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February 19, 2014


by James Smart


When the robo blossoms bloom


      There have been reports that the Christmas tree industry is worried. Not as many people are buying those fresh cut pines and spruces and balsams in December as in the past.

      It's a big problem if you rooted acres  of baby  pines several years ago and they have now reached the age when you expected to cash in. There is even talk that tree farmers may ask for government subsidies to rescue their peculiar branch of agriculture.

      I suspect that this situation is not because of lack of holiday spirit. The trouble isn't that people no longer want a tinseled and bulbed and ornamented evergreen twinkling on the premises. Blame it partly on what everything gets blamed for these days: Technology.

      Artificial trees started to appear in the stores quite a few Christmases ago. They were all right, and lots of folks bought them, but, let's face it. They looked like what they were: artificial trees.

      Through the years, the ersatz trees began to look more and more real. Then electronics got involved, as it has in everything. And engineers started figuring out how to make it easier to put the fake trees together.

      Now we have reached the stage where, when Christmas is imminent, it's possible to haul the big carton out of the basement, pull the fully decorated Christmas tree out, unfold it in the corner, plug it in, and bingo! The job's done. No wading in a muddy lot and haggling with a tree hustler. No strapping it on the top of the car. No untangling strings of bulbs. No standing on a step ladder, tediously applying assorted ornaments.

      That is remarkable in itself. The scary thing is that, as modern technology continues to demonstrate, this is probably only the beginning. Right now, somewhere, most likely in Japan where lifelike human robots are becoming common, a bunch of creative engineers and robotics technicians may be taking a step beyond Christmas trees, and working on the ultimate example of this idea: building automated artificial trees.

      They will construct a totally lifelike trunk, with a beautifully shaped array of branches. Just push the button marked Springtime on your remote controls, and, over a realistic period of days, little buds will slowly emerge, and turn into colorful buds, and then blossoms.

      You can then press the Summer button (or set the control on automatic and let it handle the seasons) and the realistic leaves will appear and grow. When the Autumn setting sets in, the leaves will retract, withdrawing into the trunk. No more raking.

      An expensive falling leaf model, for the estates of the wealthy, will realistically drop leaves, and come with a robot leaf raker. At the proper time, the robotree will go into Winter mode,

      There will be fruit tree models, with artificial fruit appearing picturesquely when appropriate. And roboshrubs, of course. And the electronics industry will find a way to bring out new models periodically, and make your oak or maple obsolete so you will have to buy a new one. You know how it's done.

      Don't laugh. If you had told your grandfather that some day people would pull a fully decorated Christmas tree out of a box and plug it, what would he have said?


* * *



February 12, 2014


by James Smart


Tales of a Lincoln crony


      At a used book sale, I bought a curious 72 page nicely bound volume called "Lincoln's First Years in Illinois," by Harvey Lee Ross, published in 1946. It was a reprint of "The Early Pioneers and Pioneer Events of the State of Illinois," published in 1898.

      And that book, in turn, came from a series of newspaper articles written earlier by Ross for the Fulton County Democrat in Illinois. Ross's memories of early 19th century Illinois were loaded with contacts with Lincoln, and connections to him. Ross was a college roommate of William Herndon, later Lincoln's law partner and biographer.

      When Lincoln was appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois, in 1833, Ross was a mail carrier, and stopped at New Salem daily. Ross came to consider himself  an authority on Lincoln's early years. His chronology of the first 30 years of Lincoln's life, in the appendix, is loaded with minor, and therefore fascinating, Lincoln tales.

      Ross died at age 90 in 1907. A nephew got the book republished in 1946. The title was changed to "Lincoln's First Years In Illinois" because, (sorry, Prairie Staters,) more book buyers are interested in Lincoln than in Illinois.

      The book has languished a bit under both titles. In recent years, a half dozen of those publishing grave robbers who make page by page paperback copies of out of print books have been selling resurrected "Early Pioneers." The nicely done 1946 Lincoln's First Years version comes up for sale occasionally, but is hardly a rare book blockbuster. A copy sold on E-bay on Feb. 3 for $19.99.

      The eccentric book is full of odd Lincoln anecdotes, with many digressions about old time Illinois. Ross devoted a large part of the book  to correcting what he called errors and misstatements in Herndon's classic "Life of Lincoln." He was not the first or only critic of Herndon's work, but maybe the only one who seems offended personally.

      The Lincoln content of the book is rewarding, but I found incidental descriptions of life in old Illinois more interesting. My favorite passage quotes an old woman recalling moving west to Illinois with her family in 1829.

      They stopped for the night at a log lodging house on the Illinois River.

      "On entering the cabin," she related, "we found a room perhaps 12 by 16 feet, in which there was a fireplace, table and bench or two, a couple of rude chairs and three beds; but worse than all. when we got in there were 19 persons to stay all night.

      "Supper was almost ready when we arrived. It consisted of the usual corn bread, fat bacon, honey and in this case genuine store coffee,

      "When bedtime came the men were ordered to step out of doors, and beds were spread, consisting of blankets and buffalo robes, over the whole floor, and we women -- there were 10 of us -- told to go to bed, married women in the center.

      "The men were now called in and each husband laid down by his wife, the single men outside. We were so thick, occupying the entire unappropriated space of the floor, that when we wished to turn over the word of command would be 'Spoon' and we would all turn over at once."

      I'll never complain about a motel again.


* * *

February 5, 2014


by James Smart


For he's a jolly good fellow


      The subject came up in conversation of the song "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," and why the British sing "and so say all of us" where Americans sing "which nobody can deny." And, exactly what is a fellow.

      A modern dictionary tells us that as noun, a fellow is a man or boy in general, and also a person in the same position, involved in the same activity, or otherwise associated with another. There had to be more to it than that.

      I tried the Oxford English Dictionary, which most often simply informs us in what year a word was first used and by whom, usually some dude such as Chaucer or Boethius. But the OED item on "fellow" runs for nearly three pages, and seems a bit muddled.

      About 1000 years ago, it had settled down as meaning a partner, someone who invests money in an enterprise. From there on, it developed into the uses we all understand, such as being the fellow of a society, a boy friend ("he's my fellow"), a bedfellow, a fellow traveler, or just a nice fellow.

      There is also a hale fellow well met. The OED traces the phrase to 1589. A hale fellow is in good shape, as in "hale and hearty," another archaic phrase we still cling to.

      The word fellow must have had some negative connotation at times. I remember reading, although I have mislaid my "William Penn" file in which I noted it, that one 17th century day when Penn was arrested for unlicensed preaching or something, a British official gave him a dressing-down with a string of insults which included, "you fool, you fellow. . ."

      But what about the song? The Guinness Book of World Records says that :"For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" is the second most popular song in the English language. The first is "Happy Birthday to You." The third is "Auld Lang Syne."

      The melody came from a French song, "Malbrough S'en Va-t-en Guerre", (Marlborough has Left for the War.) It is said to have been written in 1709, after the Battle of Malpaquet in the War of the Spanish Succession, not one of my favorite wars.

      My quick search didn't find anybody named as author of the words. Folk song books I checked list the writer as "traditional" or simply "British." However it started, it spread quickly, and was common in the United States by the time of the Civil War.

      Nor did I find an explanation of how and why the British and American versions came up with different endings. The split seems to have happened early.

      The lack of information contrasts with the number one song, "Happy Birthday to You." The origin of that song is well established  It was written by two sisters from Kentucky, Patty and Mildred J. Hill.

      The melody was established in 1893 as a teacher's welcome to the day's class, "Good Morning to You." By 1912, the happy birthday version had become well known, and was published. There have been changes of ownership and copyright, which means nothing to those of us who warble it before some birthday observer blows out the candles on the cake.

      It's interesting that there are three songs that have spread around the world, translated into many languages. Everybody has a birthday, and there are a reasonable number of jolly good fellows. Which nobody can deny,


* * *

January 29, 2014


by James Smart


Portrait of a musician, and an era


      February will be Black History Month. The latest edition of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's quarterly "Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography" appropriately has on its cover a portrait of Frank Johnson.

      Johnson was a Philadelphia African American musician in the early 19th century. He played violin and bugle, wrote music, and conducted a band. Accounts of parades, concerts and balls in newspapers, 180 years ago or so, often mention music provided by Frank Johnson.

      When Gen. Lafayette came from France in 1825 for the 50th anniversary of American independence, he heard Johnson perform at the Chestnut Street Theatre, and arranged for him to tour Europe. Johnson played for Queen Victoria, who presented him with a silver bugle.

Johnson's portrait is on the cover because it is an example of the work of Robert Douglass Jr., a Philadelphia African American artist of the period. An article in the magazine, "The Art of Racial Politics," is about Douglass and his career.

      The writer, Aston Gonzalez of the University of Michigan, gives an overall picture of  race relations in the city and the world, in the 1830s and 1840s. Slavery thrived in the South, and in northern cities like Philadelphia, the free black population rode on a seesaw from acceptance to discrimination.

      A telling example of the city's muddled racial attitudes of that era (whose shadow hangs over us yet) was when the Academy of the Fine Arts accepted one of Pearson's paintings for exhibition in 1834. When Pearson tried to enter to see his own work, he was barred because of his race.

      I didn't know much about Pearson before reading Gonzalez's fine paper, but had encountered Frank Johnson's name often. He was a key figure in an 1848 incident.

      Fire companies were independent volunteer organizations before the professional city department was formed in 1871. Most also functioned as social organizations, and many were affiliated to political parties.

      Some had their own bands. In an annual Philadelphia Firemen's Parade, each company displayed its latest equipment, pulled by its best horses. Members marched in their uniforms and distinctive company hats, with either the company band or a hired one.

      Fire companies from other cities were invited, and firemen with their ladder trucks and pumpers often came from New York, Boston and Baltimore.

     In 1848, Frank Johnson and his band were going to march. Several other African American bands had been hired by fire companies, although few companies admitted black members.

      A New York fire company saw Frank Johnson and his band in the lead, and wouldn't participate if black musicians were marching They left, and a cloud of racism hung over the parade for years. Black bands often took part, and racists stayed away.

      The matter came to a head on Washington's Birthday, 1870, when most of the city's nearly 100 fire companies assembled for the final annual parade of the abolished volunteer companies. All firemen wanted take part in the historic moment, but some demanded that the black band lined up to lead the procession be removed.

      Fire Commissioner William F. McCully, who was white (and then one of the three owners of The Evening Bulletin) proclaimed that he would parade alone with that band if necessary. He started in the lead, and most of the protesting white fire companies gave up and joined the parade.


* * *

January 22, 2014


by James Smart


A computer just above your eyebrow


      Looking through my usual accumulation of newspaper clippings of articles that seem like something that should be thought about, I find a report of a woman who last month presumably became the first person ever to receive a traffic citation for driving while wearing  a Google Glass.

      This optical wonder is eyeglasses that have a thumbnail size computer screen mounted just above the wearer's right eye. This allows the wearer, while doing ordinary looking as we all do when our eyes happen to be open, simultaneously to be reading his or her e-mail, observing friends' behavior on Facebook, enjoying a rerun of an episode of Downtun Abbey, or even watching porn.

      This is an amazing technological advance, I suppose, with many new possibilities. Its use while doing 80 in a 65 mph zone on a California freeway, however, while not yet officially illegal, would seem like a poor idea. A California Highway Patrol officer obviously thought so.

      He cited the woman for driving while watching a television screen in a vehicle, which is already against the law. But lawmakers, as well as normal people like us, have a hard time keeping up with the advance of technology. There will surely be arguments over the legal issues involved in this situation.

      These computerized spectacles are not widely available. The ticketed driver is one of about 10,000 people who were issued the trick glasses last year to try them out. Google threatens to put them on the market this year.

      This is obviously the latest manifestation of what is called multi-tasking these days. We used to call it doing two things at once.

      I can see the advantages of the device. I could be sitting here writing a column, and have information from Google or Wikopedia or some other miraculous source of Internet information (much of it actually accurate) displayed above my right eye for instant consultation.

      As someone who has taught classes, however, I can also imagine several students in the room seeming to be paying rapt attention to my lecture, while actually watching, in that tiny screen above the right eye, Kate Upton cat dancing or Pitbull singing "Timber" or Miley Cyrus doing Lord knows what.

      Teenagers will most likely be among the first users of this technology, unless it is expensive, although that doesn't seem to be a deterrent these days. Many parents have a teenage child who already can sit there and seem to be listening as they impart valuable advice or important information, while actually his brain is elsewhere. Think about this situation exacerbated by his watching You Tube on his glasses at the same time.

      Aside from the myriad misuses a system like this invites, I also wonder (but admit I haven't tried hard to find out) how these electrified spectacles are going to be sold. Do I buy a pair from my optometrist, or from a computer dealer?

      If it's true that Google will unleash these marvels on us soon, my questions will all be answered. And I expect to read any day now that one of the computer creators is testing a system of transmitting information directly to our brains, so we can access the Internet just by thinking about it.


* * *

January 15, 2014


by James Smart


Complications of the First Amendment


      The First Amendment of the Constitution has been taking a beating again. It's a wonder that anything is left of the poor old thing.

      Down in Louisiana, our precious right to freedom of expression prevailed when a court ruled that a woman could continue illuminating her rooftop Christmas display. Its colorful lights outlined a giant hand, with one finger extended in a traditional insult. It was the woman's holiday message to a neighbor she dislikes.

      Meanwhile, in San Diego, a federal judge ruled that a 43 foot concrete cross, which has stood on Mount Soledad for many years, must be removed because it unconstitutionally is a public endorsement of a specific religion.

      Mount Soledad is a 823 foot hill that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It also has a Roxboroughish antenna farm on it, and a lot of houses, including the home of the late Dr. Seuss.

      There is some confusion among various accounts of the monument's history, but the current cross seems to be the third on the site. The first was erected in 1913, when the area was beginning to be developed, and there is an unfortunate local rumor that it was put there in those benighted days to discourage Jewish home buyers.

      The existing cross dates to 1954. In 1989, two Vietnam War veterans filed the first suit to remove the religious symbol from government property. Jewish war veterans and the ACLU joined the protest.

      Defenders of the monument claimed that it was intended as a Korean War memorial. Legal maneuvering and emotional arguments continued. As the new year now begins, a court has ruled that the cross must be out of there in 90 days.

      So, thus far, we have learned that it is protected free speech to display an illuminated obscene gesture, but not a concrete religious symbol. But, wait. There's another case in progress.

      In Utah, a federal judge struck down part of the state's anti-polygamy laws, ruling that it violated the First Amendment rights of one man, his four wives and their 17 children. The family, like all Americans, is guaranteed the right of free exercise of their religious beliefs. And they believe in what they've been doing.

      Now, let's see. If the San Diego people replaced the concrete cross with a giant middle finger, that would be constitutionally protected freedom expression, although a cross is not, despite freedom of religion.. If the woman in Louisiana replaced her offensive finger with a cross, she would probably get away with it because it is a Christmas display, so a little religion can be allowed in.

      The man in Utah could probably erect both a cross and a finger, because if he says it's part of his religion, it's allowed. A cross may be part of the San Diego people's religion, but that violates other people's religious rights.

      There are a few more contradictions and inconsistencies and goofiness in all this, but after careful consideration, it makes me happy to be a beneficiary of the freedom of the press included in the Bill of Rights. It allows me to make fun of the above fellow beneficiaries and not be dragged into a court by someone I offend.  At least, I hope not.


* * *

January 8, 2014


by James Smart


Playwright killed by falling turtle


      In a list of unusual causes of death that popped up on a web site recently, I found mentioned that Aeschylus, the late Greek playwright, was killed by being hit on the head by a falling turtle. I felt compelled to look into that.

      The basic question was, why and from where would a turtle fall? I couldn't think of any reason a turtle would be overhead, even in ancient Greece.

      I knew that Aeschylus is one of the great Greek writers whose work has survived. And I had read that he was one of the Athenian soldiers who creamed the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B. C.

      That was the battle from which some other Greek dude had run 26 miles to Athens to report the victory. This was the inspiration for our modern marathon foot races.

      The poor guy who ran that original marathon dropped dead at the finish, an element fortunately not required in the modern race. But modern participants are also not expected to battle a bunch of Persians before they start.

      These days, Aeschylus is thought of mainly as a playwright. In his own time, from what I've been reading, he was just another writer. Ancient Greek playwrights were apparently a drachma a dozen.

      In his lifetime, Aeschylus was famous mainly for his fighting at Marathon. His tombstone doesn't mention "Agamemnon" or "Prometheus Bound" or his other five plays. Its inscription rattles on about his military activities.

      "Of his noble prowess," the monument says in part, "the Grove of Marathon can speak, and the long-haired Persian knows it well."

      I didn't bother to look into the meaning of that crack about the haircuts. I assume that Athenians didn't think much of men with long hair, and the circumstances of Aeschylus's demise would indicate that he had a nice naked scalp, so that may have been in style.

      It seems that Aeschylus was in Sicily, near a place called Gela, a big wheat-growing area. He was spending as much time as he could out-of-doors, because of a prophecy that he would be killed by a falling object.

      His assumption must have been that the fatal object would fall from a ceiling or some other overhead architectural element. I don't know whether there were chandeliers in Sicilian buildings in 456 B. C., but if there were, you can bet that Aeschylus never walked under one.

      So, one day, Aeschylus and some of his buddies are strolling safely through a wheat field, under a clear blue sky. Whammo! A big, heavy tortoise comes hurtling down from above, wallops Aeschylus on his apparently shaven and shiny noggin, and kills him dead.

      Up above, a large eagle is flying in disappointed circles, contemplating his mistake. It seems that ancient Sicilian eagles would swoop down and grab a tortoise, carry it high up, and then drop it onto a rock below to crack the shell. The eagle had mistaken poor Aeschylus's cranium for a rock.

      That explains the mystery of Aeschylus's death, sort of. To modern ears like ours, when prophecy of that type has mostly gone out of style, it sounds a bit too good to be true.

      But it's a good story. and Aeschylus probably would have appreciated it. He liked to write tragedies. A prophetic demise caused by a falling tortoise would seem to qualify. So, don't laugh.


* * *

January 1, 2014


by James Smart


Odds and ends from 1914


      As we enter the year 2014, I took a notion to look into what the world was like 100 years ago. In 1914, the mayor of Philadelphia was Rudolph Blankenburg, a naturalized citisen with a white beard and a German accent, who was elected on a promise to clean up City Hall corruption. He was nick-named the Old Dutch cleanser, after a brand of scouring powder.

      His tenure was unusual. He was elected in November of 1911, the first mayor ever elected in that month. A 1909 law changed election day from February to November, with the mayor inaugurated on the first Monday in December.

      He was elected again in 1913, but the law  had changed inauguration day to the first Monday in January. Blankenburg's successor, Thomas B. Smith, in 1916, was first in the current system.

      In 1914, the city had 48 wards. Almost the entire sparsely populated area north of Tacony Creek and west of Frankford Ave. was the 35th ward, abut 10 times the size of Roxborough and Manayunk's 21st Ward.

      On Feb. 21, five people were killed by gunfire; the newspapers called it a "crime wave." On March 1, a blizzard with 43 mile per hour winds and seven inches of snow tied up the city.

      On Jan. 5, Henry Ford announced that he would pay his workers $5 a day, for eight-hour days, more than double what most industrial workers earned in 10-hour days. By the end of 1914, Ford's workers would produce more than 300,000 Model T's, making a total of seven million on the road.

      Model T's sold for $850. The 22.5 horsepower engine had to be started with a hand crank, which had a vicious lash-back that broke many a wrist. An included accessory was a wooden ruler, to stick into the nine-gallon tank under the seat to see how much gas was left.

      President Woodrow Wilson had been making noises since his inauguration in 1913 that he would not recognize the Mexican government of Gen. Victoriano Huerta, who had elected himself president in a confused revolutionary mish-mosh against Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, and assorted other rebel leaders. Wilson also promised not to meddle in Latin-American affairs.

      But U. S. Marines landed at Tampico on April 9. They just wanted to buy supplies. Gen. Huerta didn't believe that, and arrested the Leathernecks.

      Wilson got an okay from a joint session of Congress, and sent Marines and sailors to Vera Cruz. Two sailors from Philadelphia became the first two of 18 Americans (and 126 Mexicans) killed in action there on April 21 and 22. George Poinsett was from Logan, and a stone marker to his memory was put at Broad St. and Tabor Ave. near Einstein Medical Center.

      Charles Allen Smith's statue was put in McPherson Square near his home in Kensington. (The Art Commission rejected the design as ugly, but it was put up anyway. You don't pull that art stuff on people from Kensington.)

      In October, the Boston Braves beat the Philadelphia Athletics if four games in the World Series.

      On Dec. 11, strange dark clouds began assembling over Philadelphia. By 3 P. M. the city had plunged into darkness, and all street lights were turned on

      Some other things happened in 1914. World War I, for example. But, hey, this is a short column, and 1914 was a long year.


* * *

December 25, 2013


by James Smart


A tale of our first Christmas tree


      If you, like many people, currently have an evergreen tree on the premises, decorated with lights and doo-dads, you may have Dr. Constantin Hering to thank for the idea.

         Usual explanations of the Christmas tree custom credit Germans with starting the tradition. One legend has a 7th century monk hanging a fir tree, top down and undecorated, from the  church ceiling, its triangular shape representing the Trinity.

         Decorated trees are usually dated to the 16th century. Martin Luther is said to have hung candles on a tree. Decorated trees showed up in England when Georgian kings from Germany took the throne in the 18th century.

         The average British family picked up the idea in the 1840s, when a picture was published of Queen Victoria and her family around a decorated tree. Some historians claim that the Christmas tree idea spread in the United States when Godey's Lady's Book, the nation's biggest circulation magazine (published in Philadelphia) ran an illustration of a family around a tree.

         Recently, I stumbled on the January, 1907, issue of a magazine called The Pennsylvania-German. This was the first time I read about Dr. Constantin Hering.

         The article was entitled, "Dr. Constantin Hering, a Pioneer of Homeopathy."  The doctor was a German, considered the father of American homeopathy, and so respected that when Dr. Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann died in 1843, his widow wanted Dr. Hering to return to Europe and assume leadership of the medical discipline he founded.

         Dr. Hering was born in Germany on Jan. 1, 1800. He got a doctorate from Wurzburg University in 1826.

         He had planned to write a thesis exposing the new idea of homeopathic medicine as unfounded. He studied the subject, and reversed his views and became dedicated to the new medical concept.

         The King of Saxony appointed Dr. Hering to be the zoologist on an expedition to Surinam. He spent six years there..

         Hering married a German girl in Surinam. She died in childbirth, and he decided to return home. But he thought it would be interesting to  get a look at the United States on the way. He arrived in Philadelphia in January, 1833,  to visit Dr. George Bute, one of his students from Germany.

         Then, he met Marianne Husmann. They were married in 1834 in Zion Lutheran Church at Fourth and Cherry Sts.

         Marianne died six years later. In 1845, Dr. Hering went back to Germany for a visit. He returned with a new bride, Therese Buccheim. They lived in a large house with gardens on 12th St. above Arch from 1852 until he died in 1880.

         But it was in 1834, according to the magazine, that Dr. Hering and his friend, Friederich Knorr, and their wives and children, made Christmas history.

         "Together they crossed the Delaware," says the article, "and brought fir-trees from Jersey, carrying them on their shoulders, followed by shouting boys, as the first German Christmas-trees in Philadelphia.

         "The fame of these wonders spread abroad, so that evenings were appointed when the doctor's patients came to see the lighted trees; thus this beautiful German custom was introduced here."

         Really? All I know is what I read in The Pennsylvania-German.


* * *

December 18, 2013


by James Smart


The Lone Ranger rides the heather


      My friend George Beetham presented me with a yellow tin pin he came upon somewhere. It's an inch across, and in a circle in the middle is a drawing of the Lone Ranger, astride his horse Silver. Around the edges it is inscribed, "The Lone Ranger, Sunday Herald and Examiner."

      As regular readers might suspect (and possibly irregulars also,) the pin was given to me because of one of my newspaper columns of the early 1990s, which became the title of a collection of my columns in a book published in 1995. The title was "Soggy Shrub Rides Again", and it explored the meaning of the term "kemo sabe."

      I launched an Internet search to learn the pin's origin. I found that these pins were created by the Chicago Herald and Examiner. The Chicago Herald, founded in 1881, and the Chicago Examiner, founded in 1902, merged in 1918. The newspaper closed in 1939.

      The Lone Ranger comic strip started in September, 1938. I assume that the pin was a give-away to promote it in the Herald and Examiner. Several of these pins are for sale on the web, at varying prices.

      I also found that another proud owner of one of these precious antiques is an artist in Scotland. He is Charles Jamieson, and as a boy in the Fifties he watched the Ranger on television.

      "The Lone Ranger was the centre of my universe," he wrote in a reply to a letter I sent him, "and when I was six my mother made me a Lone Ranger costume which enabled me to swagger around the park opposite our house with my six-guns ready for action."

      After studying art in Glasgow, Jamieson got an offer to do post graduate work in Texas. He admits that when he accepted, the Lone Ranger was in the back of his mind. He got a look at the modern American West, and, I guess, learned the difference between sagebrush and heather.

      I take pleasure in imagining the Scottish lad impressing his six-year-old mates with his cowboy outfit. I grew up with Scots. There were several Scottish families in our church, who were friends and neighbors.

      I fondly remember Charlie McNeill, who taught me to tie my shoelaces when I was a wee lad, and two decades later drove me to the church for my wedding.

      When I was a boy in the Thirties, Charlie would lend me Scottish comic books his sister sent him from the old country. I was a fan of the Broon Bairn, a Scot equivalent of Dennis the Menace (although a girl.) I have heard that the Broon Family comic is still published, and was even a television series.

      Another Scot I admired was Bert Symes, who for church entertainments would put on his kilt and sporran and strut around the stage, singing ":The Tourie on His Bonnet" or "Roamin' in the Gloamin'," rolling R's in all directions. I have a feeling Charles Jamieson would enjoy that.

      A group of Jamieson's friends, he tells me, at their annual Boxing Day dinner (the day after Christmas) are going to dress in Western clothes, and watch a DVD of the Johnny Depp "Lone Ranger" movie. Guests of honor will be life-size photo cut outs of the Lone Ranger and Tonto, which Jamieson just happens to have around.

      I wonder how the Lone Ranger and Tonto would look in kilts?


* * *











December 11, 2013


by James Smart


Santayana, where are you?


      A few weeks ago there was a big newspaper article reporting that today's college students don't know much about history. It concerned Rhonda Fink-Whitman, author of "94 Maidens," a book about the Holocaust, who interviewed students on four local college campuses.

      Many of the students never heard of the Holocaust. Some couldn't identify Adolph Hitler or Winston Churchill. Asked who was president during World War II, their answers included Wilson, Eisenhower and Kennedy.

      Jay Leno has been detecting this type of educational deficiency for years on his television program. Last month, he questioned people on the street about Thanksgiving. He asked which president founded Thanksgiving. Among the answers were Theodore Roosevelt, Benjamin Franklin and Ronald Reagan

      The Reagan replier reported that the year of the first Thanksgiving was 1940. Other folks said 1966 and 1492. One guy claimed that the Pilgrims landed in Hawaii.

      I am assuming here that most of my readers are dismayed by all this, and that only a few are saying, "Winston who?" The really sad thing is that it's nothing new.

      I began reading newspapers in the days of the 32nd President. And it seemed that every year or two since then, an article has appeared somewhere disclosing with disquiet and alarm that the then current crop of young Americans are clueless about American history.

      That information always is accompanied by outcries that our schools and history teachers are failing, and that more and better attempts must be made to pump the basic facts about our past into young American noggins. Whether or not any effort is made to increase historical knowledge, the results, or lack thereof, seem always the pathetic same in each generation.

      As someone who from childhood was always fascinated by tales of the past, and by unfolding news that will ferment into history later on, I naturally feel some disappointment in a college student who imagines President Franklin carving the first Thanksgiving turkey. Several corollary feelings also arrive.

      For one thing, I think many people, especially teachers, will agree that some students sit through every class of an entire term, take part in required activities, pass examinations and then, six months later, couldn't tell you 90 percent of what they were supposed to have learned. Boredom? Stupidity? Indifference? Rebelliousness? Teacher's inadequacy?

      For another, some people just aren't interested in some things. Is it necessary for someone who immerses his or her intellect into math, or science, or automobile repair, or food preparation, to absorb and retain the details of history?

      I sense many of you ready to apply old George Santayana's well-worn dictum: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But many of those who can't rememer their history or civics lessons will never be in a position to affect the general culture, or history itself. We usually get condemned to repeat unpleasant history by repeaters in high places who recall the past all too well, but plunge on repeating it anyway.

      The kid who thinks the Pilgrims landed in Hawaii will survive. Just let's not elect him to anything.


* * *

December 4, 2013


by James Smart


Tis the season to procrastinate


      It's time to get out the Christmas lights, although I'm not sure why. I was never inclined to fill the front yard with illuminated miscellanies of Santas, mangers, reindeer, candy canes, grinches, gift-wrapped boxes, shepherds, sleighs, wreaths, giant candlesticks, wise men, and other mismatched representations of the season.

      In my perverse view, Christmas season is a period of cheer and contentment, a relaxed time to share with family and friends. Those qualities are in no way enhanced by spending a frigid day on a ladder, freezing fingertips while attaching strings of bulbs under the eaves, where when illuminated they will be seen only by other folks, not by you inside the house.

      Our previous house was a city row house. It had two front windows and a door. Two electric candles and a wreath did the decoration trick.

      The current house has three front windows on the front, and they are horizontal sliding casement windows. I tried putting candles in them our first Christmas here, but they looked somehow uncomfortable.

      The neighbors are not believers in covering facades for Christmas with lighting like a Wildwood pizza stand. Large wreaths of greenery and big red bows are more likely. I felt the need, though, for some small electrical expression of holiday enthusiasm. I didn't want anyone to think (or perhaps, to become aware) that I am a grouchy old man.

      To repel any suspicions of bah-humbugism, I decided that a simple outlining of the front doorway in modest red lights would suffice. But that presented the prospect of working to attach wires and track down burned-out bulbs in temperatures that would dismay a polar bear.

      A moment of low grade genius struck. I bought some lumber and created a frame that, painted white and hung on overhead hooks, looks like part of the door frame.

      Working in comfortable autumn weather, I applied a string of red bulbs to the temporary door frame. It was stored in the basement.

      When Christmas approached, and temperatures were in the twenties, I could take out the frame, hang it up, plug its extension into an outdoor outlet, and be thoroughly decorated in 10 minutes.

      Sounds good, right? The problem is that bulbs burn out here and there during the cold Christmas season. When it's time to bring in the frame with the lights, it gets carried down to the basement to be put away.

      Then begins the frequent ritual of me being in the basement and saying to the missus, "I should fix up the Christmas lights." She then endorses the proposal.

      But its size makes the frame hard to work on it in the basement. So I resolve to wait for warm weather, when I can take it outside.

      Warm weather comes. It goes. Christmas approaches. I find myself doing maintenance on the lights in December, with the temperature at 28 and my fingers turning red.

      Last year, the old light string developed wear and tear problems. I vowed all summer that I would work on it. I never did.

      Guess what? Two weeks ago, I got the whole rig out and assembled it temporarily  on the living room floor. In comfort, I replaced all the lights with a new string. It's ready to install quickly today. To all my fellow procrastinators, have a nice holiday.


* * *

November 27, 2012


by James Smart


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.

There 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 mints here.

      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.


* * *

November 20, 2013


by James Smart


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 passable opera.

      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..

Councilmen 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 in 1864.


* * *

November 13, 2013


by James Smart


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:

"Dear John:

      "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.


* * *

November 6, 2013


by James Smart


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.


* * *

October 30, 2013


by James Smart


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.


* * *

October 23, 2013


by James Smart


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..


* * *

October 16, 2013


by James Smart


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.


* * *

October 9, 2013


by James Smart


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.

Films 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

October 2, 2013


by James Smart


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?


* * *


September 25, 2013


by James Smart


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.

In 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 Today.

The 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.

But 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?"


* * *


September 18, 2013


by James Smart


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.


* * *

September 11, 2013


by James Smart


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 times.

      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 eaters.

      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.


* * *

September 4, 2013


by James Smart


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 years old.

      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.

If 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!"


* * *


August 28, 2013


by James Smart


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.

When 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


* * *

August 21, 2013


by James Smart


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 Chicken Pox.

      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.)


* * *

August 14, 2013


by James Smart


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 Trayvon Martin.


* * *

August 7, 2013


by James Smart


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 and equipment.

      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.


* * *

July 31, 22013


by James Smart


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 not.

      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 in France.

      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


      When 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.

      Translated, 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.

      But included 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.

      Everything sung 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:

                  Wele goelcerth 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 the broadcasts.

      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 Navajo.

      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.


                          * * *  


July 10, 2013


by James Smart


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.


* * *

July 3, 2013


by James Smart


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.


* * *

June 26, 2013


by James Smart


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 telephone lines.

      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 finished.

      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.

Each 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 telephone.

      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 know.

      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."


* * *

June 19, 2013


by James Smart


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 films.

      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.

It 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.


* * *

June 12, 2013


by James Smart


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 keep coming.

      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.


* * *

June 5, 2013


by James Smart


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 way.

      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 took over.

      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.


* * *

May 29, 2013


by James Smart


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.

Igor Stravinsky's little tunes, "The Rites of Spring," debuted, and audiences staged violent demonstrations about that peculiar new music.

      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.


* * *

May 22, 2013


by James Smart


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.

Cicadas 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 house.

      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..


* * *

May 15, 2013


by James Smart


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.

About 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 or casualties..

      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.

A 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


by James Smart


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 was wiremore.)

     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 dispatch.

     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.


* * *

May 1, 2013


by James Smart


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 and there.

      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?


* * *

April 24, 2013


by James Smart


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 language.

      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.


* * *

April 17, 2013


by James Smart


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 here."

      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.

That's 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.


* * *

April 10, 2013


by James Smart


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 England..

      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 back.

      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?


* * *

April 3, 2013


by James Smart


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 bright flashes.

      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, but LO-7-5100.

         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 in 1844.)

Mental hospital facilities were built there through the years. Philadelphians referred to the institution just as "Kirkbride's."

         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.


* * *


March 20, 2013


by James Smart


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.


* * *

March 13, 2013


by James Smart


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 information:

      "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.


* * *



March 6, 2013


by James Smart


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.

Shippen 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?


* * *

February 27, 2013


by James Smart


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 salaries.

      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.)


* * *


February 20, 2013


by James Smart


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."

I 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 400 pounds

      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.

Penrose's 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.

     "Philogelos," 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 asked me.

     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 cool then.

     Crompton also 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.

     The compilers 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 jokes today.

* * *














February 6, 2012


by James Smart


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 innocent diversion."

      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.

Many 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.

In 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.


* * *

January 30, 2013


by James Smart


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.


* * *

January 23 ,2013


by James Smart


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.


* * *


January 16, 2013


by James Smart


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 was tolerated.

      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, Kansas.

      Even William Penn spent only four years in Philadelphia. But he built Pennsbury Manor, which is somewhat bigger than a storage bin.


* * *

January 9, 2013


by James Smart


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.

Mississippi 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.


* * *

January 2, 2013


by James Smart


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 pearls.

      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.


* * *

December 26, 2012


by James Smart


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 hundred dollars."

      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."


* * *

December 19, 20122


by James Smart


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.

Schwarz 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.")


* * *

December 12, 2012


by James Smart


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.

         (Is 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.


* * *

December 5, 2012


by James Smart


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 its nest.

      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


         An elephant 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.

         An 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.

         One 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.

         Workers 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.

         When 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.

         Don't 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.

         It 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.

         ("Just 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.)

         Syd never said a word, in English, German or Korean. So far as I know.


* * *

November 21, 2012


by James Smart


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 crash.

      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 instead.

      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.


* * *

November 14, 2012


by James Smart


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.]

* * *

November 7, 2012


by James Smart


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.


* * *

October 31, 2012


by James Smart


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 and there.

      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.

And 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."


* * *

October 24, 2012


by James Smart


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 pick.

One 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 the liberals'.

      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.”


* * *


October 17, 2012


by James Smart


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 mark."

      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 on it.

      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?"

Believe 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."


* * *

October 10, 2012


by James Smart


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 Philadelphia.

      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.

Many 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.


* * *

October 3, 2012


by James Smart


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 ever installed."

      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 prominent Philadelphians.

      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.


* * *

Sept. 26, 2012


by James Smart


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 sticks.

      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 Ben Franklin.


* * *

Sept. 19, 2012


by James Smart


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.

Each sport utility vehicle, a conveyance unknown on U. S. roads years ago, contained in '09 an average 1.78 persons. A van averaged 2.07 persons.

      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 convention!"

      I have been unable to find any statistics on the average number of naked people per automobile. Or on motorcycles.


* * *

Sept. 12, 2012


by James Smart


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."

In 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 convention time.


* * *




September 5, 2012


by James Smart


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.


* * *


August 29, 2012


by James Smart


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 collection.


* * *

August 22, 2012


by James Smart


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 party.)

      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.

Steffans 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.

On 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 aristocrat.

      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.


* * *

August 15, 2012


by James Smart


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 between equals.

      Ah, equality. All things being equal, there is little that is more important than equality.

Here 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.


* * *

August 8, 2012


by James Smart


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.

Television has made it worse. When an umpire misjudges a play, cameras aimed from every angle can show what happened, close up and usually unarguable.

      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?


* * *

August 1, 2012


by James Smart


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 staff.

      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 Church activities.

      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.


* * *

July 25, 2012


by James Smart


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.


* * *

July 18, 2012


by James Smart


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.

Get 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 percent."

      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 starters.

      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.


* * *



July 11, 2012


by James Smart


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 associates, "Yo!

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."

      But 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.


June 27, 2011


by James Smart


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 Columbus Alexander.

      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 failure.

      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, was not.

      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.


* * *

June 20, 2012


by James Smart


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.


* * *

June 13, 2012


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 that procedure.

      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 work.

      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.

Britons 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.

I've 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 2015.


* * *

June 6, 2012


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 you understand.

      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.


* * *

May 30, 2012


by James Smart


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.

His 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.

They 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.

My 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.

In 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.


* * *

May 24, 2012


by James Smart


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 simultaneously.

      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.

It's 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 or whatever.

      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.


* * *

May 16, 2012


by James Smart


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 a toreador.

      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 dictator.

      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 hair."

      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."


* *  *

May 9, 2012


by James Smart


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.

My 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 our youth.

      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."


* * *

May 2, 2012


by James Smart


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 pairs.

      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.


* * *

April 25, 2012


by James Smart


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 Bird.

      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.

The 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 annually.

Barrett 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.


* * *

April 18, 2012


by James Smart


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."

I 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.


* * *

April 11, 2012


by James Smart


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!"


* * *

April 4, 2012


by James Smart


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.


* * *

March 28, 2012


by James Smart


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 about it.

      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?


* * *



March 21, 2012


by James Smart


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 1886.

      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 everywhere.

      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.

The 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 so on.

      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.


* * *

March 14, 2012


by James Smart


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.


* * *

March 7, 2012


by James 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?

Also 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 rich."

      Politicians need not worry about such things. They can just cite parts of the Bible they like better.


* * *


February 29, 2012


by James Smart


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..


* * *

February 22, 2012


by James Smart


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 or trees.

      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.

Often 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.


*  *  *

February 15, 2012


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 Disease.

      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.

Pournelle 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 theoreti