notion to build yet another
version of Madison Square Garden, atop Penn Station. And Felix J. Cuervo, president of the Native New Yorkers Historical Assn.,
started a campaign to get Diana back from Philadelphia.
Mayor John Lindsay of New York approached Mayor James H. J.
Tate of Philadelphia and tried to smooth talk him into letting Diana return to Manhattan. We native Phillyites knew that it
was no contest in a discussion between an Upper West Sider out of St. Paul's and Yale versus a North Philadelphia Irishman
out of Northeast High and Temple.
Jim Tate's letter to Lindsay, expressing regret that we could
not let Diana go, began:
"Would you really want me to believe that you would give Manhattan
back to the Indians if they would repay the $24 you paid for it?"
The comparison was a bit flimsy, but Lindsay got the idea.
So Diana is still with us. She was looking a little neglected, so the Art Museum got a grant from Bank of America to give
her a new coat of gold leaf. She could really use a fig leaf, but it's better than nothing. And if you want to cover a statue
with gold, a bank is the right place to turn to. They probably have stacks of it sitting around in the basement.
* * *
How we ignored the Martians
The 75th anniversary of the Orson Welles "War of the Worlds"
radio broadcast, and its attendant hysterical public response, got a lot of media attention last week. The historic milestone
eluded me, so I am a week late in chiming in.
But it occurred to me, with some minor dismay, that the majority
of writers who expounded on the event and its implications were not yet born on that peculiarly remembered night.
So allow me to present some geriatric observations, as a person
who actually heard parts of that program. My perspective comes mostly from the narrow point of view of our living room. I
was eight years old.
Contemporary students of the affair speculate that it was because
millions of Americans tuned in late to the broadcast that they were deceived into thinking that merciless Martians were marching
through New Jersey.
Do they understand tuning in, 1938 style? No buttons on a remote
controller made the signal leap from frequency to frequency. My father, that night, was in his customary squat on a hassock
in front of the floor model Philco, turning a knob to move the needle on the dial.
There were eight radio stations in Philadelphia in 1938. (Don't
compliment my memory; I looked it up.) There was also one in Glenside (WIBG), one in Camden, and many reachable distant ones.
I don't remember what Dad had been listening to earlier. But
at 8 P. M., he was looking forward to the Mercury Theatre program. Every week, Orson Welles and his Broadway aggregation condensed
a work of literature into a one-hour radio play.
My father had read just about everything, it seemed to me.
He found it not just entertaining, but humorous, to hear how Welles wildly flung away characters and plot elelements, and
made classic books come to truncated life.
He was a fan from the first Mercury show, an abridged "Dracula."
But at the same time every week, on another network, was the top rated comedy show on the air, Edgar Bergen the ventriloquist
and his wooden accomplice, Charlie McCarthy.
Welles had squeezed "Around the World in 80 Days" into an hour
the previous week. "War of the Worlds" had been announced and advertised as next. Dad had his doubts about a dramatization.
He had read the H. G. Wells story, and didn't think it was very good.
So we listened to the announcer introduce the Mercury Theatre
and say that the play would be "War of the Worlds." Then, Orson Welles began a windy introduction in his affected accent.
Dad turned the dial to the left, away from KYW, onto WCAU and Charlie McCarthy.
We listened to the comedy. When a coffee commercial came on,
or Nelson Eddy sang, Dad would dial back to the Welles science fiction. Every small segment we heard sounded dull and unconvincing.
Finally, we stayed with Charlie McCarthy.
We were astonished the next morning by the Philadelphia Record
headlines and articles about people believing the program and panicking, all over the country. Most of the kids in school
knew nothing about the program or the aftermath.
Sometimes, I feel guilty that we didn't run screaming into
the street that night, and contribute to the great national psychological phenomenon.
* * *
A Triumphal Arch 200 Years Ago
There was a 40 foot high arch over the intersection of Eighth
and Race Sts. at this time 200 years ago. Here's why:
Congress had declared war on England in June of 1812. Most
of the action so far had been in such far away places as Canada, the Great Lakes, Detroit, Alabama and West Florida.
The Delaware was frozen solid most of the winter of 1812 and
1813, so shipping had been sparse.
In the spring of 1813, a British fleet blockaded the coast
from Long Island to the Gulf. A squadron arrived off Delaware Bay in March, led by the 72-gun HMS Politier, with a frigate
and two schooners.
British Admiral Sir John Beresford sent a demand to Lewes,
Delaware, offering to buy 20 cattle, plus some hay and vegetables, at reasonable prices. He also threatened to destroy the
town if he was refused.
The response was that Delaware troops rushed to the coast and
set up cannons, with little effect. On April 6, King George's ships bombarded Lewes, destroying many buildings.
Philadelphia felt vulnerable. The garrison at Fort Mifflin
had been moved elsewhere; only 14 "invalided" soldiers were on hand. Volunteers took over until the army sent regulars.
Despite many battles with the U. S. Navy, the ever-increasing
British fleet had the coast tightly covered, and cruised in the lower Delaware, chasing merchant ships. One of Stephen Girard's
incoming ships was seized, with $1.5 million worth of goods from China.
Shortages were developing, and prices were rising on scarce
commodities. Citizens of Northern Liberties signed pledges that they would not pay more than an outrageous 25 cents for a
pound of coffee, no matter what the merchants said was the price.
An association was formed to raise funds for families whose
men had gone off to war. Gov. Simon Snyder had asked for 1,000 volunteers, and more than that responded. (Philadelphia, the
nation's second largest city, had 53,772 population in the 1810 census. Northern Liberties was the sixth largest U. S. city,
with 19,874. Southwark ranked eighth nationally with 13,707.)
Military units sprang up quickly. Members of the Washington
Association met in their hall on Goforth Alley, near Third and Chestnut, and organized the Washington Guards, including men
with such sturdy Philadelphia names as Biddle, Ingersoll, Willing, McKean and Charles V. Hagner of Manayunk. They elected
as captain Condy Raguet, a businessman who three years later would start the first in America of a new kind of bank, called
the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society.
City Councils discussions of protecting the city were stymied
by politics. Common Council, thoroughly Democrat, responded to the emergency by forming a committee. The upper house, Select
Council, with a majority anti-war Federalist, carefully avoided gathering a quorum. After public meetings and protests, city
troops and gun boats were finally approved, paid for with a $30,000 loan.
The whole year's activities won't fit in this column. But after
Admiral Perry licked the British fleet on Lake Erie, Philadelphia celebrated on October 26 by erecting a 40 foot high triumphal
arch at Eighth and Race Sts., decorated with paintings illustrating the battle.
* * *
The big news down the street
The recent unpleasantness among owners at the Inquirer is partly
rooted in a long-time debate among journalists: the relative value of local news versus national, political and international
news. The Inquirer's recent emphasis on local coverage has received cheers in some quarters.
But there has also been criticism that a newspaper's duty is
to inform readers on the weightier matters of government, international affairs and the larger issues of society.
The more serious-minded critics seem to believe that newspapers
should devote their contents to what's happening in Washington, Iran, Moscow, Israel, Syria, Beijing,
and all such places where things of import insist on taking place.
The truth is that such heavy-duty information is available
in many places other than the local newspaper, or broadcast station. It's easier to get information on what's happening in
Washington than on what's happening across the street.
Little things often affect us the most. We can easily go about
our business knowing that Syria has chemical weapons and Iran has nukes, but if we get a tiny pebble in our shoe, we have
to stop and take it out.
More realistically, knowing that they're erecting the world's
tallest building in downtown Dubai is an interesting fact, but we'll be more impacted by a report that somebody wants to build
a nine-story condo in that little park down the street.
Consequently, local news may keep the newspaper business alive
for a while. Small papers that cover township commission meetings, school board activities, weddings, 95th birthdays and new
baby announcements are providing small but desired information to a small but interested audience.
That is also true about advertising. Small dailies and big
weeklies may stay alive longer than major publications because of advertising. A little local hairdresser or roofer or hardware
store doesn't want to spend big money to advertise in a big newspaper that is
distributed over a wide area. They will use, and thus support, the publication that targets their potential customers.
One of the smartest moves the Inquirer has made recently is
the emphasis on high school sports. All the big media inundate us with Eagles coverage. Devoting space to high school football
reaches a unique underserved audience of thousands of athletes, students, and parents (there are still Moms with scrapbooks.)
The ideals of journalism, in all their First Amendment glory,
are important for newspapers. But like any product (and, sorry, journalists; a newspaper is a product,) the basic formula
for success is simple. Offer something that people either need or want, done well, delivered easily, at a fair price, that
they can't get elsewhere. That's where local news comes in.
A big city paper's problem is to define what is its local area.
Is it from Roxborough to Fishtown, or from Drexel Hill to Cherry Hill? It's not possible for any publication, or broadcasting
operation, to cover thoroughly the 352 cities, counties, boroughs and townships in the nine-county Philadelphia region. But
a good local newspaper can still dish out valuable little information that won't make it to the New York Times, Charlie Rose
or the Huffington Post..
* * *
The news from Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963
The approaching 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination
stirs recollections of the way it was covered by the old Evening Bulletin.
There was no all-news KYW. The four television stations each
scheduled about an hour and a half of news daily. People depended on newspapers.
The Bulletin had daily circulation of 738,000, the Inquirer
560,000 and the Daily News 318,000. Today the Inquirer's circulation is about 308,000, and that includes the Daily News and
some on-line subscribers.
Bob Roth, chief of The Bulletin's Washington Bureau, was in
a press car a few cars behind the president in the motorcade from the Dallas airport. When the fatal shots were fired at 1.30
P. M. and the motorcade speeded up, Bob kept his cool in the back seat while men from the Associated Press and United Press
International wrestled for control of the lone mobile phone on the dashboard.
The first UPI flash hit the Bulletin newsroom at 1.34 P. M.
Two Bulletin reporters, John McCullough and Adrian Lee, were already on their way when Kennedy's death was announced at 2.35.
They got to Dallas at 7.18 P. M.
The Bulletin's three early Friday editions were on the street
when the news came. Page one of the 60 page Two Star Final home delivery edition featured a photo of Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy
arriving at the Houston airport the day before. The accompanying article reported the speech he "gave" in Dallas; Roth had
acquired an advance copy, and wrote in past tense what Kennedy would have said by the time the paper hit the street.
The presses were stopped with more than 150,000 copies of that
edition yet to be printed. Despite the clumsy metal type and rotary press plates of that era, the front page was redone with
the undelivered speech removed, about half a column of Associated Press copy from Dallas inserted, and the headline, "President
Kennedy Is Shot in Dallas Street."
The next edition headline was "Sniper Kills Kennedy," with
more details, haphazardly arranged. The final two editions, headed "President Shot Dead," added more and more facts as they
were learned. The presses rumbled on as changes were made. Trucks were loaded and sent out without regard for usual schedules.
People were buying extra copies everywhere. (The daily paper cost eight cents; Sunday was 20 cents.)
Related news kept breaking Saturday and Sunday. In Texas, McCullough
got in trouble in the Dallas police headquarters when he was caught standing on a pedestal ashtray in a hall, peeking over
a transom as Lee Harvey Oswald was being questioned. On Sunday morning, McCullough was within arm's length of Oswald when
Jack Ruby shot him.
As the weekend progressed, McCullough and Lee, devout Catholics,
found themselves singing "Beyond the Sunset" with Texas Baptists at the funeral for Police Officer J. D. Tippit. Hugh Flaherty,
another Bulletin man sent to the scene, attended Oswald's funeral. When no one else would do it, Flaherty and five other reporters
were the assassin's pall bearers.
Walter Annenberg, then publisher of the Inquirer and Daily
News, would not permit any of his staff to go to Dallas; they depended on press service reports.
* * *
Tales of what happened before
Prequels are popular these days. Books are written and films
are made that try to tell us what might have happened before some well known novels or films spun their familiar stories.
have invented the early years of the Star Trek crew before James Kirk grew up
to be William Shatner. A movie and a Broadway show have concocted conflicting versions of what the wizard and the witches
were doing in Oz before Dorothy and Toto blew into town.
The movie industry has ground out films depicting the origins
of such fictional heroes as Batman, Spiderman, the X-Men and the Lone Ranger. There was a 2011 prequel of the Planet of the
Apes series of the Sixties, a story that presumably could not be revealed until motion-capture special effects were created.
Some sources say that the word prequel, the opposite of sequel,
was coined in the 1950s by the late Anthony Boucher, science fiction editor and mystery reviewer. Wikipedia defines prequel
as "a literary, dramatic or filmic work whose story precedes that of a previous work."
Besides the many filmic prequels, there have been bookic creations
such as "Finn" in 2007, describing Huckleberry Finn's father's activities before Mark Twain gave literary birth to Huck in
1884. There have been published prequels to Jane Eyre, Gone With the Wind and even Hamlet.
I often wondered what Hamlet was up to before he came back
to Denmark for his old man's funeral and gave his Uncle Claude a hard time. There's no agreement on when Shakespeare thought
his play was taking place, since Prince Hamlet wasn't exactly a real Danish person, but the Bard had Hamlet arriving home
from studying in Wittenberg.
The university at Wittenberg was founded in 1502. Could Hamlet
have been there 15 years later and gone out Trick-or-Treating with Dr. Luther? That's good prequel material.
Many stories seem like the ending of something, and I'd like
to know what came before. Why was Miss Muffet eating her breakfast on a tuffet, an uncomfortable little stool? Had the spider
been stalking her, or was its presence a coincidence?
How about Sherlock Holmes at school? Were his deductive powers
beginning to form at age 10? I can imagine him accosting another pupil in the school yard: "I perceive, Throckmorton, from
the stains on your fingertips and the residue at the corners of your lips, that you have been consuming some bon-bons and
not sharing them with your fellows."
Snow White's buddies the Seven Dwarfs should be prequelized.
How did they get into the mining business? And we know little about King Kong's background and upbringing. Even a giant ape
must have had a mommy and daddy.
Wouldn't you like to read about Holden Caulfield's parents'
courtship and marriage? What about the law school days of Sidney Carton, or Atticus Finch. Probably some good tales there.
Was there ever any back-story about how Mickey Mouse met Minnie?
Did Tom Clancy ever tell us much about Jack Ryan's boyhood?
There are books, films, television series, plays and every
kind of narrative just waiting for the story of what happened before to be told by some creative mind with copycat tendencies.
* * *
October 2, 2013
Of analogs, digits and John Wayne
In mail order catalogs that arrive at our house regularly, I noticed two unusual
time pieces. One was a wristwatch that has a two-part face. At the top is a traditional dial with moving hands. Below that
is a digital screen.
I suppose it's nice to have a choice, but I'm not sure of the value of having what
the advertisement calls "handsome analog hands, plus bright digital numbers" in the same instrument. I prefer the old fashioned
big hand, little hand system, and don't feel the need of a back-up with extra digits.
Digital numbers on electronic devices are all the rage now. If a younger person asks
one of us old-time analogers the time, we're inclined to say "Quarter to four." Up-to-date persons often look puzzled at such
analogations. They expect to hear "3:45" plainly expressed in verbal digits.
Most traditional wrist watches, though analog they may be, have digits, from one
to nine, and then double digits from 10 to 12, distributed neatly around the dial. Some have roman numerals, composed of what
we non-Romans think of as letters. I suspect that some people consider roman numbers to be classier on clocks, Superbowls,
cornerstones and other important things.
Our familiar numbers are arabic numbers, an ancient
Indian invention adopted by Arabs in about the ninth century, and brought into Europe a bit later. Europeans presumably saw
how much easier it is to write Superbowl 47 than to write Superbowl XLVII, even if the NFL doesn't.
This use of the word analog is a recent development.
A 30 year old dictionary does not define analog at all. It lists "analog computer" as "a computer using physical quantities
(voltage, weight, etc.) to represent numbers."
That dictionary defines analogy as "a partial likeness between two things that are
compared." I guess that's what that wristwatch has.
A dictionary published 14 years ago defines analog,
as a noun only, as "a chemical with a similar structure to another but differing slightly in composition." As an adjective,
it proclaims analog as "relating to a system or device that represents data variation by a measurable quantity." I'm not sure
whether or not the two-faced wristwatch does that.
The newer dictionary then emerges from the linguistic
Dark Ages by defining analog clock: "a clock that shows the time by means of hands on a dial." It also lists analog computer
and analog recording.
The second advertised time piece that intrigued
me is good old fashioned analog all the way. It's the "John Wayne American Icon Illuminating Cuckoo Clock."
The $200 clock is shaped like the traditional cuckoo
clock, with a peaked roof and little doors from which a birdie emerges to cuckoo the hours. But this structure's lower section
is the porch of a western saloon, with a sculptured image of the Duke himself emerging from the swinging doors.
The clock face above has a picture of Wayne behind those hands analoging their way
around the arabic numbers. And on each hour, when those little doors open, out pops not a tweeting bird, but, accompanied
by the sound of hoof beats, a little figure of a horse. Is the horse an analog of a cuckoo?
* * *
Separating "news" from "paper"
The American Journalism Review announced last week that it
will now become an online-only publication. When I read the announcement, I grabbed onto the desk for support, expecting continental
earth tremors due to rotation in the graves of John Peter Zenger, Ben Franklin, Horace Greeley, William Randolph Hearst, Joe
Pulitzer, Robert McLean, Ernie Pyle, H. L. Mencken, A. J. Liebling, and another
few thousand people, well known and little known, who held the words "news" and "paper" together.
AJR is a trade journal for journalists. The dictionary says
that a journal is a record of news, events or business transactions. It doesn't
require that journalism be on paper. So the pixels and gigabytes and apps have moved in on AJR.
The magazine was started as the Washington Journalism Review
in 1977 by a young journalist named Roger Kranz, who legendarily financed the enterprise by selling his yellow Volkswagen.
After a journalistically successful but financially wobbly
couple of years, Kranz sold to Henry and Jessica Catto, Washington insiders, who grew the magazine, not without struggles.
1987, they sold it to the University of Maryland. In 1992, Rem Rieder, a former Philadelphia Bulletin editor, took the helm.
It was re-named American Journalism Review, and its content and prestige developed.
It was published 11 months a year then, with a large staff.
Lately it has been issuing three a year, and the staff barely existed. Rieder wandered off in July to be an editor at USA
electronic version will be produced by students, supervised by journalism faculty members. Obviously, the new staff can't
turn out the depth and breadth of reporting on American newspapers that AJR formerly did.
The Columbia Journalism Review, published by the Columbia University
journalism school, is still on paper bi-monthly, as far as I know. It was started in 1961, in the Pulitzer realm, and many
regarded it the top professional journalism trade magazine.
Things are apparently gloomy at Columbia, too. The editor left
in May to become chief of aol.com. Other staff members have departed recently.
The reason for the problems of journalism magazines, industry
pundits say, is that young journalists have been reading AJR and CJR online anyhow. Print versions are wanted only by old-timers
(like me) who stubbornly want to see information on printed pages. Everybody knows that hand-held gadgets are a superior way
to read things.
Changes in technology overlap generations. I started in the
trade with older men who remembered when type was set by hand. Now I'm a geezer who remembers before the computers arrived.
As we ink-stained wretches are replaced by possibly irradiated
wretches, we swallow our nostalgia, shelve the old Underwood and creep into the new technology. I'm writing this on my laptop.
I use e-mail. and do research on line. I have two websites. I read books on a Kindle.
I still like to peruse that paper next to the oatmeal every morning.
So it's disturbing to see the American Journalism Review abandoning
print. I envision a little boy in the near future reading the First Amendment to the Constitution, and asking his father,
"Dad, what's a press?"
* * *
What oceans are for
One of the big casinos in Atlantic City has installed a strip
club on the premises. It's what is called a strip club these days, although it is my impression, gathered largely from movies
and television, that the participating young women are in a rather thoroughly stripped condition before they begin writhing
around the poles.
Back in the day (or in the night, usually), entertainers in
a strip club began fully clothed, and removed assorted garments while dancing. The previous generation or two seemed to find
that erotic, with no poles involved. But tastes change.
The reason for this added form of entertainment is to attract
more customers to the casinos, to offset a slight decline in attendance by persons who enjoy losing money. Adding the risqué
to the risky, as it were.
The man behind the pole dancing activity was quoted as saying,
"If this doesn't work, then I don't know what will for Atlantic City, because the last thing it needs is more gaming,"
That struck me as curious, because, back in the 1970s, there
were those who insisted that gambling casinos were the first thing Atlantic City needed. There seems to be ongoing searching
for something that will make people want to visit the place.
Sometimes I get the feeling that a lot of folks in Atlantic
City don't notice that they have an ocean down there. Las Vegas doesn't have one of those. They had to build casinos there
to get visitors from elsewhere to come and spend money in that otherwise hot
and desolate place.
People have been hitting the beach at Atlantic City since the
Absegami Indians hung out there looking for seashells to make wampum. The Absegami may have done a little gambling, but anybody
can gamble at home. Being by the sea is special.
Some people don't respond emotionally to natural wonders. And
as time goes by, more people can travel to more places than past generations, and see the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the
Alps, Victoria Falls, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Bay of Fundy, Mt. Everest, or any of the thousands of strange
and wonderful sites on earth.
So maybe our local ocean is old stuff to many people. And to
many, maybe it's just a lot of water. Personally, I like to look at it.
I've had relatives, through the years, in Long Beach Island,
Atlantic City, Ocean City and North Cape May, and have had many opportunities to sit and look at the ocean. It is the finest
way of doing something worthwhile while actually doing nothing.
I'm thinking of an early evening in 1975, the year that "Jaws"
was the big hit movie. I was sitting on a bench atop a dune on Long Beach Island, watching waves come and go. Two little girls
came along, and asked what I was doing.
"Watching the ocean," I said.
"Why?" they asked.
It was a good question.
"I'm in charge of this part of the ocean," I fibbed. They accepted
the explanation, and joined me in watching.
"Have you seen any sharks?" one girl asked.
"No," I said. "They're all out in Hollywood making movies."
The girls quietly helped me watch the ocean for quite a while.
That's what oceans are for. Atlantic City, take note.
* * *
In defense of broccoli
We all have different likes and dislikes among foods. Saying
that you like most foods doesn't get much of a reaction. But somehow, any expression of fondness for broccoli, or even tolerance
of broccoli, has become automatically a joke.
Ask Google, the online oracle and crystal ball of our culture,
for jokes about broccoli, and you are offered more than 760,000 results (although many would be duplicates.) Google has categories
including broccoli jokes, funny broccoli jokes, best broccoli jokes, dirty broccoli jokes, Jewish broccoli jokes, broccoli
knock-knock jokes, a broccoli joke by Harrison Ford, and broccoli and mushroom jokes.
There are jokes about other vegetables. String beans have accumulated
341,000 results on Google.
Lettuce has more than a million, but lettuce has the advantage
of a pun-worthy name. It provides for such phrases as lettuce in, lettuce alone, lettuce be friends and lettuce pray. Broccoli
doesn't work in any such witticism, unless it's in Italian, which is out of my area of vegetable expertise.
President Obama has opened himself to ridicule by revealing
that broccoli is his favorite vegetable. Jay Leno seems particularly eager to pick on the President's affection for broccoli.
If you ask when the words Obama and broccoli have appeared together in Leno's television monologues, Google reports 257,000
Leno has several topics that he seems to think are automatically
considered funny by his audience. He makes fun of IKEA furniture, AMTRAK, and men who like show tunes, as well as broccoli
Leno's father was of Italian
extraction, and his mother was Scottish, a curious culinary heritage. But it was his father's ancestors who deliberately cultivated
that bumpy green cultivar of the species Brassica oleracea out of the large flower head of some kind of cabbage, in the sixth
century B.C. If people have been eating broccoli for 2,500 years, somebody must have liked the stuff.
Broccoli authorities say the name comes from the Italian plural
of broccolo, which refers to the flowering top of a cabbage. Italian immigrants brought the first broccoli to the United States,
but according to learned broccolians, it didn't become popular until the 1920s.
Let's make that, didn't become well known. Its popularity is
a bit debatable. Just look at broccoli's record at the White House. Obama loves it. Hilary Clinton once stated of her family,
"We are all big broccoli eaters." George W. likes the round top part, but won't eat the stems. But George H. W. once proclaimed,
"I do not like broccoli. And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it". (Read his lips.)
Diet experts and similar spoil-sports tell us that broccoli
has, tucked in its green insides, vitamin C, dietary fiber, some anti-cancer ingredients and all sorts of healthy contents
that those experts never find in things like donuts, pizza, chocolate chip cookies, or other places where you would think
a benevolent creator might have stuck them.
But I'm with the president. I like broccoli. I don't care if
it's good for me.
* * *
Uncle Herschel's view of baseball
In baseball season, I always think of Uncle Herschel. He was
a fanatic follower of the Phillies, but his views of baseball were strange. In fact, his views of almost everything were strange.
He was an uncle-in-law, and was 52 years old and already retired
when I first met him. He was born in 1897 in Millville, N. J. Although census records say that he went to the eighth grade
in school, he told me that he had been apprenticed in the Wheaton Glass Works, Millville's major industry, when he was eight
The family had loads of glass bric-a-brac that he made through
the years. Uncle Herschel was a stocky man with a bulldog jaw and stubby fingers, but he created delicate, lacey glassware
that didn't match his bulk or demeanor.
After retiring from glass blowing, he had brief employment
in the gasoline business. "I was a pump striper for Atlantic-Richfield," he enjoyed relating to anyone who would listen. Another
man would paint service station pumps that needed redoing, and next day, Uncle Herschel would apply decorative striping.
When I met him, he had no teeth. Why they were extracted was
not clear, but he described the aftermath of the dental work.
"The dentist give me some pain medicine," he reported, "and
I took it with water, but it didn't do no good. So I tried takin' it with whiskey, and after a while, I wasn't feelin' no
pain." He rejected dentures as uncomfortable. His smile was unaccountably pleasant.
He had done a bit of imbibing in his youth, but quit abruptly.
"I was leavin' the bar one night," he explained, "and I handed
the owner a 20 dollar bill. On the hand that took the money, I seen a gold diamond ring. It struck me that I had paid for
that ring, and didn't have no gold diamond ring me-self. And I never touched a drop again."
Uncle Herschel lived in Ocean City when I knew him. He spent
much of his retirement at race tracks.
In summer, he devoted some days to hanging out at Chris's Dock,
adorned in fishermanly clothing that offset a nautical tattoo on his bicep. To city fellows renting a boat, he looked like
the consummate local fisherman.
If the amateurs asked, and maybe even if they didn't, he'd
assure them that he knew the absolutely best spot in the bay for whatever was running. He would guide them there, gratis.
his free ride didn't work out, he would apologize; fish just weren't biting that day. If the anglers caught fish, they'd give
him some, which he would clean for supper on the fence outside his apartment, surrounded by an audience of local cats.
But Uncle Herschel tried not to miss Phillies games on television.
Before he died in 1976, I suggested that he should get a color TV.
"Pixtures ain't supposed to be color," he grumbled. "I remember
when pixtures first come out, them Kodaks and all. They was black and white."
The first time I sat down to watch the Phils with him was at
the start of the 1950 season. I asked him how he thought they would do.
"Aah," he said, "it's all fixed. Them big shots get together
before the season starts and decide who's gonna win."
"So, why do you watch every game, then? I asked.
The question obviously shocked him. "Hell," he said, "it's
the national pastime!"
* * *
The better days of Guantanamo Bay
When the name of Guantanamo Bay, or its nickname, Gitmo, appears
in news reports, as it does frequently these days, I wonder what my Uncle Gene would think. Like many old time U. S. Marines,
he spent a lot of time there.
He would probably be dismayed that the prison, only a small
part of that sprawling 45 square mile naval base, now has become Guantanamo's identity.
And that its use is for controversial storing of undesirable foreign nationals.
It's my impression that Guantanamo was a pleasant sort of place
for Marines, in the days when they were a presence in Haiti, Nicaragua and other troubled spots in the region. Oriente Province
in southeast Cuba was farm country, with corn, coffee and sugar fields.
The temperature was in the 80s most days, and 50 was considered
frigid. Rain was scarce, except around October. It's probably still the same, no matter how much Cuba has changed.
In June, 1898, in the Spanish-American War, U. S. Marines made
their first acquaintance with Guantanamo Bay, landing on its eastern shore and driving out 500 Spanish soldiers to secure
the harbor for our navy to use as a coaling station.
After the war, the United States was looking for a location
for a naval base in the West Indies, and in 1903, Cuba leased the Guantanamo bay front to the U. S. for $2,000 a year. The
agreement was renewed in 1934.
In the 1960s, after Fidel Castro became president of Cuba,
he tried to evict the United States. President Kennedy declined to withdraw, and continued making the annual lease payments.
I have read, and am willing to believe, that the government has kept sending those $2,000 checks, and that Fidel tossed them
in a desk drawer and never cashed one.
Uncle Gene first visited Guantanamo in 1923. He had enlisted
in 1920, at age 21, and trained at Parris Island, South Carolina. He made corporal in 1922, and sergeant in 1923, which in
the days before World War II was considered a meteoric rise.
In November, 1922, his outfit, 28th Company, Fourth Regiment,
2nd Brigade, was shipped out to the Dominican Republic, and based at the Marine Barracks rifle range in Santiago. He saw some
duty with the regimental baseball team.
On May 2, 1923, he sailed on the USS Patapsco from Puerto Plata
in the Dominican Republic, to take part in the Marine Corps West Indies Rifle and Pistol Competition, at Guantanamo Bay. He
competed with both rifle and pistol, but didn't do so well. A corporal from his unit came in first.
I was a boy, I heard Uncle Gene's reminiscences of Guantanamo along with such other exotic places as Nicaragua and China.
Unfortunately, due to a family schism you don't want to hear about, I lost touch with him in later life, when I would have
listened more attentively, and asked questions..
He moved up in rank rapidly during World War II, and retired
a major after 30 years in the corps. He was a charter member of the Mustang Association, Marines who rose through the ranks
from enlisted man to officer. He died in 1987.
I suspect that many old Marines hope that eventually, the stigma
of the prison for terror suspects will fade away from that hot bayside post where generations of Marines and navy personnel
saw honorable duty
* * *
Diagnosis: a bad case of abbreviation
In recent years, diseases and medical conditions have started
to go by their initials. I guess it's because they're given such long names now.
When I was a little boy, sickness usually went by a simple
name, such as tonsillitis or mumps. The only common illness that was awarded its own abbreviation was tuberculosis, called
TB. It was one of the top 10 causes of death then, but was out of that list by the time I was 25.
RA for rheumatoid arthritis came along, and MS, as in multiple
sclerosis, and ALS, for Lou Gehrig's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. But now, medicine advertisments and health articles
expect us to know a whole bunch of abbreviated problems.
There is COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. PTSD,
post-traumatic stress disorder. PAD, peripheral artery disease. ESRD, end stage renal disease. AFiB, atrial fibrillation,
with a small letter sneaking in among the capitals. And dozens of others.
Even treatments and cures get abbreviated, such as HBOT, hyperbaric
oxygen therapy, and MMR vaccine, for measles, mumps and rubella.
If that MMR stuff had been available in my boyhood, I would
have avoided the unabbreviated five most common childhood ailments of the mid-20th century. Here and there between age one
and 11, I had whooping cough, mumps, measles, scarlet fever, and what these days might get labeled VICP, as in Very Itchy
In that Depression era, the only vaccination required to get
into first grade was for diphtheria, a disease that has all but disappeared. The name comes from the Greek word for leather,
which is what your throat looks like if you get infected.
In the 1920s, there were up to 200,0000 diphtheria cases a
year in the U. S., about 15,000 fatal. In 21st century statistics, it's almost unknown.
There was no polio vaccine then. People called it infantile
paralysis, we all knew kids who were crippled by it, and when there was an outbreak, it seemed that the major reactions were
closing the swimming pools and praying.
As for stuff like measles and chicken pox, when you caught
it the doctor came around with his black bag, proclaimed that you had it, and didn't do much else that I can remember. Next
day, a man from the Board of Health stuck a quarantine sign on the front door.
Nobody was supposed to come in and get infected. If you caught it in the summertime, though, a mother in the neighborhood might bring her kid for an illegal
visit, hoping that he would get the disease then, and not when he would miss a lot of school.
I was quarantined for six weeks with scarlet fever, a long
story in itself. In a shorter quarantine when I was about six, I was confined to the house because of mumps. I don't remember
what holiday it was, but there was going to be a parade,
I did a lot of grumbling and complaining about missing the
parade. "Gretzmaching," my grandmother called it in Pennsylvania Dutch.
So early in the morning, my aunt wrapped a scarf around my
swollen neck, took me in her car and parked on an embankment outside a mill, overlooking the parade route. I saw it all through
a windshield, despite my mumps (or should I say swollen parotid gland, or SPG.)
* * *
Some memories about racism
Now I'm going to get into trouble. I'm going to write about
race. There has been a lot of talk and writing on the subject recently, what with the Trayvon Martin case and some well-known
folks spouting what is called these days the N-word.
I do this knowing that even with the best intentions, it cannot
be done without getting somebody upset.
I'm an old white guy. I grew up in Harrowgate, in the 45th
ward. The population there when I was a boy was not quite two percent African American. It stayed that low until the 1990
census. By 2010, African Americans were 17 percent of the population.
In the 1920s, my mother started dating the fellow from Frankford
who became my father. She was surprised to see that on his street, black and white families lived randomly mixed in row houses.
His explanation was, "They've been here since before the Revolution." He pointed out an African Methodist Episcopal Church
there that was founded in 1807.
It was not that there was no prejudice in Frankford. ("Racial
prejudice" was the phrase then, and there were pleas for "tolerance." I don't recall hearing the word racism as a boy, but
maybe I just wasn't paying attention.)
The Frankford prejudice in the Twenties was against Italian
immigrants who were moving in. My mother told of being at a party in Frankford with my father, when some African American
men went past the house, singing loudly. A non-local guest made a racial slur about the noise. "At least," said my father,
"they're singing in English."
I don't remember ever hearing anything hateful said in my family
about African Americans. But my folks were people of the times. They accepted the status quo without questioning the fairness
of everyone's status.
Perhaps I should say "we"
accepted it, because as kids we thoughtlessly bought penny candy with that N-word in its name, and chanted the word
in a counting game that began, "Eeny meeny miney moe. . ."
My grandmother was born in 1875,and grew up in a period of
heavy immigration. Her father was a German immigrant. She was very conscious of ethnicity.
People in the neighborhood whom she didn't know well, she tended
to identify by nationality. She would mention that Italian man down the street, or the Polish couple on Venango St., or the
Jewish peddler who often came by
And when she talked about the "colored" family over on Atlantic
St., it seemed to be all the same to her. She wasn't likely to do any civil rights crusading, of course; she was too busy
keeping a family together. And so were they.
My first serious recognition of the idiocy of racism hit me
when I was 15, and spent a week in Alexandria, Virginia. I rode the bus from Alexandria to Washington, and watched the Virginia
law require white passengers to sit in the front, and African Americans in the back.
The back of the bus was often full and the front mostly empty.
When we got to the middle of the bridge to D.C., segregation expired, and black standees moved into the empty front streets.
I realized how silly people could be. That was 68 years ago.
Now, we have President Barack Obama.. But yet, we have Riley Cooper, and we have
* * *
A book about local elephants
A new book entitled "Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed
Elephant, P. T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison," by New York
columnist Michael Daly, has been widely ballyhooed recently. I looked forward to reading it, knowing that it must involve
Adam Forepaugh, one of Philadelphia's major circus owners.
It's a remarkable piece of work. Daly tells us how elephants
live, are caught and are trained, and gives biographies of noted circus elephants. He manages to tie it together with information
about not only P. T. Barnum and other circus impresarios, but the inventions of Edison and Westinghouse and their battle over
direct current versus alternating current.
The book wanders off into the history of Coney Island back
to 1645, facts about two world's fairs, the McKinley assassination, Charles Dickens, America's first beauty contest, Geronimo,
and many other fascinating digressions.
As I expected, Philadelphia is prominent in the book. It's
mentioned on 40 pages. I had to count them, because Philadelphia isn't listed in the index. (I read it on a Kindle. Maybe
the paper index is better.)
Daly begins with the birth of an elephant, its care and feeding,
its capture, and its shipping to the winter quarters of Forepaugh's circus in Philadelphia. He doesn't say where in Philadelphia.
It was on Lehigh Ave. between Richmond and Edgemont Sts.
Forepaugh's previous headquarters were on Duy's Lane (named
for Jacob Duy's tavern), near Germantown Ave. and E. Wister St. At 2 A. M. on Sunday, Dec. 21, 1873, a fire started in the
huge circus ring building.
It was a wooden building, and on the second floor were 20 tons
of hay. The structure was gone in minutes, and the blaze spread to the harness, carpenter and wagon shops. Destroyed were
1,000 bushels of oats, 19 animal wagons, 12 other wagons, the whole circus wardrobe, the elaborate band wagon, and much gear
The loss was estimated as high as $80,000, about $1.5 million
in 2013 dollars. No animals were hurt, because they were in a stone building 100 yards away.
Forepaugh then moved to his bigger property in Richmond. He
owned many horses and about 40 wild animals, including elephants, lions and tigers, a rhinoceros, a hyena and a zebra.. (Later,
at his peak, Forepaugh owned 39 elephants.)
It was to Richmond in 1877 that Forepaugh brought baby Topsy,
the elephant of the book's title. He falsely tried to claim her to be the first elephant born in America.
The true first birth of an elephant in America happened at
2.30 A. M. on March 10, 1880, in the winter quarters of the Cooper and Bailey Circus, on the Ridge Rd. at 23rd St. and Columbia
Ave. It was named Columbia.
Phineas T. Barnum, a rival circus owner, offered Jim Bailey
$100,000 for the 214 pound baby girl. Bailey declined. The two men combined their circuses the next year.
John "Pogey" O'Brien is a nearly incidental figure in Daly's
book. Once a partner of Forepaugh and later a rival, who quartered his elephants in Frankford, Pogey could be the subject
of a book by himself. Philly is a hotbed of circus history.
* * *
Ethelred, a good old royal name
When the Windsor folks were deciding to name the new little
prince George, I wonder if they considered calling him Ethelred. Probably not, since Ethelred was not exactly the most successful
fellow who ever kinged.
But the thought occurs because 2013 is the thousandth anniversary
of the Danes tossing poor Ethelred off the Anglo-Saxon throne. Figuratively, of course, but I'm sure they would happily have
done it literally if the occasion had come up.
Reading about early kings of England, I always thought Ethelred
did his best. He was just ill-advised. That's why the Brits started calling him Ethelred the Unraed.
In England in 1013 or thereabouts, the word unraed meant ill-advised.
Later tongues turned it into Ethelred the Unready, which has a droll ring about it, but may or may not be appropriate.
His brother Edward, who was king just before him, had a nickname,
too. He was called Edward the Martyr. There is not much question about Edward's name, because he was assassinated. I imagine
he was unready for that. It got him sainthood, though.
Some sources say that in those days, the word martyr meant
unpopular. Edward was only 15 when he became king in 975, and didn't have much time to become popular.
According to Henry of Huntingdon, a 12th century historian,
in the fourth year of St. Edward's reign, "all the great men of the English nation fell from a loft at Calne, except St. Dunstan,
who supported himself by taking hold of a beam. Some of them were much hurt, and some were killed."
What all the great men of England were up to in that loft,
Henry doesn't say. He also doesn't say why, at eventide on March 18, 978, at Corfe Castle, Edward's step-mother, who was Ethelred's
mother, stabbed Edward with a dagger while she was serving him a drink. I guess she wanted her boy to get ahead, ready or
St. Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, predicted bad luck
for Ethelred because he recalled that, when Ethelred was christened, he had a little accident in the baptismal font. But it
could happen to any baby. Wills and Kate, take note.
As Ethelred became king, the Danes, who for years had it in
their horn-helmeted heads that they wanted to run England, renewed their familiar raids on the English coast. There was quite
a bit of fighting.
In 994, Olaf Tryggvason of Norway and Sweyn I of Denmark, known
to his friends as Forkbeard, besieged London. The Danes also raided the Isle of Wight, and were otherwise annoying.
Ethelred got testy, and ordered the slaughter of all Danish
settlers in England, on St. Brice's Day, Nov. 13, 1002. Forkbeard was outraged and brought more troops over in 1003.
To make an Unready story short, in 1007 Ethelred paid Forkbeard
30,000 pounds of silver to desist. He was persuaded to fork over another 48,000 pounds in 1012, and in 1013 he went into exile
Forkbeard died in 1014, and Ethelred technically got his throne
back, but the Londoners picked Edmund II, called Ironside, to replace him. Canute's Danes defeated Ironside's troops in 1016,
and the Danes were in charge in England for another 20 years.
Ethelred died in London on April 3, 1016. I hope he was ready.
* * *
July 24, 2013
by James Smart
Three cheers for Greek and Welsh
Hilary Clinton spoke at Bryn Mawr College a few weeks ago, the students let loose with a traditional school cheer. I'm not
sure that Mrs. Clinton knew what was happening, because in an establishment such as Bryn Mawr College, you don't get an old-time
plebian "rah rah rah, sis boom aah."
The assembled young ladies chanted, "Anassa kata, kalo kale, ia ia ia nike, Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr!"
This cheer, in case
you didn't recognize it, is in Ancient Greek. Except for the triple Bryn Mawr at the end; that's Welsh.
the Grecian hurrah means, "Queen, descend, I invoke you, fair one. Hail, hail, hail, victory; Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr!"
(Bryn Mawr, in Welsh, means "big hill." Not "high hill." That would be Bryn Uchel.)
An anassa, as
the cheer is known around the campus, is serious business. Not every visiting queen gets exhorted to descend. Only a member
of the senior class is authorized to initiate an anassa, but once one is started, even the lowliest Mawrter (as they often
call themselves) will join in on the Greek outpouring.
Like all better
institutions of higher learning, Bryn Mawr College has traditions out the academic wazoo. It is possibly the only American
student body that annually dances around maypoles on the campus in spring. No Greek is involved in that ritual.
in the school song repertoire, there are a couple of tunes with long Greek lyrics. One is entitled "Pallas Athena" which has
to do with the Goddess of Learning. Another is called "Sophias" and relates somehow to wisdom.
at Bryn Mawr is not Greek, or serious. This is an assembling of young women, after all. There is a song sometimes warbled
there, directed at a nearby all male institution, entitled "Haverford Harry." Harry rhymes with "the boy that I marry." (In
Welsh, Haverford means "goat crossing.")
I'm not aware
of any Welsh cheers to complement the Ancient Greek one. There are plenty of Welsh songs with sentiments much like cheerleading,
and Welsh men are known to break into singing with little encouragement.
I've heard a
Welsh chorus perform "Men of Harlech," one of their basic anthems, which has an unlimited number of verses. I looked up the
lyrics knowing that it was hopeless, because Welsh doesn't look like an actual language to the rest of us. The Welsh insist
that it is, and we have to take their oddly-spelled word for it.
The first verse
of "Men of Harlech" (or "Rhyfelgyrch Gwyr Harlech" in Welsh) goes:
wen yn fflamio
A thafodau tan yn bloeddio
Ar i'r dewrion ddod i daro
Unwaith eto'n un!
The English translation to
that, I'm led to believe, is:
Harlech, raise your banners o'er us
See the foe arrayed before us
Men of Meirion shout the chorus
Cambria live forever!
I suspect that the Welsh vocabulary might make the Bryn
Mawr women's Ancient Greek refrains sound almost ordinary.
* * *
July 17, 2013
by James Smart
The return of Soggy Shrub
The new movie about The Lone Ranger
isn't doing as well as Hollywood expected. I'm one of the many people who haven't seen it, but I will. I have various good
memories of the "daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains", as the radio announcer described him at the start of
When I was in grade school, my
father, an inveterate dial twister, discovered the Ranger coming out of radio station WOR of New York. We were instant fans.
Who could resist a masked hero
on "a fiery horse with the speed of light" according to the introductory announcement? Here was a pistol artist who fired
silver bullets, and never hurt anybody.
The Ranger's quick-draw shot would
ring out. "Ooh, my hand!" the bad guy would exclaim. "You're not hurt," the Ranger would say in his commanding baritone. "I
merely shot the gun out of your hand."
The radio Ranger first rode onto
the movie screen in a serial in the summer of 1938. I was afraid I might miss some episodes when I went off to spend a few
weeks on my uncle's farm.
I need not have worried. Uncle Oliver finished his Saturday chores and
got cleaned up in time for us to see the latest chapters at the County Theater in Doylestown, which was showing the serial
at 7.30 P. M., before the evening feature, to accommodate farm dwelling Ranger fans.
In the mind of Fran Striker, who
wrote the stories, The Lone Ranger's nephew, Dan Reid, grew up, and had a son named Britt who went East and into the newspaper
business. He became The Green Hornet. (Masked crime fighters ran in that family). We became Hornet fans, too.
As I got older, my devotion to
The Lone Ranger was diluted a bit. But during my last weeks in junior high, I became a faithful listener again for a sad reason.
My grandfather was bedridden,
his health failing. In his final weeks on earth, most Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings, I went to his house and we listened
to The Lone Ranger on his bedside radio.
The Ranger galloped through movies
and television series with lessened attention from me. Then, in the early 1990s, the New York Public Library, in answer to
a query, said that "kemo sabe," the nickname the Ranger and his associate Tonto called each other, means "soggy shrub" in
I wrote a column on the subject,
headlined "Soggy Shrub Rides Again.". That became the title of a book of my collected columns. Now, ask Google the meaning
of kemo sabe, and my name is likely to come up.
Tonto was not a Navajo in the
Fran Striker canon. He was a Potawatomi, the ethnicity of our Archbishop Chaput.
The Potawatomi, like most Native
Americans, were ultimately chased west by our benevolent government, but many remained in regions near Detroit, where Fran
Striker created The Lone Ranger.
Johnny Depp, who portrays Tonto
in the Disney organization's current Rangerization, identifies him as a Comanche, and seems to think he had a bird roosting
on his head. I checked on what the Comanches thought of that interpretation.
I found that the Comanche Nation
welcomed Depp to their headquarters in Lawton, Oklahoma, and declared the visit "Disney Day." If it's all right with them,
it's all right with me, kemo sabe.
* * *
Civil War camps in our town
In this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Roxborough, Manayunk
and East Falls have their place in history. One of the first volunteer military training camps, Camp Roxborough, sprung up
as early as April, 1861, east of the Leverington Cemetery.
Local boys comprised a company led by Lt. Alfred Ripka. The
trainees were combined with a Harrisburg unit to form the 58th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry, commanded by Col. J. Righter
Jones, from an old Roxborough family.
The regiment arrived at Hampton Roads, Virginia on the day
of the famous naval battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac. Early on, the 58th occupied Portsmouth and Norfolk.
They were marched to North Carolina in May, 1863. There, while
unloading mines at Batchelor's Creek Station, Col. Jones was killed in an explosion.
Three of the 58th's Philadelphia companies were in a charge
at Cold Harbor, one of the war's bloodiest fights. Later, their muskets replaced by the new Springfield rifles, the 58th took
part in the storming of Fort Harrison outside Richmond, losing six of its nine officers and 128 out of 228 men.
The 88th Pennsylvania Infantry, known as the Cameron Light
Guards, began training in August, 1861, at the site of what is now the Queen Lane reservoir. Most of the men were from Reading,
but Company G, under Capt, John J. Balsterling, was made up of men from Roxborough, Manayunk and Conshohocken..
The encampment's rows of tents stretched all the way to the
river. Local folks visited on Sundays to watch the soldiers drill. Crowds stood by and waved when they pulled out in October.
The 88th fought in some of the best known battles: Second Bull
Run (where Balsterling was killed), Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and the Wilderness.
At Gettysburg, the 88th suffered 10 killed, 54 wounded and
42 missing. When troops paraded in Washington at the war's end, fewer than 100 of the original 1,400 Philadelphia members
were alive to march.
After the 88th left East Falls, its camp became the recruiting
site for the 118th, popularly called the Corn Exchange Regiment, organized by a group of grain merchants.
Also trained at the Falls was the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry,
"The Irish Dragoons," organized by Col. James J. Gallagher. At the capture of Raleigh, North Carolina, Sgt. Daniel Caldwell
raised the U. S. flag on the dome of the capitol.
The 15th Infantry of the regular army set up Camp Wissahickon,
on the river near what is now Cresson and Dawson Sts., as a recruiting station. Roxborough and Manayunk men who trained there
made up companies assigned to many Pennsylvania regiments. Some even served in the 40th New York and 12th Indiana Regiments.
Other units camped at the Falls and near Manayunk. When Confederate
troops entered Pennsylvania in June 150 years ago, fortifications were dug on the Schuylkill just south of the mouth of the
Wissahickon. Volunteer men and boys, mostly Gas Works employees, did the work, directed by army engineers.
Who knows? If Robert E. Lee's troops had won at Gettysburg
and moved against Philly, his defeat in the invasion of Pennsylvania might have been at the Battle of Manayunk.
* * *
Transit opinions from zombie land
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Butler County Republican, has
been getting vilified in local news media because of his opposition to funding public transportation. That is taken by the
local punditsphere to be an anti-Philadelphia position.
Rep. Metcalfe has talked of the "black hole of mass transit,"
perceiving it as swallowing Butler County citizens' tax money. He has called funds for urban transportation a form of welfare.
It's a manifestation of a state legislators' fantasy, which
goes back to colonial times, that Philadelphia is a foreign territory populated by an elitist leadership and a swarm of shiftless
parasites dependent on public support.
That attitude prompted the legislators to move the capital
to Harrisburg 200 years ago. The idea persists. There is no use expounding for them on the existence and necessity of cities,
for the past 10,000 years or so.
We can still hope that occasionally our western brethren will
give us a break. A little cash for SEPTA, rather than just highways, would be nice occasionally
One might expect brother Metcalfe to have a more enlightened
and sophisticated view of city life. He has lived in several parts of the country, and overseas while in the army. His home
in Butler County is within commuting distance of Pittsburgh. He should grasp why cities need alternatives to driving.
But he is on record as anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-gun control
and pro voter I.D., and has proclaimed "I was a Tea Partier before it was cool," so he's likely to be anti anything.
Butler County has a land area of 789 square miles. Its population
is 183,860. The number of registered passenger cars is 128,746. That's an average density of about 233 cars per square mile.
I'm sure it's very pleasant to drive around Butler County.
Philadelphia County has only 134 square miles of land area.
The population is 1,526,000. There are 592,520 cars. That averages about 11,380 cars per square mile, and I was too lazy to
add up the number of trucks and other vehicles. Suburbanites coming to work in the city also have cars. With no mass transit,
there would be a mass traffic stalemate probably hard for a Butler Countyite to imagine..
The "welfare" that bothers Rep. Metcalfe is used, in part,
by people who ride trains from Chestnut Hill or the Main Line, many of whom could buy me, you, Metcalfe and two Porsches and
have change left over. Most people who ride the trains, subways and elevated lines, buses and trolleys, are going to work,
not the welfare office, no matter what Rep. Metcalfe tells folks in Butler County.
But I admit that I don't know much about Butler County. As
a motion picture aficionado, I know only that it was in Butler County, in 1968, that George Romero made the film "Night of
the Living Dead," granddaddy of the current overabundance of movies about hordes of brain-eating so-called zombies stumbling
around, looking for live individuals to chomp on.
The scene in Romero's film of a zombified young girl munching
on her father's remains was one of the cinematic low points of our culture. But I don't suppose zombies influence Rep. Metcalfe's
opinions. They don't vote.
* * *
The days of sharing phone lines
The hullabaloo about folks in Washington listening in on other
people's telephone calls reminded me of something that probably doesn't exist anymore. Party lines.
No, kiddies, this has nothing to do with beer and dancing on
Saturday night. There was a time when was necessary for some people to share
Several households would share the same line. If a would-be
caller picked up the phone and heard that someone was already talking, he had to hang up and wait until the other party was
I always associated the party line system with rural areas.
But my wife tells me that her family shared a line in New York City when she was a school girl in Noo Yawk. They shared with
long-winded neighbors who sometimes tied up the line.
The first party line I saw in action belonged to my aunt, who
married a Bucks County farmer. Her house was on a dirt road, and everybody nearby seemed to have the same phone line.
phone had a distinctive ring pattern, so my aunt knew whose incoming call was whose. She often would pick up the phone on
somebody else's call and say something like, "You looking for the VanSyckles? I just saw them go down the road."
Some of her neighbors performed similar service for each other.
A few felt their privacy was in jeopardy, and didn't take part in the co-operative activities.
The down side of party lines was the possibility of eavesdropping.
One old-timer down the road from my aunt's place, who had nothing better to do, spent a good bit of time with his ear to the
It was routine for my aunt, when she picked up the phone to
make a call, to say, "Get off the line, Andy," before dialing. Whether he always really hung up when thus admonished, I don't
When we bought a house in Lower Bucks County in the Fifties,
we were on a two-party line. I never knew who shared our line, and doubt that they knew me. They never monopolized the line,
and the sharing went smoothly.
There was a problem only once. I tried to make a call, and
the other folks' phone was obviously off the hook. I could hear distant talking. I yelled "hello" and other appropriate exclamations
many times, with no response.
Finally. I put a radio next to our phone, turn the volume up
loud, and pumped some rock 'n' roll into the party line. When I checked a few minutes later, they had hung up.
Beyond party lines, small town telephone systems tended to
be informal, at least as late as the 1960s. I reviewed plays at the Bucks County Playhouse for the Evening Bulletin then.
If I dialed the number of the theater's press agent and got no answer, the New Hope operator often got on the line to say
something like, "Max is not in his office. I think he's over at the inn. Want me to try there?"
As for the current uproar about government eavesdropping on
phone calls, at least they don't make calls on your line and monopolize it so that you can't use it.
I'm not concerned about my phone being monitored. If I say
something subversive, it would most likely be here in the newspaper. But, just to be secure, maybe I should use my aunt's
technique. Before I make the call, I should say into the phone, "Get off the line, Barak."
* * *
Super heroes and real heroes
There is another movie about Superman in the theaters. Hollywood
seems compelled to tell that story over and over. The caped muscleman comic book character was in movie serials in 1948 and
1950, made his first feature film in 1951, and has since been presented and represented excessively in radio, television and
Superman is 75 years old. (Looks good for his age.) He first
appeared in the "Action Comics" comic book in June, 1938.
I was in second grade then, and I shelled out a dime for a
copy of the new publication.
was ultimately tossed out, of course. Who knew about first editions? A copy of that antique sold recently for $175,000.
On the cover of that periodical, Superman is shown hefting
an automobile over his head, and wearing the familiar caped red and blue suit He has changed in some ways through the years.
One of the principal differences is that he used to change
from street clothes into his uniform in telephone booths. These days, he would be hard pressed to find a phone booth. And
his young fans probably don't know what a phone booth is.
In the old radio and television series, the breathless introductory
announcer used to bark, "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a
single bound!" Hollywood dumped those modest attributes along with the phone
booths. Superman's movie abilities are now limitless.
Especially gone is the mere leaping. The old original Superman
hopped over skyscrapers in pleasant trajectories, and that was super enough for us kids back in 1938.Movie Supermen fly through
the air, for long distances and at near infinite altitudes, in defiance of the most remote physical principles.
I haven't seen Superman's most recent movie, but I've heard
that it is accompanied in the theaters by an advertisement for the Army National Guard. The commercial alternates between
images of Superman flying around and being super with pictures of National Guard members in action.
The implication seems to be that heroes, both super and ordinary,
must change into the proper uniform before they perform their duties. There presumably is no suggestion that National Guard
soldiers should suit up in phone booths.
Maybe I'm oversensitive, but it seems to me rather cheesy to
compare Superman with the National Guard. Comic book heroes may whiz through the air faster than a speeding bullet, but there
is no computer generated imagery on a battlefield, and the speeding bullets are real.
I have a lot of respect for men and women who give up so much
personal time, away from their jobs and their families, and willingly go into harm's way to train and to serve in the military.
Putting on tight blue long johns with a red cape does not make
the wearer a Man of Steel. And it takes much more than putting on a camouflage BDU .to be a soldier.
It makes me think of the old Smothers Brothers parody of the
folk song "The Streets of Loredo." The key line is, "I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy." The Smothers ending suggests,
"If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too." It doesn't work that way.
* * *
The bane of recorded phone calls
There is excitement these days about government agents secretly monitoring telephone
calls. I invite them to listen in on my phone calls any time. Then they may be as annoyed as I am.
Most of the calls we get these days are recorded sales hustles.
Most are feebly deceptive, and few offer any opportunity to reply and tell them to buzz off.
One recorded chap calls regularly with an enthusiastic announcement
that we have won a free security system. There seems to be no mechanism to tell the man that we already have a security system,
and that we know that anyone who accepts his generous offer will have to pay a monthly monitoring fee for the rest of his
and any prospective burglar's life.
Another regular recorded salesman wants to replace our windows.
We tried to indicate disinterest, but his computerized system keeps calling anyway. Our 50-year-old house has sliding metal
casement windows that are not configured like typical replacement windows, and are in better shape for their age than I am,
but there seems to be no way to inform the salesman.
A frequent recorded female phone nuisance says she is calling
about our PECO bill. I'm sure she is, but she is not from PECO. She represents another electricity purveyor and is attempting
to lure folks away from PECO. I hope that her company is better at brokering kilowatts than at trying to be devious.
That goes for another recorded woman who starts out by assuring
me that my credit card is in good standing. She doesn't name a specific card, because she doesn't know anything about me and
is fishing for information so she can extract money from me..
Neither the government nor the telephone industry seems interested
in chasing these automated pests. No "do not call" list can deal with robocall systems that scatter sales pitches into the
phone system, hit or miss.
It's hard to believe that these sales methods are effective.
The users must be followers of the W. C. Fields philosophy: "Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump."
One outfit that robophones us regularly is unique in the realm
of bothersome callers, and demonstrably stupid. It's a credit company, trying to track down a man who owes money.
The recorded message announces that it is trying to reach a
person, with another voice patching in the man's name. It offers us options of admitting that we are the alleged deadbeat,
or denying it.
After dozens of these calls, my wife tried to reply, and reached
another recorded message providing no way to tell the people that they have the wrong number. The vaguely threatening calls
I assume that the company must have one or two investigators
employed to track down their creditors, rather than relying on repeated and fruitless computerized phone calls. I decided
to look up the man they're seeking, and found him, on line, in less than a minute, at an address similar to ours.
The temptation is to turn the guy in to his pursuers, and end
the annoying phone calls. But I've decided that investigators who are that ineffective don't deserve to be helped.
* * *
Radiation in space, with oysters
A scientific paper entitled "Measurements of Energetic Particle
Radiation in Transit to Mars on the Mars Science Laboratory," by Cary Zeitlin et al, in the journal "Science" last week, caused a lot of excitement on web sites and in newspapers
(remember them?) because it indicated that astronauts (or even regular people) will get a dose of excess radiation if they
make a trip to Mars.
It's estimated that a round trip
to Mars (and not many people would want to do it one way) would increase the likelihood of the traveler contracting cancer
by about three percent. It seems a bit early to worry about the subject, since current chatter at NASA says it will be about
2030 before anybody blasts off for the red planet.
Back in the Sixties, Congress
got all excited about going to the moon before the Russians did, and were willing to shell out the cash for it. Space travel
became almost as important as more traditional international activities, such as wars, Olympic Games and spying on each other.
Things have changed since then.
Now, every rinky-dink country in the world has decided it should play Buck Rogers. Finland has a space agency and there are
Bulgarian astronauts, for pity's sake.
It's hard to get the big spenders
in Washington enthusiastic about manned (or even womanned) space exploration these days. But we have sent some cute little
robot scientific kiddie cars to Mars, and one of them, with nothing else to do during the trip, measured the radiation along
The results indicated
that a person making the ride would be exposed to about half the radiation that space experts say is an astronaut's lifetime
limit. Perhaps by the time that a few astronauts are launched for that first year-and-a-half
trip to orbit around Mars a bit and come back, better shielding will be available to guard against radiation.
Might I suggest oysters?
In a famous 1950 science fiction story by Cordwainer Smith, a scientist insulated spacecraft by lining the hulls with
tanks of oysters, which absorbed the radiation.
Smith wasn't serious, of course. He wasn't even Smith His real name was Dr. Paul M. A. Linebarger, a peculiar genius who sold his first
science fiction story at age 15. His father was a financial adviser to Sun Yat Sen, president of China before the Communists
Linebarger was born in 1913. He got his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins
at age 23, and taught there for years. He spoke six languages, ran army intelligence in China in World War II, wrote the authoritative
textbook on psychological warfare, was an adviser to President Kennedy, wrote sci-fi, other kinds of novels and poetry under
three names, and did lots more before he died in 1966.
As adviser to the 8th Army in the Korean War, he accounted
for the surrender of thousands of Chinese soldiers. He drafted leaflets to be dropped on them, explaining that they could
come forward safely by shouting the Chinese words for love, virtue and humanity. In English, it sounded like "I surrender."
Which has nothing to do with radiation in space travel, but
is probably more interesting.
* * *
Just another unusual year - 1913
It's interesting that in this year some wrong-headed Internal Revenue pests decided to indulge in political shenanigans, because
2013 is the 100th anniversary of the income tax. That first Form 1040, four pages including one page of instructions, has
grown into multiple forms and myriad rules that only your accountant can understand (if you're lucky.)
The 1913 income tax law took up 14 pages in the law books.
I was afraid to try to find out the volume of tax laws today.
There were some taxes on income earlier. When the Civil War
started to look expensive in 1862, Congress imposed a three percent tax on the wealthy: people who made more than $800 a year.
Since 1913, the Internal Revenue Bureau has grown into a unique part of our government. Its officials, appointed, not elected, can make rules that
have the effect of law.
They can accuse a citizen of breaking those rules, require
the citizen to prove the charges are wrong, and punish him if they aren't satisfied. There must be something in the Constitution
that frowns on that sort of thing.
But 1913 was an unusual year. Many new things besides income
taxes appeared. For one thing, the first crossword puzzle in America appeared in the New York World that year.
Stravinsky's little tunes, "The Rites of Spring," debuted, and audiences staged violent demonstrations about that peculiar
An art exhibit opened at the huge 69th Regiment Armory in New
York, and proved to be the painterly equivalent of the Stravinsky situation. Americans were confused and shocked by a bunch
of paintings by guys named Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Duchamp. When the show moved to the Chicago Art Institute, horrified
students burned Henri Matisse in effigy.
But artists couldn't win. A perfectly traditional painting,
none of your awful cubism or dadaism, was denounced when it went on display and became a sensation. It was entitled "September
Morn," and depicted a young woman with no clothes on.
The world changed significantly in another way in 1913 when
Gideon Sundback perfected a slide fastener with rows of little interlocking teeth, which a dozen years later would become
known as the zipper.
Henry Ford introduced the assembly line, which reduced the
time required to build an automobile from 12.5 hours to 1.5 hours. Soon Ford would be pouring out cars for about $500, while
luxury car maker James Packard could produce only 2,300 of his $2,500 luxury cars in a year.
And the U. S. Postal Service began a new program called Parcel Post. People could send packages through the mail, just like letters and postal cards.
American Express, Wells Fargo and other shipping companies opposed the government interference in their business, but it was
great for mail order companies like Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck.
The year ended with another federal innovation, when President
Woodrow Wilson signed the Glass-Owen Currency Act. It established the Federal Reserve System, created to prevent the kind
of financial panics that had afflicted the economy in the past.
The year 1913 was an unusual year. Most years are.
* * *
Bugs who do singing and math
There have been reports everywhere that this is a year for
the 17-year locusts to make their scheduled come-back. I have not seen or heard any yet, but they are predictable every 17
years, and outbursts of articles about them are equally reliable.
They are not really locusts, but cicadas, of the genus Magicada.
There are 13-year cicadas, too, but they rarely seem to get the publicity of the 17 crowd.
Cicada grubs live underground, sucking fluids from the roots
of trees. When the year comes for them to pupate (something bugs do that is not as disgusting as it sounds), they emerge in
large numbers and start poking their proboscis into trees and sipping.
Cicadas don't bite, but if one lands on you, it may jab its
snout into your epidermis on the off-chance that you're a tree. It hurts.
The males then form large choral groups to attract females.
The noise in a well-cicadaed forest can hit 120 decibels, in the same deafening range as jet engines and rock concerts. Cicada
lore claims that females have been known mistakenly to hop on a loud-buzzing electric drill with amorous intent.
After a month or so, the females lay their eggs. All concerned
then die, and the babies lie underground for another 17 years, imbibing.
have long been prevalent in northwest Philadelphia. An early attempt to figure out their timetable was made by a Germantown
resident, Benjamin Banneker, one of the first African-American scientists and mathematicians. He died in 1806, at age 75.
In 1847, a pioneering study of cicadas by entomologist Margaretta
Hare Morris was published in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences. She did much of her cicada observation in
her garden in Germantown, at Main St. and High St. (now Germantown Ave.)
Her early published studies of insects were often signed "M.
H. Morris", because some journals wouldn't accept scientific work by a mere woman. One of her sisters, Elizabeth Carrington
Morris, became a botanist, and was the first female member of the Academy of Natural Sciences.
Their mother, Ann Willing, was a descendant of a former mayor
of Philadelphia, and their father, Luke Morris, was descended from another mayor. From 1776, Morrises lived in the Germantown
The site originally had belonged to Isaac Dilbeck, who came
to Germantown in 1683. The land later was made into a botanical garden by Dr. Christopher Witt, who died in 1765 at age 90.
Another Morris sister, Susan, married John Stockton Littell,
a publisher, and the mansion became known as the Morris-Littell House. The family sold it to Edgar H. Butler in 1888.
The house was torn down when Germantown High School was built
in 1915. Whether any cicadas were affected is not known.
Some wrong-headed cicadas emerge in unscheduled years, and
get picked off by wasps and other enemies. Scientists speculate that cicadas emerge successfully in 17 or 13 year cycles because
those numbers are prime numbers (which can be divided only by one and themselves), causing an evolutionary randomness that
makes it hard for predators to synchronize with them,
Who knew? These bugs not only sing, they're good at math..
* * *
A naval battle on the Delaware
It was this time of year in 1776 that the banks of the Delaware
River were lined with spectators watching a naval battle.
About 9 A.M. on May 6, a rider galloped into town from Delaware
to report that two of His Majesty's warships were coming up the river. In the lead was HMS Roebuck, a 44-gun ship with a crew
of 280. Following was the HMS Liverpool, 28 guns and 100 men, with some frigates
and other smaller vessels,
All crews of the Pennsylvania Navy were called to their boats,
and artillerymen were sent down to Fort Island (a year later to be named Fort Mifflin.). The navy began moving out fire rafts,
designed to hit and burn enemy ships. Next morning, oarsmen began rowing 13 one-cannon galleys down the river.
Pennsylvania's flagship, the 38-gun Montgomery, set sail, accompanied
by a floating cannon battery, the Arnold. The fleet assembled off Hog Island.
The British armada was cruising up the river, capturing small
American ships and making stops ashore to seize supplies from inhabitants. Sailors butchered cattle and took the meat on board.
Anchored off the Christiana River, Capt. Andrew Snape Hamond,
in command of the Roebuck, sent a man with a flag of truce to Philadelphia. He
carried a letter from Capt. Henry Bellew of the Liverpool, asking for a safe conduct pass for Mrs. Bellew to travel to New
England and visit relatives there.
The Pennsylvania and British fleets came within sight of each
other on the 8th. The American crafts were low in the water, difficult targets for the British guns.
2 P. M., cannons from some of the row galleys fired the first shots. The British ships swung around broadside, the Roebuck's
bow pointing east and the Liverpool's to the west. The galleys stayed about a mile away.
There was heavy firing for two
hours. Trying to pull within range of the galleys, the Roebuck ran aground on the Jersey side. A sailing ship of that size
was built for fighting at sea., not for maneuvering in a river.
The ship tilted so close to the
water that its gun ports had to be closed. The galleys withdrew when ammunition ran short. Neither side suffered much damage
The Roebuck was afloat by dawn, and started toward the Pennsylvania
fleet. But Hamond ran into an area with only six inches clearance to the river bottom, and withdrew. The Americans, re-supplied
with ammunition, pursued.
A four hour exchange of fire thundered in the afternoon. Hamond
later reported that the Pennsylvanians "fired away seven tons of powder without doing us the least mischief," but most observers
said the Roebuck took a beating. Bellew wrote detailed reports of damage on the Liverpool
Both sides drew back. The British ships lay at anchor for three
days, making repairs.
Pennsylvania officer, under flag of truce, dropped in on the Liverpool to offer to escort Mrs. Bellew as she started her trip
to New England. Her husband grumbled that "the inhabitants of America could never be capable of showing civility to any person
after this," and refused to let her go.
The British ships moved down to near Lewes on the 15th, and
on the 16th set out to sea. It was Philadelphia's first taste of war.
* * *
May 8, 2013
If your mother says she loves you. . .
Some of those jolly jokesters called computer hackers oozed out a fake Associated Press
news bulletin a few weeks back, claiming that bombs had gone off in the White House. Many of the twits who follow Twitter
took it as electronic gospel,
Even the stock market reacted, though it will react to almost anything. You might think
that even stock brokers and other excitable people would check another source before passing along, or acting upon, an announcement
that dramatic and important, and unlikely.
The AARP, the geezers' collective, constantly warns its members about all sorts of proposals
that, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The same reasoning might be applied to news reports: If a news
flash sounds as spectacular as the plot of a Jason Bourne movie, it probably is.
Any old time newspaper reporter knows that, even with deadlines and confusion and lack
of informants, he must try to find one or two other sources to confirm a report. Don't trust that first piece of information.
The ancient dictum of the ink-smeared journalist was, "If your mother says she loves
you, check it out."
The fact that the White House information seemed to be emitted by the Associated Press
might be offered as an excuse for accepting it. But another factor is involved. Many an experienced journalist develops a
sort of sixth sense, a blend of experience, good memory, skepticism, caution and good luck, that makes him greet some incoming
information by muttering, "That doesn't sound right."
The hacking episode reminded me of a old Philadelphia newspaper yarn. One day in 1918,
the telegraph wires hummed with a report that the World War was over. (Unlike today, information then wasn't wireless; it
Most of the eight other Philadelphia dailies rushed extra editions onto the street. New
York front pages went wild. But some details didn't sound right to William B. Craig, the young city editor who was in charge
in the Evening Bulletin newsroom at Juniper and Filbert Sts. Over anguished objections from his staff, Craig didn't publish
The report was a mistake, possibly a deliberate one. The next day, other newspapers published
embarrassed apologies. The Bulletin front page headline smugly announced, "False Armistice Report Stirs Nation."
There's similar tale from 90 years ago or so. A Philadelphia reporter (I don't remember
the newspapers involved) acquired a girl friend who was a switchboard operator at City Hall. Men from rival papers detected
that the young woman was listening in on reporters' calls to their offices, and relaying their reports to her boy friend.
By prearrangement, a reporter called his office just at the suspected poacher's deadline,
and relayed fake details of an incident in a vaudeville theater. An acrobat had slipped off his trapeze and crashed into the
audience, injuring several people.
Sure enough, the false story appeared in the newspaper of the thieving reporter. He and
his girl friend were in big trouble.
But there was no Twitter in those days. And the stock market was not affected.
* * *
Zipping through the tree tops
There has been a lot of discussion and ruminating about the
proposal to dangle a network of ropes, cables, platforms and zip lines in the Wissahickon treetops near Henry and Wigard Aves.
Opinions vary. You can count on opinions to do that.
The plan wouldn't hurt the environment all that much. There
are trees out the wazoo in the thick wooded area at Wigard between Henry and the creek, down at Valley Green. Those acres
of trees would hardly notice a little hardware drooping from the canopy here
The parks and recreation big shots say that the opportunity
to do some arboreal zipping would give teenagers and young adults the opportunity to learn about the natural environment.
That's nice, but a bit counterintuitive. In the natural environment, zip lines don't grow on trees.
The whole idea of Fairmount Park from its beginning was to
preserve open space and woodland inside the city. Most of the park land is oozing with nature, but the river drives, the statues,
the lawn mowers and the walled river embankments are hardly natural. The Wissahickon's woods, stream and open areas are the
closest to being unspoiled of any part of the park system.
Christopher Morley, Philadelphia's all-time best newspaper
columnist, 100 years ago described Fairmount Park as "denatured countryside." He also wrote fondly that "The Wissahickon Drive
is the last refuge of the foot and hoof."
It was in his era that those obnoxious newfangled motor cars
began using the old Wissahickon Turnpike. It was also just about the time the word "environmentalist" was coined.
Lovers of the barely blemished woods protested, and ultimately,
automobiles were forbidden from the drive, which is itself an intrusion on the forest. How many people have been introduced
to the beauties of the natural environment by Forbidden Drive, I don't know.
I often walk on the Wissahickon, feeling no need to be whizzing
through the canopy on a cable. I prefer the lesser pathways, rather than Forbidden Drive. I often walk for miles on a weekday
and never encounter another person, neither among nor up in the trees. That's pretty darn natural.
One surprise in the zip line situation is that the Friends
of the Wissahicon organization seems to have no strong objection to the project.
They are in constant battle to drive invasive non-native trees, bushes and weeds out of the woods. I thought they might find
an invasion of zip line paraphernalia invasive.
If the chance to whiz through the high branches really lures
some vegetative kids away from the television set and the video games, and gets them involved in the great outdoors, it can
be a good idea. Who knows? A sudden fad for hiking, camping, fishing, hunting and the inhaling of fresh air may break out.
And it may teach over-civilized city kids the importance, to
the birds and animals who live in the valley, of the tree canopy, the lower parts of the trees, and all that vegetation and
mineralation on the ground. Has anybody asked for an opinion from the birds and animals?
* * *
Got pixture fillum in your camra?
Articles popped up here and there recently about the Philadelphia
accent. It was touched off by a study done by William Labov, a linguist who does his linguing at the University of Pennsylvania,
and Joseph Fruehwald, a Ph. D. candidate at Penn.
The two academics merely checked up on whether Philadelphians
still pronounce "water" the same way as their grandfathers, and next thing you know, they were being interviewed on National
Public Radio and, obviously more importantly, being written about by Clark DeLeone.
The media got all excited when the scholars suggested that
our accent is changing. Why the rest of the civilized world is so interested in the way we talk, and how we pronounce tawk
when we do it, puzzles me. We may have an accent, but we make things clear, unlike some folks' accents.
Ask a guy from Mississippi to pronounce O-I-L, and he'll say
"ohl." Ask him to pronounce A-L-L, and he'll say "ohl." Now, there's an accent that linguists
should worry about.
Accent doesn't fascinate me that much. I'm a writer, and don't
have to go around pronouncing things all the time. But I wonder if the accent authorities have noticed some other changes.
Dr. Labov is three years older than I am, but he was born in
Rutherford, New Jersey, which may be too small to have its own accent. He wandered through Harvard and Columbia before encountering
Phillyspeak, at age 40. I was born with it.
For the first five years of my life I spent most of every day
with my grandfather, and learned to talk largely from him. He was born in 1862, so I was instilled with pure old-time Philadelphia
I think he would be annoyed that Philadelphians today call
their front steps the stoop. They were the steps. The stairway inside the house was the stair-steps.
And athletic shoes were called sneaks. Anybody who called them
sneakers was obviously from out of town, like people with stoops.
Both of my grandfathers had a Philadelphia characteristic that
seems to be lost. They added syllables to words. In the rain, you needed an umberella. You shopped at those new Acamee markets.
You donated to the Salavation Army. When your joints ached, it was the arthuritis.
The added syllables were often offset by dropping them from
other words. Put fillum in your camra and take a pixture of.pleece officers at the Mummers Prade.
Also, I'm with Grandpop that the word creek is pronounced "crick."
Some people say that the use of crick shows a connection of Philadelphia and Southern accents. But back in the Middle Ages,
give or take an era, before fussy educators began insisting on consistent spelling, writers often spelled creek as cryk, creke,
crike or crick, and didn't leave any recordings of how they pronounced it.
And please, Dr. Labov, don't let your colleagues and students
call the university UPenn. That sounds like some football-happy Midwestern state university. No one ever adds a U to UYale
or UPrinceton or any other ivy-infested school, and I pray that they never will. It's Penn.
In fact, to my grandfather, Penn was simply The University,
in the same way that Mr. Stokowski's organization was The Orchestra. This is Philadelphia.
* * *
The possible perils of de-extinction
Should scientists resurrect extinct species by cloning? Several
articles discussed the possibility recently in the news media and scientific journals..
Michael Crichton's novel and Steven Spielberg's movie, "Jurassic
Park," gave us a scary demonstration of the idea about 20 years ago. But we can relax. Any remaining DNA or other biological
tidbits of a Tyrannosaurus Rex or a Velociraptor are too old and worn out to allow the scientists to produce new copies of
any annoying giant 245 million year old Jurassic lizards.
But move up to merely 2.6 million years ago or so, and ingredients
for cloning deceased critters might be viable. We could have a Pleistocene Park, with some reconstituted woolly mammoths galumphing
here and there.
Some biological tinkerers have succeeded in reproducing an
extinct ibex, a mountain-goatish sort of animal, from left-over genetic parts and attachments, but it didn't live long. Just
as well. We already have non-extinct ibexes hopping up and down the Himalayas.
I suppose the fascination with restoring ancient ibexes is
akin to collecting old furniture. You might like to have an antique chair, even though there are lot of modern chairs around.
Some articles on the subject suggest that scientists could
get hold of some passenger pigeon remnants and use them to bring back that legendary bird. Before the passenger pigeon became
officially extinct in 1914, there were times out west, if you can believe the old stories, when flocks of passenger pigeons
overhead were so thick and vast that they blotted out the sun. I often wondered what fell besides darkness on observers of
those massive flights. You know how pigeons are.
The story is that hunters wiped out the passenger pigeon. There
were no authorized endangered species lists in those days. Another thing I've often wondered (being prone to wondering oftenly)
was who was the guy who shot the last passenger pigeon? Did he know it was the last one?
Was the poor bird swooping around up there, trying its best
to blot out the sun, wondering where all the other pigeons were and muttering, "I could use a little help with the blotting
My feeling is that rejuvenators of lost species should start
out with something small and controllable, such as a passenger pigeon, before they go throwing a bunch of genes in the blender
and producing an baby woolly mammoth.
When the fuzzy little infant grows up to be mammoth, as well
as wooly, and starts stomping around the laboratory, they might have a problem on their hands.
Most folks know the kind of behavior Dr. Frankenstein had to
put up with (or think they know, after watching Hollywood's cautionary versions, though I suspect that few have read Mrs.
Shelley's long-winded original version from 1818.)
And in recent years, alleged entertainment has infused our
culture with endless variations of possible trouble with zombies and similar undead citizens making nuisances of themselves.
why we should start out by cloning the remains of some small, cute little species and see how that works out. We don't want
an apocalypse presided over by herds of undead mammoths.
* * *
Digging up dead English kings
The British have accidentally dug up a lot of old kings and
other ancient citizens lately. First, some fellows excavating in a parking lot came upon King Richard III's head.
Then, workers with big boring machines (as in tunneling, not
as in being dull), running a new subway under London, came upon a 14th century cemetery full of deceased victims of the Black
Plague. Most recently, what are believed to be the remains of King Alfred the Great were removed from a churchyard in southern
The subway borers also came upon a few 68,000 year old mammoth
bones, some remnants of ancient Roman ruins, and vestiges of a 16th century mansion with a moat around it. No royal carcasses
were uncovered in the subway, so far.
I've read a bit about Richard III, but didn't know his head
was in a parking lot. When Henry Tudor's troops walloped Richard's cavalry on Bosworth Field in 1486, Richard got knocked
off his horse. Shakespeare portrays him as offering to swap his kingdom for another horse, but Henry's boys weren't horse
traders. They just did Richard in.
Somebody found Richard's crown under a gorse bush, and stuck
it on their leader, who thus became Henry VII on the spot. They loaded Richard's naked body on a pack horse, and hauled it
off for burial at Grey Friars' chapel; in Leicester. I don't think the chapel had a parking lot then.
I've never been a big fan of Alfred the Great. I heard about
him in the third grade. We were fed all sorts of folk-taley stuff about kings.
We heard that King Canute, in the 11th century, believed he
had the power to order the tide not to come in. He got fooled, and very wet. We were told how Robert the Bruce, a 14th century
Scottish king, was inspired by watching a spider spin a web. (He had a lot of time on his hands at the moment.)
And we learned that once, when Alfred the Great was hiding
from the Danes (something he did a lot of), he took shelter in a peasant's hut. The woman of the house asked him to watch
the cakes she was baking, while she went off to do some peasanting.
Alfred was preoccupied with making battle plans and sharpening
his sword and such, and let the cakes burn. When the woman came back and saw the food ruined, she cussed Alfred up and down in some old original Anglo-Saxon.
He meekly accepted the scolding, and never mentioned that he
was king of anything. We were told that the story revealed how noble and humble he was, but I always suspected that he was
just plain scared of the old broad.
The truth is that Alfred spent most of the Ninth Century trying
to keep the Danes out of England, and/or to convert them to Christianity. He won a few battles, but the pesky Danes kept coming
When Alfred and his troops took London back from the Danes
in 886, all concerned finally got tired of constant fighting, and the Danes agree to calm down and only take about one-third
of England for themselves.
That never seemed to me like a very good deal for the Anglo-Saxons.
But Alfred was Great and I'm not, so what do I know?
Having an occasional old British king dug up is good fun, and
somewhat educational. Who might be next? Edgar the Peaceful? Ethelred the Unready?
* * *
Those sneaky killer drones
It's wrong for somebody to kill somebody. There are a few cheerfully
accepted exceptions, such as war, electric chairs, or when the so-and-so has it coming.
Ever since Moses came down the hill carrying his top ten list
of no-nos, folks have been looking for loopholes, and arguing over if, when, where, why and how it's all right to kill people.
And how many..
The latest factor in this ancient debate is drones. They are
airplanes with nobody on board, which sneak up on bad guys (we decide who they are) and let loose rockets that unexpectedly
blast the miscreants into smithereens while they are placidly going about their bad-guy business, riding in their cars, or
lolling under their own vine and fig tree.
Occasionally the wrong person gets pulverized. Also occasionally
an innocent, or at least much less bad, person or two\ accidentally get included in the mayhem.
Even excluding the large number of idealists who insist that
all war and killing ares poor form and should be abandoned forthwith, there still remain critics who worry about whether the
drones are a proper form of assassination, and some who especially feel that elimination of undesirable individuals should
not be performed on American soil.
Among the many aspects of the debate over dronery are intimations
in some quarters that using unmanned, or unwomanned, aircraft is poor sportsmanship. The killing should be decently done with
someone in the cockpit, not sitting comfortably at a computer in the Midwest, sipping coffee while pulling the trigger.
Better yet, troops should battle their way in for the job,
the way we got Bin Laden. Some folks historically demand that war include risks and carnage on both sides. It's only fair.
There was a lot of such thinking in 1945. The United States
dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing a few hundred thousand people in two
Americans, and not just firmly anti-war people, have been wringing
their hands over that terrible attack for 63 years. If instead, shiploads of
American servicemen had invaded Japan and fought their way to Tokyo non-atomically, incurring the same number of casualties
or more, on both sides, people would have just accepted that as the inevitability of war
And some people seem to find it offensive that drones sneak
up on their targets, and the casualties never know what hit them. Nazi rockets dropping on England 75 years ago were like that. It was nerve-wracking; ask any Londoner over 80.
While the debate over the use of drone bombers stumbles on,
I wonder if there are not engineers, scientists and military geniuses at work on the next logical steps. One would be fighter
drones, with pilots in comfy armchairs guiding planes in combat with each other, like a video game.
Soon to follow will be unmanned tanks, remote controlled and
self-propelled howitzers and rocket launchers and what-not, and ultimately, robot soldiers.
Drones may be heading us in the right direction. Since the
human race shows few signs of discontinuing wars, and also insists on creating electronic and mechanical devices, maybe we
should reduce the amount of lost time, lost limbs and lost lives by letting our machines do the battling for us.
* * *
March 27, 2013
by James Smart
Police headquarters now and later
There is talk again of the Police Department abandoning the precast concrete citadel on Race St., and moving headquarters to the
sedate old Provident Mutual edifice in West Philly. The idea goes back for a couple of city administrations. This time it
may be serious.
The curvy white Race
St. monster opened in 1963, in the days when police cars were red, as any old
Philadelphian will tell you they should be. In that benighted era, to call the cops, you were instructed to dial not 911,
I remember stopping
in at the new building while the police officers were just settling in. I wanted to see what the new reporters' room was like.
The press had been stationed for a century or so in a somewhat grotty, yet beloved, chamber on the sixth floor of City Hall.
I found some old colleagues in the new quarters, grumbling about the necessity of placing square desks against round walls.
The circular wings of
the building were the dominant topic of conversation. One officer had me stand in a corner of a room to demonstrated that
because of the curve, you could not see the equivalent corner at the opposite end. There was joking about the cylindrical
elevator cars being "canned people."
The nickname "Roundhouse"
caught on quickly among reporters and cops. I always disliked the moniker. Early new Police Department stationery included
"Franklin Square" in the address, and it would have been colorful if police headquarters had become identified by its location,
like Scotland Yard in London.
The proposed new building
is more Philadelphia-ish. It stands on what, at the time of the Revolution, was the 112 acre Thomas Harrison farm, between
the lines of today's 42nd and 49th Sts., from the Haverford Rd. to south of the line of Market St. The city ran Market St.
through the property in 1790.
The estate, called Mill
Creek Farm, had several owners until, in 1841, it was acquired by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, of Pennsylvania Hospital, a
pioneer of modern psychiatry. (The American Psychiatric Association was founded in Kirkbride's house near 44th and Market
Mental hospital facilities were built there through the years. Philadelphians referred to the institution just
Times changed, and Kirkbride's
no longer needed all that space. A "For Sale" sign went up at 46th and Market in July, 1923. The buyer was the Provident Trust.
The Provident Life and
Trust Co., founded by Quakers in 1865, was at Fourth and Chestnut Sts. for many years. New Pennsylvania laws separated banking
from insurance in 1924. Provident Mutual was spun off
The insurance company
built a $3 million, five story building of some 200,000 square feet, with an elegant pillared entrance and a domed clock tower.
There were recreation fields for the 1,000 employees.
Times changed again.
Provident moved out in 1983, and donated the property to an educational foundation. It has had its ups and downs, but mostly
ups. Parks, recreation facilities, public housing and other service buildings surround the big main building, which, one of
these days, may be full of cops.
* * *
Pieces of paper and PDFs
The oldest book I own was printed in 1635. Some pages are a
bit foxed and spotted, but every word is readable.
Columns I wrote 20 years ago were stored on five and a quarter
inch floppy computer disks. Any computer that now can allow you to read them is an obsolete antique.
Fortunately, the columns were printed in this and other newspapers,
and I have clippings of them. Like the text of that 378 year old book, they are safely and readably stored on pieces of paper.
The column that you are reading, written on a computer keyboard,
is stored somewhere in that mysterious electronic fairyland where bits and bytes and pixels dwell. But, fear not, fellow aging
wanderers in the century of processed words. My computer has a printer.
I can print copies of my column. And when the next new marvelous
technology comes along, that makes it impossible to access these words without investing big bucks in the latest paraphernalia
that the Neat New Electronic Stuff industry insists we must buy, I'll be able to read my old work the old fashioned way
You can clip out this column and save it, if you have the inclination.
No special equipment is necessary to access it. Well, maybe a lamp. And your bifocals.
Some modern libraries are making copies of old books, newspapers
and documents, and tossing the originals away. This is nothing new, except for the computer's intrusion into the process.
The first microfilm was created in the earliest days of photography,
in 1839, the same year that the first photograph in America was taken here in Philly. Those first microfilm images had to
be read under a microscope.
Preserving newspapers on microfilm had its tiny beginnings
in the 1840s. One reason was the development of newsprint, cheap paper made from wood pulp that doesn't last long. Newsprint's
low cost led to a boom in the number of newspapers, but the paper was fragile. Sturdier old fashioned paper that had some
rag content held up better. A newspaper from the 1830s is likely to be in good shape, while one from the 1930's may be crumbling.
Old newspapers in libraries tend to be on rolls of microfilm,
or since the1960s on microfiche cards. But optical devices are going the way of reading the actual printed paper itself. Computer
sorcery such as PDF now makes copies of printed material. PDF stands for Portable Document Format, although it's the electronic
device that's portable (unless it's heavy), not the document.
Well, it's too late for me. I'm as surrounded by electronic
devices as the next guy, but my favorite portable format is still printing on paper.
I've been accumulating books, and other printed odds and ends,
since I was first old enough to shell out a dime for a Big Little Book at Woolworths. And if you are old enough to know what
Big Little Books were, and what Woolworth's was, I suspect you feel the same way I do.
And perhaps, 75 or so years from today, some old timer will
be confronting some new-fangled form of communication we can't conceive of, and lamenting those simple days of the 2010's,
when folks read PDFs on their iPads and Kindles.
And whoever has my book from 1635 then, if anybody does, will
still be able to read it.
* * *
Property tax is ancient history
The City of Philadelphia's Office of Property Assessment web
site includes an inspirational little section on the history of real estate taxes. The historical items are apparently an
attempt by the Revenue Bureau to soften the blow of the AVI, which I suspect stands for "Awful Valuation Increase."
The scholars at City Hall begin their history with ancient
Mesopotamia. (I use "City Hall" in a generic sense; the assessors actually hang out in the old Curtis Publishing building
at 6th and Walnut, which Cyrus H. K. Curtis built in 1895 to publish The Saturday Evening Post and The Ladies Home Journal,
and probably has a hefty assessment.)
Meanwhile, back in Mesopotamia,, say our assessors:
"The earliest known tax records, dating from approximately
six thousand years B. C., are in the form of clay tablets found in the ancient city-state of Lagash in modern day Iraq."
Great. As if Iraq hasn't annoyed us enough, it turns out to
have invented real estate taxes. The city of Lagash, which is called Telloh these days, was located between the Tigris and
Euphrates Rivers, which just about everything in Iraq seems to be.
French archaeologists excavated the place on and off from 1877
to 1933, and dug up more than 50,000 clay tablets full of Sumerian cuneiform texts, a lot of them real estate tax records.
I don't know how many of the taxes were never collected, but if Lagash was like Philly, you can bet it was a lot.
A famous monument the French excavators uncovered at Lagash
was called the Stele of the Vultures by the Lagashian folks. Whether that name reflects the ancient opinion of tax collectors,
I can only surmise.
The assessor history lesson continues with some undated ancient
"In Egypt, tax assessors were highly valued people because
of their skills with hieroglyphics and their ability to collect revenue. Often when a king died, the assessor was the only
staff person not killed and buried along with the king, so valued was his service."
I've read some real estate documents that seemed like hieroglyphics,
but that's most likely not why our city assessors chose to report on the subject. They were just trying to cover their ass-
essments, and to remind us of their own importance. (I wonder if pyramids were assessed at their actual value?)
As for staff being buried with the king, that was just the
ancient Egyptian version of what happens in our era when a new party takes over a government. Pharaohs didn't have such bothers
as elections or Civil Service.
The tax historians then take a leap through the centuries,
right up into the Anno Dominies, with their next chronicle:
"In the 11th century, Lady Godiva rode naked on
a white horse through the streets of Coventry, England, to protest the tax assessment on her husband's property. He received
an abatement. (In Philadelphia, we have a form you can fill out for that - no horse required."
Too bad about that form. A lot of male tax payers might accept
the higher tax evaluations more cheerfully if they were delivered by naked women, especially ones with well filled-out forms.
In this method, too, the horse could be optional.
* * *
Ed Shippen's Philadelphia: Population 200
In an old book, I came upon the fact that it was Edward Shippen's
374th birthday. He was baptized on March 5, 1639, near Leeds, England.
is little remembered today, but he was one of the men who helped William Penn create his two square mile city in the Pennsylvania
wilderness, when the population was about 200 souls.
Shippen was a 29 year old British businessman when he decided
to seek his fortune in the New World. He sailed to Boston, and established himself in business. Three years later, in 1671,
he married Elizabeth Lybrand, a Quaker girl.
The Boston establishment, loyal to King Charles II and the
Church of England, had a dim view of those peculiar Quakers. Shippen was lucky. He was only publicly whipped a couple of times
for adopting his wife's religion. Other Quakers were being sent to the gallows.
Elizabeth died in 1688. She had borne eight children. That
was a brutal era of poor health and primitive medical care, and lives were often short. Five of the children died young.
Shippen married Rebeka Richardson, a widow, in 1689.. They
had one child, who died in infancy.
In 1693, a meteor zoomed over Boston, scaring the religious
folks. They were sure that God was threatening them for not hanging enough Quakers. The Shippens decided to move to Philadelphia.
Rebeka's late husband had thought of relocating to the new
Quaker city, and had bought 260 acres around what, according to William Penn's street plan for the rising city, ran roughly
east from Second St., south from Spruce St. down to Dock Creek.
The Shippens moved there, and built the biggest house in town.
There was a large orchard out back, and a lawn down to the creek, where they kept a herd of deer.
They also built a country house, way out in the sticks, at
what we would call the southwest corner of Broad and South Sts. They used their coach, the biggest in town, on the road between
the two properties. It was called Shippen's Lane until 1870, when it was renamed Bainbridge St.
Ed Shippen plunged right into local politics, and quickly became
a leader. He was elected Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1695, and became Chief Justice in 1699.
When William Penn issued the first city charter in 1701, he
appointed Shippen the new mayor. Shippen also was president of the Governor's Council from 1702 to 1704, and for six months
was acting governor.
Rebeka died in 1704. In 1706, at age 67, Shippen married Elizabeth
James, a widow from Bristol, England.. She was not a Quaker, and he lapsed back into orthodoxy, which weakened his position
with the Quaker leaders. It was an ironic reverse of his days in Boston. He retired, but continued to put his opinions into
the ears of the establishment.
Edward Shippen died in 1712. He had seen his city grow from
a few hundred residents to more than 2,000.
His descendants were influential in Philadelphia for generations.
Perhaps the best remembered Shippen now is Peggy Shippen, who married Benedict Arnold. She was Edward's great-great-granddaughter.
There are surely some Shippen descendants here and there today.
I wonder if they ever celebrate the old guy's birthday?
* * *
The first thing to privatize
Gov. Tom Corbett is all excited by the prospect of running
around privatizing things. He wants to privatize the lottery that our fair commonwealth has been peddling for 40 years, and
the state liquor emporiums that the state established in the year Prohibition ended and President Roosevelt declared a bank
holiday (maybe not entirely coincidentally.)
The governor sees a lot of economic benefit in privatizing
state entities. And, wouldn't it set a good example if he led the way by privatizing
the governor's office?
A private industry management would probably swoop in there
and save the state a lot of money. There are executives who specialize in moving in on a company and firing everybody in sight
The average salary of our nation's 50 governors is only $128,735
a year. Gov. Corbett's $174,914 salary is sixth on the national list.
A new CEO would probably raise that salary, and arrange for
perks and bonuses for himself. You know how CEO's are.
But we have a Lt. Governor and a Chief of Staff and four Deputy
Governors and a Secretary of the Commonwealth, whatever that is. A privatizer would cut some fat out of that carcass of six-figure
Then there are jobs like Energy Executive, and Director of
Planning and Policy. The new boss would be calling them in and asking, "Just what exactly is it you do?"
There is also the Attorney General. A business executive might
find it more economical to deal with an outside law firm, and get rid of the Attorney General. This is an idea that, at the
moment, might warm Gov. Corbett's heart.
On a state Web site, I counted 42 state departments, bureaus,
offices, commissions, agencies, systems, boards and administrations. One of those corporate hatchetpersons who comes in to
rejuvenate a corporation would be going through that bunch like an all-star running back through an Andy Reid defense.
A private executive would still have to deal with a bunch of
politicians who insist on continually making laws. But corporate top guns know how to organize a congenial board of directors
to back them up, and would treat legislation like proxy votes at the annual meeting,
and do as they pleased.
Privatization would leave the governor's office in the capitol
empty, with its fine old wood paneling and a great big reception room. It could be leased for use as a fancy liquor store
that sold lottery tickets.
The privatized liquor business seems to make a little sense.
The governor claims that auctioning off 1,200 liquor licenses would bring the state about $1 billion. And Harrisburg would
still collect about $400 million in taxes, as it does now.
According to figures I found on line, the governor estimates
that the private lottery would bring in $130 million annually over 20 years. Figures elsewhere say that the state lottery
now nets $1 billion a year for Senior Citizens. If those facts are correct, I don't understand the deal.
Many of the Senior Citizens pay back their free bus rides by
buying lottery tickets by the gross. But they know that there's always the chance
that they'll win some big bucks. (Well, not always. More like sometimes. Or maybe once in a very great while. Or maybe they
should live so long.)
* * *
My favorite fat politician
Television humorists and other public nuisances continually
pick on Gov. Christopher J. Christie of New Jersey because of his size. Gov. Christie takes the bad jokes in good humor.
He tends to keep statistics about his weight close to the vest,
but there is no question that it's a voluminous vest. He is five feet eleven,
and 300ish or more. On the subject of whether his corpulence affects his job performance, he responds seriously to critics
and jocularly to jokers.
Christie was a television guest of David Letterman, who almost
nightly lampoons the governor's girth, and told Letterman, "I'm the healthiest fat guy you've ever seen in your life."
have no comparative information on how many fat guys Letterman has seen to date. Letterman measures six feet two, and weighs
190, according to information on the Web.
If Christie runs for president four years hence, journalists,
Democrats and other nosey people will insist on some statistics they can criticize.
Does weight matter? The late William Howard Taft was a reasonably
adequate President of the United States, and he was six feet tall and topped off at about 332 pounds.
When I reflect on politicians' tubbiness, I think of one of
my favorite old time Philadelphia politicians, Sen. Boies Penrose. He was six feet four, and reached a legendary bulk approaching
Penrose was born in 1860, of an old and wealthy Philadelphia
family. He attended Episcopal Academy, and came in second in the class of 1881 at Harvard. (His brother was first.)
An unlikely entry into the gritty realm of Philadelphia politics, he wended his electoral way through both houses in Harrisburg, was elected a U.
S. Senator in 1897, and by 1909 was undisputed boss of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania.
He was also uncontested eating champion. He was known to order
as many as six different lunches from a restaurant menu at one sitting.
A waiter in Atlantic City, where Penrose kept his yacht, once
cited as a typical Penrose dinner: 12 cocktails, 12 raw oysters, a bowl of soup, terrapin stew, two whole canvasback ducks,
mashed potatoes, lima beans, macaroni, asparagus, cole slaw, stewed corn, a whole hot mince pie, a quart of coffee, a bottle
of sauterne, a quart of champagne, and several brandies.
breakfasts were more simple: usually just a dozen fried eggs, a slice of ham, a dozen rolls and a quart of coffee.
He became ill in 1919. Servants moved his massive bulk about
in a specially built wheelchair. In 1920, confined to his reinforced oversized bed in his house at Broad and Spruce Sts.,
with a direct phone line and a private telegraph line, with operator, he was connected with the Republican National Convention
in Chicago, maneuvering the nomination of Warren G. Harding (six feet, 240.) Philadelphia reporters at the Penrose bedside
knew of Harding's selection before the press corps in Chicago.
On the last day of 1921, Boies Penrose died in his massive
bed in his apartment in the swank Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. He was only 61, but he may have once been "the healthiest
fat guy you've ever seen."
* * *
February 13, 2013
by James Smart
A Sidonian walks into a bar. . .
I came upon a
modern translation of "Philogelos," believed to be the oldest joke book in the world. The translation was done by Dan Crompton,
a Londoner who studied classics and linguistics at Cambridge University, and obviously knows a good ancient Greek joke when
he hears one.
which means something like "The Laughter-Lover," was first published in the fourth century B. C. Crompton's English translation
was originally issued as "The World's Oldest Joke Book," which is what I would call the world's oldest joke book if somebody
Later it was published
as, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," a title already used and well-worn elsewhere, and which doesn't seem
very precise for a book of Greek jokes written by two Greeks.
But the Romans
were pretty much in charge of civilization in that century. The Greek writers just wanted to be up-to-date, and Latin was
produced a more recent book, entitled "A Classical Primer: Ancient Knowledge for the Modern Mind," which I suspect is a bit
more serious than the earlier work.
The newer book
is available on Kindle. The joke book does not seem to be. That's just as well. Having ancient Greek jokes on an electronic
device would be something like having a plastic Venus de Milo, or a Sphinx built of Legos.
of "Philogelos" were chaps named Hierocles and Philagrios. Some of their jokes are funny, some are vulgar, and some are both.
Many of the vulgar jokes would fit right in with today's incessantly crude film and television humor. The ancient world even
had coarse humor about things that don't come up much these days, such as eunuch jokes and hernia jokes.
And, like today,
there were jokes about foreigners being stupid. The book has sections of Abderite jokes, Kymaean jokes and Sidonian jokes.
I'm not sure why
those towns were funny. Abdera was a city in Thrace, near the Black Sea. The Kymae, or Cumae, lived near the present Naples.
The Greeks perhaps thought Kymaeans were comical because they couldn't seem to get the Greek alphabet right. But a Kymaean
would have the last laugh, if you could tickle one today, because their version of the Greek alphabet became the basis of
the alphabet you're reading right now.
Sidon was an older
town. It's mentioned 14 times in the Bible, and Sidonians are mentioned six times, not humorously. One of Noah's grandsons
was named Sidon, and the city's location is recorded in the 10th chapter of Genesis.
Here's humor from
the book: "Sidonian teacher: 'How much does a five-cup jug hold?' :Student: 'Is it wine or oil?'" In another, a Sidonian whose
boat began to sink went below deck and started pushing on the ceiling.
And there's the
Kymaean who goes to a shop that builds windows, and asks if they make any that face south. And this: "Friend: 'Can I borrow
a cloak, just to go down to the countryside?' Friend: 'Sorry, I've only got one that goes down to the ankle.'"
At least one in
the book, I've heard as a modern gag. A Kymaean sees a funeral, and asks who died. He's told, "The guy in the coffin."
Sorry, no eunuch
* * *
Corbett's Truly Lucky Office?
The governor of Pennsylvania and his counterpart across
the river are anxious to privatize the state lotteries. There's controversy, of course. Lotteries were controversial from
the beginning of Pennsylvania.
The Quaker founders didn't care much for games of chance. The
Pennsylvania Assembly in 1705 passed an "Act Against Riotous Sports, Plays and Games," which outlawed lotteries. It also outlawed
cards, dice, billiards, quoits, and a few pastimes I don't think exist anymore,
even in Atlantic City, including loggats, shovegroats and rowley-powley.
That law banned "any other kind of game whatsoever, now invented
or hereafter to be invented." Queen Anne repealed the law in 1709 as "unreasonable restraint on the King's subjects from taking
Private citizens often made a few bucks by organizing lotteries.
A 1730 law forbade them again, but governors frequently made deals allowing lotteries
so long as the proceeds would pay the prescribed fines.
The city of Philadelphia used lotteries to buy cannons for
a "grand battery" to protect the port in 1747, and to finance street surfacing in 1748. The largest buyer of tickets to pay
for cannons was James Logan, a Quaker leader.
Schools and churches used lotteries to raise funds. Benjamin
Franklin sponsored three lotteries in 1752 to pay for the steeple of Christ Church.
The Assembly authorized lotteries for educational funding,
and 36 lotteries, by 27 schools, were held from 1754 to 1811. The College, Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia,
which one day would be the University of Pennsylvania, held nine lotteries between 1755 and 1761.
Lotteries organized by private citizens, for profit, also flourished.
The state averaged more than one lottery a month from 1796 to 1808.
were fund-raisers. An 1806 game helped pay off the debts of the Bustleton and Smithfield Turnpike Co., for a road from Frankford
to Somerton. More than $33 million in prizes were awarded between 1811 and 1833 by lotteries that built the Union Canal that
linked the Schuylkill with the Susquehanna.
The profit-making lotteries weren't always strictly ethical.
Sponsors would advertise prizes and a set number of tickets, then keep selling tickets as long as it took to get rid of them
all. Lotteries stretched out two or three years.
1833, more than 200 lotteries were in progress in Philadelphia. There were hundreds of ticket brokers in town, with names
like "Enoch L. Colcord & Son's Lottery and Exchange Bureau," and "Allen's Truly Lucky Office."
A lawyer who studied the problem reported that a lottery's
"deluded victim does not regard it as a tax, but as a road to sudden wealth, dispensing with the necessity of labor." He found
that insolvent persons whose bankruptcy petitions blamed lottery losses were as many as 17 a year.
It was in 1833 that the legislature cracked down on lotteries,
setting heavy fines and mandating the "entire abolition of lotteries," calling them "an acknowledged evil of great magnitude."
Then, 139 years later, Pennsylvania started its current state
lottery. Now it may be privatized. Maybe they'll call it Corbett's Truly Lucky Office.
* * *
Surgical things left behind
There was a lot of Googling and Twitterng and texting and other
wireless prattling in recent weeks about a study in the medical trade journal "Surgery" that reported that in the last 20
years, 4,857 objects were left behind in patients' innards by surgeons in the United States.
The study was of data accumulated from records of malpractice
cases. It's possible that other gimcracks were left inside patients who didn't sue, and whose doctor somewhere is still wondering
what became of that nice shiny hemostat his mother-in-law gave him for his birthday.
The researchers estimate that as many as 80,000 of these surgical
oversights may have taken place in the same period, but escaped notice because the surgeon re-surged when he missed his favorite
curette, or because nobody, including the patient, knew that an osteotome had been dropped into his pleural cavity.
With all the lamentations and wisecracking written about that
report on the peccadilloes of butter-fingered practitioners, one question immediately occurred to me that no writer addressed:
What were those articles that were abandoned in the interior of unsuspecting patients?
I wandered electronically around the World Wide Web, where
facts about everything can be found, many of them true. There was little enlightenment.
Apparently small sponges and towels are the most frequently
left behind surgical implements sewed up or stapled up amongst the organs. I was hoping for something more dramatic, such
as a surgeon closing up a cholecystectomy,
and then noticing he was missing his wedding ring, his dentures, his wrist watch, or his Dr. Phillip Syng Physick action figure.
I thought that the fancy new microsurgery had taken over the
practice of old fashioned full sized surgery. There seem to be recurrent news articles about surgeons casually extracting
a kidney through a belly button, and of performing what would seem like large-scale poking and slicing of assorted organs
through tiny inch-wide incisions.
It's like those fellows who build elaborate ship models in
bottles, working through the neck. But gluing pieces together through a person's neck has limited possibilities for surgeons.
The first surgery I ever had, more than 30 years ago, was a
laparoscopy, a cut that ran south from my navel for a scary nine inches. The
purpose was to identify a strange lump in my abdomen. I was incarcerated in the hospital for a week.
It turned out to be my appendix. Should the doctor have known
that in advance, and not have to cut as much as he did? I don 't know. At least, he didn't leave any unidentified items inside
(as far as I know.)
By contrast, in the last operation I had, a few years ago,
the doctor stuffed a hefty wad of netting, to shore up a double hernia, through two little inch-long slits, probably too small
to mislay any equipment big enough to have worried her, or me. She sent me home the same day.
But apparently, the new tiny surgery does not preclude the
possibility of a lost and found collection being located in your abdomen.
* * *
Guns in the wrong hands
Everybody is writing about guns these days. On Jan. 26,
2011, I wrote about the subject. Nothing has changed much, so here is that column again:
Backwash from the recent maniacal shootings produced all sorts
of platitudes, lamentations, explanations, recriminations, denials of responsibility, and every reaction imaginable. Are we
about to see politicians of the furthermost Left and the furthermost Right suddenly begin to greet each other with compassionate
hugs and play legislative Alphonse and Gaston in the halls of Congress? Somebody better frisk them first; they might be carrying.
The gun control people and the Second Amendment people seem
to agree on one thing: we shouldn’t let guns get into the wrong hands. The most extreme controllers would solve the
problem by taking everybody’s guns away, which is like stopping car theft by eliminating automobiles. The right-to-bearers
think the answer is personal responsibility, which tends to be in short supply.
The real question about guns getting into the wrong hands is,
how do we keep hands from being wrong in the first place? Gun control advocacy is all very well, but it’s the decent-behavior
advocates who don’t seem to be effective.
Many organizations have always been expected to keep hands
from going wrong: churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, what-have-you. Schools, too. And the most basic organization of
all, when wrong hands are involved: families.
There have always been hands (and the attached people) going
wrong, no matter what is said in church, school or around the dinner table. But don’t you get the feeling that the old
social restraints are getting through to youngsters less and less these days?
Many years ago, I interviewed a psychologist who was also a
Presbyterian minister, and who worked with juvenile lawbreakers. Although he didn't put it just this way, he was in favor
of instilling some old-fashioned guilt in kids. What was missing in many lives, he said, was someone to disappoint. Many of
us, at any age, restrain ourselves from doing something violent or dishonest or merely bad-mannered by the thought, What would
mother think? or What would dad think? or What would grandmom, or the coach, or the pastor, or the rabbi think? Yes, even
What would Jesus think?
It's the role model thing. There are plenty of defective models
out there, chugging along in the publicized, glamorized worlds of entertainment, sports and other popular culture. The media
never miss the chance to announce celebrity misbehavior. Parents and other positive influencers have a hard time competing
for the attention, and emulation, of their own standards vs. the bad influences on their children. And sadly, there are also
wrong-handed parents who instill bad attitudes and behaviors in their offspring.
When it comes to guns, some people think of guns as a way to
enforce their opinions, rather than a way to hunt game or shoot targets American
leaders who were unable to resolve their political differences 150 years ago with civil discourse had a civil war instead.
They were willing to die for their differences, and a few hundred thousand other men died with them. All the wrong hands don't
belong to ruffians or maniacs.
* * *
Defining a semi-Philadelphian
A local music critic recently described an opera tenor as a
"semi-Philadelphian." That appellation was applied because the singer, according to the critic, studied here, still works
with a voice coach here, and "keeps some possessions in a South Philadelphia storage bin."
I don't recall ever hearing anyone called a semi-Philadelphian
before. Defining who is an entire Philadelphian does have some complications.
While I confess that I once lived in the suburbs for 20 years,
I was born in the city, grew up and went to school here, and have worked here steadily since Barney Samuel was mayor. (Look
him up; research is good for the brain.)
Many Philadelphians take ancestry seriously. That may be true
mostly in Chestnut Hill or out on the Main Line, and may have been more true 150 years
ago or so, when Mark Twain uttered his oft-quoted line, "In Boston they ask, how much does he know? In New York, how much
is he worth? In Philadelphia, who were his parents.?"
But the concept was present when I was young. There were old
families even in our working class neighborhood.
The old folks were nonchalant about pedigree, and were no more
impressed by it than a Biddle would be about a Cadwallader. A girl in my elementary school class was a descendant of the man
who founded our neighborhood, Harrowgate, in 1785, but if anyone knew it, no fuss was made about it.
My mother's family, the Hartleys, were newcomers. My grandparents
didn't move there from Kensington until the beginning of the Civil War. My father was from Frankford, up the road a bit, but
I moved 57 blocks north when I was 19, and took the Smart name
with me. One day when I was in my Thirties, and a well-bylined columnist for the old Evening Bulletin, I was walking along,
a block from my birthplace, after visiting my grandmother. An old-timer sitting on his porch looked at me curiously, and hollered,
"Say, aren't you Elsie Hartley's boy?" That's an example of the Mark Twain premise.
There's nothing wrong with being a semi-Philadelphian, though,
with or without maintaining a storage bin. Some of the most Philadelphiaish Philadelphians
might be accused of seminess.
Ben Franklin spent his first 17 years in Boston, and lived
overseas for nearly 30 years, dwelling in Philadelphia only 38 of his 85 years. That's somewhat semi, but nobody dares say
he was not a Philadelphian.
Should we designate semi-ism for Vai Sikahema, who is pervasive
on Channel 10 but comes from Nuku 'Alofa, the capital of Tonga? Chef Jose Garces
came from Chicago via New York, but he certainly acts like a Philadelphian. David Morse, the actor, grew up in Massachusetts
and previously lived in California, but he is a fixture in Chestnut Hill now, and doesn't seem at all semi.
We've had semi-Philadelphian mayors. Richardson Dilworth was
from Pittsburgh, Wilson Goode was from South Carolina, and Ed Rendell was from New York. Sen. Arlen Specter was from Wichita,
Even William Penn spent only four years in Philadelphia. But
he built Pennsbury Manor, which is somewhat bigger than a storage bin.
* * *
Could secession succeed?
Just after the election, some citizens in every state drafted
petitions proclaiming that they wanted their state to secede from the federal union. The agitation seems to have quieted down,
maybe because the holidays interfered, or maybe because of an unlikely outbreak of common sense.
Poor losers have abounded ever since Cain
killed Abel. You find them in everything from presidential elections to chess tournaments. The latter can result in an upset
chess board or a poke in the eye. The former can result in profanity, street riots or even firing on Fort Sumter.
The main idea of democracy is that the losers
must cheerfully accept the will of the majority and try to do better next time. It's interesting to see how often people whose
party or philosophies were on the short end of an election moan that the result indicates that democracy doesn't work.
Usually such disappointed players just pick
up their political marbles and go home crying. Proposing secession from the union seems a drastic reaction in the 21st century.
It isn't clear what the secessionists expect
to happen if they succeed. Would each state become an independent nation? Would they form assorted alliances? Would all 50
become a new country, with its own capital (Tea Pot Dome, Wyoming, might be a good site) and let the District of Columbia
become a quaint geographic anomaly, like Lichtenstein?
If a state became an independent entity,
one of the first things its citizens would have to do is choose leaders. Unless they could devise some better method, they
would probably have to hold an election. That would result in creation of winners and losers again, and the same situation
that they had rejected in the first place.
Once the newly liberated state had elected
leadership, or had been dominated by a dictator, or whatever kind of governing they prefer to what we've been doing for 227
years or so, the next necessity would be to raise money.
Maybe they would just pass the tea pot and
take a collection. They might have to do it the much-despised old fashioned way, and collect taxes.
The latest figures I found say that 35 of
the 50 states receive more money from the federal government than they pay in taxes. You and I can't be self-righteous about
that, because Pennsylvania takes in $1.17 from Washington for every dollar we pay in federal taxes. New Jersey takes only
77 cents per dollar of tax money.
The state that receives the most money from
Washington compared to its tax contributions is Mississippi. The Magnolia State gets $2.73 for every dollar it coughs up for
the federal coffers.
is just a couple of thousand square miles smaller than Pennsylvania, but has only about a quarter of the number of citizens.
It has the highest poverty rate in the nation, 17.4 percent compared to Pennsylvania's 12.6 percent. (New Hampshire has the
lowest, 7.6 percent.)
If the folks down south decide to become
the People's Republic of Mississippi, they will need a local way to support themselves. Maybe they should forget secession.
It didn't work out too well the last time.
* * *
With General Grant in China
Mayor Nutter's recent trip to China started me thinking of
how much China has changed since Ulysses S. Grant visited there in 1879. As a long-time Grant admirer, I'm interested in his
relatively little known trip around the globe.
Grant turned the White House over to Rutherford B. Hayes on
March 3, 1877. After 15 years of war and politics, he determined to see the world.
On May 17, 1877, Grant, his wife and an entourage sailed down
the Delaware River aboard the USS Indiana on the start of a two and a half year voyage. They were accompanied to the bay by
a flotilla of boats carrying farewell wishers including Mayor William S. Stokley, Gov. John F. Hartranft, 100 or so City Councilmen,
and just about every Philadelphia bigwig. Crowds on the wharves cheered.
Before he was back in Philly on Dec. 16, 1879, Grant visited
25 countries and a good bit of the American west. He was a fanatic tourist, seeing every sight, and was greeted and feted
by leaders and royalty from England to Japan.
Chinese cities that Mayor Nutter saw are astonishing different
that those toured by Grant only 133 years ago, a mere blip in the history of China, which started getting organized about
2100 B. C.
In the 1870s, Tartar militarists from Mongolia and British
diplomats and opium providers were busy interfering in Chinese affairs, but the emperor's court in Pekin (now Beijing) went
about its ritual business, unperturbed. The emperor didn't confer with Grant, because he was seven years old.
The Chinese viceroy, a Tartar general and a Chinese-speaking
British agent welcomed the Grant party first in Canton, where fancy receptions and many-coursed banquets were given. The Americans
saw Shanghai and other cities before going to Pekin.
There, they were entertained extravagantly. Perhaps the most
unusual event was the banquet the women of the emperor's household gave for Julia Grant and six other women.
Each woman was brought into the dining room and introduced
by an interpreter to the viceroy's wife at the head of the table. She was wearing a dark silk jacket and trousers, the latter
garment a bit disturbing to the long-skirted westerners. She wore a necklace, bracelets and a hair broach all of jade and
The viceroy's daughter, 16, and daughter-in-law, 23, sat at
the opposite end of the table, watching the guests intently. They had never seen foreigners before.
The older girl was dressed in an elegant pants suit. The teenager
was in a pink satin jacket and green trousers, heavy with gold embroidery, and was dripping with pendants of jade and pearls
which hung from her ears, wrists, inches-long fingernails and the handle of her fan.
Other Chinese women were at the party. The dinner had alternate
courses of Chinese and European food. The windows of the room were open, and Chinese citizens crowded outside each one to
watch the curious westerners eat.
Each upper class Chinese woman had her own servant attending
her. The servants helped their mistresses walk, as their feet had been bound in childhood, and were, according to one American
there, "scarcely more than two or three inches long."
Mayor Nutter didn't mention anything like that.
* * *
Family holidays a century ago
My mother would be 110 years old if she were here today. In
the holiday season, I often think of the stories she used to tell about Christmas and New Years when she was a child.
And I realize how many little details I don't know, and never
thought to ask about. Life was so different at the beginning of the 20th century from the beginning of the 21st.
Mother often told about keeping the Christmas tree decorated
until Easter. The branch of the family that lived "up the country," as she phrased it, didn't like to travel to the city in
winter. They visited at Easter time.
So, the Philly folks set up the Christmas tree in the parlor,
which was heated only when company came. After the holidays, the parlor was closed up most of the time, and the decorated
tree was preserved until the Easter visitors arrived.
When I heard this oft-told tale, I understood the situation.
The relatives were probably traveling by horse-drawn vehicles, and the trip would be cold and uncomfortable at Christmas Even
if they had a motor vehicle, it would be unheated and drafty in those days.
Our family lived on a city street, but automobiles were an
unusual sight even there,100 years ago. Another of my mother's yarns was that whenever one of those newfangled autos chugged
past the house, stirring a cloud of dust, her grandmother would proclaim sarcastically, "Well, now the property's worth another
One detail I don't know is how that parlor was heated. There
probably were stoves in each room. I've never seen the inside of "the old house," as she called it, though it still stands,
somewhat expanded, and surely now with central heating.
The family moved to the new house when my mother was 19. They
replaced its privy with indoor plumbing, the first time they owned such a luxury. I assume that its coal furnace was the first
central heating they had.
Santa Claus brought modest gifts in those days, Mother said;
one important item such as a doll, some clothing, and in the stocking an orange, some walnuts, a ball, and always those crystalline
sugar-toy candies in the shape of animals, inevitable from a German-raised mother.
Mother's recollections of New Years celebrating were sparse.
The family didn't live near any organized Mummers, although ad hoc New Years Shooters in the neighborhood fired off a few
rounds at midnight on New Years Eve.
But she recalled fondly the first time her father let her and
her sister, who was three years older, stay up until midnight and celebrate. She couldn't remember how old she was at the
time, but she was very young.
Her parents thrilled the girls by buying them each a whistle
to blow at midnight. I still have the whistles. They are made of terra cotta or clay. They are images of little boys, about
two inches high, dressed like school boys of the era., sitting against a stump which ends in the hole the whistler blows into.
They produce an ear-splitting screech.
I can picture my mother and my aunt as little girls, bundled
up against the cold, standing on the porch as the neighborhood mill whistles blasted out at midnight, puffing their small
contribution to the celebration and hollering "Happy New Year."
* * *
Santa's controversial helper
The Associated Press distributed an article from Amsterdam
about controversy over a centuries-old Christmas tradition in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas, as the Dutch call jolly old St.
Nicholas, is often accompanied by Zwarte Piet, which the AP translated as "Black Pete."
Zwarte Piet often appears as Sinterklaas's side-kick, and is
usually represented by a white man in black-face make-up. There are complaints from some Dutch citizens and politicians that
the old tradition is racist and should be abandoned. Immigrants of color from Dutch-oriented West Antilles and Suriname also
don't care for the custom.
The AP correspondent obvious considered the Zwarte Piet tradition
strange and exotic. But I'm sure lots of folks in the Pennsylvania Dutch areas all around Philly chuckled when they read about
the situation. So did anyone who saw the Dec. 6 episode of the TV series "The Office," when Dwight portrayed Belsnickel.
The ancestors of Pennsylvanians in the old-time Mennonite-settled
regions originated largely in German areas, not Dutch. It was not Santa Claus who brought good children toys and goodies on
Christmas Eve. It was der Belsnickel. And his German companion, with a switch or a whip to acknowledge naughtiness with a
few wallops, was Schwarz Peter.
Sometimes Pennsylvania's Schwarz Peter had a blackened face.
In the days of wood stoves and coal stoves, it was easy to whip up some make-up with ashes and water. How racist the intent
was, it's hard to say.
Belsnickel seems to have acquired the name from Pelz Nicholas,
meaning "furry Nicholas" in German. In olden times, St. Nicholas made his rounds in fur. Clement Clark Moore's poem describes
him as "dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot."
Fur was easy to come by in the early days of the Pennsylvania
Dutch communities. In the 19th century, depictions of Belsnickel show him having progressed, or regressed, into wearing tattered
clothes or a patchwork coat.
Often, sleigh bells were fastened here and there on his clothes.
Sleigh bells were a handy item then. When and why he switched to his modern red suit (with a hint of white fur trim and no
bells) is his business.
The shift from der Belsnickel to the modern Santa Claus was
gradual. A children's book printed in Lancaster in 1843 was entitled, "Belsnickel's Gift, or a Visit From Saint Nicholas."
This may have annoyed many early Mennonites, who were not big fans of medieval, non-biblical sainthood. But in the 20th century,
it became hard to avoid acceptance of Santa Claus.
Belsnickel was often a frightening figure to kids in the old
days. He did carry a switch, and often questioned children about their behavior before dumping goodies from his bag.
Peter, when he came along for the ride, became the enforcer who scolded, and swatted the behinds, of those who deserved it.
I suspect that, unlike in the Netherlands, Black Peter has
disappeared from the Dutch country, and the department store model of Santa Claus is the norm. Does any Pennsylvania Dutch
momma still say to the kids on Heilige Abend (Christmas Eve), "Poch sich op ze eure bett, der Belsnickel kommme" ( "Scram
up to bed, Belsnickel is coming.")
* * *
Of cats and supermodels
Stu Bykovsky, who writes a column for some
other newspaper, has produced a little book about cats. It's called "Cats are Supermodels," and explores the proposition that
sleek, temperamental women and sleek, temperamental felis domesticus are similar.
there is a Latin name for supermodels? Maybe homo superexemplius or something?)
The book also investigates the contrast between
cats and dogs. Byko addresses the difference succinctly, early in the text, when he writes, "You've heard of service dogs.
Have you ever heard of a service cat? Case closed."
Bykovsky lives with a cat and, unfortunately
for him, not with a supermodel. He denies cat ownership. Dogs have owners, he maintains. Cats have staff.
The book is funny, but nearly raises some
serious questions. For all you quantum physics fans, for instance, it asks why Erwin Schrodinger chose a cat to seal up in
his theoretical box, and not some other critter. It's a joke that would make only someone like Einstein laugh.
Byko describes the behavior of house cats
with cautious good humor. He promises to do a later book about outdoor cats. There probably are very few outdoor supermodels.
In the overall, he is kind and mostly understanding
about cats. But I'm sure his e-mail and lesser forms of communication will be loaded with venom from irate cat fanatics, who
feel that cats should be written about with solemn respect.
Cat lovers are passionate. I have written
articles about cats that I thought would delight cat people, and attracted wrath instead.
Back in the 1950s, I wrote a news article
about a cat that was lost many miles from home, but successfully made the trek back to his owner's house. I did it in the
hipster patois of the era. The first sentence was, "This cat named Timothy, man, he played it cool."
Most readers presumably were amused. But
I got an unsigned postal card that grumbled simply, "Cats are God's creatures. I am praying for you!"
In that same era, cat lovers were threatening
physical violence on the writer of letters to the editor of The Evening Bulletin whose dark humor about cats offended them.
The letters, signed "J. Darlington McKeester," ranted about neighborhood cats that desecrated his garden, and proposed lethal
measures to get rid of them.
One letter indicated that he had solved his
cat disposal problem. Strategically buried, they made excellent fertilizer for his tomato plants. That letter resulted in
denunciation of editors and cancellation of subscriptions. In the news room, we knew that McKeester was actually our distinguished
city editor, Stanley Thompson, being mischievous.
Bykovsky's book is more gentle. Among little-known
cat facts, Byko divulges that the only domestic animal not mentioned in the Bible is the cat.
I searched Strong's Concordance of the Bible,
which is, I guess, the bible of Bible references, and found that in the Good Book, dogs are mentioned 43 times, horses 46
times, cattle an impressive 158 times, and even caterpillars nine times, but not one cat. I leave the theological implications
of that to Bykovsky.
* * *
Lincoln films, from facts to vampires
Steven Spielberg's film about Abraham Lincoln is in the movie
houses now. I haven't seen it yet, but I may have seen more films about Lincoln than about any other individual, probably
excepting Bugs Bunny, Gene Autry and other dominant figures of boyhood Saturday matinees.
The first sound movie about Lincoln was done in 1930, one of
the only two sound films made by silent movie director D. W. Griffith. I missed that the first time around, busy being a baby,
but I've seen it as an adult.
Griffith's script was mostly about young Abe, with Walter Huston
as Lincoln. It was loaded with inaccuracies, and full of stuff that never happened, such as Abe standing up Mary on their
wedding day. He also was shown making a speech in the theater before he was shot, featuring highlights of his second inaugural
speech and the Gettysburg address.
Henry Fonda starred in "Young Mr. Lincoln" in 1939, directed
by John Ford. I saw that when it was new, and I was in elementary school. We had learned that Lincoln freed the slaves and
got shot, but most classroom information was such tales as his walking miles in a rainstorm to return two cents he overcharged
a customer when he was a store clerk, and dismounting while on a business trip to rescue a baby bird that had fallen from
In 1940, Raymond Massey starred in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois."
Massey portrayed Lincoln in assorted other historical films.
Hollywood forgot about Abe for a while. Then screen writers
got interested in the assassination. In 1977, there was "The Lincoln Conspiracy," and in 1998, "The Day Lincoln Was Shot."
Recently, Robert Redford made the realistic and accurate "The Conspirators."
This year came "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter." It has remarkably
authentic-looking period backgrounds, against which Abe was busy killing the undead in his spare time.
Spielberg's film begins in January, 1865, just before Lincoln
made his second inaugural address, in which he suggested "malice toward none, charity toward all." It depicts a president's
efforts to deal with Congress, a group then as now seeming to be more interested in malice than charity.
I was hoping Spielberg started a bit earlier, and showed the
1864 presidential election. Lincoln's opponent was Gen. George Brinton McClellan, whom Lincoln had demoted for his lethargic
approach toward executing the war.
McClellan was a privileged Philadelphia aristocrat who couldn't
accept the genius of the homely frontier lawyer. In a letter to his wife, McClellan once complained about taking orders "from
men whom I know to be greatly my inferiors socially, intellectually & morally! There never was a truer epithet applied
to a certain individual than that of the 'Gorilla'." In 1864, McClellan ran against "the gorilla", and lost badly.
The Lincoln vs. vampires film ends as Lincoln's carriage heads
off to Ford's Theater. Thank goodness. I was afraid the ending might be John Wilkes Booth flying into the president's box
and biting him on the neck.
* * *
November 28, 2012
by James Smart
Words from and about elephants
in a South Korean zoo has learned to say five Korean words, according to a scholarly biology journal. He is being studied
by a group of international researchers.
The research task force is led by scientists from the University of Vienna. You might expect those
fellows to teach the elephant to waltz; it might be more up their seitenstrasse and just as unlikely.
The elephant, whose name is Koshik, has learned to stick his trunk in his mouth, in a way that makes
up for the lack of some of the equipment we have in our mouths, and produce the Korean words for hello, sit down, lie down,
good, and no.
These are obviously words he has been enduring from the puny humans who boss him around. The researchers
say that he does not use the words meaningfully, and doesn't really understand them.
But they are biologists. They should check with some circus people.
They'll hear tales of elephants realistically imitating truck engines when the show starts to pull out of a circus ground,
and elephants that bellow loudly, and sway, when the band plays certain tunes.
I became interested in circuses,
particularly in lion and tiger training, when I was a little boy. Becoming a reporter and professional busybody gave me the
opportunity to meet some of the great trainers of big cats: Clyde Beatty, Pat
Anthony, Charley Bauman and Gunther Gebel-Williams. Later I did
some publicity work for the Big Top. I heard some behind-the-tents tales about elephants, including their language skills.
American circus once bought some trained elephants from a German circus. English-speaking trainers taught them new routines.
Years went by, and one day a man from the German circus visited his old herd. He gave orders in German, and the elephants
responded as though they had never left the old country.
of my favorite elephants was Syd, who worked for Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros., one of the last big shows under canvas. When the
circus pulled into a town, Syd knew her job.
put her in a harness with chains dragging. The main tent poles were laid on the
ground, and the expanse of canvas spread over it.. Syd stood, hitched to the rig, quietly swaying.
everything was ready, someone yelled, "Okay, Syd!" The elephant ambled forward, and its powerful strain on the chains slowly
raised the tall poles and the huge canvas into position.
tell anybody, but that show, on occasion, "accidentally" left an elephant behind when it moved out. At the location of the
next performance, it would announce that an elephant had been mislaid. The result was lots of publicity as the circus folks
retrieved the missing pachyderm.
was reliable old Syd, of course. She would wait to be picked up, placidly policing the empty circus grounds and trunking up
waste paper, spilled popcorn, Popsicle sticks and just about anything.
about anything" is a circus elephant's favorite diet. In the old Spectrum's early years, the circus moved in and parked its
elephants in a low-ceilinged room. The elephants ate the cellulose ceiling panels.)
never said a word, in English, German or Korean. So far as I know.
* * *
The Roadkill Memorial
There's a barely consequential controversy out in Irvine, California,
because someone wants the city to erect a marker at the site of a fatal traffic accident, to honor the victims. There were
hundreds of victims.
They were fish. Saltwater bass, to be precise. They were barreling
along, thinking bassy thoughts all unaware, when at the corner of Walnut and Yale Aves., they were involved in a three-vehicle
The bass were in one of the vehicles, a big tank truck. They
got dumped on the highway, and perished. There was apparently no way for medics to give them mouth to gill resuscitation.
The young woman who is urging the Irvine city administration
to memorialize the deceased bass is a volunteer with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She thinks some memorial
is appropriate for the fish "who suffered and died on this spot," she wrote in her letter to the Irvine authorities.
She implores the trucking industry to be more sensitive to
the dangers faced by transported fish.
"Sparing them from being tossed from a speeding truck and slowly
dying from in juries and suffocation seems the least we can do," she pleaded.
As I read her entreaties, I envisioned the possibility of PETA-sponsored
safety belts, or perhaps little car seats, that truckers might install to save their bass. The truth is, of course, that the
only way we can prevent fish from getting involved in traffic accidents is to leave them at home in the water, and eat broccoli
PETA knows that. Its adherents would rather not see any fish,
fowl or beast being transported along the highways, unless it has been determined that the critters enjoy the experience.
The petitioner for the highway memorial goes further, by admonishing,
"Research tells us that fish use tools, tell time, sing, and have impressive long-term memories and complex social structures.
Yet fish used for food are routinely crushed, impaled, cut open and gutted, all while still conscious."
This is not a call for anthestheiologists in fish markets.
It is an expression of deep sympathy that takes us back to the broccoli again.
I have resolved to look into the research she refers to. I
didn't know that fish use tools. I've never seen one shopping in Stanley's Hardware. Maybe they all go to Holod's.
Nor have I ever heard a fish sing. Some of the singing I hear
on the radio these days may well be by fish; that could explain a lot. The long-term memory could help them remember the lyrics.
As for fish telling time, I could speculate about how they
could wear a wristwatch, or whether they observe daylight saving time, but we don't want to get silly here.
As for the serious issue at hand, a spokesman for the Irvine
government announced, "I do think it's fair to say we have no plans to erect a memorial."
So those deceased ocean bass will fade into memory.
Perhaps in some more enlightened age, someone will create a
fish cemetery, where fish who meet tragic ends can be decently interred and monuments raised.
For most, it will still be the frying pan.
Or, perhaps there should be, on the mall in Washington, a marble
monument honoring all animal accident victims: The Roadkill Memorial.
* * *
The new, improved Miss Liberty
The Statue of Liberty is open to the public
again, after the National Park Service spent a year and $30 million to make some improvements on the old girl. Visitors can
now climb up into the crown again, where there are windows where most crowns have jewels.
It's curious that people like to climb up
inside a statue for the view. Sculptors generally make statues to be looked at, not from.
One of the things done to enhance visitors'
experience inside Ms. Liberty is to make it easier to climb up to the crown, by putting in more steps. If that sounds a tiny
bit contradictory, it's not because the job was a government project.
There used to be 354 steps to the crown from
where the elevator ends, abaft the lady's sandals. But each step had an awkwardly high rise that apparently didn't bother
our sturdy ancestors when the statue was dedicated in 1886. The new stairway has 393 steps, but each is shorter, to reduce
the amount of puffing and wheezing from the climbers.
It's about 111 feet from the lady's heel
to the top of her head, measured straight up, not by curved stairway. Steps in most houses I've lived in have had about 14
step per story. That makes the statue's climb equal to me making about 14 round trips on our cellar stairs.
That thought would discourage me from trudging
up inside the statue. (You have to come back down, too.) Of course, the view at either end of our cellar stairs is not as
interesting as New York harbor. On a nice day.
Frederic August Bartholdi got the notion
to create the statue as France's gift to the United States, and first came to
New York in 1871. He went home and started designing. He modeled the face after his mother.
Money was raised in France and here for the
project. Pulitzer's newspapers got donations from 120,000 Americans. The Paris Opera raised funds in April, 1876, with a cantata
written for the occasion by Charles Gounod.
The statue wasn't finished when Bartholdi
came to Philadelphia in 1876 as a French delegate to the Centennial Exhibition. In August, when the fair was half over, the
arm was brought to Philadelphia and displayed in Fairmount Park.
Then it was shipped to New York, and stood
in Madison Square until 1882. The head was displayed at the Paris World's Fair in 1878.
Finally, the whole statue was assembled in
Paris. Bartholdi hired an engineer to design the infrastructure, a fellow named Gustave Eiffel, who was getting ready to erect
a 1,050 foot tower (finished in 1889.)
Then Liberty was taken apart, crated, and
sent to New York. When there was a parade in New York on the day the statue was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland, clerks
at the New York Stock Exchange impulsively threw stock ticker tape out the windows as it passed by, and started a tradition.
My perversely favorite view of the Statue
of Liberty is watching Robert Cummings and Norman Lloyd fight to the death atop the torch in Alfred Hitchcock's 1942 movie
"Saboteur." Lloyd, who was the bad guy, tumbled, grabbed onto a finger, but ultimately fell 300 feet to the ground.
Miss Liberty's index finger is eight feet
long, and three feet six around at the knuckle. No wonder Norman couldn't hang on.
[Note: After this column was published, the National
Parks people decided not to reopen the statue as planned.]
* * *
Getting off the fence
The Oct. 29 issue of Newsweek magazine published a letter from
a guy in Texas that annoyed me a bit. It said in entirety:
"One week, Newsweek features an article arguing that Obama's
got to go. The next week there's a piece calling Romney a deformer. Get. off the fence."
Here's a fellow who is angrily puzzled by a publication that
makes the peculiar decision to give both sides of a subject. I assume, or at least hope, that the magazine editors' intention
was to offer some balance in the election information uproar by offering some opinion and analysis, and perhaps even some
facts, about both sides.
The current thinking, or lack thereof, among a lot of people
these days is that being on the metaphorical fence is a weakness. One must be on the bright side that is always correct and
righteous (known as "my side,") or on the shadowy side that is wrong and possibly evil ("their side.")
As a relic whose journalism career started in the Truman administration,
I get increasingly uncomfortable with what seems like a growing demand that what is still called the news media should choose
sides and slant the news until it nearly topples over in a pile of nonsense.
Readers used to accuse publications of bias. The political
left liked to depict newspaper publishers as capitalistic fat cats who controlled the news to big business's advantage. The
right saw newspaper staffs as hotbeds of radical liberalism.
Sometimes the critics were right. Many times both sides labeled
the same newspaper as biased, for opposite reasons.
Through the years, I got many a letter or phone call charging
me with being one-sided on a subject. Charging is the right word. It was rare that anyone ever contacted me to thank me for
presenting their side of a subject. Naturally, they knew they were in the right, so it was no surprise to find me agreeing.
But being condemned for being on the fence is somewhat new.
These days, neutrality seems often to be considered more evil than being the enemy.
I used to tell my news writing classes years ago that ideally,
they should cultivate the ability to cover a meeting of a political party they wouldn't join, listen to a speaker they disagreed
with, and come back and write an article telling not what they thought the speaker said, or wished he said, or only the parts
they liked or didn't like, but honestly present what he really said.
That was known as reporting, back in the namby-pamby days of
yore. Colorful facts were okay, but facts came first. Some modern media do retouching more than coloring.
As a columnist, I became allowed to express opinions. I'm doing
that now, as you make have noticed. But I don't like to be thought of as on the fence.
Straddling the fence is uncomfortable. People put ideological
pickets and barbed wire on fences. I wish that they would be quiet occasionally, and listen to what people like them are hollering
from the other side. And courteously yell back what's happening on their side of the fence. They both might learn something.
* * *
Some City Hall nostalgia
There was a fire in a women's restroom on the fourth floor
of City Hall last week, resulting in a brief evacuation, sprinkler systems raining down and other such annoyances. The event
stimulated my crumbling memory to recall what the Hall was like 50 or 60 years ago.
The administration reporters, who covered the mayor, City Council
and other municipal tomfoolery, had fairly respectable quarters on the second floor near the mayor's office. Those of us who
dealt with crime, fires and other activities of more normal citizens were up on the sixth floor, in room 619.
That reporters' room and its immediate environs were, to put
it delicately, not elegant. I was based there at night, in surroundings dark and lonely.
The only other activity in that dismal nighttime part of City
Hall was across the corridor from the reporters' habitat, where a bunch of fire department operatives kept watch over the
complicated Gamewell fire alarm board, responding to its pinball machine-like flashing lights by dispatching equipment here
The Sheriff's cell room was down the hall. Loved-ones looking
for someone recently detained because of some minor nocturnal infraction often stopped in at room 619, the first lighted doorway
after the elevator, to ask directions.
The worried visitor sometimes was clutching a pair of high-heeled
shoes. A turnkey once informed me that women frequently lose their shoes in the course of being arrested, and I have no reason
to doubt him.
When the police or fire radio in the office squawked out some
activity that required personal attention, I left the cold stone walls and ancient furniture to go out in the real world and
represent the Evening Bulletin at the scene of the calamity. Inquirer and Daily News reporters did the same.
On dull nights, we information-gatherers used the telephone
to brighten the evening of cops in their district stations, asking if anything noteworthy was happening. The guys from the
other papers were, at least theoretically, a bit more aggressive, because their papers were publishing at the moment. Anything
I trolled up was for the next day's Bulletin.
But the fire in the
rest room last week turned my nostalgic reflection toward the men's room that was a just down the hall from room 619.
Before renovations spoiled City Hall with modern appliances
and tile and such in the late 1950s, that men's room was unchanged from when it first went into service in about 1900. High
above each urinal, near the ceiling perhaps 15 foot high, hung a water tank enclosed in a decorative wooden box.
A water pipe came down from that box to the appliance. A long
chain hung down, to be pulled to release the water.
The room had a massive oak door with shiny brass hinges and
a brass doorknob that bore the engraved seal of the City of Philadelphia.
on the inside of the door, where men exiting the room couldn't miss seeing it, was a two-foot-square wooden plaque on which,
in gilded Victorian lettering, was the stern municipal admonition:
"Gentlemen, please arrange your clothing before
leaving the room."
* * *
Vote, or sit on your blisters
The presidential election festivities are in full bellow, surrounding
us with debating and advertising and speech-making out the political wazoo. Multitudes of fact checkers follow in the politicians'
hot air wake, looking for honesty with about as much luck as Diogenes.
Does it all really matter? Or is campaigning just a quadrennial
annoyance, like the Olympics, solar eclipses, World Cup soccer or a 29th day in February?
An article in a magazine reported on several studies of American
voters. The studiers (universities swarm with them) came to some interesting conclusions. Or were they confusions? Take your
study asked groups of liberals and conservatives to read an article mentioning George Bush's claim that his tax cuts increased
revenues. Then they were told that the claim wasn't true. Questioned later, the liberals accepted the correction, but the
conservatives were nearly twice as likely to say the tax cuts had increased revenues, even after being told otherwise.
Guinea pigs in this study also were given an article saying
that John Kerry in 2004 said he would lift Bush's ban on stem cell research. They were informed later that Bush never banned
stem cell research. The correction changed the conservatives' minds, but not
Those researchers decided that facts that contradict our biases
actually have the effect of reinforcing them. I'm not sure what that means to creators of political advertising.
Another researcher questioned some Democrats and some Republicans
to determine their level of political knowledge, then asked them to evaluate the Bill Clinton presidency. Analysis of the
results determined that the people who were best informed about government, politics and similar dull stuff were the ones
who revealed the most bias in favor of their chosen party, not the uninformed dumbbells like some people we know (but not
you and me.)
Yet another study showed a television news report of political
goings-on to different audiences, telling some that it was from Fox News, others that it was from CNN, and still others that
it was from an independent television station. The investigators found that the viewers made assumptions about the bias of
the identical report based on what they thought was the source.
The implication is that we could skip all the speeches, debates,
travel by the candidates and tricky advertising. Let elections proceed powered by the prejudices of the voters.
Look back 152 years. All that most folks knew about the candidates,
Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, they had read in newspapers. Lincoln and Douglas had debated while running against each
other for Senate in 1858 (Abe lost,) but in the 1860 presidential proceedings, Lincoln stayed home in Illinois and let other
Republicans beat the metaphorical drums. Douglas traveled the country, making speeches everywhere. Lincoln won.
Yes, the hoopla may matter, but it's the voting that counts,
and non-voters may get what they deserve. Abe Lincoln said it once:
“Elections belong to the people. It's their decision.
If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
* * *
Take a letter, please, Ms. Dell
"Well" as I was saying to my computer this morning, "when you
save their computer does every little thing" At least, that's what the computer thought I said.
Actually, what I had said was, "Well, what do you say there,
computer? How's every little thing?" The computer typed out its own version. It was doing its best.
My wife bought me some software that lets me talk to the computer
with a microphone, and the little sucker dutifully types out what I'm saying. Or tries to. A cute blonde stenographer might
have been more efficient, and more interesting, but I'm stuck with a laptop named Dell.
I had never spoken to my computer before, except to mutter
imprecations when it did something annoying. I was dictating to it for the first time.
The computer did mess up that first sentence a little, as you
may have noticed. But dictation was new to both of us. So I decided to introduce myself more formally.
"Good morning, computer," I said. The machine copied my words
nicely, but without quotation marks, the comma or the period. So I told it to delete the last three words, which it did, and
dictated "Quotation mark How are you this morning question mark I'm the guy who usually bangs on your keyboard period quotation
As I spoke, everything I said was magically typed out on the
computer screen. It was a bit spooky. There were a few mistakes, but I've had writing
students who did worse.
A couple of times, a little box appeared on the screen, saying,
"please say that again." But I'd be darned if I was going to start repeating myself just because some dumb machine insisted
I passed the electronic time of day with it for a while, and
it kept repeating my words on the screen like a typographical parrot. I began to wonder how long it will be before these contraptions
start writing columns by themselves, and probably work cheap.
I decided to give it a test. "Okay, computer," I said. "If
you're so smart, where does the Wissahickon Creek empty into the Schuylkill?"
it or not, the smart-alecky computer spelled Wissahickon correctly. When I signed up for this program, it asked for permission
to read my files. Pretty darn nosy, but how can you argue with a machine? Apparently, that's how it learned to spell some
weird local names.
But what it typed out was, "If you're so smart, where does
the Wissahickon Creek MP into the screw kill?" I can't say that I blame it for that. There are probably people who live in
Schuylkill County who can't spell Schuylkill.
"No, dummy," I said (including the required punctuation.) "Not
MP. The word is empty, and screw kill is spelled s-c-h-u-y-l-k-i-l-l. Got that?"
It nagged me, "Please say that again." I got annoyed. "Why
should I say that again?" I muttered. "I told you how to spell Schuylkill." The computer typed, "Why should I say that again?
I told you how to spell squiggle."
I think the computer and I need a little more work with this.
Or, as the computer repeated when I grumbled that last sentence, "I think the computer NRA needlework with this."
* * *
Mormons from Philly "off to Utah"
The Mormons building a temple on the Parkway here, and one
of their brethren wanting to live on Pennsylvania Ave. down in D.C., brings to mind the slight early history of Mormons in
Joseph Smith launched the Mormon faith in 1830 in New York
state. In 1839, he was in Philly, and established a Mormon church at 7th and Callowhill. He preached here as late as 1840.
early-day Latter-day Saints, converts from abroad, came through Philadelphia. Only 10 years after Smith's apostle, Brigham
Young, said "This is the place" about Utah (and many of Young's eventual 27 brides had said "I do" about him) a ship load
of folks came here, bound for Salt Lake.
It attracted attention because at that time, the federal government
had decided that the Mormons were rebelling against the United States, although the Mormons didn't seem to think so. President
James Buchanan sent troops to Utah, and wanted to replace Brigham Young as governor with somebody with more conventional religious
beliefs and fewer wives.
When the ship "Westmoreland" docked on the Delaware in 1857,
it unloaded 552 European Saints, most of them from Norway. A fellow named A. F. Cannon, identified as General Mormon Emigration
Agent for United States Shipping Ports, had made arrangements with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to send the group West.
Shortly afterward, the ship "Tuscarora" arrived with 537 more
new Mormons, from England, Scotland, Wales, Denmark and Sweden.
On June 1, which happened to be Brigham Young's 56th birthday,
a local astrologer named Hague got a heads-up from assorted heavenly bodies that the Mormons were doomed (and made sure the
newspapers heard about it.) He prophesied that 1857 "will tell the time of Brigham's eclipse, and 1858 will find him in a
darker cloud; 1859, I expect the finale at the farthest." Either Hague or the stars got it wrong.
On May 7, 1860, after the government had eased off its picking on the Mormons, converts gathered again in Philly to get transportation to Utah. One account
said that 700 new Mormons rendezvoused here. About half came from New York. Others were English, and about 50 were Philadelphians.
On May 8, the Evening Bulletin gave some of them a send-off
with a brief article headlined, "Off to Utah." It said:
"Yesterday afternoon, a party of Mormons, who have been sometime
past staying in our city, left for the West, by the way of the Reading Railroad, from the depot at 13th and Callowhill Sts.
The party numbered some 100 grown persons, and as many children, the sexes being evenly divided.
"They were comfortably dressed, and apparently in good health
and spirits. Among them were several young women, from 16 to 20 years of age, who appeared to be well pleased at the prospect
of a journey to Brigham Young's 'Kingdom'.
"Some of the men carried guns, and all had a liberal allowance
of baggage. As the train moved off, the party joined in singing a hymn. They seemed to be in high spirits at their departure
for the Land of Promise."
William Penn's spirit probably smiled tolerantly as they passed
through his town. He knew how it felt to be outside the religious mainstream.
* * *
Philly's big show 100 years ago
In the first week of October 100 years ago, Philadelphia staged
The Historical Pageant of 1912, a week-long show in Fairmount Park, with more than 3,000 volunteer performers in elaborate
costumes, and an estimated 250,000 spectators.
The musical and dance extravaganza on Belmont Plateau depicted
the history of Philadelphia "from William Penn to the Consolidation."
Advertisements promised "The Story of Philadelphia in 18 scenes.
Realistic Battle of Germantown. Reading of the Declaration of Independence. Picturesque Meschianza. Franklin at the Court
of France. Field brilliantly illuminated at night by the most powerful searchlights, spotlights and the largest footlights
There was a chorus of 1,000 voices, two bands, and nearly 5,000
performers, including 500 children in "a fairy dance."
The show was the brainchild of Dr. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer,
a editor and author. He organized 13 committees with dozens of members, some with the know-how to stage his spectacle, others
After two years of preparation, daily rehearsals began in the
park on Thursday, Oct. 1. Workmen erected grandstands. Behind some trees, 70 big tents went up for costumes, scenery, performers
and horses. Dr. Oberholtzer and 100 helpers rehearsed the thousands of actors.
Word of the rehearsals spread, and Park Guards had to deal
with hundreds of onlookers as costumed volunteers practiced historical period dances. The director used a megaphone to warn
sternly against anyone sneaking in steps of the current ragtime dance, the Turkey Trot.
By Monday, the show was ready. Performances were scheduled
for 2 P. M. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, and 8 P. M. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Seats cost 50 cents, reserved seats
$1, $1.50, $2 and $3.
Thousands attended. Schools east of Broad St. closed on Monday,
and west of Broad on Wednesday, so children could come.
Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg attended on opening day, with other
officials and most of the 174 members of City Council. Dr. Oberholtzer and helpers directed from a tower above the grandstands,
communicating by signal flags and telephone lines to field directors on foot and horseback. The show began as 500 little girls
in fairy costumes danced across the field.
There followed scene after scene of musical and dancing portrayals
of moments of Philadelphia's history, with William Penn, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and all the historical favorites,
surrounded by large casts. in front of replicas of famous buildings.
The biggest crowd reaction came when stage hands erected a
facade of Cliveden mansion, and Continentals and redcoats fought the Battle of Germantown, with a cavalry charge and lots
of smoky cannon fire and musketry.
The pageant ended with a procession of all participants, past
a platform where stood 28 young women, each representing one of the former county municipalities that had been consolidated
into the city in 1854. They surrounded "Lady Philadelphia," portrayed on day one by Lucretia Blankenburg, the mayor's wife.
The pageant was so popular, the schedule was extended for the
following Monday and Tuesday. Then, the city returned to normal. The fairies were allowed to keep their costumes.
* * *
Ben Franklin's trip to Canada
The Ontario General Contractors' Association is in Philly this
week, having its 74th annual conference. It's nice to see a bunch of Canadians coming to town who are not carrying hockey
Their arrival reminds me of some obscure Philadelphia history
(okay, I admit it, almost everything reminds me of some Philadelphia history) when Benjamin Franklin traveled up to Montréal, which is not in Ontario but is right across the creek.
About 35 years ago, I visited an uncle-in-law who lived in
Ontario, outside of Alliston, mostly
potato farm country then.
We camped out back of his place,
and though we had normally comfortable sleeping bags and some auxiliary padding, we squirmed all night on ground that felt
like a marble slab. I concluded that Canada is harder than the United States.
Which has nothing to do with Ben
Franklin. He started out from Philly at the end of March in 1776 to discuss the revolution with the Canadians. With him were
three guys from Maryland: Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a wealthy patriot; his cousin John Carroll, a Jesuit priest, and
Samuel Chase, a slick-talking lawyer.
The Carrolls were chosen for the
trip because both were Catholics educated partly in France. Chase was the token Protestant.
The delegation arrived on April
29 at Montreal, where Gen. Benedict Arnold (still on our side) was presiding over the tail end of a pathetic American attempt
to invade Canada.
The idea was for Ben and his friends to soft-soap the French Canadians into joining our revolution,
The French and English didn't much care for each other in those days, so the notion seemed viable.
But the French Canadians weren't
buying it. They outnumbered the English Protestants where they were, and didn't see any point in getting involved with the
mostly English colonists down below..
When word arrived on May 6 that
British reinforcements had arrived by sea at Quebec, both Arnold and Franklin decided it was time to leave. The colonial army
was broke, and Ben Franklin lent Arnold 353 pounds to help finance the withdrawal. Ben was back in Philly by the end of June.
An oddity of the expedition came
because Ben Franklin was always a printer. He learned to set type when he was 17, and ever after, any time he got near a press,
he itched to print something.
While he was in Montréal, he ran
into Fleury Mesplet, a 42-year-old printer who had come to Philadelphia in 1774, looking for work. Mesplet had printed "Lettre
adressee aux habitants de la province de Quebec, ci devant le Canada" ("Letter to the inhabitants of the Province of Quebec
in Canada), some Continental Congress propaganda.
He was in Montreal with the army.
Ben convinced him to stay there and start a printing business. The Canadians
threw Mesplet in jail for a year. When he got out, he started a magazine that annoyed the authorities, and went to jail for
three more years.
But in 1785, he founded La Gazette
de Montreal, which became the Montreal Gazette, a newspaper still being published, which wouldn't exist if it wasn't for our
* * *
How many nudists per auto?
Looking through clippings of some columns I wrote in 1969,
(a year when Neal Armstrong walked on the moon, I still had hair, and columns were written on typewriters,) I came upon statistics
about the number of persons who rode in automobiles.
In 1940, the column said, each automobile on the road in the
United States contained an average of 3.2 persons. Having two-tenths of a person in your car sounds rather gruesome, but averages
are like that.
In 1950, the statistics went on, each car on the road averaged
2.1 persons. In 1960, each car contained only 1.4 persons.
Those declining numbers, I pointed out then, introduced a disturbing
mathematical problem. In what year would each automobile on the road in the United States be entirely empty?
I next quoted a newsletter report that the average speed of
horse-drawn vehicles in Manhattan in 1900 was about 11 miles per hour. The average speed of automobiles in 1969 was about
eight miles an hour.
That caused me to cogitate that possibly in about the same
year that each car on the road would contain an average of nobody, someone would have invented a new form of transportation
in Manhattan that didn't move at all.
Here in 2012, working at the keyboard of a device that didn't
exist in 1969, I checked on the Internet to see how those statistics shook out after four decades have gone by. I found that
in 2009, the freshest figures I located, the average speed of an automobile in Manhattan was 1.7 miles per hour.
So Manhattan hasn't dropped back to a standstill yet. But it
must be fun for New Yorkers to relax in their crawling cars and watch the pedestrians whizzing by. An average marathon runner
does about 12 miles an hour. Usain Bolt can run 100 meters at 27 miles an hour.
And automobile capacity has changed since those simpler days
of the 1960s. In 2009, each automobile on the road in the U. S. contained an average of 1.59 persons, a bit higher than the
1969 average. But today, we have assorted sizes of vehicles to complicate the statistics.
sport utility vehicle, a conveyance unknown on U. S. roads years ago, contained in '09 an average 1.78 persons. A van averaged
The experts who apparently loiter by the roadside and count
the number of folks in passing vehicles also announced that motorcycles were carrying an average of 1.18 persons.
That same 1969 column told of a police officer in Reading who
stopped an automobile in which were three naked girls. He let them drive on when they explained that they were on their way
to a nudists' convention.
I wrote that I decided to save the clipping, as a legal precedent.
I would be able to show it to a police officer if I ever got into driving trouble.
If I were stopped for speeding, I could just say, "That's all
right, officer. I'm on my way to a speeders' convention."
And I envisioned a carload of armed robbers, roaring away from
a looted bank, shouting to pursuing patrol cars, "Can't stop now! We're late for the opening session of the annual Grand Larceny
I have been unable to find any statistics on the average number
of naked people per automobile. Or on motorcycles.
* * *
Republicans met first in Philly
The exhilarating political conventions are behind us now, and
we can all breath a sigh of relief. Or was that a yawn?
But at party convention time, those of us interested in Philadelphia
history and other dull subjects think about the first Republican Party Convention, which took place in Philly in 1856. The grand new party had been organized in 1854 by a conglomeration of members of the collapsing
Whig Party, anti-slavery Democrats, abolitionists, conservative Know Nothings and other trouble-makers.
The three-day convention assembled on June 17 in the Musical
Fund Hall on Locust St. west of 8th. The old hall still stands, now a condominium building.
The Musical Fund Society was founded in 1820 by Philadelphia
musicians, professional and amateur, for "the cultivation in skill and diffusion of taste in music, and the relief of decayed
musicians and their families."
1824, the society bought a Presbyterian church building on Locust. It was replaced by a concert hall designed by William Strickland,
architect of such Philadelphia landmarks as the Merchant's Exchange,. the Second
Bank of the U. S., the old Naval Home and the tower of Independence Hall.
Notable musicians and singers appeared at the hall. The most
sensational was Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale," who gave concerts there in 1850 and 1851. Popular music fans were buying
official Jenny Lind bonnets, gloves and shawls, and singing her big hit, "Birdling, Why Sing in the Forest Wide?"
The newly-hatched Republican Party hired the hall in 1856.
"Our town is again alive with the bustle and excitement of a grand convention," The Evening Bulletin exulted.
The delegates nominated John C. Fremont, who was military,
not political. He was famous for his exploration of the Rocky Mountains, and for being military governor of California as
the expanding United States pried that valuable territory away from Mexico.
Fremont had turned down an offer to be nominated by the pro-slavery
Democrats at their convention in Cincinnati a couple of weeks before. They settled on James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, considered
soft on the slavery question.
Fremont won with 530 votes to his only opponent's 37. The real
contest was in selection of a running mate, with 15 names put in nomination, including a little-known Illinois lawyer named
Abraham Lincoln. William L. Dayton, a former New Jersey senator, beat Abe handily.
Buchanan defeated Fremont for the presidency. Four years later,
Lincoln would succeed Buchanan as president, Fremont would be commanding general of Western troops as the Civil War began,
and Lincoln would fire Fremont for ignoring his policies.
The beat went on at Musical Fund Hall, but the newer, larger
Academy of Music dominated the concert scene. As the 20th century began, fewer musical performances were held there. Though the society's musical and charitable activities continued,
the hall was sold in 1924 to a labor organization. The society got the hall back in 1937 and leased it to a boxing promoter
until 1942, then sold it again to a tobacco company that used it as a warehouse.
The Redevelopment Authority acquired the hall in 1964.It sat
empty for years, still strewn with old cigar boxes. It became condos in 1981, but its place in history is remembered at political
* * *
Dreaming the possible dream
We've been hearing a lot about "the American dream" lately
from politicians, economists, journalists and other annoyances. Discussions of that dream are vague and variable in detailing
exactly what the dream is, but most seem to think it's getting harder to make it come true.
Some commentators and punditaters propose that the American
dream is to see our children have a better life than we have. I don't know how that works for dreamers without children. I
guess they'll just have to go ahead and have the better life for themselves.
Some experts bleakly predict that the impending generation
will be the first American kids since Virginia Dare was in diapers who won't be better off than their parents. Does that mean
that the poor little generation will have smaller houses, less education, smaller salaries, less traveling, fewer dinners
in fancy restaurants, cheaper automobiles, or diminished whatever else? And/or does it mean they will consequently laugh less,
smile less often, frown more, be less happy, or whatever?
Or could it mean that the current generation overdid, and now
overestimates what the American dream entails? Maybe the upcoming generation will be happier if the future simplifies a bit,
and their predecessors' expectations calm down. Maybe they will be more like their grandparents' generation, only with a lot
more electronic gadgets.
From the earliest days, many dreamers of the American dream
did their dreaming in other countries. They struggled across borders and oceans to ensure that their children would have that
better life that's expected for every next generation.
It's still that way. A report on census data from the Pew Philadelphia Research Institute says that immigrants now make up about 20 percent of all U.
S. small business owners, although they comprise only about 13 percent of the population. Immigrants are also about 16 percent
of the work force.
American dreams come in varying sizes. An inner city kid can
dream of living in a bigger row house in a better neighborhood. The kid in a bigger row house would like to grow up and move
to the suburbs.
Some dreamers dream of making big money. Some even dream of
working hard to achieve that goal.
The American dream has always implied that anybody can be a
millionaire. There has been much written about the self-made successful person.
The philosophies of Ayn Rand have been kicked around. One of
her biographers said that the individualistic heroes of her books were "rebellious outsiders."
Maybe we could all be successful that way, but if we all were rebellious
outsiders, what would we be outside of?
There are more dreams to work toward than ones that involve
wealth or possessions. A good life, a good career, activities that bring satisfaction, are all the dreams many folks need.
A harsh fact is that the bigger the dream, the less likely
it is to come true. Every American-born child could become president of the United States, but we've only had 43 of them. (One did it twice, which hardly seems fair.)
The impossible dream was fine for Don Quixote, but choosing
a possible goal and working hard for it is more practical, and usually more fun even if you don't achieve it.
* * *
A one-item pen collection
Looking through a box of old junk (junk being loosely defined
as something you keep for 10 years and throw away two weeks before you suddenly need it), I came across my Reynolds Rocket
ball point pen. I hadn't thought of it for years.
The Reynolds Rocket, kiddies, was alleged to be the first ball
point pen. It wasn't. But most people had never heard of such a thing before it arrived. It's aluminum, with a pocket clip,
and a nose that clicks back to uncover the tip.
It was advertised that the ink would last two years. It didn't.
The ads also claimed that the pen would write under water, which few people wanted
to do, and which led to the joke, "Do you have an under water pen?" "No, but I have an Underwood typewriter."
If you don't remember the Reynolds pen, you may not know what
a typewriter is, either. But when a family friend gave me that pen, they were the latest rage.
Gimbels in New York introduced them on Oct. 29, 1945, with
full page ads proclaiming them the "fantastic, atomic era, miraculous pen." On the first day of the sale, 5,000 customers
showed up and Gimbels had to call the cops. Some 30,000 pens were sold the first week, for $12.95 each.
My pen quit writing about 67 years ago, and it has long been
in a box where dead pens and other forlorn objects linger. I searched the web to see if there was anyone eager to buy such
an antique for a large amount of money. There wasn't.
I found all sorts of information, most of it confused and contradictory.
Web sites offer to sell newer, more streamlined Reynolds pen models they say are Rockets. They're not.
Tales of the creation of the pen vary severely. Attempts had
been made for decades to improve the traditional fountain pen, which needed to be refilled with liquid ink every so often.
In 1938, a Hungarian journalist named Laszlo Biro patented
a fairly successful ball point pen in England. Milton Reynolds, a wheeler-dealerish American businessman, saw a Biro pen in
Chicago or Buenos Aires, depending on which dependable source you depend on. He manufactured that model of his own and made
a lot of money.
With profits from his pen, Reynolds bought a twin engine airplane,
set a round-the-world speed record, and the flew over the K-2 mountain in the Himalayas, to prove his theory that it was taller
than Mt. Everest. It wasn't.
He got rich investing in such things as the first birth control
pills and Iranian oil, and retired to Mexico, where he died in 1976 at age 84.
There is material about Reynolds out the proverbial wazoo on
the web, but I located only one person who knows what the original Reynolds Rocket was. He is Richard Binder, a fountain pen
dealer and expert in Nashua, New Hampshire, which boasts that it is the only city that Money magazine has named the Best Place
to Live in America twice (so if you have the impulse to live someplace twice, Nashua would be it.)
Binder has a personal collection of 400 pens, and says that
the Rocket was the first Reynolds pen he bought. (He must be an old guy, like me.) So, I guess I have a one-item antique pen
* * *
When vote fraud was an art
The current hullabaloo about voters needing photo identification
would have the Philadelphia politicians of 100 years ago laughing. The incumbent party in those days didn't try to prevent
anybody from voting. In those simpler times, they encouraged everyone to vote as often as possible (but not for the opposition
Most experts say that people voting twice or more in modern
elections are pretty rare. That's probably because today's politicians are too wussy to try to get away with that. A goodly
number of them engage in activities that get them incarcerated, but not for something so petty as vote tampering.
Not so, back in the days when Philadelphia was "corrupt and
contented." Lincoln Steffans coined that phrase in his study of American cities in 1904. He called Pittsburgh "hell with the
lid off," too, so Philly actually came off good by comparison.
Vote fraud was an art in those days. The early 20th century
Republican political machine in Philadelphia produced votes in bulk with apparent ease. Steffans wrote of a reformer who,
as a test, sent a registered letter to each voter on the rolls of a selected election division. Of the lot, 63 percent were
returned marked "not at," "removed," "deceased," etc.
He found 44 voters registered in one four-story house, from
which 18 letters came back. Many other houses produced similar results. A row of six houses had 127 voters registered.
was impressed by a politician from the ward that contained Independence Hall, who gave a speech in which he named some of
the founders of the nation. "These men, the fathers of American liberty, voted down here once. And," he added with a grin,
"they vote here yet."
Unlike so many American innovations, Philadelphia did not invent
voter fraud. An obscure instance comes to mind from 1858, when a small town lawyer in Illinois was running for office against
an incumbent famous senator.
The superintendent of an Illinois railroad backed the senator,
and gave him a free pass to use while campaigning. He often lent the senator his personal rail car.
election day, the railroad executive learned that the rival candidate had chartered a train to ship a cargo of illegal voters
to a precinct where his party needed extra votes. The railroad chief gave his workers orders; the locomotive hauling the fraudulent
voters mysteriously broke down, and wasn't fixed until the polls closed.
The sad news here is that the backwoods candidate who tried
to export dishonest voters was Honest Abe himself. The railroad superintendent was Gen. George Brinton McClellan, a Philadelphia
Lincoln lost that one, but two years later (one hopes with
no shenanigans) he was elected president, and in the Civil War he became McClellan's commander, and eventually had to fire
him. In the middle of the war, McClellan unsuccessfully ran against Lincoln for president. No photo IDs were necessary.
The first ever photo IDs probably were a Philadelphia invention.
They were issued to officials, reporters, exhibitors and vendors at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876. No voting was required.
* * *
All things being equal
Gen. Raul Castro Ruz, President of the Council of State and
President of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Cuba, told the United States, a few weeks ago, that his government
is willing to meet with our government. He said the Cubans are willing to discuss any topic, so long as it is a conversation
Ah, equality. All things being equal, there is little that
is more important than equality.
we have Cuba, a country just a bit smaller in size and population than Pennsylvania, with a gross domestic product of $114
billion, wishing to be considered the equal of the United States of America, with 30 times its population, 90 times its area,
and a GDP of $15 trillion.
I guess that should be no surprise to us. A mere 236 years
ago, we tossed the same audacity at a bunch of blokes who believed that, as George Orwell suggested, some people were born
more equal than others.
Life was simpler for everybody, but harder for most, when most
people were destined at birth to a certain level of existence, with a few at the top, some in between, and the rest at a miserable
bottom. Then, Tom Jefferson sent the top fellows a note that told them that all men were created equal.
Tom didn't mention that after we're all created equal, from
then on it's every man for himself. It's the opportunity that is equal, not the person, and even some opportunities are rigged
to be more equal than others.
The way equality works, King George III would never have written
to Thomas Jefferson that they were equals, and I doubt that Barack Obama would write it to President Castro.
The late C. S. Lewis, in a context that placed his tongue largely
in cheek, wrote: "No man who says 'I'm as good as you are' believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never
says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain."
People in modern times enjoy deriding Jefferson, Washington
and a few other of our founding dudes here and there, for hypocrisy in proposing that all men were created equal, but not
including the slaves they owned. No one seems to notice that they were also proclaiming "We're as good as you are" to King
George, Lord North, and an endless list of princes, dukes, earls, barons and assorted other kinds of titled big-shots.
Even in their idealistic frenzy to create a truly democratic
society, our forefathers were inclined to create hierarchies and entitlements. Revolutionary soldiers' idea of a democratic
army was to elect their officers. They didn't seem to consider not having officers, and most guys they elected immediately
began acting the self-important way enlisted men through the ages have been familiar with..
George Washington was being addressed as "Your Excellency"
while he was still a general, and I never read of him, or any privates, objecting. In the first session of the U. S. Congress
in 1789, John Adams, of all people, proposed that the president of the United States be addressed henceforth as "His Serene
Highness." Barack should mention that to Raul.
* * *
Should baseball go high-tech?
Baseball fans have been criticizing umpires ever since the
sport was invented. Players, sports writers and broadcasters also moan and grumble about bad calls.
has made it worse. When an umpire misjudges a play, cameras aimed from every angle can show what happened, close up and usually
That has prompted suggestions that instant replays replace
the time-honored aftermath of a disputed play, which involves an umpire and a manager glowering at each other with jutting
jaws, saying rude things.
The subject came up when Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig spoke at a Baseball Writers Association gathering. Talking specifically about fair
or foul calls and the question of trapped balls, the commissioner said that instant replay would not be applied until "we
have the technology to do it."
Has Bud never
seen a ball game on television? Don't we already have the technology to photograph and record where a baseball goes?
The report of that opinion made me long for the days of my
boyhood, when the baseball commissioner was Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. One could accept with admiration, if not awe, the
prouncements of a commissioner who was an actual federal judge and was named after a Civil War battlefield. Now we have Allan
Huber Selig, who has a degree in political science, was in the automobile leasing business and calls himself Bud.
Bud apparently hasn't noticed that cameras and sensors are
everywhere. Cameras catch you driving through a red light, and photograph the license plate of your car doing about the same
speed as a batted ball.
Cameras in the mall parking lot watch you, and sensors at the
doors detect you leaving stores with unpaid-for merchandise. Devices in airports pry into the contents of your luggage, and
even can see if you are wearing explosive jockey shorts.
What would be so hard to aim cameras at bases, or have sensors
keep an electronic eye on foul lines? The sport has tested instant replay to judge contested fouls, fan interference or whether
a ball has left the park. But the procedure is done solemnly, apologetically, as though it is shameful to doubt the infallibility
of those guys in blue suits.
Baseball happily adopted the measurement of the speed of pitches,
which is interesting to know but largely irrelevant. (It's also irrelevant that probably the first device to measure pitch
speeds was invented by the late Dr. Israel Monroe Levitt, director of the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute for many
years, who had pitched for a sandlot team called the East Phillies when he was young, about 80 years ago.)
In fact, technology exists to correct the least reliable and
most important duty of umpires, calling balls and strikes. Sensors on each edge of home plate could determine whether a pitch
is outside. Motion capture technology that movies use to animate fantastic creatures could easily be adapted to clip sensors
on the appropriate high and low spots on players' uniforms to monitor that parameter.
I hear the purists and nostalgiacs groaning. But wouldn't it be better to light a sensor than to curse the umpires?
* * *
Old teachers remembered
As I look back, and the distance back keeps getting longer,
I've been thinking of teachers who influenced me.
I think of Roland D. Cain, an English teacher at Northeast
High School, who would entertain us by reading Chaucer or "Macbeth" aloud in the original accents. He advised the school newspaper
One of his classroom exercises was to pass out column-long
clippings of New York Times news articles, and tell us to condense them to seven paragraphs. I inwardly blessed him regularly
10 years later, as a rewrite man at the Evening Bulletin, when a night editor would hand me a long story from the day's paper
and say "Give me this in three 'graphs" for the next day's early editions.
Upon graduation, when I told Mr. Cain I had applied at The
Bulletin, he tried to talk me out of it. He said I would never make much money. He was right, but what fun I had.
Dr. James D. Gordon became faculty adviser of the newspaper
after Mr. Cain, and taught me a lot about being an editor by letting me figure things out for myself. We talked more about
writing as a craft than about journalism.
My first full-fledged journalism teacher, at the old Charles
Morris Price School, was Henry Charlton Beck. He had become a newspaperman in the Twenties, after studying a bit at Penn.
He played the fiddle in a theater orchestra on the side.
For a while, he was editor of the Camden Courier-Post. He told
of the day he became angry with a reporter, and sarcastically ordered him to go get a story about the leaves in the gutter
in a nearby town. Henry intended the ridiculous assignment as punishment, but the guy came back with a headline exposé of
a scandal in a municipal street cleaning department.
In the Thirties and Forties, Henry wrote a series of books
about the history and culture of New Jersey pinelands and old towns, classics
published by Rutgers University Press. He was a copy editor at The Bulletin in the early Forties, and active in Episcopal
He wrote mystery novels with newsroom background. But one was
entitled "Death at a Church Supper." He liked to say, "It's amazing it doesn't happen more often."
At age 44, he changed directions and became an Episcopal priest.
"Went into the collar business," he used to say. He edited church publications, and in his spare time taught the mechanics
of news writing with sharp insight.
Also at Price School was Don Rose, who taught feature writing.
Don came from England in 1908, and mostly taught college courses (including Hebrew) until 1927, when he began his column in
the old Evening Ledger.
I read his "Stuff and Nonsense" column when I was a little
boy. He moved to The Bulletin when the Ledger collapsed in 1942, and wrote there until he died in 1964.
Where Henry Beck had given precise assignments of articles
to submit in class, Don was lackadaisical. Our homework was to write anything we wanted, "as long as it's good." He didn't
hesitate to tell us when it wasn't, and why.
And there was Herb Brooks, who taught fiction writing at Price.
His criticism was vicious, but usually correct. They're all gone now, but they deserve this small posthumous shout-out.
* * *
Accumulated random thoughts
Here is a collection of some random thoughts I've been collecting
recently on scraps of paper, or in scraps of my brain.
THOUGHT No. One: News media and municipal people have begun calling squares parks,
as in "Norris Square Park" and "Franklin Square Park." That sounds stupidly redundant to old-time Philadelphians, but the
usage is spreading, here and also in New York.
I haven't heard anybody yet say "Rittenhouse Square Park,"
but it could happen any day now. And since people seem confused about whether Logan Square is a square or a circle, we could
end up with "Logan Square Circle Park."
In the traditional Philadelphia lexicon, a city block was a
square. When I was a kid, people didn't use the word block.
My house was two squares from Harrowgate Square, which was
a park, but not a Park. My grandfather was on the crew in 1917 that tore down the last houses on that square along Kensington
Ave., so that square could become the Square.
THOUGHT No. Two: The signs sticking up on top of the
Parking Authority's fee-collecting juke boxes say "Kiosk Located Here." That must mean nearly nothing to any strangers to
town or other uninformed parkers. If the city hired somebody who could communicate in straightforward English, the signs would
say, "Pay for Parking Here."
THOUGHT No. Three: Articles about Andy Reid, the Eagles impresario, visiting his
high school alma mater in Los Angeles, mentioned that the nickname of the school, John Marshall High, is the Barristers. They
obviously use that courtroom moniker because John Marshall was one of the more supreme chief justices of the Supreme Court.
How nice that a school picked a name with meaning. Any school
can be tigers or bruins or titans or chargers.
When I was at Northeast High School, a bunch of decades ago,
our teams were called the Archives. Our somewhat arch rivals at Central High were the Mirrors. Those appellations came from
the titles of the two schools' literary magazines. Northeast teams have now become Vikings, though Norwegians are scarce around
Cottman and Algon, Central teams are Lancers for no apparent reason, and not many high schools have literary magazines.
THOUGHT No. Four: In a magazine article, a woman suggested a way to solve what she called the duration problem of reading
a long book while traveling: "If you download the Kindle app across the iPad and iPhone, you can get about 10 hours," she
revealed. Good advice. Or, you could buy the book. You know, the version made out of paper. You could travel with that for
years, without recharging anything.
THOUGHT No. Five: The Hollywood masterminds who put movies on DVDs or Blu-Rays or
whatever usually provide subtitles as an option, but sometimes they don't. I suspect that they think English subtitles on
American films are mainly for foreign diplomats and illegal immigrants.
There are many movie viewers with hearing problems, who find
those subtitles a blessing. Currently about six million Americans are over 80, that age group is growing four times faster
than the general population, and I'm sure that many of those folks appreciate English subtitles.
* * *
Consensus and some nonsenses
When the national aggregation of Occupiers finished improving
our lives on July 4 and moved on to other places in need of their ministrations, they ended the day with some meetings. They
assembled some fuzzy focus groups, working to compile a list of the things that those gathered in Philly would like to achieve.
It wasn't easy. It's hard enough for one person to decide what
to do in any given circumstance. Add another person, and the possibility for indecision and conflict is immediate.
together a group, such as family, church, labor union, sewing circle, Boy Scout troop, burglary ring, corporate board, Rotary
Club, kids on a playground, or any other accumulation of people you could name,. The possibility immediately arises of vacillation,
dissension, argument, fist fights and most other manifestations of unpleasant behavior.
The problem the Occupiers has is that they are, or want to
be, representative of 99 percent of the population. If you can't agree with your in-laws, or your co-workers, or those annoying
people next door, or some other teeny percents of the population, how are you going to get an accumulation of Occupiers, much
less their beloved 99 percent, to agree on things?
I was intrigued by an Occupier quoted in the Inquirer, who
felt that it was presumptuous to draft a list of goals for the non-organization.
"In my opinion as an anarchist," he said, "I'm not going to
condone any sort of message stapled to the Occupy movement before we have the consensus of all of the 99 percent, if not 100
An anarchist (I now quote the Oxford American Dictionary) is
a person who believes that government and laws are undesirable and should be abolished. In that context, it's every person
for him or her self, so it would be vital to know what everybody wants.
How would he go about getting that consensus of the 99 percent
the Occupiers want to represent? (The one percent wouldn't have time to speak
to him. They're otherwise occupied.)
The Census Bureau says that the population of the United States,
as of this writing, is 313,890,894 persons. But people keep getting born, dying, immigrating, emigrating and sneaking in,
so there's a net gain of 13 people every second. The number will be bigger by the time you read this.
Children make up much of that population. Most of them are 99 percenters, not fortunate enough to be born with a silver percent in their mouths.
The Census Bureau number-manglers seem to feel that about 65
percent of the populations is registered to vote. Let's say there are, therefore, about 205 million adults who vote. About
203 million would be 99 percent of them.
Our anarchist friend would probably demand that non-voters
such as children and adult slackers be included, but I recommend that he get the consensus of the registered voters just for
I've got an idea for the anarchist. To get a consensus, why
don't we have all those 99 percenters go to the polls and elect people to represent them?
Oops! That sounds as though the result might be laws and a
government, and no self-respecting anarchist would want that.
* * *
Take them to our leader
On the day that the news media and the Internet busybodies
discharged overwhelming amounts of coverage and verbiage about the Supreme Court sanctifying Obamacare, there seemed to be
almost as much written, broadcasted and otherwise inflicted on us about a survey that said Americans think Obama would handle
a space alien invasion better than Romney.
The ruckuses weren't really equal. I typed "Supreme Court Obamacare"
into Google and was offered 422 million entries, while "Romney Obama aliens" found only 48 million mentions.
But that's still a lot, for such nonsense. The survey was taken
by the National Geographic people. There is a strong suspicion that it had something to do with a television show about space
alien matters that they were ballyhooing.
Reporters and commentators gleefully leaped on the publicity
gimmick, reporting that 65 percent of Americans said that the president would be better than his opponent at repelling an
attack from outer space. Most didn't seem to notice that the people surveyed were a randomly selected 1,114 Americans 18 years
old and over.
Now, I admit that I am not a statistician, but, give me a break.
This poll did not measure the couple of hundred million Americans it claimed to. What we got was 65 percent of 1,114 people
picking Obama as the alien slayer.
The survey went on, with what would be a straight face if surveys
had faces, to say that the poll revealed that nearly half of Americans would volunteer to have their boss be experimented
on by space aliens.
That result supposes not only that the 1,114 responders represent
the millions of Americans who have bosses. It begs the question, are aliens from outer space prepared for, or even interested
in, performing experiments on selected human beings?
And that, in turn, begs the question, is there such a thing
as an alien from outer space? The survey reports that only 36 percent of those surveyed said they believed in the existence
of such aliens in the first place, so who cares which presidential candidate
would be most likely to trounce such critters?
Non-believers accounted for 17 percent of the vote. The remaining
48 percent said they were not sure. (That comes to 101 percent, but I'm just giving you the figures the pollsters reported.
An extra one percent is not my problem.)
The poll also determined that more of the polees believe in
aliens than in superheroes or zombies. That would seem not to concern Obama or Romney. President Lincoln already took care
of the zombie problem in that current movie, and the superheroes are on our side.
If members of that 1,114 bunch encountered an alien, the surveyors
reported, 22 percent said they would try to befriend it; 15 percent said they would run away; 13 percent said they would lock
the doors; two percent said they would try to fight it, and 55 percent said the government has men in black to handle the
situation. (That's more than 100 percent, too, but this is science fiction.)
Nobody was specific on how Obama or Romney would repel the
invaders. Probably Obama would force them to buy health insurance. Romney would make them ride on the roof of his car.
* * *
July 4, 2012
by James Smart
The first Fourth of July
Sometime around July 1, 1777, some Philadelphia big shot must have said to his
The anniversary of the Declaration is coming up. We should celebrate."
They had other things on their minds. A British fleet was lurking
off the coast. Congress had moved to Baltimore because of the threat, and had just officially come back to Philadelphia in
March. Some congressmen didn't bother to return, afraid they would just have to pack up and leave again. (They were right.
Three months later, the British occupied Philly.)
When the Declaration of Independence was approved in 1776, John
Adams wrote home to the missus, "The second day of July,
1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding
generations as the great anniversary festival."
the city wasn't ready on July 2. And the date on the Declaration said July 4 anyway. So Americans celebrated Independence
Day on July 4. And still do.
It was a clear, hot Friday. At sun-up, the Pennsylvania navy
began slipping away from the docks, a dozen warships, 13 war galleys and some 300 transports, to line up in the Delaware,
from Walnut St. south to Fort Mifflin, flags blowing from the masts.
Citizens lined the waterfront. Congress adjourned at noon and
joined the crowd. By 1 P. M., the yardarms were full of standing sailors.
Then, one cannon on each galley and 13 on each warship, nearly
200 guns, let out a roar that rattled windows for miles.. The salute was repeated 13 times, one for each state.
On the open ground near Society Hill, the First and Second
Troops of Light Horse gave three cheers between each blast, their horses prancing and snorting at the noise.
When the salutes died away, more than 50 congressmen and officials
entered the City Tavern at Second and Walnut, led by the Hon. John Hancock of Massachusetts, president of Congress. Among
the guests at the multiple-course dinner were two of the most respected generals of the Continental Army, Gen. Horatio Gates
and Gen. Benedict Arnold.
Music for the event was provided by a captured Hessian military
band that had been marched over from the city jail at Sixth and Walnut. A corps of British deserters who had joined the First
Georgia Regiment lined up outside and fired a musket salute between band numbers.
After dinner, the bigwigs drank 13 toasts. Between each toast,
the 1,000-man Carolina Brigade on the Society Hill common fired 13 volleys of musketry, accompanied by the Hessian band and
blasts from some brass Hessian field pieces captured at Trenton.
Then the troops paraded. They finished about dusk Church bells
were rung, and windows all over town were alight with candles.
Many citizens had not celebrated. At heart, they were still
subjects of King George And many roughneck "patriots" roamed about, heaving rocks through unlit windows.
The mayor had ordered all watchmen to be on duty from 8 to
11 P. M. to avoid rioting, and had sent a bell-ringer around, announcing that all window lights must be out by 11 P. M.
At midnight, the city was quiet. Even ruffians didn't stay
up late in 1777.
✰ ✰ ✰
An old-time political scandal
This month is the 40th anniversary of the Watergate affair,
when five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington and touched off a political scandal
that ultimately sent 43 people to jail, including some top administration officials, and resulted in Richard M. Nixon resigning
from the presidency.
Curiously, and perhaps particularly American, the brains behind
the crime, G. Gordon Liddy, is today a radio host and political celebrity.
The anniversary reminded me of a political conspiracy in 1874,
that I discovered while doing research for my book, "Adonijah Hill's Journal."
In February, 1874, a group of prominent Washington citizens
convinced Congress to create a committee to investigate corruption in the Capitol. Leader of the group was a businessman named
Gen. Orville Babcock, a White House official, was accused of
exaggerating measurements of public works projects so contractors could collect excessive payments. A major contractor was
subpoenaed to produce his books. Alexander denounced the books as fakes.
The conspirators in the fraud concocted an elaborate scheme
to discredit Columbus Alexander. Babcock approved it.
They would stage a burglary of the office of an Assistant U.
S. Attorney, who was one of the conspirators, steal the contractor's records from a safe there, and plant them on Alexander
to discredit him.
The whole story of the plot is too complicated to fit in this
column. I have 27 single-spaced typed pages of details, from old law publication articles. It culminated in a nearly comic
On the night of April 23, the Assistant U. S. Attorney told
the D. C. police chief (not in on the plot) that he had a tip that his office would be burgled. He suggested they let it happen
and follow the burglar. They hid in his office building, and heard the break-in.
The safe-cracker, who had been highly recommended by the chief
of the Secret Service, did his job and sneaked out the back. An associate, who was to be arrested but allowed to "escape"
by the Secret Service, carried away a bag of stolen papers.
The police chief and the federal attorney followed him from a distance. They were joined by the head of city detectives, whom the chief had stationed
outside. As they crept along, a politician who knew them happened by, and joined them.
At one point, they rounded a corner and bumped into the burglar.
He was lost, and politely asked the posse which way was F St. They told him.
When the burglar got to Columbus Alexander's house, ready to
deliver the incriminating papers, he rang the door bell for some 20 minutes. Alexander, who they were sure would be at home,
The conspiracy collapsed. The Assistant U. S. Attorney was
so upset, he vomited. A celebration supper at a Washington club, planned by some of the corrupt politicians, was canceled.
The police chief became suspicious, and in the subsequent weeks
there were investigations and arrests. Those conspirators could have used a man like G. Gordon Liddy.
Here's the kicker: I found Columbus Alexander's family tree
on line. His great-grandson is G. Gordon Liddy.
* * *
What fun! It's election year
If you look at politics as a sport, a tendency among journalists
and other public nuisances, the upcoming presidential election is shaping up to be a lot of fun.
A recent national poll discovered that more Americans claim
to be politically independent these days than any time since Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term. Only 32 percent of voting
age citizens admitted that they are Democrats, and 24 percent confessed to being Republicans.
That left 38 present of the adult population wandering in that
political wasteland where they are compelled to make up their own minds. Unfortunately, the decision they make might be not
to vote at all.
I have long identified myself as a Middle-of-the-Road Extremist
(Our slogan: We Disagree With Everybody.) But I have always dutifully voted, even when it was difficult to decide which candidate
was the worst.
Media pundits who pundified about that poll's indication that
folks are abandoning their traditional alliances seem to believe that quitters are quitting the Republican party because it
has become too conservative, that Democrats are defecting because the party leans too far left, and that the non-partied are
meeting somewhere in the political middle.
Unfortunately for pundithood, it is possible that Tea Party
Republicans have picked up their Tetley bags and walked out because they think the Romney Republicans are too moderate. Democrats
on the opposite extreme (who have not yet chosen a symbolic beverage) may have departed because President Obama has not magically
established their vision of government.
Whether there is a shift to the middle, or people are falling
off both ends, it will be interesting to see what effect these supposedly uncommitted voters have in November. The effect
is particularly unpredictable if the disaffected Tea Party enthusiasts decide not to vote at all.
Since Lyndon Johnson hung it up in 1968, we have had only three
terms of Democrat presidents until Obama. Jimmy Carter lasted one term; Bill Clinton held on for two.
Both Carter and Clinton are Southern Baptists. It may be unfortunate
that religion plays a part in elections in the land of Constitutional freedom of religion, but conservative Christians had
a lot to do with those Democrats landing in the White House.
Obama is an African-American. It may be unfortunate in the
land of Constitutional racial equality, but many conservative Christians, and not just in the South, have their doubts about
Obama. And now they must choose between the president and a Mormon, whose faith they consider apostate, or at least wrong-thinking.
When Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976, white voters were
89 percent of the electorate. When Barack Obama was elected, the number of white voters was 74 percent. The 2010 Census reported
that non-Hispanic white voters are now 77.5 percent of voters
Does all of the above give you enough fuel to start a good
argument? Personally, I'm looking forward to watching those fun-filled results on election night in the fall. It will be more
entertaining than watching the World Series, the way the Phillies are going.
* * *
by James Smart
Longest may live the Queen
The British did a lot of whooping and hollering in honor of
Queen Elizabeth having endured 60 years of reigning She deserved that national shout-out.
She has an occupation that takes up most of her time, and attracts
devotion and respect, but with some measure of disobedience and disdain. It's a lot like being a parent, except that she's
the perceived mama of 63 million people.
You have to like your job to stick with it for 60 years. But
she does have job security. The last time a monarch had his job terminated was 363 years ago, when Elizabeth's 8th great-grand-uncle,
King Charles I, lost his job and, not incidentally, his head. Most modern human resources departments probably never consider
The British tried getting along without a king, but their new
unroyal CEO was no fun, so about 10 years later, they brought back Charles's son, and once again had a Charles in charge.
That illustrates the down side of Elizabeth's situation. She
didn't have much choice. It's the family business, and she was expected to take over, even if she preferred another line of
It's not a job you can just walk away from. Her uncle Eddie
did it, and came off looking a bit like a jerk. Which he probably was.
Elizabeth may well break the throne-warming record set by Queen
Victoria, her great-great grandmother. In 1896, Victoria passed the 59-year ruling record of her great-grandfather, George
III, who died in 1820 at age 81.
Queen Victoria ruled over an empire much bigger and more British-controlled
than Elizabeth does today. Victoria had an additional title, Empress of India, which shows how much Britain had its royal
hooks into in those days.
King George III had a giant empire going for him, too, but
he blew it. His administration treated America as though it were a third world country that needed parenting from his little
island, and lost a whole continent to a bunch of subjects he found revolting.
didn't have a chance to organize festivities to honor George III's long reign, but gave him a nice funeral. He was buried
in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, where most kings and queens of England have been entombed ever since.
seen a photograph of a ticket to George III's funeral, issued by the "Office of the Groom of the Stole" (meaning stool.) That
title goes back to the 15th century, originally a high ranking royal staff member who helped their majesties with personal
matters you may not want to know about.
Britain did put on a big shin-dig in London in 1897 to celebrate
Victoria's 60th year, although not quite as elaborate as Elizabeth's recent frolic. Victoria lived on until January, 1901,
and died at age 81.
Elizabeth II turned 86 on April 21. She looks to be in pretty
good shape, riding horseback, going hunting, raising thoroughbred horses, and also doing all the stuff monarchs are expected
to do, always with a cool demeanor and spiffy hats.
Her mother lived to be 100. Elizabeth has a good chance to
pass Victoria's record and become the queen of royal longevity. So, mark your calendar for another possible celebration in
* * *
by James Smart
A big year, 100 years ago
This Year is the 100th anniversary of a lot of interesting
things. For instance, 1912 was the year of the invention of the heart attack.
Well, not exactly. People's hearts had been attacking them
for years. But when folks complained of chest pains, and sometimes keeled over, doctors would diagnose the problem as indigestion,
or food poisoning, or angina pectoris. "Angina" comes from the Greek word for strangling, and "pectoris" from Latin for chest,
so doctors were just telling the patient what he already knew, in two languages.
The medical industry had noticed in autopsies that there were
often clots in coronary arteries, but considered it just an aspect of aging. They called
the blockage "thrombosis," which is Greek for clot, but sounds better when you're describing something you're not sure
In 1912, a Chicago doctor named James D. Herrick wrote a paper
in the Journal of the American Medical Association about his diagnosis of a living heart attack patient, 55 years old. He
explained how clots destroy heart muscle, and changed doctors' understanding of heart attacks.
Another thing invented in 1912 was the fourth down, if a down
can be considered a thing. Football previously had only three downs per possession, since 1898. I'm not sure why an extra
down seemed desirable, but we still have it, so it must have been a good idea.
Whoever mandated the football rules also made a touchdown worth
six points. It was formerly only five.
And they allowed a new-fangled piece of business, the forward
pass, to count as a touchdown if caught in the end zone. Why they didn't name that a grab-up is not known.
While football teams were learning the new rules, two separate
teams of biochemists, one at the University of Wisconsin and one at Yale, discovered Vitamin A in 1912. It was also the year
that Richard Hellmann started making mayonnaise, and the National Biscuit Co. began making Oreos.
The Girls Scouts of America had their start in 1912; the first
troop was in Savannah, Georgia. The concept was adapted from the Girl Guides organization in England. Hadassah, the Jewish
women's organization, was also founded.
Two grocery stores opened in California in 1912 with no clerks
waiting on people. They were called self-service markets; one used the name "groceteria." The word supermarket seemed to sprout
mysteriously later, about 1930.
The letters SOS, tapped out as three dots, three dashes and
three dots, was adopted as a world-wide distress signal by an international radio-telegraph conference. New Mexico and Arizona
became the 47th and 48th states.
Leon Leonwood Bean started a clothing store up in Maine. His
business got big, and is still with us. Frank Woolworth organized five small shops into a chain of five and ten cent stores,
which is no longer with us. Now we have dollar stores.
Born in 1912 were
Julia Child, Perry Como, Pat Nixon, Wernher von Braun and Jay Silverheels. Died in 1912: Clara Barton, Bram Stoker, Wilbur
Wright, John Jacob Astor and August Strindberg,
It was an interesting
year. Most years are.
* * *
Some reflections on Memorial Day
On this Memorial Day, there is a lot of interest in the Civil
War as its 150th anniversary rolls along. For the parents and grandparents who raised folks my age, memories of that war always
hung over their households.
My grandfather would be 150 years old this year. When he was
old and I was pre-school age, he told me stories of his father's days in the Union army. There were no tales of battles and
heroism. He told mostly of his father marching around, following Gen. McClellan on the Virginia peninsula, subsisting on hard
tack and beans as his teeth loosened up and his hair began to fall out because of scurvy.
Grandpop was gone before I became old enough and interested
enough to investigate the facts about the family and the war. It's a kind of story many American families can tell on this
sesquicentennial of that lethal conflict.
My great-grandfather was 27 when the war started. He had been
married seven years, had a six-year-old son, and worked in a textile mill. He had no great reason to join the army.
brother Joe enlisted two months after the war began. He became a private in Co. 1, 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Then, kid brother
Jake signed up in Co. B, 90th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.
Soon, the oldest brother got the itch to go soldiering, too.
My grandfather was born on July 11, 1862. On August 12, his father enlisted in Co. B, 68th Pennsylvania Volunteers.
weren't the letter-writing type. Joe was a brick maker by trade; Jake was a harness-maker. The family has no collection of
battlefield correspondence to tell what the boys were going through.
In March of 1864, Jake died of disease in Virginia, age 23,
On Jan. 11, 1865, Joe, 27, followed him. They were casualties of war, but no medals are given for their kind of sacrifice.
great-grandfather made it through to the end of the war. Any memories of his adventures have been buried with the old folks.
To imagine some of his experiences, we have to turn to the
history books. His regiment was in big battles: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the last charge at Petersburg. The 68th
was one of four Yankee regiments at the Peach Orchard on the second day at Gettysburg, He was one of about 980 men facing
nearly 3,000 Confederates.
At the end of the war, about one man out of eight in the original
68th roll call was dead. My great-grandfather came home with a bad leg, from falling off a wagon. No medals for that, either.
the early 20th century, on the day before Decoration Day, as they called May 30th then, my grandmother would take the old
push lawn mower on the trolley car up to the cemetery, to make sure that my great-grandfather's grave was tidy when the Sons
of Union Veterans squad came on the holiday to put a flag on the plot and fire a rifle salute.
She was the daughter of a German immigrant. He was her father-in-law.
She didn't know or care much about war, or history, or politics, but she understood the sacrifices some families made to serve
their country. Some still do.
* * *
What's in an old-time name?
The folks at the Social Security Administration have issued
their annual list of the most popular names applied to arriving babies last year. They must have a lot of time on their hands,
between the days when they shower checks upon grateful codgers.
Not only does their web site offer the list of favored infant
monikers, but it provides much other useful information. There's a section on "Effects on Medicare when in jail," which I
haven't yet consulted, but it's comforting to know it exists. One never knows when one might be ill or incarcerated, and possibly
Another title on the Social Security site is "Speeding up the
hearing process." That could be valuable. When you're confronted by a polical speech or a dull lecture, it would be splendid
to be able to hear it faster.
As to the vital news about baby names, which was thoroughly
thrashed about by various media lately, the fact that strikes me the most is that, for the 13th year, the most popular name
affixed to new male babies is Jacob.
My family was ahead of the trend. I had a grandfather, a great
uncle and a great-great-grandfather named Jacob, and narrowly escaped being a Jacob myself.
a Biblical name, of course. The first Jacob, or at least, the first famous one, was the father of the dozen boys who founded
the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The meaning of the Hebrew name is usually given as "supplanter," because Jacob sneakily took
his brother's place and got his old man's inheritance.
But in a sort of trickle-down name usage, James got to be the
English equivalent of Jacob. In the 17th century, the reign of King James I was called the Jacobean era, and the Highland
Scottish troublemakers who supported James Stuart were called Jacobites.
Later, the nastiest bunch of head-removers in the French Revolution
were the Jacobins, so named because their Paris headquarters was in Rue St. Jacques, the French version of James or Jacob
While assorted speculations have been speculated, nobody seems
to know why Jacob is the hot name for American boys. The number one name for girls is Sophia, the Greek word for wisdom. That's
better than "supplanter."
Here are the top 10 boys' names: Jacob, Mason, William, Jayden,
Noah, Michael, Ethan, Alexander, Aiden, Daniel.
Now, the top ten for girls: Sophia, Isabella, Emma, Olivia,
Ava, Emily, Abigail, Madison, Mia, Chloe.
The name that seems most strange to me is Jayden. It first
crept into Social Security's top hundred in 1994, but no one has a good explanation for it. Some Star Trek aficionados point
out that when Commander Data, the sallow-complected robot on the Second Generation series, got amnesia in one episode, someone
who found him wandering gave him the name Jayden.
That raises two questions. Such a flimsy event makes a name
popular? Robots can get amnesia?
The upshot of the name-popularity announcement is this: If
you want your child to have an unusual name, select, for a boy, John, Joseph, Robert or Thomas. For a girl, Jane, Mary, Helen
or Joan. Avoid those everyday names like Jayden or Madison.
* * *
Why update good old stories?
The British have shipped us a few more chunks of their alleged
Sherlock Holmes television series in which Holmes and Watson are portrayed by
two fellows who look barely out of adolescence, and which is set in modern London with its super-sized Ferris wheel and gherkin-shaped
skyscraper and all that, and nary a Hansom cab or gas-lit street in sight.
It has long been fashionable for stage, screen and tube to
shift classic theatrical works to modern locations. Creative types get some sort of ego-goosing thrill from such projects
as setting "Hamlet" in Milwaukee, or putting "Carmen" to work in a Starbucks with Escamillio being a quarterback instead of
Everyone to his own taste, but personally, I prefer leaving
Hamlet in Denmark where he belongs, and placing Julius Caesar in ancient Rome and not converting him into a modern fascist
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stuck Holmes and Watson smack in his
own time. If Conan Doyle had wanted them to be in the 21st century, he would have written science fiction. And if some present-day
dramatists want to give us a pair of 21st century detectives, they should darn well create their own.
If this sort of updating of familiar works continues, I suppose
the next thing BBC might inflict on us is 21st century tales of Robin Hood. The producers could borrow from the American terminology,
and have the Merry Men rob from the one percent to give to the 99 percent.
I see Daniel Radcliffe as Robin. Pippa Middleton would be a
perfect Maid Marian. The Archbishop of Canterbury could do a cameo as Friar Tuck, and
Tony Blair could be an economy-sized Little John.
The British are good at updating stuff, but we could both modernize
and Americanize some well-know tales. How about a 21st century American "Christmas Carol," with a young Scrooge to match the
young Sherlock Holmes?
Scrooge would be a twentyish chap who created an Internet social
networking system and became fabulously wealthy. As he sits counting his dollars and gigabytes, he is visited by the ghost
of Bernie Madoff or somebody. You know how it goes.
The old newspaper play, "The Front Page," could become "The
Front Web Site." Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" could be moved from the Salem witch trial to a Tea Party committee trying
to get Barack Obama to confess that he was born in Hawaii and Kenya simultaneously.
We could have "My Fair Co-Ed," with a young professor coaching
a teen-age Eliza from Queens, New York, on a 21st century college campus:
Hank Higgins: "The New York girls wear pearls and curl their
Eliza: "The Noo
Yawk goils wayeh poils an' coil theyeh hayeh."
Hank: "Try again, Liz."
Another thought: Will theatrical people in the future produce
updated versions of our contemporary plays? Will they put on a "Pygmalion" or "My Fair Lady" with Henry Higgins teaching a
robot how to speak like a human?
In the 23rd century, will somebody be doing an adaptation called
"A Spacecraft Named Desire," set in a city on a large asteroid? Imagine Blanche
Du Bois cooing, "I have always depended on the kindness of astronauts."
* * *
Grisly reading for young adults
In a mail-order book catalogue, on the children's book page,
I came across a title, "The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs." It's described as for "young adults" so maybe, being a "not getting
any younger adult," my opinion is irrelevant.
But this work of what I sincerely hope is fiction seems to
be an account of a pair of young siblings who discover the instructions and equipment for taxidermy, and use it to stuff and
preserve their beloved but deceased mother in an attempt to keep her around for a while.
reaction, in a word, was "yuck!"
Perhaps it is wrong to judge the book without reading it. And
readers, either young adults or old ones, may disagree with me.
Young adult is a loose classification at best. It could mean
anything between middle school and law school. There are college undergraduates who never read anything they aren't required
to, if that. There are grade school kids who read Dickens and Dostoevsky.
Fiction aimed at all ages these days is loaded with vampires,
werewolves, serial killers and other unpleasant individuals, so perhaps I am old-fashioned and oversensitive. But a cheerful
account of a couple of kids skinning Momma and preserving her hide for display doesn't strike me as high-class reading for
It's possible that any youthful readers mature enough to handle
the subject might well be the ones most likely to ignore it. It might give others
bad ideas, or bad dreams.
Maybe I'm over-reacting. I was an early reader myself, and
read material that introduced me to many disagreeable aspects of life. I was reading the newspapers by the second grade, and
there is nothing much more scary to an eight-year-old than a daily presentation of crime, war, accidents, sickness, that mysterious
s-e-x, and the other regular activities of our planet.
Being known as a ravenous child reader meant different things
to different friends and relatives, depending on their own views of both childhood and the printed word. At Christmas and
birthdays, when I was in grade school, some aunts and family friends would present me works with titles like "Buddy Down on
the Farm" and "Baseball Joe at Yale."
Others, demonstrating their idea of my possibly more grown-up
tastes, bestowed such works as "Treasure Island" and "Tom Sawyer." I read them all, of course.
Meanwhile, after Christmas, I waited until my father was finished
with his gift books, so I could pore over the latest Leslie Charteris mystery, or "The Nine Old Men" by Drew Pearson (about
the Supreme Court.) I had plowed through much of his Sinclair Lewis novels, Dickens, Mark Twain and such. I didn't always
understand everything, but I was reading.
I don't remember my parents ever forbidding me to read anything.
If I asked them to explain something I read and didn't understand, they would do it.
But I can't help wondering what my mother would have said if
I told her that I was reading about a couple of kids whose mother died, and they skinned her, stuffed her and preserved her.
Even if I had reached the lofty status of "young adult."
* * *
Occupiers in action, 75 years ago
The fire that wiped out the old Thomas W. Buck hosiery mill,
and took two firefighters' lives, recalls the days when knitting mills employed more Philadelphians than any other blue collar
occupation, and guys who ran the ladies' high fashion silk stocking looms considered themselves the elite of the trade.
I know, because my father was one of them. His union, Local
No. 1, American Federation of Hosiery Workers, was big and feisty.
And this is the 75th anniversary of a legendary hosiery sit-in.
On May 6, 1937, strikers occupied the Apex Hosiery Mill, where Fifth and Luzerne Sts. and Rising Sun Ave. form a triangle.
The mill was built in 1901. Robert Meyer and later his son,
William, operated the Apex there from 1908 until it closed in 1954. Brown Instrument Co. used it for a while. It then was
Roberto Clemente Middle School until 1997.
The 300,000 square foot, six story brick building is empty,
neglected and possibly dangerous, like the Buck building. The School District can't find a buyer.
The hosiery union was formed in 1913, and by 1918 had bargained
the work week down from 54 hours to 45. In the booming 1920s, as both the salaries and hemlines of working girls hit an all-time
high, so did silk stocking production.
A good knitter could bring home $7,000 a year (to compare,
the mayor's salary was $18,000.) Philly had 38 percent of the nation's stocking looms; national production in 1929 was 26,900,000
When the Depression hit, some mill owners resisted the union.
That's why 5,000 demonstrators gathered outside the non-union Apex mill on that May afternoon. The bosses told the workers
inside to go home.
Strikers invaded the building at 3 P. M. There was some rough
stuff. One of 18 men injured was Henry Mackley, whose brother, Carl, had been shot dead during a 1930 strike. The union had
built an apartment complex for workers, in Juniata, and named it for Carl.
For eight weeks, 256 union members occupied the mill. The union
delivered cots and other necessities.
The occupiers established a routine. They got up at 7 A. M,
washed, shaved and had calisthenics before breakfast. Men took assigned turns handling breakfast, lunch and dinner, cooked
at union headquarters at Frankford Ave. and Orthodox St. and passed in mill windows.
Strikers also stood watch around the clock at windows and doors.
During the day, those with no duties read, listened to the radio, or played cards, checkers, or baseball in the mill yard.
A strikers' orchestra performed evening concerts, and there
were movies after dinner. A few men complained about one hardship: a majority had voted to put up "No Smoking" signs.
Mayor S. Davis Wilson got a court injunction, and brokered
agreements with the union. On June 23, he and union officials entered the Apex, and led out the occupiers. Leaders of the
victorious procession carried American flags. An amplifier played march music. Some 15,000 hosiery union men and women on
the street cheered.
They couldn't know that soon, du Pont would create nylon, Japan
would send us bombs instead of silk, and silk stockings would fade from the feminine wardrobe.
* * *
It's Person Who Assists Day
April 25 has again been proclaimed Administrative Assistants
Day, by whoever is in charge of proclaiming such things. It used to be Secretaries Day, on which bosses bought their secretaries
flowers or candy, or took them to lunch.
Now it has become Administrative Assistants Day, or in some
accounts Administrative Professionals Day. It raises some questions, such as: Are the possessors of the fancier title still
doing the same work as when they were lowly secretaries? Are bosses patronizingly still rewarding them with flowers or candy?
What would Don Draper do?
The dictionary advises that a secretary is "a person employed
to help deal with correspondence, typing, filing, and similar routine work." The dictionary also mentions the Secretary Bird,
"a long-legged African bird with a crest likened to quill pens placed behind a writer's ear." Either the dictionary or the
bird, or both, hasn't heard that quill pens seem to be on the way out. The bird should now be the Administrative Assistant
An assistant, says the dictionary, is "a person who assists."
Gee, what are the odds of that?
The reason for the newer title, I suppose, is to kill the old
fashioned image of a secretary as someone who does low level, routine work, and to suggest a job with more important duties.
old thinking was reflected in a routine years ago by comedian Jackie Mason, who complained that our country had a secretary
of the army and a secretary of the navy. What did secretaries know about running armed services, Mason asked. But, he pointed
out, the mail was handled by a postmaster general. There, we could use a secretary.
This day that we pause to honor the secretaries among us was
instituted in 1952, by Harry M. Klemfuss, Mary Barrett and C. King Woodbridge.
Klemfuss was an executive of the Young& Rubicam advertising
agency, a firm mentioned in an early episode of the "Mad Med" television series when its employees threw water out their office
windows on anti-war demonstrators in the street below. I'm not sure why Klemfuss decided that secretaries should be acknowledged
was president of the National Secretaries' Association. Her interest in the program is obvious.
So is the involvement of Woodbridge; he was president of the
Dictaphone Corp., whose recording device relieved countless secretaries of the finger-numbing process of taking notes.
As our civilization matured, the celebration in 1981 became
National Professional Secretaries Day, and Administrative Professionals Day in 2001. A full week of related activities are
wrapped around the big day.
The celebration does not include the 14 secretaries in the
president's cabinet. I'm sure there is no likelihood of them becoming administrative assistants. Administrative Assistant
of State does not have a good ring to it. (The attorney general is the only one who isn't a secretary.)
The word cabinet, meaning a small meeting room, started with
kings of England a few hundred years ago. Their cabinets don't have secretaries. They have ministers, who administrate, so
it all works out nicely.
* * *
Hot books on Obama and Maya
Looking through some book catalogues, I noticed two current
trends in publishing. There were seven books complaining about President Obama. There were 16 books reporting that the world
is coming to an end.
The Obama books included one that claims to expose his nefarious
plans to rewrite the Constitution and replace Judeo-Christian values with failed radical leftist beliefs. Another says that
Obama is intent on enriching his Wall Street friends, corporate lobbyists and union bosses.
Those two activities would seem to cancel each other out. But
another book reveals that the stimulus program was to protect the jobs of government workers.
If you don't like the sound of those, you can buy a book that
offers to detail the administration's true plans to remake America, hinting that the plans are not good. Another book promises
to explain that Obamacare is worse than most critics suspect.
Perhaps strangest of all is the book describing Obama's "profound
rage that comes from his African father, an anti-colonialist rage against the wealth and power of the nation he now leads."
though that anti-colonialism was a good thing. Isn't that why our nation got organized in the first place?
If you feel a need to read those books, I'll provide titles
on request. If you don't have the patience, try the seventh one, which probably sums up the whole subject. Its subtitle is:
"Obama's Plan to Subvert the Constitution and Build an Imperial Presidency."
The good news is that we don't have to worry about Emperor
Obama, because the world is going to end this year.
There were warnings about that last year, too. (For the record,
it didn't happen.)
Last year's predictions were mostly founded on religion, so
naturally, nobody paid any attention. We were all too busy ignoring the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule and whatnot to ignore the coming Apocalypse.
This year, it's the ancient Maya civilization that informs
us of our impending doom, say those new books. Those Pre-Columbian dudes carved their calendars in stone, so you know they
must have been right. If you can't trust hieroglyphs, what can you trust?
The prophets who profit by writing that the end is nigh cite
ancient Maya calendars on stone cylinders, which they say divide history into 5,125 year cycles, all the way back to whatever
they go all the way back to. The current cycle ends on Dec. 12, which is mystically 12/12/12, and then it's Maya-bar-the-door.
Experts on ancient Maya say there are no predictions of catastrophe
in the Maya calendar. So do modern Maya. There are a whole bunch of them still living down in Meso-America and thereabouts,
and even a lot of them up here in regular America (not even including Maya Angelou and Maya Rudolph.)
The Maya these days use a flat circular calendar that looks
like a stone pizza. It has only a 52 year cycle, and it doesn't mention any Judgment Day.
If the ancient Maya had anything nasty to say about President
Obama, they kept it to themselves. That wouldn't stop anybody from writing a book about it.
* * *
Naming America's top molecule
I read somewhere that there is such a thing as Molecule of
the Year, and decided to look into it, because I don't know what we all would do without molecules. The subject was more complicated
than I expected.
In 1989, the journal called "Science" started naming a Molecule
of the Year annually. In 1996, the journal changed the award to Breakthrough of the Year. That makes sense. Breakthroughs
are rare events in science, while there are molecules all over the place.
Other scientific aggregations then leaped into the molecule-honoring
void. In 2002, a Molecule of the Year competition was started by the International Society for Molecular and Cell Biology
and Biotechnology Protocols and Researches, affectionately known among molecule lovers as the ISMCBBPR. But if the ISMCBBPR
has made its selection for 2011 yet, Google doesn't seem to have heard about it.
Syncom, a Dutch biotechnology company, awarded a Molecule of
the Year honor, but to two of its scientists, not to an individual molecule. The men were cited for executing a 55 step custom
synthesis project towards a novel complex chiral molecule. I don't understand that, but
you gotta love 'em for it.
The American Academy of Science chose l-arginine as the top
2011 molecule. It's an amino acid that's vital to cardio-vascular health, so it deserves a little recognition.
The molecule mavens at the University of Wisconsin named a
Molecule of 2011, too. I tremble at how this molecule's name will look in a column of newspaper type. But here goes. It is:
If that's more than you can handle, you will appreciate the
folks at the Breaker Laboratory at Yale University. Their selection for Molecule of the Year is: Fluorine.
The scientists who go to the trouble of looking for a Molecule
of the Year should get together and settle the issue. There should be a World Series of Molecules, where molecules compete
and decide the real champion.
Better yet, it could become a television series. I'm surprised
that Simon Cowell hasn't got onto it. What could be more spellbinding than a panel of famous scientists judging the contestants
for America's Top Molecule? Or maybe Donald Trump would preside over the contest. How would a typical molecule react when
somebody tells it, "You're fired!"
* * *
Who's who of closed schools
Most of the public schools the reform commission is closing
were named to honor once prominent men. It's interesting to consider who they were.
It's sad to see the Levering name go. There has been a schoolhouse
on that site since William L. Levering gave the land for the first one in 1771. He was a descendant of Wigard Levering, the
first permanent settler in the area in 1691.
Of the other schools on the hit list that were named after
people, William Henry Harrison and Philip H. Sheridan probably have the names most likely to be recognized. There are 12 Philadelphia
schools named for presidents, and eight named for generals.
William H. Harrison, our ninth president, was 68 when inaugurated,
the oldest president. He was in office for a month.
March 4, 1841, his inauguration day, was cold and stormy, but
Harrison insisted on riding a white horse to the capitol, and refused to wear a coat or hat. He delivered an hour and 45 minute
inaugural address. Then, he led a parade to the White House. He caught cold, went to bed with pneumonia on March 27, and died
in the White House on April 4, the first president to die in office. Vice President John Tyler took over.
Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan was a West Point graduate, five
feet five inches tall, and a 30 year old infantry captain with a desk job when the Civil War started. He agitated for battle
duty, and was made a cavalry colonel in 1862. His leadership in the field won him his first star 35 days later, and by 1864
he was a hero and a major general.
The other schools slated for closing are Drew, Fitzsimons,
Pepper and Rhodes.
Dr. Charles R. Drew was an African American researcher whose
developments of blood storage and transfusion methods saved thousands of lives on the battlefields of World War II. He was
killed in an automobile accident in 1950, at age 45.
Thomas Fitzsimmons was born in Ireland in 1741, and came to
Philadelphia as a boy. He and his brother became prosperous in colonial trade with the West Indies, and he was one of the
founding members of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in 1771. He helped organize the Pennsylvania Navy in the Revolution,
served in the Continental Congress in the 1780s, and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He died in 1793.
There have been a peck of Peppers in Philadelphia since Heinrich
Pfeffer came over from Germany in 1751. The name on the school belonged to George Wharton Pepper, who died in 1961 at age
94. He was a lawyer, and a Republican senator from Pennsylvania in the 1920s. He was not the George Pepper whose bequest started
the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Eugene Washington Rhodes was a Temple University law graduate.
He married Bertha Perry, whose father, Christopher Perry, founded the Philadelphia Tribune, now the oldest African American
newspaper, in 1884. Rhodes became editor of the Tribune, but didn't give up law. He was for a time an assistant U. S. Attorney
and served in the Pennsylvania legislature. He died in 1970, at age 75.
An encyclopedia of all the persons whose names are on Philadelphia
school buildings. would make interesting reading.
* * *
Insuring automobiles and health
Some people oppose the government requiring everybody to have
health insurance. They don't seem to feel that way about other things the government tells us to do.
There are lot of laws that require everybody to cooperate,
for the common good. Take traffic lights. When auto accidents started to become frequent, 80 or 90 years ago, governments
put up signals to control intersections.
Most drivers obey stop lights. And, does anybody ever protest
tax money being used to pay for them?
When cities began getting bigger and more densely built up,
150 years ago or so, it became obvious that volunteers couldn't handle the fire fighting. City governments organized salaried
fire departments, with everybody sharing in the cost through taxes.
Some Philadelphians opposed the creation of the paid fire department
when it was started in 1871, but today, it's so accepted that taxpayers protest when the city cuts fire department activity
to save money.
Those who never have a fire chip in, taxingly speaking, for
the fire department. All taxpayers also contribute to education, even those with no children. Few people seriously complain
These laws are a form of sharing. We all pay to provide things
that some of us need and others don't. If we do need them, they're there.
And state governments have mandated that automobile owners
buy accident insurance. The idea, as with most insurance, is that it's fair and practical that all drivers share the risk.
Everybody pays into it, whether or not they ever need it, so that funds are there to help drivers who do need it.
Health insurance is the same deal. There is a significant difference,
though. If an uninsured automobile owner has an accident, he never takes the car to a repair shop and demands that the mechanics
fix it for free.
People who have no health insurance, when they break a bone
or acquire a hole in an inconvenient body area, will go to a hospital and ask for free treatment. Our soft-hearted society
doesn't approve of them being told to go away and bleed somewhere else.
They get repaired, and the rest of us are forced to help pay
for it by shelling out higher than necessary medical payments, whether we have insurance or not.
So, what's wrong with the government requiring everybody to
take responsibility to care for their bodies as well as they do their automobiles, by having insurance?
Some young people say that they don't need health insurance
yet. They'll sign up later. But nearly everybody gets sick eventually, and everybody dies once. It's wise to invest in health
insurance when you're young, so you can afford to die. Dying can be expensive.
Requiring universal medical insurance often evokes cries of "Socialism!", a dirty word to all red-blooded Americans. Socialism
can often be defined as a government service the definer doesn't want.
He doesn't mind such good old American institutions as public
schools, the postal service, paved highways or trash collection, which governments actually provide. So why is he so upset
when the government insists that he take care of health insurance himself?
* * *
The days when films were film
There is not much film in films anymore. Hollywood, probably
like you and almost everyone else, is using digital cameras.
Movie theaters are converting to digital projectors. Kodak
is bankrupt; the company's founder, George Eastman, made the motion picture industry possible when he invented roll film in
Bad enough for Kodak that most photographers no longer buy
film. Major income for Kodak came from making tons of film for the many prints of movies that used to be distributed to theaters
Maybe soon, no actors will suffer when the scene they were
in ends up on the cutting room floor. Now those cuts will go wherever deleted pixels go.
This trend made me feel nostalgic (it's not painful, but there's
no cure) about a summer job I had at age 15, in the year "The Lost Weekend" won the "best picture" Oscar. (Look it up; research
is good for you.)
I was a stock boy at National Screen Service, on the northwest
corner of 12th and Vine Sts. The site was obliterated when Vine St. was widened.
National Screen's Philadelphia branch had a cutting room, with
lots of scraps of 35 mm film on the floor. That was where trailers, those previews of coming attractions, were spliced onto
feature films before the Clark Transfer trucks came to pick up the big film cans and distribute them to theaters.
My job was to fill orders from theaters for posters to adorn
their lobbies and facades. There were 30 by 40s, 40 by 60s, high narrow posters called inserts, lobby cards, 8 by 10 glossies
(photo stills from the film), and the posters that got pasted up: half sheets, one sheets, three sheets and the 24 sheets
that went on full size billboards.
Every film that was released had a National Screen Service
number. The entire movie industry used NSS numbers to identify posters, trailers, and any peripheral item to a film.
numbers related to the release date of the film. The first feature film of 1945 would be 45/1. The second would be 45/2, and
National Screen Service began handling trailers in 1920. It
was logical that NSS got into distribution of posters and other promotional material, and by the early 1940s, it had a near
monopoly on the system.
In the 12th and Vine building was a huge card file of all movies,
going back to the 1930s or further. When a theater ordered posters for a rerun of an old film, the file was needed to get
the stock number. I had a good memory, and soon had a head full of film numbers..
We stock boys dreaded filling orders from the big cheap-ticket
24-hour skid row movie houses around 8th and Vine, seedy former movie palaces such as the New Garden and the 4-Paws (formerly
owned by old-time showman Adam Forepaugh.)
Because most of the patrons were sleeping anyway, they usually
ran forgotten old films, three features changed daily, often obscure westerns. They ordered almost every size poster for each
film. That sent us digging into the card file, and climbing high shelf racks.
Posters are distributed differently now. National Screen is
gone. The film industry has changed. And soon, there may never be film in films.
* * *
Whom do writers write like?
On his Facebook page, Dan Rubin, who writes for another newspaper,
mentioned the existence of a Web site called "I Write Like." Give it a sample of your writing, it analyzes it, and its little
electronic brain tells you what well-known writer you write like.
Naturally, I tried it. I fed it last week's column. It performed
its digital cogitation, and told me that I write like H. P. Lovecraft.
What? My ordinary contemporary prose comes out resembling that
of a writer of florid Gothic horror stories in the Depression era? Well, it says so right there on the World Wide Web, so
we all know that it must be true.
That dismaying exercise made me curious about whom other writers
write like. I typed in the first 385 words of "Moby Dick." Instantly, "I Write Like" announced that Herman Melville wrote
like Robert Louis Stevenson.
That logically led me to ask the digital smart aleck whom Robert
Louis Stevenson wrote like. The program responded that Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote like Robert Louis Stevenson. What
are the odds of that?
To ask about somebody a little more modern, I entered the first
223 words of "The Sun Also Rises." The computer said that Ernest Hemingway wrote like Kurt Vonnegut. I was afraid to ask whom
Vonnegut wrote like.
Heading way back in the writing industry, I gave "I Write Like"
the first 167 words of Hamlet's favorite soliloquy, from "To be or not to be" all the way to the "bare bodkin." The analysis
was that Shakespeare wrote like Shakespeare.
This made me wonder whether the analysis meant that nobody
else could write like old Bill Shakespeare. So I tried some prose from the same era as "Hamlet," the first 10 verses of the
13th chapter of St. Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, as translated by the crew of scholars King James I put together.
The verdict was that it was written like Shakespeare, too.
The next test produced no surprise. Dickens wrote like Dickens.
I concluded that the analyzing machine compares samples of known writers against other samples of known writers, so inevitably
it decides that writers write like themselves.
So I gave it a try with someone not thought of as a writer.
I tossed in the first 332 words of George Washington's farewell address when he left the presidency. "I Write Like" claimed
that he wrote like Edgar Allen Poe. That was so bizarre that I decided it was time to quit.
But there were two more writers' names that just had to be
analyzed. I handed "I Write Like" the first 160 words of the last column Dan Rubin wrote before going on a recent hiatus.
The strange answer was that he writes like Cory Doctorow, a Canadian-born British science fiction writer and advocate of free
sharing of digital media. Doctorow is author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction." I'm not aware
of Dan Rubin producing anything for idiots, so far.
Finally, I inserted the first 306 words of "The Dunwich Horror,"
one of H. P. Lovecraft's better known grotesqueries. The result: he wrote like Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Shucks. I was hoping it would say that he wrote like Jim Smart.
* * *
Politicians and the Good Book
Politics and religion have become all tangled up during the
presidential primary festivities. It's enough to make one wish for the good old days when the principal thrust of religious
folks was to save peoples' souls, which they usually attempted by persuasion, not legislation.
These days, they're intent on changing people's behavior, with
the intended changees' spiritual condition seeming to be immaterial. Making sin illegal didn't eliminate sin in the past,
but then, neither did evangelism.
It's easy to drag religion into political debate because the
nice thing about the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Koran, or any other accepted scripture is that politicians, as well as
normal people, can always find something in the text to justify just about anything they want to do, or want to stop other
people from doing. (The latter is more fun.)
Seven score and ten years ago, our forefathers brought forth
a great Civil War, and both sides could find in the Bible justification for their opinion of slavery. I'm not sure that either
could find scriptural justification for bringing forth a war that killed nearly a half million men, but maybe nobody looked.
In the English translation of the Bible that King James I authorized
400 years ago, the word "slave" appeared once, in the book of Jeremiah, and "slaves" once, in the book of Revelations. That's
all, according to Strong's Concordance, the granddaddy of Bible references, which even reports how many times the word "the"
is in there (3,588.)
The 1959 translators of the Revised Standard Version used the
word "slave" 19 times. We've come a long way.
Slave owners in the past cheerfully adopted parts of ancient
Old Testament laws, which said it was all right to buy and sell "heathens" as servants. I don't recall any cotton-picking
Southerners following any other Mosaic procedures, such as not growing any crops every seventh year, which is also in the
Hebrew law books.
Endorsing selected parts of the Bible they agree with is a
handy exercise for politicians and their admirers. Some politicians say that they literally believe every word in the scriptures.
They also say that health and welfare programs should not be administered by Washington.
They must have skipped the place in St. Matthew's gospel in
which Jesus describes the last judgment, when those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, cared for the sick, clothed
the needy and welcomed strangers (immigrants?) will be rewarded. Those who did not will be punished.
But, not individuals. He said that "before Him shall be gathered
all nations" to be judged. Are our elected leaders properly preparing our nation for Judgment Day?
in the charity department, the Bible tells of a first century one-percenter who asked Jesus for advice. Jesus told the guy
to sell his possessions and "distribute unto the poor." St. Luke reports that the man "was very sorrowful; for he was very
Politicians need not worry about such things. They can just
cite parts of the Bible they like better.
* * *
That other guy's job looks easy
It's interesting to listen to people on the extreme political
right agree on something with those on the extreme left. Many of them mutter the same criticism lately. They're disappointed
in the job the president is doing.
That's natural with Republicans. If a Democrat walked on water,
they'd complain that he hadn't wiped his feet first.
But some of the leftiest Democrats are unhappy with him, too.
He hasn't magically brought world peace, economic prosperity, universal equality and all the other neat stuff that they would
take care of overnight, if they were in the White House.
It seems not to occur to some people that there just might
be a little more to the task than they could conceive. Just about everybody knows how to run the country.
You can learn their opinions on the Web, in taprooms, on radio
call-in programs, in college dorms and faculty lounges, in corporate board rooms, or any place where folks gather and blather.
Fully informed by the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, or Time magazine, or the Fox news or Democracy Now channels,
they know how to handle that cushy job in Washington.
Most of us, at one time or another if not always, believe that
we could manage businesses and institutions better than the supposed experts assigned to do it.
We all know what they're doing wrong at hospitals, schools,
insurance companies, restaurants, the post office, banks, the telephone company, the cable TV company, all city, state and
federal departments, the electric company, the police, labor unions, newspapers . . .
Whoa! Now we're in familiar territory. It may be different
now, with 21st century tools and methods, but I'd guess that many people still don't understand how a newspaper works.
I once answered the phone on the city desk of a big newspaper,
and talked to a man who said he had been robbed, and we didn't report it. When did it happen? "About a month ago." What did
the police say? "Oh, I didn't call the police."
A similar caller asked why we didn't cover a meeting of his
organization. Some questioning revealed that nobody had told us there was going to be the meeting, but he didn't consider
that a good excuse. "I thought you were supposed to report the news," he grumbled. "I didn't think we had to tell you."
That's the way we often are about other people's jobs. We expect
the businesses and organizations we deal with to perform what we perceive to be their function, and do it the way we think
it should be done. How hard could it be to run the school system, or the hospital, or the postal service, or the presidency?
For all I know, the president thinks it would be easy to have
done the work I once did on the staff of a big newspaper. He wouldn't know much about inverted pyramids or second day ledes
or cover-backs or brace make-up, or whatever new jargon must be used in today's digitized newsrooms.
But I have a feeling that he knows how to do a lot of things
I don't, things required for presidenting. So, I'll assume that he's trying his best, if he'll assume the same about me..
* * *
Prehistoric fun with sticks
The other day, I stumbled across the fact that three years
ago, the National Toy Museum declared that the world's oldest toy was the stick. The museum, part of the Strong National Museum
of Play in Rochester, N. Y., is an institution that takes toys seriously. They must have a scholarly basis for sticking up
for the stick.
But I have read claims by anthropologists that ancient dolls
that have been dug up here and there are the oldest known toys. That has obvious credence, since dolls must be made deliberately,
whereas sticks were likely just lying around the prehistoric landscape, for any ancient kid to pick up and mess with.
And sticks would seem to have had competition as toys. If we
could look back at the days of homo erectus, or of Cain and Able for the non-Darwinians in the audience, I'm reasonably sure
we would find children also playing with rocks, another plentiful object.
I'm trying to imagine myself as a tike about seven million
years ago, skittering about outside the family cave. I would think that rock throwing would be an obvious way to the pass
the time. I assume that rocks would be easier to come by than sticks. The latter would mostly still be attached to bushes
Modern children continue the tradition. Get your average small
boy beside a body of water with small rocks nearby, and he will be compelled, presumably by some atavistic force, to start
heaving rocks into the water.
I did a bit of pebble skimming on creeks, lakes and bays in
my early youth. I don't remember ever having the impulse to do anything creative with a stick.
Does throwing a stick for a dog to fetch count in this discussion?
The National Toy Museum enshrines only objects used by human players, as far as I know.
there is a question as to whether human or dog is doing the fetching. Once, I tried to teach a dog to fetch a stick. I would
throw it, and encourage the dog to go get it. He would decline, staying with me and wagging his tail.
I would then go get the stick. The dog would come with me.
I would throw the stick again. We would repeat the process. The dog obviously enjoyed watching me fetch the stick. Prehistoric
dogs may have done the same thing.
As for dolls being the earliest deliberately made toy, possibly
the first dolls were made of sticks. Stick arms, torso and legs would be easy to fasten into human form. The head might be
a rock. I don't know how they would fasten the things together in those days. I don't recall reading of any anthropologists
or archeologists discovering cave glue.
While early homo sapiens mommies probably didn't like it, the
boys would quickly learn to wallop each other with sticks, emulating the behavior of the menfolks. Letting kids play with
toy weapons can acclimate them to violence when they get older.
Cain and Abel probably played rough stuff with sticks when
they were little Then, when they grew up and the nasty sibling rivalry set in, Cain became wroth (that's how people got angry
in the Old Testament) and slew his brother. The Bible doesn't mention whether he used a stick.
* * *
by James Smart
Repealing the laws of physics
Dr. Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday last month got heavy media
coverage, because he is perhaps the world's brainiest scientist, mentioned alongside Newton and Einstein, and because he has
miraculously kept working nearly 50 years after conventional medical wisdom says he should have died because of Lou Gehrig's
He functions laboriously in a hi-tech wheelchair, but his brain,
trapped in a contorted body, communicates through a computer and continues to explore physics and the cosmos, and to astonish
physicists and cosmologists.
His birthday inspired me to dig out from my files (read that:
boxes of papers and books, in exquisite disorder) a 1975 article by Dr. Jerry Pournelle, the first time I heard of Hawking.
went to a lecture by Hawking at California Institute of Technology. Hawking was already in a motorized wheelchair, but could
still speak, in a heavily slurred voice.
The audience was theoretical physicists, graduate students,
and assorted possessors of heavy-duty brains. As they sat, straining to hear and understand, Hawking poured out information
that essentially told them that much of what they thought they knew could be wrong. And Hawking chuckled and laughed as he
The announced title of the lecture was on a slide projected
on a screen: "The Breakdown of Physics in the Region of Space-time Singularities." That was then replaced by an almost identical
slide, except that the word "Physics" was crossed out, and "Physicists" written above it. Hawking laughed quietly.
Hawking's lecture, if I understand it (which is doubtful) went
something like this. Einstein and others established that gravity affects light, and that nothing can travel faster than light.
A big enough mass could create gravity that would hold back light. Therefore, the mass could not be observed. Scientists call
that a space-time singularity.
The required conditions must have existed at the beginning
of the universe, so there must be a big fat singularity at the Big Bang site. There are other singularities. So-called black
holes are caused by collapsed stars, and a singularity lurks inside each one.
Hawking told the physicists, singularities cause the laws of physics to break down in nearby regions of space, so that anything
unpredictable can happen. Time can reverse. Alternate or duplicate universes can exist.
"Matter and information can fall into these holes," Hawking
said near the end of his lecture, "or, can come out. And what comes out is completely random and uncorrelated."
paused, and grinned broadly. "Of course, we might have to wait quite a while for it to emit one of the people here this afternoon,
or myself. But eventually it must."
There was a silent moment, and then the theoretical physicists
and other huge intellects began to laugh.. They had just been told by the world authority on their science that, in the long
run, anything is possible.
Who knows? Maybe someday that singularity at the point of the
Big Bang will spew out another Stephen Hawking.
* * *
February 8, 2012
by James Smart
The dart-throwing chimpanzee
The folks at the Vanguard investment
factory in Valley Forge, in the recent edition of the quarterly dose of optimism they mail to uneasy clients, reported on
a study of the accuracy of predictions. Perhaps predictably, the study found the record of expert predictions to be somewhat
Economic experts run in great herds
through the canyons of Wall Street, bellowing confident truths about the future. Washington, and all places where politics
festers, produces a related species of authorities on what lurks just over the informational horizon.
Such predictors were studied by Philip
Tetlock, Ph.D., a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Vanguard's report,
Dr. Tetlock spent 20 years, ending in 2003, keeping an eye on some 30,000 predictions assembled by 300 experts on politics
"As a whole," the professor is quoted
as saying, "experts were slightly more accurate than the proverbial dart-throwing chimpanzee."
I'm not sure how he drew that conclusion,
because, as far as I know, the chimpanzee has never published. But predicting has always been overdone in the news media,
and recently it is more prevalent than ever, and more annoying.
Newspapers and broadcasters seem to
devote more time and space to analyzing political candidates, and predicting which ones will succeed or fail, than they allot
to reporting what's happening.
I would like all that effort devoted
to telling me everything the candidates are saying and doing, to let me make my own analysis, and do my own predicting if
I feel like wasting my time.
Sports news is particularly guilty
of over predicting and over analyzing. Television stations dispense tiny amounts of information late on Sunday nights about
the professional football committed that day. We are barely told which teams won, and maybe the scores.
Then, instead of covering what happened
that day, a couple of athletes and broadcasters spend an hour speculating, cogitating, ruminating and prognosticating.
We get similar outbursts of unnecessary
expertise from announcers before and during games. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're proven wrong. Either way, who
Before elections, predictions and
analysis predominate the journalistic coverage. We often learn things about candidates only when facts intrude in a typical
dosage of punditry.
Predicting offers a collateral benefit
to journalists. After their forecast of the outcome of an election or a game or a season proves wrong, they can concoct an
analysis of why things didn't work out the way they prophesied.
We need more people like Dr. Tetlock
to keep an eye on the alleged news gatherers, and to embarrass them into giving us more news and less opinion. At least, that's
my opinion. But I predict that nothing will change.
That dart-throwing chimpanzee should
have his own television show. It might be more entertaining than watching John Clark and Howard Eskin speculate at each other.
* * *
February 1, 2012
by James Smart
Speed dating for book lovers
The Free Library of Philadelphia is
sponsoring some Literary Speed Dating events next week. I haven't heard the rules, but speed dating usually consists of an
occasion at which people who are hoping to meet compatible partners spend a short time, a minute or two, conversing, and then,
at a signal, everyone moves on to chat with another person.
The idea is for folks to
have quick auditions with several others, and possibly find someone they might like to get together with again. The library's
events are free, but registrations are required.
The Andorra branch will
have a session for singles age 25 to 35 on Thursday, Feb.9, at 6 P. M. E-mail
Marsha at email@example.com to register.
The librarians' announcement
of the arrangements encourages participants to bring along a book. No, dude, not your little black book. They suggest bringing
a book you loved, hated, or just want to talk about. Maybe even read.
This sounds like a good
way to handle speed dating. The books people bring along could tell a lot about their approach to relationships. A guy who
brings a book by Leo Buscaglia (nearly all have "love" in the title) would make one kind of quick impression on a girl; a
guy toting "The Joy of Sex" would give a different message.
Certain types of titles
would be calculated to make a quick hit. A young woman carrying Ray Didinger's "Eagles Encyclopedia" would get the average
guy's attention. A fellow carrying the new biography of Rudolf Nureyev would convey artistic sensitivity to the girl.
Just to cover other bases,
the woman might also bring along a good cook book, suggesting a nonspeedy way to a man's heart, and the man could flaunt "The
Essays of Warren Buffet" as a sign of financial acumen.
Andorra is one of five library branches inviting singles ages 25 to 35 to get literary with each other.
The Tacony branch apparently serves a more mature population, and will have an event for ages 35 to 45.
The Central Library down
town will have a session for singles over 50. That's a pretty big over. I'm not sure someone 51 and someone 91 would hit it
off, no matter what they were reading or what their speed.
The library at 6th and Lehigh will gather single Latinos from 25 to 35. Gathering at the library on
7th St. next door to where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, perhaps somehow appropriately, will be singles
25 to 35 who are men dating men or women dating women.
It seems that a gay Mexican
on Social Security is out of luck in the library's speed dating program. Maybe he can stand outside a library, reading his
date-attracting book of choice, and hope for the best.
Speed dating, literary or
otherwise, is very 21st century. I'm surprised they're not doing it on Twitter. What would the great lovers of the past think
about having a time limit? I'm picturing the guy proclaiming;
"Soft, what light in yonder
window breaks. It is the east, and Juliet is the..."
"Time's up, buddy. Move
on to the next balcony."
* * *
Handling money the old time way
There was a flap at Christmas time when, because of the three
day postal holiday, many Philadelphia public school teachers did not receive their paychecks until after Christmas. Some complained
that they couldn't do their Christmas shopping, and the holiday was ruined.
School authorities suggested that teachers should have their
pay electronically deposited into their bank accounts. (That way, if the pay arrives late, they can snarl rude things about
the bank instead of the post office.)
Workers down in the minimum wage trenches might wonder why
teachers can't stay a little ahead on the cash, or use credit cards, to prevent such financial emergencies from emerging.
Teachers start at about $40,000 a year, and the median salary is about $53,000.
But nobody knows what troubles other people have seen, and
that has long included financially troubled teachers. The late lamented Advanta Corp. started its rise to financial heights
60 years ago by providing short term loans exclusively to teachers.
I don't know whether the public school curriculum includes
any instruction on how to manage personal finances. When I was in grade school,
in days of yore or thereabouts, there was an attempt to explain frugality and such ideals to us kids.
A local bank had set up a savings plan, so pupils could bring
their pennies to school and have them deposited in a savings account. A teacher suggested that we bring in part of our allowances.
I had never heard of an allowance as a family function. Money
at home was dispensed on an as-needed basis at best. If I wanted 12 cents to get into the Saturday matinee at the local movie,
and maybe a nickel for a box of Good and Plenty from the lobby candy machine, I raised it by hauling neighbors' discarded
newspaper to the junk yard, or similar remunerative tasks.
Somewhere around sixth or seventh grade, our teachers started
to explain to us other useful information about daily life. The teachers never asked us what we already knew, and seemed to
have little idea of life in a row house neighborhood.
They gave us unrealistic instructions about how to use a telephone.
This must seem more than quaint to the folks, young and old, who now carry telephones on their persons, and use them to send
written messages and take pictures.
In those pre World War II days, many of my classmates did not
have telephones at home. Many of our neighbors used the phone booth in the candy store down the street.
We had a phone. (My father was extravagant.) Neighbors would
drop in to use it, saving a walk to the store. They would offer a nickel to pay for it. My family would say not to bother.
Some sneakily left a nickel anyway. We would find coins on a radiator or windowsill.
Our teachers also taught us about checking accounts. That seemed
an annoying waste of time. Working class folks got paid in cash. People talked about pay envelopes, not pay checks. Utility
bills and such were paid in cash at the companies' local offices.
I was paid in cash until I was 25. I had savings, though. In
a metal box on my bedroom bureau.
* * *
Zombie facts are hard to kill
When I buy a book on a historical subject that I know something
about, I read the bibliography in the back first (unless it doesn't have one because it's fiction or because the author was
just fooling around) to see what sources the writer used that I don't know about. I like to see what research professional
historians have done.
I learn a lot that way. Sometimes, unfortunately, I learn that
the professionals have done it wrong.
The other day, I bought a 625 page biography of a famous colonial
Philadelphian. It was 30 bucks when it was published in 2010, but I waited until it was remaindered for $6.95.
Checking the bibliography, I spotted a publication that sounded
like a great resource. The citation said it was by a well-know historian, and published in 1875. I suspected a problem and
checked up on that author. He was born in 1914.
That made me suspicious of the whole darn book. But anybody
can make a mistake. (I find it regrettably easy.)
Skimming through the book, looking for parts I knew would interest
me, I then found a page on which the author had identified the general of a late
18th century infantry regiment as commander of a cavalry unit.
Being an old fashioned guy, the natural result of being an
actually old guy, I like to think that I can believe what I read in big fat hardcover history books. There should be something
we can trust in this, the age of misinformation.
That great electronic exercise in free speech and expression,
the Internet, allows anybody to provide us with incorrect information. Some people do it deliberately, some accidentally.
An untrue "fact" brought to life in any medium is difficult to kill, a sort of
undying zombie fact..
One danger to the truth is humor, which can be taken seriously.
I plead accidental guilt. Once I wrote a tongue-in-cheek article about the history of the pretzel, making what I thought were
funny and obviously outrageous statements. Pretzels had been found in the tombs of pharaohs; they had been brought here on
the Mayflower; what Marie Antoinette famously said was actually, "Let them eat pretzels."
I didn't think anyone would take the jokes seriously. Months
later, some of the ersatz pretzel history turned up as fact in a pretzel industry leaflet.
In another incident, when an advertisement identified the statue
on City Hall tower as Benjamin Franklin, I wrote a column saying that there was suspicion that Ben Franklin and William Penn
were actually the same person, giving ridiculous fake evidence that I thought was funny.
Some time later, the then new president of the Historical Society
of Pennsylvania, who hadn't been in town when that column appeared, told me about a strange phone call he had from a person
asking about the Franklin-Penn theory. I confessed that it was my fault.
I'm going to start reading that book I just bought, wondering
if any zombie errors are in it that I won't detect. Sadly, if the author misinforms me, it's not because he's trying to be
* * *
No new column for January
production problem. Sorry.
* * *
January 4, 2012
by James Smart
Long live the president (or not)
Time magazine likes to plop odd little statistics in corners of pages here and there. In a recent issue, it sprung
the fact that the average life span of the first eight Presidents of the United States was 79.8, in an era when life expectancy
for men was under 40.
The item added that, overall, two out of three of our presidents have outlived the life expectancy of their contemporaries.
This seems a contradiction of the common notion that the stress of being in charge of the White House wears out its occupants.
I hit the reference books for some elucidation on the subject. Of those
first eight presidents, I found, the one who died the youngest was George Washington. He was only 67.
John Adams, the second president, lived to be 90. Thomas
Jefferson, who was next, died at 83.
The age at death of the final five of that first eight
was Madison, 85; Monroe, 73; J. Q. Adams, 80; Jackson, 78, and Van Buren, 79.
The presidents who died the youngest were Kennedy, 46, and Garfield, 49. Their deaths don't tell us much about longevity,
because both were shot.
The presidents who lived the longest were Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, who both made it to 93. The only other president
who hit 90 (exactly) was Herbert Hoover.
The president who died the youngest natural death was James K. Polk, at age 53. He had served only one term, and died
103 days after he left office. Unpleasantly, reference books list the cause of his death as diarrhea, a problem that plagued
him throughout his life.
Only eight presidents of our 44 died in office. William Henry Harrison was the first. He was the ninth president elected,
and died of pneumonia in 1841, after only one month in the White House. He had insisted on riding in the inauguration parade,
and delivering an address an hour and three quarters long, with no coat or hat in cold, stormy weather. He was 68.
Zachary Taylor was next, dying in 1850 after serving 16 months. He had typhoid, cholera and bilious fever. He was 65.
The next three who died in office were Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, and William McKinley. They were all assassinated.
Warren G. Harding was in office for two years and nearly five months. He is said to have had pneumonia and a stroke,
following high blood pressure and heart problems.
Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a stroke after serving two months and 23 days into his fourth term, a length of a presidency
unlikely ever to happen again.
Jack Kennedy was assassinated. It's sad to contemplate that half of our presidents who died in office were shot to
At the moment, we have four living presidents The oldest, George H. W.
Bush, is 87. The youngest, Bill Clinton, is 65. Maybe one of them will break
the Reagan and Ford record.
Life expectancy for an American born in 1961, the year the stork delivered President Obama, was only 66.6. Today's
babies can expect to make it to 10 more years than that.
For some oblique reason, this discussion of longevity reminds me of an old Pennsylvania Dutch riddle: "Who was born,
but never died?
The answer: "You, and a lot of other people."
* * *
That jingle bells accident
On routine patrol last night, noted a one
horse sleigh, make and model undetermined, dashing through the snow near Main Road outside of town. Subject vehicle was seen
proceeding at a rapid rate of speed oe'r the fields.
Occupants of said sleigh were observed to
be laughing all the way. Further surveillance revealed that driver and passenger of vehicle were singing a sleighing song.
Their spirits at that time seemed to be bright.
Horse drawing the vehicle was noted to be
lean and lank. It was seen to have a deliberately bobbed tail, with several attached sleigh bells ringing loudly. Said bells
were remarked to be jingling all the way.
At this point in scrutiny of the behavior
of the sleighers, I determined to pursue said sleigh, in order to cite the driver for reckless sleighing, excessive dashing,
unnecessary jingling in violation of the anti-noise ordinance and unauthorized going o'er fields.
Before I was able to gallop close enough
to signal the sleigh to pull over, the bobtailed horse hitched to the subject sleigh got into a drifted bank. This naturally
resulted in the sleigh being upsot.
Upon arriving at site of upsotting, found
two occupants and bobbed-tailed horse standing in the snow, adjacent to drifted bank. Neither occupants nor animal appeared
injured. Offer of aid, or call for ambulance, was declined.
Occupants of the one horse open sleigh were
a male and a female. Male identified himself as James Pierpont, 35, of Boston, a musician and song writer. Female identified
herself as Miss Fanny Bright, age not disclosed, of this town.
Pierpont stated that he had thought he would take a ride, due to what fun it is to ride and sing a sleighing song. He further
indicated that Miss Bright was seated by his side when the upsotting occurred.
During interrogation, Pierpont suggested
that the cause of the accident was that misfortune seemed to be the horse's lot.
Subject was advised that equine misfortune is not considered a legally accepted justification for being upsot.
Subject was able to walk a straight line
while holding his finger on his nose. The horse was also able to walk a straight line.
A tow sleigh was summoned, and sleigh was
removed from drifted bank. Pierpont and Miss Bright were instructed to follow me back to the Justice of the Peace office,
where Pierpont paid fines for the afore mentioned violations, as well as breaking into a drifted bank, upsotting a sleigh
and related offenses.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Pierpont
was seen writing furiously in his notebook. He said that despite the unfortunate ending, the sleigh ride was an interesting
experience, and that perhaps he would write a song about it.
As a deputy sheriff who knows nothing about
song writing, I see nothing in the situation that would provide ingredients for a song. I fear that the musician's head may
be suffering from hearing too many jingle bells.
* * *
Sorry, problems again: No December 21st column.
Enjoy a holiday of your choice.
The case of the impenitent yob
A 16-year-old burglar got folks in England
violently upset a few weeks ago, on the Web and in the newspapers, when he declined to apologize for burgling. I wonder if
the same situation in the U. S. would cause as much uproar.
The West Yorkshire police nabbed this "yob"(British
slang for a young working class ruffian), and magistrates sentenced him to a 12 month intensive supervision and surveillance
was part of ISSP, a British program for handling young repeat offenders, managed jointly by police, social workers and educators.
The sentence required that he write a letter
of apology to his victims. This is what he wrote, with the original deficiencies of spelling and punctuation:
"I dont no why Iam writing a letter to you! I have been forced to write this latter by ISSP. To be honest I'm not bothered or
sorry about the fact that I burgled your house. Basically it was your fault anyways. I'm going to run you through the dumb
mistakes you made.
you didnt draw your curtains which mist people now to do before they go to sleep. Secondly your dumb you live in Stainburns
a high risk burglary area and your thick enough to leave your downstairs kitchen window open. I wouldn't do that in a million
years. But anyways I dont feel sorry for you and Im not going to show any sympath or remorse.
The police were so appalled by the letter
that they weren't going to send it to the family. But it was leaked, and newspapers and social media reacted to it as though
the kid had confessed that he was Jack the Ripper and wasn't sorry. An image of the letter in the boy's handwriting was published.
Newspapers, Twitters and commentators saw
the letter as a failure of society in general, and a sign that British youth was deteriorating morally.
Curiously, one response to the yob's letter
was distributed, in this era of instant electronic communication, on pieces of paper. It was a handwritten reply, written,
or at least purported to be, by the family whose home the boy robbed. Someone posted photocopies of it on poles all around
the streets. The letter said:
To the coward who burgled our home
In the few pounds you make from stealing
ours and our children's hard earned, beloved and sentimental possessions will bring you sadness, misfortune and the dark days
you so rightly deserve .The love and sentiments attached to the items you took, you will never understand. However our love
and our children will bring us to terms with what you have done to our family and on everything you are not and could never
You saw the photographs of our children's
innocent faces and were still able to steal from them. We will never understand the kind of person that makes you. This is
our good fortune and the loss you have to bear.
A hard working family, Red Post Hill
The letter was widely reproduced. It received
an outpouring of sympathy from the public. Isn't it strange that in this world of many truly outrageous acts, there was such
intense outrage over a boy who merely refused to be repentant?
* * *
Sorry: No column December 7, due to production problem
* * *
At work with W. C. Fields
The Philadelphia Inquirer is abandoning its
ivory tower on Broad St., and herding what's left of its news staff down to the former Strawbridge & Clothier department
store at 8th and Market Sts. I have some affection for that old building.
My mother worked for Strawbridge's from age
14 to 46, with time off here and there to produce children. As a boy, I often visited the 13th floor Accounts Payable office
where she wrangled a Model ST Comptometer, an early 20th century computing machine.
When I got a bit older, I developed another
sentimental affinity for Strawbridge's. I became a fan of the late W. C. Fields,
history's premier example of the Philadelphia row house sense of humor. And Fields,
originally Claude W. Dukenfield, once briefly worked for Strawbridge & Clothier.
When he was 13, Claude's grandmother arranged
for him to toil as a cash boy at the store. Describing it in later life, Fields made one of his frequent improvements on reality,
and blamed his father for the experience. He wrote that his "thrifty parent" got him the job, "and forgot to get one for himself."
The duty of a cash boy was to move through
the store, gathering cash from the registers and taking it to the receivables office. Fields claimed that the hardest part
about carrying all that money around was walking past the door.
Recalling the ordeal of regular employment
40 years later, Fields wrote of the experience with colorful Fieldsian exaggeration.
"I had to be at work each morning at eight,"
he recounted. "Often, insufficiently clothed, I would wade through drifts of snow to my knees before catching the car that
took me to labor. This was really too much to bear, and I did everything possible to get myself discharged.
"I walked through a skylight three times
with the hope that it would make the owners irritated enough to discharge me. Instead, they mended the skylight and congratulated
me upon my escape from death.
"The fourth time I walked through the skylight
and fell on the general manager's head. He rubbed the place on my body where his head hit me; then took me before the Board
of Directors. They agreed to let me stay on providing that I would say I was sorry because I had shocked the general manager.
I resisted all entreaties, and they reluctantly parted with my services."
There is reason to believe that Fields embroidered
that account a bit. The truth is that the cash boys were replaced by a system of pneumatic tubes.
The Strawbridge gig was not Fields's first
employment. Previously, at age nine, he had accepted a position in a cigar store somewhere around Rising Sun and Allegheny
Aves. Even at that tender age, it was right up Fields' larcenous alley.
"He only carried one brand of cigar," Fields
wrote of his employer. "It sold for three cents. If a customer asked for a 10 cent cigar, he was handed one which sold for
three cents. 'The customer is always right,' my boss would say, 'so never allow him to be disappointed'."
* * *
November 23, 2011
by James Smart
Some memories of Bil Keane
Bil Keane died a
couple of weeks ago, at age 89, and the world has been deprived of a major sense of humor. Bil was a Philadelphia kid who
taught himself to draw, and leaves us with "Family Circus," possibly the most popular panel cartoon in comics history.
His son, Jeff, will
keep the cartoon family alive. It appears daily in 1,500 newspapers worldwide (Yes, there are still that many papers.)
Bil came from Crescentvile,
in the Northeast, and started drawing at St. William's school, probably when the sisters weren't looking. He was in the 8th
grade in 1936 when his first published cartoon appeared, in a contest in the Daily News. He won a dollar. The next year, he
started drawing cartoons for Good News, the Northeast Catholic High School magazine.
He served an 80-paper
route for the Evening Bulletin, and submitted drawings to Heigh-de-Ho, the Bulletin's teenagers' column. After high school,
The Bulletin hired him as a messenger for the advertising department. He next became editor of the employee magazine.
He was drafted in
World War II, and worked on military publications in the Pacific theater. He met his future wife, Thelma, in Australia.
In 1945, he joined
The Bulletin's art department. I got to know him when I started at The Bulletin in 1948. We had similar senses of humor; whether
that's good or bad is subject to debate.
In 1972, Bil was
named best syndicated panel cartoonist by the National Cartoonists Society, and I interviewed him for a magazine article about
himself. This could not be done by someone with no sense of humor. Some examples of Bil's answers:
On the subject of
why his last name is spelled Bil: "I drew on the walls, and my parents knocked the L out of me."
On a cartoon series
called "A Yank Down Under" that he did for U. S. Army newspapers in Australia: "A
lot of people thought it was about dairy work."
About being a staff
artist at The Bulletin: "I got quite good at drawing staffs."
About moving from Philly to Arizona: "My wife wanted to be
closer to Australia."
Are the situations
in his comic, "The Family Circus," based on real life in the Keane household? "On
the contrary, our real life is based on the cartoon. If something funny happens in the cartoon, we try to work it in at home
the following week."
About having five
children: "We considered having more, but it would have made the cartoon too
The Keanes moved
to Arizona for health reasons, but Bil stayed in touch with what was happening in his home town. In 1967, The Bulletin moved
my column from its long-time spot on page four to the back page, which also featured several panel cartoons, including George
Lichty's "Grin and Bear It," Hank Ketcham's "Dennis the Menace," and Bil's " Family Circus."
A note arrived from
Bil in Arizona, congratulating me on joining him on "the page where the action is."
"Only thing that
worries me," he wrote, "is how can Ketcham, Lichty, etc., and I expect to be funny competing with that hilarious cartoon head
they run at the top of your column?"
He was referring
to a picture of me.
November 16, 2011
by James Smart
with the universe
One thing we can be certain of is that nothing is certain. The
universe is full of surprises.
A good-sized universal surprise came in September, when a bunch
of neutrinos traveled faster than the speed of light. Everybody who has been paying attention knows that's impossible. Albert
Einstein figured it out more than 100 years ago, and if he was certain, all of us regular folks felt that we should be certain,
Einstein's dictum that nothing can outrun light was accepted by
physicists, cosmologists, space scientists, ordinary guys who like to sound smart, and just about everybody but Dan Roddenberry
and George Lucas. Einstein, unfortunately, didn't live to hear someone say, "Warp speed, Mr. Sulu."
We were all comfortably sure about light speed. Then, some scientists
in Switzerland gathered up some spare neutrinos they had lying around, and sent them underground 454 miles to Italy. The neutrinos
arrived 60 nanoseconds sooner than they were expected under the old Einstein speed limit.
Scientists everywhere were upset. If something moves faster than
light, it will arrive before you can see it. In an Einsteinian sort of way, it could arrive before it left.
You'll notice that the experts weren't astonished, as most of us
might have been, that the neutrinos zipped right through the Alps, which are rather thick. They can explain that. And they
all know what nanoseconds and neutrinos are.
(A nanosecond is one billionth of a second. A neutrino is a subatomic
particle that has no electrical charge and no mass; sounds like an abandoned church.)
Einstein also predicted that anything traveling at the speed of
light would increase to an infinite size. Fortunately, neutrinos have no mass, so I guess they have no size, either.
Any competent scientist could explain why nothing can go faster
than the speed of light, until something did. Now, people who discuss such things will be running around talking about Heisenberg's
uncertainty principle. I'm good with that, because I'm not certain what the principle is.
Most physicists these days accept the uncertainty principle. So
why are they so consternated when neutrinos behave uncertainly?
Einstein, himself, was annoyed by the uncertainty aspect of the
new quantum physics that tap-danced around some of his thinking. It was in an argument over the subject in 1928 with another
physicist, Niels Bohr, that Einstein made his oft quoted statement, "God does not play dice with the universe." Bohr replied,
"Stop telling God what to do, Albert."
Dice are uncertain because they are so random. Honest players can't
control them. More likely, God is playing poker with us. Scientists still don't understand the "dark energy" and "dark matter"
hidden from us, constituting perhaps 90 percent of the universe. They haven't yet figured out what 90 percent of the human
genome is for, either. The mission of science is to get God to play more of His cards, but He holds His hand pretty close
to His celestial vest.
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