A naval battle on the Delaware
It was this time of year in 1776 that the banks of the Delaware
River were lined with spectators watching a naval battle.
About 9 A.M. on May 6, a rider galloped into town from Delaware
to report that two of His Majesty's warships were coming up the river. In the lead was HMS Roebuck, a 44-gun ship with a crew
of 280. Following was the HMS Liverpool, 28 guns and 100 men, with some frigates
and other smaller vessels,
All crews of the Pennsylvania Navy were called to their boats,
and artillerymen were sent down to Fort Island (a year later to be named Fort Mifflin.). The navy began moving out fire rafts,
designed to hit and burn enemy ships. Next morning, oarsmen began rowing 13 one-cannon galleys down the river.
Pennsylvania's flagship, the 38-gun Montgomery, set sail, accompanied
by a floating cannon battery, the Arnold. The fleet assembled off Hog Island.
The British armada was cruising up the river, capturing small
American ships and making stops ashore to seize supplies from inhabitants. Sailors butchered cattle and took the meat on board.
Anchored off the Christiana River, Capt. Andrew Snape Hamond,
in command of the Roebuck, sent a man with a flag of truce to Philadelphia. He
carried a letter from Capt. Henry Bellew of the Liverpool, asking for a safe conduct pass for Mrs. Bellew to travel to New
England and visit relatives there.
The Pennsylvania and British fleets came within sight of each
other on the 8th. The American crafts were low in the water, difficult targets for the British guns.
2 P. M., cannons from some of the row galleys fired the first shots. The British ships swung around broadside, the Roebuck's
bow pointing east and the Liverpool's to the west. The galleys stayed about a mile away.
There was heavy firing for two
hours. Trying to pull within range of the galleys, the Roebuck ran aground on the Jersey side. A sailing ship of that size
was built for fighting at sea., not for maneuvering in a river.
The ship tilted so close to the
water that its gun ports had to be closed. The galleys withdrew when ammunition ran short. Neither side suffered much damage
The Roebuck was afloat by dawn, and started toward the Pennsylvania
fleet. But Hamond ran into an area with only six inches clearance to the river bottom, and withdrew. The Americans, re-supplied
with ammunition, pursued.
A four hour exchange of fire thundered in the afternoon. Hamond
later reported that the Pennsylvanians "fired away seven tons of powder without doing us the least mischief," but most observers
said the Roebuck took a beating. Bellew wrote detailed reports of damage on the Liverpool
Both sides drew back. The British ships lay at anchor for three
days, making repairs.
Pennsylvania officer, under flag of truce, dropped in on the Liverpool to offer to escort Mrs. Bellew as she started her trip
to New England. Her husband grumbled that "the inhabitants of America could never be capable of showing civility to any person
after this," and refused to let her go.
The British ships moved down to near Lewes on the 15th, and
on the 16th set out to sea. It was Philadelphia's first taste of war.
* * *
May 8, 2013
If your mother says she loves you. . .
Some of those jolly jokesters called computer hackers oozed out a fake Associated Press
news bulletin a few weeks back, claiming that bombs had gone off in the White House. Many of the twits who follow Twitter
took it as electronic gospel,
Even the stock market reacted, though it will react to almost anything. You might think
that even stock brokers and other excitable people would check another source before passing along, or acting upon, an announcement
that dramatic and important, and unlikely.
The AARP, the geezers' collective, constantly warns its members about all sorts of proposals
that, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The same reasoning might be applied to news reports: If a news
flash sounds as spectacular as the plot of a Jason Bourne movie, it probably is.
Any old time newspaper reporter knows that, even with deadlines and confusion and lack
of informants, he must try to find one or two other sources to confirm a report. Don't trust that first piece of information.
The ancient dictum of the ink-smeared journalist was, "If your mother says she loves
you, check it out."
The fact that the White House information seemed to be emitted by the Associated Press
might be offered as an excuse for accepting it. But another factor is involved. Many an experienced journalist develops a
sort of sixth sense, a blend of experience, good memory, skepticism, caution and good luck, that makes him greet some incoming
information by muttering, "That doesn't sound right."
The hacking episode reminded me of a old Philadelphia newspaper yarn. One day in 1918,
the telegraph wires hummed with a report that the World War was over. (Unlike today, information then wasn't wireless; it
Most of the eight other Philadelphia dailies rushed extra editions onto the street. New
York front pages went wild. But some details didn't sound right to William B. Craig, the young city editor who was in charge
in the Evening Bulletin newsroom at Juniper and Filbert Sts. Over anguished objections from his staff, Craig didn't publish
The report was a mistake, possibly a deliberate one. The next day, other newspapers published
embarrassed apologies. The Bulletin front page headline smugly announced, "False Armistice Report Stirs Nation."
There's similar tale from 90 years ago or so. A Philadelphia reporter (I don't remember
the newspapers involved) acquired a girl friend who was a switchboard operator at City Hall. Men from rival papers detected
that the young woman was listening in on reporters' calls to their offices, and relaying their reports to her boy friend.
By prearrangement, a reporter called his office just at the suspected poacher's deadline,
and relayed fake details of an incident in a vaudeville theater. An acrobat had slipped off his trapeze and crashed into the
audience, injuring several people.
Sure enough, the false story appeared in the newspaper of the thieving reporter. He and
his girl friend were in big trouble.
But there was no Twitter in those days. And the stock market was not affected.
* * *
Zipping through the tree tops
There has been a lot of discussion and ruminating about the
proposal to dangle a network of ropes, cables, platforms and zip lines in the Wissahickon treetops near Henry and Wigard Aves.
Opinions vary. You can count on opinions to do that.
The plan wouldn't hurt the environment all that much. There
are trees out the wazoo in the thick wooded area at Wigard between Henry and the creek, down at Valley Green. Those acres
of trees would hardly notice a little hardware drooping from the canopy here
The parks and recreation big shots say that the opportunity
to do some arboreal zipping would give teenagers and young adults the opportunity to learn about the natural environment.
That's nice, but a bit counterintuitive. In the natural environment, zip lines don't grow on trees.
The whole idea of Fairmount Park from its beginning was to
preserve open space and woodland inside the city. Most of the park land is oozing with nature, but the river drives, the statues,
the lawn mowers and the walled river embankments are hardly natural. The Wissahickon's woods, stream and open areas are the
closest to being unspoiled of any part of the park system.
Christopher Morley, Philadelphia's all-time best newspaper
columnist, 100 years ago described Fairmount Park as "denatured countryside." He also wrote fondly that "The Wissahickon Drive
is the last refuge of the foot and hoof."
It was in his era that those obnoxious newfangled motor cars
began using the old Wissahickon Turnpike. It was also just about the time the word "environmentalist" was coined.
Lovers of the barely blemished woods protested, and ultimately,
automobiles were forbidden from the drive, which is itself an intrusion on the forest. How many people have been introduced
to the beauties of the natural environment by Forbidden Drive, I don't know.
I often walk on the Wissahickon, feeling no need to be whizzing
through the canopy on a cable. I prefer the lesser pathways, rather than Forbidden Drive. I often walk for miles on a weekday
and never encounter another person, neither among nor up in the trees. That's pretty darn natural.
One surprise in the zip line situation is that the Friends
of the Wissahicon organization seems to have no strong objection to the project.
They are in constant battle to drive invasive non-native trees, bushes and weeds out of the woods. I thought they might find
an invasion of zip line paraphernalia invasive.
If the chance to whiz through the high branches really lures
some vegetative kids away from the television set and the video games, and gets them involved in the great outdoors, it can
be a good idea. Who knows? A sudden fad for hiking, camping, fishing, hunting and the inhaling of fresh air may break out.
And it may teach over-civilized city kids the importance, to
the birds and animals who live in the valley, of the tree canopy, the lower parts of the trees, and all that vegetation and
mineralation on the ground. Has anybody asked for an opinion from the birds and animals?
* * *
Got pixture fillum in your camra?
Articles popped up here and there recently about the Philadelphia
accent. It was touched off by a study done by William Labov, a linguist who does his linguing at the University of Pennsylvania,
and Joseph Fruehwald, a Ph. D. candidate at Penn.
The two academics merely checked up on whether Philadelphians
still pronounce "water" the same way as their grandfathers, and next thing you know, they were being interviewed on National
Public Radio and, obviously more importantly, being written about by Clark DeLeone.
The media got all excited when the scholars suggested that
our accent is changing. Why the rest of the civilized world is so interested in the way we talk, and how we pronounce tawk
when we do it, puzzles me. We may have an accent, but we make things clear, unlike some folks' accents.
Ask a guy from Mississippi to pronounce O-I-L, and he'll say
"ohl." Ask him to pronounce A-L-L, and he'll say "ohl." Now, there's an accent that linguists
should worry about.
Accent doesn't fascinate me that much. I'm a writer, and don't
have to go around pronouncing things all the time. But I wonder if the accent authorities have noticed some other changes.
Dr. Labov is three years older than I am, but he was born in
Rutherford, New Jersey, which may be too small to have its own accent. He wandered through Harvard and Columbia before encountering
Phillyspeak, at age 40. I was born with it.
For the first five years of my life I spent most of every day
with my grandfather, and learned to talk largely from him. He was born in 1862, so I was instilled with pure old-time Philadelphia
I think he would be annoyed that Philadelphians today call
their front steps the stoop. They were the steps. The stairway inside the house was the stair-steps.
And athletic shoes were called sneaks. Anybody who called them
sneakers was obviously from out of town, like people with stoops.
Both of my grandfathers had a Philadelphia characteristic that
seems to be lost. They added syllables to words. In the rain, you needed an umberella. You shopped at those new Acamee markets.
You donated to the Salavation Army. When your joints ached, it was the arthuritis.
The added syllables were often offset by dropping them from
other words. Put fillum in your camra and take a pixture of.pleece officers at the Mummers Prade.
Also, I'm with Grandpop that the word creek is pronounced "crick."
Some people say that the use of crick shows a connection of Philadelphia and Southern accents. But back in the Middle Ages,
give or take an era, before fussy educators began insisting on consistent spelling, writers often spelled creek as cryk, creke,
crike or crick, and didn't leave any recordings of how they pronounced it.
And please, Dr. Labov, don't let your colleagues and students
call the university UPenn. That sounds like some football-happy Midwestern state university. No one ever adds a U to UYale
or UPrinceton or any other ivy-infested school, and I pray that they never will. It's Penn.
In fact, to my grandfather, Penn was simply The University,
in the same way that Mr. Stokowski's organization was The Orchestra. This is Philadelphia.
* * *
The possible perils of de-extinction
Should scientists resurrect extinct species by cloning? Several
articles discussed the possibility recently in the news media and scientific journals..
Michael Crichton's novel and Steven Spielberg's movie, "Jurassic
Park," gave us a scary demonstration of the idea about 20 years ago. But we can relax. Any remaining DNA or other biological
tidbits of a Tyrannosaurus Rex or a Velociraptor are too old and worn out to allow the scientists to produce new copies of
any annoying giant 245 million year old Jurassic lizards.
But move up to merely 2.6 million years ago or so, and ingredients
for cloning deceased critters might be viable. We could have a Pleistocene Park, with some reconstituted woolly mammoths galumphing
here and there.
Some biological tinkerers have succeeded in reproducing an
extinct ibex, a mountain-goatish sort of animal, from left-over genetic parts and attachments, but it didn't live long. Just
as well. We already have non-extinct ibexes hopping up and down the Himalayas.
I suppose the fascination with restoring ancient ibexes is
akin to collecting old furniture. You might like to have an antique chair, even though there are lot of modern chairs around.
Some articles on the subject suggest that scientists could
get hold of some passenger pigeon remnants and use them to bring back that legendary bird. Before the passenger pigeon became
officially extinct in 1914, there were times out west, if you can believe the old stories, when flocks of passenger pigeons
overhead were so thick and vast that they blotted out the sun. I often wondered what fell besides darkness on observers of
those massive flights. You know how pigeons are.
The story is that hunters wiped out the passenger pigeon. There
were no authorized endangered species lists in those days. Another thing I've often wondered (being prone to wondering oftenly)
was who was the guy who shot the last passenger pigeon? Did he know it was the last one?
Was the poor bird swooping around up there, trying its best
to blot out the sun, wondering where all the other pigeons were and muttering, "I could use a little help with the blotting
My feeling is that rejuvenators of lost species should start
out with something small and controllable, such as a passenger pigeon, before they go throwing a bunch of genes in the blender
and producing an baby woolly mammoth.
When the fuzzy little infant grows up to be mammoth, as well
as wooly, and starts stomping around the laboratory, they might have a problem on their hands.
Most folks know the kind of behavior Dr. Frankenstein had to
put up with (or think they know, after watching Hollywood's cautionary versions, though I suspect that few have read Mrs.
Shelley's long-winded original version from 1818.)
And in recent years, alleged entertainment has infused our
culture with endless variations of possible trouble with zombies and similar undead citizens making nuisances of themselves.
why we should start out by cloning the remains of some small, cute little species and see how that works out. We don't want
an apocalypse presided over by herds of undead mammoths.
* * *
Digging up dead English kings
The British have accidentally dug up a lot of old kings and
other ancient citizens lately. First, some fellows excavating in a parking lot came upon King Richard III's head.
Then, workers with big boring machines (as in tunneling, not
as in being dull), running a new subway under London, came upon a 14th century cemetery full of deceased victims of the Black
Plague. Most recently, what are believed to be the remains of King Alfred the Great were removed from a churchyard in southern
The subway borers also came upon a few 68,000 year old mammoth
bones, some remnants of ancient Roman ruins, and vestiges of a 16th century mansion with a moat around it. No royal carcasses
were uncovered in the subway, so far.
I've read a bit about Richard III, but didn't know his head
was in a parking lot. When Henry Tudor's troops walloped Richard's cavalry on Bosworth Field in 1486, Richard got knocked
off his horse. Shakespeare portrays him as offering to swap his kingdom for another horse, but Henry's boys weren't horse
traders. They just did Richard in.
Somebody found Richard's crown under a gorse bush, and stuck
it on their leader, who thus became Henry VII on the spot. They loaded Richard's naked body on a pack horse, and hauled it
off for burial at Grey Friars' chapel; in Leicester. I don't think the chapel had a parking lot then.
I've never been a big fan of Alfred the Great. I heard about
him in the third grade. We were fed all sorts of folk-taley stuff about kings.
We heard that King Canute, in the 11th century, believed he
had the power to order the tide not to come in. He got fooled, and very wet. We were told how Robert the Bruce, a 14th century
Scottish king, was inspired by watching a spider spin a web. (He had a lot of time on his hands at the moment.)
And we learned that once, when Alfred the Great was hiding
from the Danes (something he did a lot of), he took shelter in a peasant's hut. The woman of the house asked him to watch
the cakes she was baking, while she went off to do some peasanting.
Alfred was preoccupied with making battle plans and sharpening
his sword and such, and let the cakes burn. When the woman came back and saw the food ruined, she cussed Alfred up and down in some old original Anglo-Saxon.
He meekly accepted the scolding, and never mentioned that he
was king of anything. We were told that the story revealed how noble and humble he was, but I always suspected that he was
just plain scared of the old broad.
The truth is that Alfred spent most of the Ninth Century trying
to keep the Danes out of England, and/or to convert them to Christianity. He won a few battles, but the pesky Danes kept coming
When Alfred and his troops took London back from the Danes
in 886, all concerned finally got tired of constant fighting, and the Danes agree to calm down and only take about one-third
of England for themselves.
That never seemed to me like a very good deal for the Anglo-Saxons.
But Alfred was Great and I'm not, so what do I know?
Having an occasional old British king dug up is good fun, and
somewhat educational. Who might be next? Edgar the Peaceful? Ethelred the Unready?
* * *
Those sneaky killer drones
It's wrong for somebody to kill somebody. There are a few cheerfully
accepted exceptions, such as war, electric chairs, or when the so-and-so has it coming.
Ever since Moses came down the hill carrying his top ten list
of no-nos, folks have been looking for loopholes, and arguing over if, when, where, why and how it's all right to kill people.
And how many..
The latest factor in this ancient debate is drones. They are
airplanes with nobody on board, which sneak up on bad guys (we decide who they are) and let loose rockets that unexpectedly
blast the miscreants into smithereens while they are placidly going about their bad-guy business, riding in their cars, or
lolling under their own vine and fig tree.
Occasionally the wrong person gets pulverized. Also occasionally
an innocent, or at least much less bad, person or two\ accidentally get included in the mayhem.
Even excluding the large number of idealists who insist that
all war and killing ares poor form and should be abandoned forthwith, there still remain critics who worry about whether the
drones are a proper form of assassination, and some who especially feel that elimination of undesirable individuals should
not be performed on American soil.
Among the many aspects of the debate over dronery are intimations
in some quarters that using unmanned, or unwomanned, aircraft is poor sportsmanship. The killing should be decently done with
someone in the cockpit, not sitting comfortably at a computer in the Midwest, sipping coffee while pulling the trigger.
Better yet, troops should battle their way in for the job,
the way we got Bin Laden. Some folks historically demand that war include risks and carnage on both sides. It's only fair.
There was a lot of such thinking in 1945. The United States
dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing a few hundred thousand people in two
Americans, and not just firmly anti-war people, have been wringing
their hands over that terrible attack for 63 years. If instead, shiploads of
American servicemen had invaded Japan and fought their way to Tokyo non-atomically, incurring the same number of casualties
or more, on both sides, people would have just accepted that as the inevitability of war
And some people seem to find it offensive that drones sneak
up on their targets, and the casualties never know what hit them. Nazi rockets dropping on England 75 years ago were like that. It was nerve-wracking; ask any Londoner over 80.
While the debate over the use of drone bombers stumbles on,
I wonder if there are not engineers, scientists and military geniuses at work on the next logical steps. One would be fighter
drones, with pilots in comfy armchairs guiding planes in combat with each other, like a video game.
Soon to follow will be unmanned tanks, remote controlled and
self-propelled howitzers and rocket launchers and what-not, and ultimately, robot soldiers.
Drones may be heading us in the right direction. Since the
human race shows few signs of discontinuing wars, and also insists on creating electronic and mechanical devices, maybe we
should reduce the amount of lost time, lost limbs and lost lives by letting our machines do the battling for us.
* * *
March 27, 2013
by James Smart
Police headquarters now and later
There is talk again of the Police Department abandoning the precast concrete citadel on Race St., and moving headquarters to the
sedate old Provident Mutual edifice in West Philly. The idea goes back for a couple of city administrations. This time it
may be serious.
The curvy white Race
St. monster opened in 1963, in the days when police cars were red, as any old
Philadelphian will tell you they should be. In that benighted era, to call the cops, you were instructed to dial not 911,
I remember stopping
in at the new building while the police officers were just settling in. I wanted to see what the new reporters' room was like.
The press had been stationed for a century or so in a somewhat grotty, yet beloved, chamber on the sixth floor of City Hall.
I found some old colleagues in the new quarters, grumbling about the necessity of placing square desks against round walls.
The circular wings of
the building were the dominant topic of conversation. One officer had me stand in a corner of a room to demonstrated that
because of the curve, you could not see the equivalent corner at the opposite end. There was joking about the cylindrical
elevator cars being "canned people."
The nickname "Roundhouse"
caught on quickly among reporters and cops. I always disliked the moniker. Early new Police Department stationery included
"Franklin Square" in the address, and it would have been colorful if police headquarters had become identified by its location,
like Scotland Yard in London.
The proposed new building
is more Philadelphia-ish. It stands on what, at the time of the Revolution, was the 112 acre Thomas Harrison farm, between
the lines of today's 42nd and 49th Sts., from the Haverford Rd. to south of the line of Market St. The city ran Market St.
through the property in 1790.
The estate, called Mill
Creek Farm, had several owners until, in 1841, it was acquired by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, of Pennsylvania Hospital, a
pioneer of modern psychiatry. (The American Psychiatric Association was founded in Kirkbride's house near 44th and Market
Mental hospital facilities were built there through the years. Philadelphians referred to the institution just
Times changed, and Kirkbride's
no longer needed all that space. A "For Sale" sign went up at 46th and Market in July, 1923. The buyer was the Provident Trust.
The Provident Life and
Trust Co., founded by Quakers in 1865, was at Fourth and Chestnut Sts. for many years. New Pennsylvania laws separated banking
from insurance in 1924. Provident Mutual was spun off
The insurance company
built a $3 million, five story building of some 200,000 square feet, with an elegant pillared entrance and a domed clock tower.
There were recreation fields for the 1,000 employees.
Times changed again.
Provident moved out in 1983, and donated the property to an educational foundation. It has had its ups and downs, but mostly
ups. Parks, recreation facilities, public housing and other service buildings surround the big main building, which, one of
these days, may be full of cops.
* * *
Pieces of paper and PDFs
The oldest book I own was printed in 1635. Some pages are a
bit foxed and spotted, but every word is readable.
Columns I wrote 20 years ago were stored on five and a quarter
inch floppy computer disks. Any computer that now can allow you to read them is an obsolete antique.
Fortunately, the columns were printed in this and other newspapers,
and I have clippings of them. Like the text of that 378 year old book, they are safely and readably stored on pieces of paper.
The column that you are reading, written on a computer keyboard,
is stored somewhere in that mysterious electronic fairyland where bits and bytes and pixels dwell. But, fear not, fellow aging
wanderers in the century of processed words. My computer has a printer.
I can print copies of my column. And when the next new marvelous
technology comes along, that makes it impossible to access these words without investing big bucks in the latest paraphernalia
that the Neat New Electronic Stuff industry insists we must buy, I'll be able to read my old work the old fashioned way
You can clip out this column and save it, if you have the inclination.
No special equipment is necessary to access it. Well, maybe a lamp. And your bifocals.
Some modern libraries are making copies of old books, newspapers
and documents, and tossing the originals away. This is nothing new, except for the computer's intrusion into the process.
The first microfilm was created in the earliest days of photography,
in 1839, the same year that the first photograph in America was taken here in Philly. Those first microfilm images had to
be read under a microscope.
Preserving newspapers on microfilm had its tiny beginnings
in the 1840s. One reason was the development of newsprint, cheap paper made from wood pulp that doesn't last long. Newsprint's
low cost led to a boom in the number of newspapers, but the paper was fragile. Sturdier old fashioned paper that had some
rag content held up better. A newspaper from the 1830s is likely to be in good shape, while one from the 1930's may be crumbling.
Old newspapers in libraries tend to be on rolls of microfilm,
or since the1960s on microfiche cards. But optical devices are going the way of reading the actual printed paper itself. Computer
sorcery such as PDF now makes copies of printed material. PDF stands for Portable Document Format, although it's the electronic
device that's portable (unless it's heavy), not the document.
Well, it's too late for me. I'm as surrounded by electronic
devices as the next guy, but my favorite portable format is still printing on paper.
I've been accumulating books, and other printed odds and ends,
since I was first old enough to shell out a dime for a Big Little Book at Woolworths. And if you are old enough to know what
Big Little Books were, and what Woolworth's was, I suspect you feel the same way I do.
And perhaps, 75 or so years from today, some old timer will
be confronting some new-fangled form of communication we can't conceive of, and lamenting those simple days of the 2010's,
when folks read PDFs on their iPads and Kindles.
And whoever has my book from 1635 then, if anybody does, will
still be able to read it.
* * *
Property tax is ancient history
The City of Philadelphia's Office of Property Assessment web
site includes an inspirational little section on the history of real estate taxes. The historical items are apparently an
attempt by the Revenue Bureau to soften the blow of the AVI, which I suspect stands for "Awful Valuation Increase."
The scholars at City Hall begin their history with ancient
Mesopotamia. (I use "City Hall" in a generic sense; the assessors actually hang out in the old Curtis Publishing building
at 6th and Walnut, which Cyrus H. K. Curtis built in 1895 to publish The Saturday Evening Post and The Ladies Home Journal,
and probably has a hefty assessment.)
Meanwhile, back in Mesopotamia,, say our assessors:
"The earliest known tax records, dating from approximately
six thousand years B. C., are in the form of clay tablets found in the ancient city-state of Lagash in modern day Iraq."
Great. As if Iraq hasn't annoyed us enough, it turns out to
have invented real estate taxes. The city of Lagash, which is called Telloh these days, was located between the Tigris and
Euphrates Rivers, which just about everything in Iraq seems to be.
French archaeologists excavated the place on and off from 1877
to 1933, and dug up more than 50,000 clay tablets full of Sumerian cuneiform texts, a lot of them real estate tax records.
I don't know how many of the taxes were never collected, but if Lagash was like Philly, you can bet it was a lot.
A famous monument the French excavators uncovered at Lagash
was called the Stele of the Vultures by the Lagashian folks. Whether that name reflects the ancient opinion of tax collectors,
I can only surmise.
The assessor history lesson continues with some undated ancient
"In Egypt, tax assessors were highly valued people because
of their skills with hieroglyphics and their ability to collect revenue. Often when a king died, the assessor was the only
staff person not killed and buried along with the king, so valued was his service."
I've read some real estate documents that seemed like hieroglyphics,
but that's most likely not why our city assessors chose to report on the subject. They were just trying to cover their ass-
essments, and to remind us of their own importance. (I wonder if pyramids were assessed at their actual value?)
As for staff being buried with the king, that was just the
ancient Egyptian version of what happens in our era when a new party takes over a government. Pharaohs didn't have such bothers
as elections or Civil Service.
The tax historians then take a leap through the centuries,
right up into the Anno Dominies, with their next chronicle:
"In the 11th century, Lady Godiva rode naked on
a white horse through the streets of Coventry, England, to protest the tax assessment on her husband's property. He received
an abatement. (In Philadelphia, we have a form you can fill out for that - no horse required."
Too bad about that form. A lot of male tax payers might accept
the higher tax evaluations more cheerfully if they were delivered by naked women, especially ones with well filled-out forms.
In this method, too, the horse could be optional.
* * *
Ed Shippen's Philadelphia: Population 200
In an old book, I came upon the fact that it was Edward Shippen's
374th birthday. He was baptized on March 5, 1639, near Leeds, England.
is little remembered today, but he was one of the men who helped William Penn create his two square mile city in the Pennsylvania
wilderness, when the population was about 200 souls.
Shippen was a 29 year old British businessman when he decided
to seek his fortune in the New World. He sailed to Boston, and established himself in business. Three years later, in 1671,
he married Elizabeth Lybrand, a Quaker girl.
The Boston establishment, loyal to King Charles II and the
Church of England, had a dim view of those peculiar Quakers. Shippen was lucky. He was only publicly whipped a couple of times
for adopting his wife's religion. Other Quakers were being sent to the gallows.
Elizabeth died in 1688. She had borne eight children. That
was a brutal era of poor health and primitive medical care, and lives were often short. Five of the children died young.
Shippen married Rebeka Richardson, a widow, in 1689.. They
had one child, who died in infancy.
In 1693, a meteor zoomed over Boston, scaring the religious
folks. They were sure that God was threatening them for not hanging enough Quakers. The Shippens decided to move to Philadelphia.
Rebeka's late husband had thought of relocating to the new
Quaker city, and had bought 260 acres around what, according to William Penn's street plan for the rising city, ran roughly
east from Second St., south from Spruce St. down to Dock Creek.
The Shippens moved there, and built the biggest house in town.
There was a large orchard out back, and a lawn down to the creek, where they kept a herd of deer.
They also built a country house, way out in the sticks, at
what we would call the southwest corner of Broad and South Sts. They used their coach, the biggest in town, on the road between
the two properties. It was called Shippen's Lane until 1870, when it was renamed Bainbridge St.
Ed Shippen plunged right into local politics, and quickly became
a leader. He was elected Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1695, and became Chief Justice in 1699.
When William Penn issued the first city charter in 1701, he
appointed Shippen the new mayor. Shippen also was president of the Governor's Council from 1702 to 1704, and for six months
was acting governor.
Rebeka died in 1704. In 1706, at age 67, Shippen married Elizabeth
James, a widow from Bristol, England.. She was not a Quaker, and he lapsed back into orthodoxy, which weakened his position
with the Quaker leaders. It was an ironic reverse of his days in Boston. He retired, but continued to put his opinions into
the ears of the establishment.
Edward Shippen died in 1712. He had seen his city grow from
a few hundred residents to more than 2,000.
His descendants were influential in Philadelphia for generations.
Perhaps the best remembered Shippen now is Peggy Shippen, who married Benedict Arnold. She was Edward's great-great-granddaughter.
There are surely some Shippen descendants here and there today.
I wonder if they ever celebrate the old guy's birthday?
* * *
The first thing to privatize
Gov. Tom Corbett is all excited by the prospect of running
around privatizing things. He wants to privatize the lottery that our fair commonwealth has been peddling for 40 years, and
the state liquor emporiums that the state established in the year Prohibition ended and President Roosevelt declared a bank
holiday (maybe not entirely coincidentally.)
The governor sees a lot of economic benefit in privatizing
state entities. And, wouldn't it set a good example if he led the way by privatizing
the governor's office?
A private industry management would probably swoop in there
and save the state a lot of money. There are executives who specialize in moving in on a company and firing everybody in sight
The average salary of our nation's 50 governors is only $128,735
a year. Gov. Corbett's $174,914 salary is sixth on the national list.
A new CEO would probably raise that salary, and arrange for
perks and bonuses for himself. You know how CEO's are.
But we have a Lt. Governor and a Chief of Staff and four Deputy
Governors and a Secretary of the Commonwealth, whatever that is. A privatizer would cut some fat out of that carcass of six-figure
Then there are jobs like Energy Executive, and Director of
Planning and Policy. The new boss would be calling them in and asking, "Just what exactly is it you do?"
There is also the Attorney General. A business executive might
find it more economical to deal with an outside law firm, and get rid of the Attorney General. This is an idea that, at the
moment, might warm Gov. Corbett's heart.
On a state Web site, I counted 42 state departments, bureaus,
offices, commissions, agencies, systems, boards and administrations. One of those corporate hatchetpersons who comes in to
rejuvenate a corporation would be going through that bunch like an all-star running back through an Andy Reid defense.
A private executive would still have to deal with a bunch of
politicians who insist on continually making laws. But corporate top guns know how to organize a congenial board of directors
to back them up, and would treat legislation like proxy votes at the annual meeting,
and do as they pleased.
Privatization would leave the governor's office in the capitol
empty, with its fine old wood paneling and a great big reception room. It could be leased for use as a fancy liquor store
that sold lottery tickets.
The privatized liquor business seems to make a little sense.
The governor claims that auctioning off 1,200 liquor licenses would bring the state about $1 billion. And Harrisburg would
still collect about $400 million in taxes, as it does now.
According to figures I found on line, the governor estimates
that the private lottery would bring in $130 million annually over 20 years. Figures elsewhere say that the state lottery
now nets $1 billion a year for Senior Citizens. If those facts are correct, I don't understand the deal.
Many of the Senior Citizens pay back their free bus rides by
buying lottery tickets by the gross. But they know that there's always the chance
that they'll win some big bucks. (Well, not always. More like sometimes. Or maybe once in a very great while. Or maybe they
should live so long.)
* * *
My favorite fat politician
Television humorists and other public nuisances continually
pick on Gov. Christopher J. Christie of New Jersey because of his size. Gov. Christie takes the bad jokes in good humor.
He tends to keep statistics about his weight close to the vest,
but there is no question that it's a voluminous vest. He is five feet eleven,
and 300ish or more. On the subject of whether his corpulence affects his job performance, he responds seriously to critics
and jocularly to jokers.
Christie was a television guest of David Letterman, who almost
nightly lampoons the governor's girth, and told Letterman, "I'm the healthiest fat guy you've ever seen in your life."
have no comparative information on how many fat guys Letterman has seen to date. Letterman measures six feet two, and weighs
190, according to information on the Web.
If Christie runs for president four years hence, journalists,
Democrats and other nosey people will insist on some statistics they can criticize.
Does weight matter? The late William Howard Taft was a reasonably
adequate President of the United States, and he was six feet tall and topped off at about 332 pounds.
When I reflect on politicians' tubbiness, I think of one of
my favorite old time Philadelphia politicians, Sen. Boies Penrose. He was six feet four, and reached a legendary bulk approaching
Penrose was born in 1860, of an old and wealthy Philadelphia
family. He attended Episcopal Academy, and came in second in the class of 1881 at Harvard. (His brother was first.)
An unlikely entry into the gritty realm of Philadelphia politics, he wended his electoral way through both houses in Harrisburg, was elected a U.
S. Senator in 1897, and by 1909 was undisputed boss of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania.
He was also uncontested eating champion. He was known to order
as many as six different lunches from a restaurant menu at one sitting.
A waiter in Atlantic City, where Penrose kept his yacht, once
cited as a typical Penrose dinner: 12 cocktails, 12 raw oysters, a bowl of soup, terrapin stew, two whole canvasback ducks,
mashed potatoes, lima beans, macaroni, asparagus, cole slaw, stewed corn, a whole hot mince pie, a quart of coffee, a bottle
of sauterne, a quart of champagne, and several brandies.
breakfasts were more simple: usually just a dozen fried eggs, a slice of ham, a dozen rolls and a quart of coffee.
He became ill in 1919. Servants moved his massive bulk about
in a specially built wheelchair. In 1920, confined to his reinforced oversized bed in his house at Broad and Spruce Sts.,
with a direct phone line and a private telegraph line, with operator, he was connected with the Republican National Convention
in Chicago, maneuvering the nomination of Warren G. Harding (six feet, 240.) Philadelphia reporters at the Penrose bedside
knew of Harding's selection before the press corps in Chicago.
On the last day of 1921, Boies Penrose died in his massive
bed in his apartment in the swank Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. He was only 61, but he may have once been "the healthiest
fat guy you've ever seen."
* * *
February 13, 2013
by James Smart
A Sidonian walks into a bar. . .
I came upon a
modern translation of "Philogelos," believed to be the oldest joke book in the world. The translation was done by Dan Crompton,
a Londoner who studied classics and linguistics at Cambridge University, and obviously knows a good ancient Greek joke when
he hears one.
which means something like "The Laughter-Lover," was first published in the fourth century B. C. Crompton's English translation
was originally issued as "The World's Oldest Joke Book," which is what I would call the world's oldest joke book if somebody
Later it was published
as, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," a title already used and well-worn elsewhere, and which doesn't seem
very precise for a book of Greek jokes written by two Greeks.
But the Romans
were pretty much in charge of civilization in that century. The Greek writers just wanted to be up-to-date, and Latin was
produced a more recent book, entitled "A Classical Primer: Ancient Knowledge for the Modern Mind," which I suspect is a bit
more serious than the earlier work.
The newer book
is available on Kindle. The joke book does not seem to be. That's just as well. Having ancient Greek jokes on an electronic
device would be something like having a plastic Venus de Milo, or a Sphinx built of Legos.
of "Philogelos" were chaps named Hierocles and Philagrios. Some of their jokes are funny, some are vulgar, and some are both.
Many of the vulgar jokes would fit right in with today's incessantly crude film and television humor. The ancient world even
had coarse humor about things that don't come up much these days, such as eunuch jokes and hernia jokes.
And, like today,
there were jokes about foreigners being stupid. The book has sections of Abderite jokes, Kymaean jokes and Sidonian jokes.
I'm not sure why
those towns were funny. Abdera was a city in Thrace, near the Black Sea. The Kymae, or Cumae, lived near the present Naples.
The Greeks perhaps thought Kymaeans were comical because they couldn't seem to get the Greek alphabet right. But a Kymaean
would have the last laugh, if you could tickle one today, because their version of the Greek alphabet became the basis of
the alphabet you're reading right now.
Sidon was an older
town. It's mentioned 14 times in the Bible, and Sidonians are mentioned six times, not humorously. One of Noah's grandsons
was named Sidon, and the city's location is recorded in the 10th chapter of Genesis.
Here's humor from
the book: "Sidonian teacher: 'How much does a five-cup jug hold?' :Student: 'Is it wine or oil?'" In another, a Sidonian whose
boat began to sink went below deck and started pushing on the ceiling.
And there's the
Kymaean who goes to a shop that builds windows, and asks if they make any that face south. And this: "Friend: 'Can I borrow
a cloak, just to go down to the countryside?' Friend: 'Sorry, I've only got one that goes down to the ankle.'"
At least one in
the book, I've heard as a modern gag. A Kymaean sees a funeral, and asks who died. He's told, "The guy in the coffin."
Sorry, no eunuch
* * *
Corbett's Truly Lucky Office?
The governor of Pennsylvania and his counterpart across
the river are anxious to privatize the state lotteries. There's controversy, of course. Lotteries were controversial from
the beginning of Pennsylvania.
The Quaker founders didn't care much for games of chance. The
Pennsylvania Assembly in 1705 passed an "Act Against Riotous Sports, Plays and Games," which outlawed lotteries. It also outlawed
cards, dice, billiards, quoits, and a few pastimes I don't think exist anymore,
even in Atlantic City, including loggats, shovegroats and rowley-powley.
That law banned "any other kind of game whatsoever, now invented
or hereafter to be invented." Queen Anne repealed the law in 1709 as "unreasonable restraint on the King's subjects from taking
Private citizens often made a few bucks by organizing lotteries.
A 1730 law forbade them again, but governors frequently made deals allowing lotteries
so long as the proceeds would pay the prescribed fines.
The city of Philadelphia used lotteries to buy cannons for
a "grand battery" to protect the port in 1747, and to finance street surfacing in 1748. The largest buyer of tickets to pay
for cannons was James Logan, a Quaker leader.
Schools and churches used lotteries to raise funds. Benjamin
Franklin sponsored three lotteries in 1752 to pay for the steeple of Christ Church.
The Assembly authorized lotteries for educational funding,
and 36 lotteries, by 27 schools, were held from 1754 to 1811. The College, Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia,
which one day would be the University of Pennsylvania, held nine lotteries between 1755 and 1761.
Lotteries organized by private citizens, for profit, also flourished.
The state averaged more than one lottery a month from 1796 to 1808.
were fund-raisers. An 1806 game helped pay off the debts of the Bustleton and Smithfield Turnpike Co., for a road from Frankford
to Somerton. More than $33 million in prizes were awarded between 1811 and 1833 by lotteries that built the Union Canal that
linked the Schuylkill with the Susquehanna.
The profit-making lotteries weren't always strictly ethical.
Sponsors would advertise prizes and a set number of tickets, then keep selling tickets as long as it took to get rid of them
all. Lotteries stretched out two or three years.
1833, more than 200 lotteries were in progress in Philadelphia. There were hundreds of ticket brokers in town, with names
like "Enoch L. Colcord & Son's Lottery and Exchange Bureau," and "Allen's Truly Lucky Office."
A lawyer who studied the problem reported that a lottery's
"deluded victim does not regard it as a tax, but as a road to sudden wealth, dispensing with the necessity of labor." He found
that insolvent persons whose bankruptcy petitions blamed lottery losses were as many as 17 a year.
It was in 1833 that the legislature cracked down on lotteries,
setting heavy fines and mandating the "entire abolition of lotteries," calling them "an acknowledged evil of great magnitude."
Then, 139 years later, Pennsylvania started its current state
lottery. Now it may be privatized. Maybe they'll call it Corbett's Truly Lucky Office.
* * *
Surgical things left behind
There was a lot of Googling and Twitterng and texting and other
wireless prattling in recent weeks about a study in the medical trade journal "Surgery" that reported that in the last 20
years, 4,857 objects were left behind in patients' innards by surgeons in the United States.
The study was of data accumulated from records of malpractice
cases. It's possible that other gimcracks were left inside patients who didn't sue, and whose doctor somewhere is still wondering
what became of that nice shiny hemostat his mother-in-law gave him for his birthday.
The researchers estimate that as many as 80,000 of these surgical
oversights may have taken place in the same period, but escaped notice because the surgeon re-surged when he missed his favorite
curette, or because nobody, including the patient, knew that an osteotome had been dropped into his pleural cavity.
With all the lamentations and wisecracking written about that
report on the peccadilloes of butter-fingered practitioners, one question immediately occurred to me that no writer addressed:
What were those articles that were abandoned in the interior of unsuspecting patients?
I wandered electronically around the World Wide Web, where
facts about everything can be found, many of them true. There was little enlightenment.
Apparently small sponges and towels are the most frequently
left behind surgical implements sewed up or stapled up amongst the organs. I was hoping for something more dramatic, such
as a surgeon closing up a cholecystectomy,
and then noticing he was missing his wedding ring, his dentures, his wrist watch, or his Dr. Phillip Syng Physick action figure.
I thought that the fancy new microsurgery had taken over the
practice of old fashioned full sized surgery. There seem to be recurrent news articles about surgeons casually extracting
a kidney through a belly button, and of performing what would seem like large-scale poking and slicing of assorted organs
through tiny inch-wide incisions.
It's like those fellows who build elaborate ship models in
bottles, working through the neck. But gluing pieces together through a person's neck has limited possibilities for surgeons.
The first surgery I ever had, more than 30 years ago, was a
laparoscopy, a cut that ran south from my navel for a scary nine inches. The
purpose was to identify a strange lump in my abdomen. I was incarcerated in the hospital for a week.
It turned out to be my appendix. Should the doctor have known
that in advance, and not have to cut as much as he did? I don 't know. At least, he didn't leave any unidentified items inside
(as far as I know.)
By contrast, in the last operation I had, a few years ago,
the doctor stuffed a hefty wad of netting, to shore up a double hernia, through two little inch-long slits, probably too small
to mislay any equipment big enough to have worried her, or me. She sent me home the same day.
But apparently, the new tiny surgery does not preclude the
possibility of a lost and found collection being located in your abdomen.
* * *
Guns in the wrong hands
Everybody is writing about guns these days. On Jan. 26,
2011, I wrote about the subject. Nothing has changed much, so here is that column again:
Backwash from the recent maniacal shootings produced all sorts
of platitudes, lamentations, explanations, recriminations, denials of responsibility, and every reaction imaginable. Are we
about to see politicians of the furthermost Left and the furthermost Right suddenly begin to greet each other with compassionate
hugs and play legislative Alphonse and Gaston in the halls of Congress? Somebody better frisk them first; they might be carrying.
The gun control people and the Second Amendment people seem
to agree on one thing: we shouldn’t let guns get into the wrong hands. The most extreme controllers would solve the
problem by taking everybody’s guns away, which is like stopping car theft by eliminating automobiles. The right-to-bearers
think the answer is personal responsibility, which tends to be in short supply.
The real question about guns getting into the wrong hands is,
how do we keep hands from being wrong in the first place? Gun control advocacy is all very well, but it’s the decent-behavior
advocates who don’t seem to be effective.
Many organizations have always been expected to keep hands
from going wrong: churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, what-have-you. Schools, too. And the most basic organization of
all, when wrong hands are involved: families.
There have always been hands (and the attached people) going
wrong, no matter what is said in church, school or around the dinner table. But don’t you get the feeling that the old
social restraints are getting through to youngsters less and less these days?
Many years ago, I interviewed a psychologist who was also a
Presbyterian minister, and who worked with juvenile lawbreakers. Although he didn't put it just this way, he was in favor
of instilling some old-fashioned guilt in kids. What was missing in many lives, he said, was someone to disappoint. Many of
us, at any age, restrain ourselves from doing something violent or dishonest or merely bad-mannered by the thought, What would
mother think? or What would dad think? or What would grandmom, or the coach, or the pastor, or the rabbi think? Yes, even
What would Jesus think?
It's the role model thing. There are plenty of defective models
out there, chugging along in the publicized, glamorized worlds of entertainment, sports and other popular culture. The media
never miss the chance to announce celebrity misbehavior. Parents and other positive influencers have a hard time competing
for the attention, and emulation, of their own standards vs. the bad influences on their children. And sadly, there are also
wrong-handed parents who instill bad attitudes and behaviors in their offspring.
When it comes to guns, some people think of guns as a way to
enforce their opinions, rather than a way to hunt game or shoot targets American
leaders who were unable to resolve their political differences 150 years ago with civil discourse had a civil war instead.
They were willing to die for their differences, and a few hundred thousand other men died with them. All the wrong hands don't
belong to ruffians or maniacs.
* * *
Defining a semi-Philadelphian
A local music critic recently described an opera tenor as a
"semi-Philadelphian." That appellation was applied because the singer, according to the critic, studied here, still works
with a voice coach here, and "keeps some possessions in a South Philadelphia storage bin."
I don't recall ever hearing anyone called a semi-Philadelphian
before. Defining who is an entire Philadelphian does have some complications.
While I confess that I once lived in the suburbs for 20 years,
I was born in the city, grew up and went to school here, and have worked here steadily since Barney Samuel was mayor. (Look
him up; research is good for the brain.)
Many Philadelphians take ancestry seriously. That may be true
mostly in Chestnut Hill or out on the Main Line, and may have been more true 150 years
ago or so, when Mark Twain uttered his oft-quoted line, "In Boston they ask, how much does he know? In New York, how much
is he worth? In Philadelphia, who were his parents.?"
But the concept was present when I was young. There were old
families even in our working class neighborhood.
The old folks were nonchalant about pedigree, and were no more
impressed by it than a Biddle would be about a Cadwallader. A girl in my elementary school class was a descendant of the man
who founded our neighborhood, Harrowgate, in 1785, but if anyone knew it, no fuss was made about it.
My mother's family, the Hartleys, were newcomers. My grandparents
didn't move there from Kensington until the beginning of the Civil War. My father was from Frankford, up the road a bit, but
I moved 57 blocks north when I was 19, and took the Smart name
with me. One day when I was in my Thirties, and a well-bylined columnist for the old Evening Bulletin, I was walking along,
a block from my birthplace, after visiting my grandmother. An old-timer sitting on his porch looked at me curiously, and hollered,
"Say, aren't you Elsie Hartley's boy?" That's an example of the Mark Twain premise.
There's nothing wrong with being a semi-Philadelphian, though,
with or without maintaining a storage bin. Some of the most Philadelphiaish Philadelphians
might be accused of seminess.
Ben Franklin spent his first 17 years in Boston, and lived
overseas for nearly 30 years, dwelling in Philadelphia only 38 of his 85 years. That's somewhat semi, but nobody dares say
he was not a Philadelphian.
Should we designate semi-ism for Vai Sikahema, who is pervasive
on Channel 10 but comes from Nuku 'Alofa, the capital of Tonga? Chef Jose Garces
came from Chicago via New York, but he certainly acts like a Philadelphian. David Morse, the actor, grew up in Massachusetts
and previously lived in California, but he is a fixture in Chestnut Hill now, and doesn't seem at all semi.
We've had semi-Philadelphian mayors. Richardson Dilworth was
from Pittsburgh, Wilson Goode was from South Carolina, and Ed Rendell was from New York. Sen. Arlen Specter was from Wichita,
Even William Penn spent only four years in Philadelphia. But
he built Pennsbury Manor, which is somewhat bigger than a storage bin.
* * *
Could secession succeed?
Just after the election, some citizens in every state drafted
petitions proclaiming that they wanted their state to secede from the federal union. The agitation seems to have quieted down,
maybe because the holidays interfered, or maybe because of an unlikely outbreak of common sense.
Poor losers have abounded ever since Cain
killed Abel. You find them in everything from presidential elections to chess tournaments. The latter can result in an upset
chess board or a poke in the eye. The former can result in profanity, street riots or even firing on Fort Sumter.
The main idea of democracy is that the losers
must cheerfully accept the will of the majority and try to do better next time. It's interesting to see how often people whose
party or philosophies were on the short end of an election moan that the result indicates that democracy doesn't work.
Usually such disappointed players just pick
up their political marbles and go home crying. Proposing secession from the union seems a drastic reaction in the 21st century.
It isn't clear what the secessionists expect
to happen if they succeed. Would each state become an independent nation? Would they form assorted alliances? Would all 50
become a new country, with its own capital (Tea Pot Dome, Wyoming, might be a good site) and let the District of Columbia
become a quaint geographic anomaly, like Lichtenstein?
If a state became an independent entity,
one of the first things its citizens would have to do is choose leaders. Unless they could devise some better method, they
would probably have to hold an election. That would result in creation of winners and losers again, and the same situation
that they had rejected in the first place.
Once the newly liberated state had elected
leadership, or had been dominated by a dictator, or whatever kind of governing they prefer to what we've been doing for 227
years or so, the next necessity would be to raise money.
Maybe they would just pass the tea pot and
take a collection. They might have to do it the much-despised old fashioned way, and collect taxes.
The latest figures I found say that 35 of
the 50 states receive more money from the federal government than they pay in taxes. You and I can't be self-righteous about
that, because Pennsylvania takes in $1.17 from Washington for every dollar we pay in federal taxes. New Jersey takes only
77 cents per dollar of tax money.
The state that receives the most money from
Washington compared to its tax contributions is Mississippi. The Magnolia State gets $2.73 for every dollar it coughs up for
the federal coffers.
is just a couple of thousand square miles smaller than Pennsylvania, but has only about a quarter of the number of citizens.
It has the highest poverty rate in the nation, 17.4 percent compared to Pennsylvania's 12.6 percent. (New Hampshire has the
lowest, 7.6 percent.)
If the folks down south decide to become
the People's Republic of Mississippi, they will need a local way to support themselves. Maybe they should forget secession.
It didn't work out too well the last time.
* * *
With General Grant in China
Mayor Nutter's recent trip to China started me thinking of
how much China has changed since Ulysses S. Grant visited there in 1879. As a long-time Grant admirer, I'm interested in his
relatively little known trip around the globe.
Grant turned the White House over to Rutherford B. Hayes on
March 3, 1877. After 15 years of war and politics, he determined to see the world.
On May 17, 1877, Grant, his wife and an entourage sailed down
the Delaware River aboard the USS Indiana on the start of a two and a half year voyage. They were accompanied to the bay by
a flotilla of boats carrying farewell wishers including Mayor William S. Stokley, Gov. John F. Hartranft, 100 or so City Councilmen,
and just about every Philadelphia bigwig. Crowds on the wharves cheered.
Before he was back in Philly on Dec. 16, 1879, Grant visited
25 countries and a good bit of the American west. He was a fanatic tourist, seeing every sight, and was greeted and feted
by leaders and royalty from England to Japan.
Chinese cities that Mayor Nutter saw are astonishing different
that those toured by Grant only 133 years ago, a mere blip in the history of China, which started getting organized about
2100 B. C.
In the 1870s, Tartar militarists from Mongolia and British
diplomats and opium providers were busy interfering in Chinese affairs, but the emperor's court in Pekin (now Beijing) went
about its ritual business, unperturbed. The emperor didn't confer with Grant, because he was seven years old.
The Chinese viceroy, a Tartar general and a Chinese-speaking
British agent welcomed the Grant party first in Canton, where fancy receptions and many-coursed banquets were given. The Americans
saw Shanghai and other cities before going to Pekin.
There, they were entertained extravagantly. Perhaps the most
unusual event was the banquet the women of the emperor's household gave for Julia Grant and six other women.
Each woman was brought into the dining room and introduced
by an interpreter to the viceroy's wife at the head of the table. She was wearing a dark silk jacket and trousers, the latter
garment a bit disturbing to the long-skirted westerners. She wore a necklace, bracelets and a hair broach all of jade and
The viceroy's daughter, 16, and daughter-in-law, 23, sat at
the opposite end of the table, watching the guests intently. They had never seen foreigners before.
The older girl was dressed in an elegant pants suit. The teenager
was in a pink satin jacket and green trousers, heavy with gold embroidery, and was dripping with pendants of jade and pearls
which hung from her ears, wrists, inches-long fingernails and the handle of her fan.
Other Chinese women were at the party. The dinner had alternate
courses of Chinese and European food. The windows of the room were open, and Chinese citizens crowded outside each one to
watch the curious westerners eat.
Each upper class Chinese woman had her own servant attending
her. The servants helped their mistresses walk, as their feet had been bound in childhood, and were, according to one American
there, "scarcely more than two or three inches long."
Mayor Nutter didn't mention anything like that.
* * *
Family holidays a century ago
My mother would be 110 years old if she were here today. In
the holiday season, I often think of the stories she used to tell about Christmas and New Years when she was a child.
And I realize how many little details I don't know, and never
thought to ask about. Life was so different at the beginning of the 20th century from the beginning of the 21st.
Mother often told about keeping the Christmas tree decorated
until Easter. The branch of the family that lived "up the country," as she phrased it, didn't like to travel to the city in
winter. They visited at Easter time.
So, the Philly folks set up the Christmas tree in the parlor,
which was heated only when company came. After the holidays, the parlor was closed up most of the time, and the decorated
tree was preserved until the Easter visitors arrived.
When I heard this oft-told tale, I understood the situation.
The relatives were probably traveling by horse-drawn vehicles, and the trip would be cold and uncomfortable at Christmas Even
if they had a motor vehicle, it would be unheated and drafty in those days.
Our family lived on a city street, but automobiles were an
unusual sight even there,100 years ago. Another of my mother's yarns was that whenever one of those newfangled autos chugged
past the house, stirring a cloud of dust, her grandmother would proclaim sarcastically, "Well, now the property's worth another
One detail I don't know is how that parlor was heated. There
probably were stoves in each room. I've never seen the inside of "the old house," as she called it, though it still stands,
somewhat expanded, and surely now with central heating.
The family moved to the new house when my mother was 19. They
replaced its privy with indoor plumbing, the first time they owned such a luxury. I assume that its coal furnace was the first
central heating they had.
Santa Claus brought modest gifts in those days, Mother said;
one important item such as a doll, some clothing, and in the stocking an orange, some walnuts, a ball, and always those crystalline
sugar-toy candies in the shape of animals, inevitable from a German-raised mother.
Mother's recollections of New Years celebrating were sparse.
The family didn't live near any organized Mummers, although ad hoc New Years Shooters in the neighborhood fired off a few
rounds at midnight on New Years Eve.
But she recalled fondly the first time her father let her and
her sister, who was three years older, stay up until midnight and celebrate. She couldn't remember how old she was at the
time, but she was very young.
Her parents thrilled the girls by buying them each a whistle
to blow at midnight. I still have the whistles. They are made of terra cotta or clay. They are images of little boys, about
two inches high, dressed like school boys of the era., sitting against a stump which ends in the hole the whistler blows into.
They produce an ear-splitting screech.
I can picture my mother and my aunt as little girls, bundled
up against the cold, standing on the porch as the neighborhood mill whistles blasted out at midnight, puffing their small
contribution to the celebration and hollering "Happy New Year."
* * *
Santa's controversial helper
The Associated Press distributed an article from Amsterdam
about controversy over a centuries-old Christmas tradition in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas, as the Dutch call jolly old St.
Nicholas, is often accompanied by Zwarte Piet, which the AP translated as "Black Pete."
Zwarte Piet often appears as Sinterklaas's side-kick, and is
usually represented by a white man in black-face make-up. There are complaints from some Dutch citizens and politicians that
the old tradition is racist and should be abandoned. Immigrants of color from Dutch-oriented West Antilles and Suriname also
don't care for the custom.
The AP correspondent obvious considered the Zwarte Piet tradition
strange and exotic. But I'm sure lots of folks in the Pennsylvania Dutch areas all around Philly chuckled when they read about
the situation. So did anyone who saw the Dec. 6 episode of the TV series "The Office," when Dwight portrayed Belsnickel.
The ancestors of Pennsylvanians in the old-time Mennonite-settled
regions originated largely in German areas, not Dutch. It was not Santa Claus who brought good children toys and goodies on
Christmas Eve. It was der Belsnickel. And his German companion, with a switch or a whip to acknowledge naughtiness with a
few wallops, was Schwarz Peter.
Sometimes Pennsylvania's Schwarz Peter had a blackened face.
In the days of wood stoves and coal stoves, it was easy to whip up some make-up with ashes and water. How racist the intent
was, it's hard to say.
Belsnickel seems to have acquired the name from Pelz Nicholas,
meaning "furry Nicholas" in German. In olden times, St. Nicholas made his rounds in fur. Clement Clark Moore's poem describes
him as "dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot."
Fur was easy to come by in the early days of the Pennsylvania
Dutch communities. In the 19th century, depictions of Belsnickel show him having progressed, or regressed, into wearing tattered
clothes or a patchwork coat.
Often, sleigh bells were fastened here and there on his clothes.
Sleigh bells were a handy item then. When and why he switched to his modern red suit (with a hint of white fur trim and no
bells) is his business.
The shift from der Belsnickel to the modern Santa Claus was
gradual. A children's book printed in Lancaster in 1843 was entitled, "Belsnickel's Gift, or a Visit From Saint Nicholas."
This may have annoyed many early Mennonites, who were not big fans of medieval, non-biblical sainthood. But in the 20th century,
it became hard to avoid acceptance of Santa Claus.
Belsnickel was often a frightening figure to kids in the old
days. He did carry a switch, and often questioned children about their behavior before dumping goodies from his bag.
Peter, when he came along for the ride, became the enforcer who scolded, and swatted the behinds, of those who deserved it.
I suspect that, unlike in the Netherlands, Black Peter has
disappeared from the Dutch country, and the department store model of Santa Claus is the norm. Does any Pennsylvania Dutch
momma still say to the kids on Heilige Abend (Christmas Eve), "Poch sich op ze eure bett, der Belsnickel kommme" ( "Scram
up to bed, Belsnickel is coming.")
* * *
Of cats and supermodels
Stu Bykovsky, who writes a column for some
other newspaper, has produced a little book about cats. It's called "Cats are Supermodels," and explores the proposition that
sleek, temperamental women and sleek, temperamental felis domesticus are similar.
there is a Latin name for supermodels? Maybe homo superexemplius or something?)
The book also investigates the contrast between
cats and dogs. Byko addresses the difference succinctly, early in the text, when he writes, "You've heard of service dogs.
Have you ever heard of a service cat? Case closed."
Bykovsky lives with a cat and, unfortunately
for him, not with a supermodel. He denies cat ownership. Dogs have owners, he maintains. Cats have staff.
The book is funny, but nearly raises some
serious questions. For all you quantum physics fans, for instance, it asks why Erwin Schrodinger chose a cat to seal up in
his theoretical box, and not some other critter. It's a joke that would make only someone like Einstein laugh.
Byko describes the behavior of house cats
with cautious good humor. He promises to do a later book about outdoor cats. There probably are very few outdoor supermodels.
In the overall, he is kind and mostly understanding
about cats. But I'm sure his e-mail and lesser forms of communication will be loaded with venom from irate cat fanatics, who
feel that cats should be written about with solemn respect.
Cat lovers are passionate. I have written
articles about cats that I thought would delight cat people, and attracted wrath instead.
Back in the 1950s, I wrote a news article
about a cat that was lost many miles from home, but successfully made the trek back to his owner's house. I did it in the
hipster patois of the era. The first sentence was, "This cat named Timothy, man, he played it cool."
Most readers presumably were amused. But
I got an unsigned postal card that grumbled simply, "Cats are God's creatures. I am praying for you!"
In that same era, cat lovers were threatening
physical violence on the writer of letters to the editor of The Evening Bulletin whose dark humor about cats offended them.
The letters, signed "J. Darlington McKeester," ranted about neighborhood cats that desecrated his garden, and proposed lethal
measures to get rid of them.
One letter indicated that he had solved his
cat disposal problem. Strategically buried, they made excellent fertilizer for his tomato plants. That letter resulted in
denunciation of editors and cancellation of subscriptions. In the news room, we knew that McKeester was actually our distinguished
city editor, Stanley Thompson, being mischievous.
Bykovsky's book is more gentle. Among little-known
cat facts, Byko divulges that the only domestic animal not mentioned in the Bible is the cat.
I searched Strong's Concordance of the Bible,
which is, I guess, the bible of Bible references, and found that in the Good Book, dogs are mentioned 43 times, horses 46
times, cattle an impressive 158 times, and even caterpillars nine times, but not one cat. I leave the theological implications
of that to Bykovsky.
* * *
Lincoln films, from facts to vampires
Steven Spielberg's film about Abraham Lincoln is in the movie
houses now. I haven't seen it yet, but I may have seen more films about Lincoln than about any other individual, probably
excepting Bugs Bunny, Gene Autry and other dominant figures of boyhood Saturday matinees.
The first sound movie about Lincoln was done in 1930, one of
the only two sound films made by silent movie director D. W. Griffith. I missed that the first time around, busy being a baby,
but I've seen it as an adult.
Griffith's script was mostly about young Abe, with Walter Huston
as Lincoln. It was loaded with inaccuracies, and full of stuff that never happened, such as Abe standing up Mary on their
wedding day. He also was shown making a speech in the theater before he was shot, featuring highlights of his second inaugural
speech and the Gettysburg address.
Henry Fonda starred in "Young Mr. Lincoln" in 1939, directed
by John Ford. I saw that when it was new, and I was in elementary school. We had learned that Lincoln freed the slaves and
got shot, but most classroom information was such tales as his walking miles in a rainstorm to return two cents he overcharged
a customer when he was a store clerk, and dismounting while on a business trip to rescue a baby bird that had fallen from
In 1940, Raymond Massey starred in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois."
Massey portrayed Lincoln in assorted other historical films.
Hollywood forgot about Abe for a while. Then screen writers
got interested in the assassination. In 1977, there was "The Lincoln Conspiracy," and in 1998, "The Day Lincoln Was Shot."
Recently, Robert Redford made the realistic and accurate "The Conspirators."
This year came "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter." It has remarkably
authentic-looking period backgrounds, against which Abe was busy killing the undead in his spare time.
Spielberg's film begins in January, 1865, just before Lincoln
made his second inaugural address, in which he suggested "malice toward none, charity toward all." It depicts a president's
efforts to deal with Congress, a group then as now seeming to be more interested in malice than charity.
I was hoping Spielberg started a bit earlier, and showed the
1864 presidential election. Lincoln's opponent was Gen. George Brinton McClellan, whom Lincoln had demoted for his lethargic
approach toward executing the war.
McClellan was a privileged Philadelphia aristocrat who couldn't
accept the genius of the homely frontier lawyer. In a letter to his wife, McClellan once complained about taking orders "from
men whom I know to be greatly my inferiors socially, intellectually & morally! There never was a truer epithet applied
to a certain individual than that of the 'Gorilla'." In 1864, McClellan ran against "the gorilla", and lost badly.
The Lincoln vs. vampires film ends as Lincoln's carriage heads
off to Ford's Theater. Thank goodness. I was afraid the ending might be John Wilkes Booth flying into the president's box
and biting him on the neck.
* * *
November 28, 2012
by James Smart
Words from and about elephants
in a South Korean zoo has learned to say five Korean words, according to a scholarly biology journal. He is being studied
by a group of international researchers.
The research task force is led by scientists from the University of Vienna. You might expect those
fellows to teach the elephant to waltz; it might be more up their seitenstrasse and just as unlikely.
The elephant, whose name is Koshik, has learned to stick his trunk in his mouth, in a way that makes
up for the lack of some of the equipment we have in our mouths, and produce the Korean words for hello, sit down, lie down,
good, and no.
These are obviously words he has been enduring from the puny humans who boss him around. The researchers
say that he does not use the words meaningfully, and doesn't really understand them.
But they are biologists. They should check with some circus people.
They'll hear tales of elephants realistically imitating truck engines when the show starts to pull out of a circus ground,
and elephants that bellow loudly, and sway, when the band plays certain tunes.
I became interested in circuses,
particularly in lion and tiger training, when I was a little boy. Becoming a reporter and professional busybody gave me the
opportunity to meet some of the great trainers of big cats: Clyde Beatty, Pat
Anthony, Charley Bauman and Gunther Gebel-Williams. Later I did
some publicity work for the Big Top. I heard some behind-the-tents tales about elephants, including their language skills.
American circus once bought some trained elephants from a German circus. English-speaking trainers taught them new routines.
Years went by, and one day a man from the German circus visited his old herd. He gave orders in German, and the elephants
responded as though they had never left the old country.
of my favorite elephants was Syd, who worked for Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros., one of the last big shows under canvas. When the
circus pulled into a town, Syd knew her job.
put her in a harness with chains dragging. The main tent poles were laid on the
ground, and the expanse of canvas spread over it.. Syd stood, hitched to the rig, quietly swaying.
everything was ready, someone yelled, "Okay, Syd!" The elephant ambled forward, and its powerful strain on the chains slowly
raised the tall poles and the huge canvas into position.
tell anybody, but that show, on occasion, "accidentally" left an elephant behind when it moved out. At the location of the
next performance, it would announce that an elephant had been mislaid. The result was lots of publicity as the circus folks
retrieved the missing pachyderm.
was reliable old Syd, of course. She would wait to be picked up, placidly policing the empty circus grounds and trunking up
waste paper, spilled popcorn, Popsicle sticks and just about anything.
about anything" is a circus elephant's favorite diet. In the old Spectrum's early years, the circus moved in and parked its
elephants in a low-ceilinged room. The elephants ate the cellulose ceiling panels.)
never said a word, in English, German or Korean. So far as I know.
* * *
The Roadkill Memorial
There's a barely consequential controversy out in Irvine, California,
because someone wants the city to erect a marker at the site of a fatal traffic accident, to honor the victims. There were
hundreds of victims.
They were fish. Saltwater bass, to be precise. They were barreling
along, thinking bassy thoughts all unaware, when at the corner of Walnut and Yale Aves., they were involved in a three-vehicle
The bass were in one of the vehicles, a big tank truck. They
got dumped on the highway, and perished. There was apparently no way for medics to give them mouth to gill resuscitation.
The young woman who is urging the Irvine city administration
to memorialize the deceased bass is a volunteer with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She thinks some memorial
is appropriate for the fish "who suffered and died on this spot," she wrote in her letter to the Irvine authorities.
She implores the trucking industry to be more sensitive to
the dangers faced by transported fish.
"Sparing them from being tossed from a speeding truck and slowly
dying from in juries and suffocation seems the least we can do," she pleaded.
As I read her entreaties, I envisioned the possibility of PETA-sponsored
safety belts, or perhaps little car seats, that truckers might install to save their bass. The truth is, of course, that the
only way we can prevent fish from getting involved in traffic accidents is to leave them at home in the water, and eat broccoli
PETA knows that. Its adherents would rather not see any fish,
fowl or beast being transported along the highways, unless it has been determined that the critters enjoy the experience.
The petitioner for the highway memorial goes further, by admonishing,
"Research tells us that fish use tools, tell time, sing, and have impressive long-term memories and complex social structures.
Yet fish used for food are routinely crushed, impaled, cut open and gutted, all while still conscious."
This is not a call for anthestheiologists in fish markets.
It is an expression of deep sympathy that takes us back to the broccoli again.
I have resolved to look into the research she refers to. I
didn't know that fish use tools. I've never seen one shopping in Stanley's Hardware. Maybe they all go to Holod's.
Nor have I ever heard a fish sing. Some of the singing I hear
on the radio these days may well be by fish; that could explain a lot. The long-term memory could help them remember the lyrics.
As for fish telling time, I could speculate about how they
could wear a wristwatch, or whether they observe daylight saving time, but we don't want to get silly here.
As for the serious issue at hand, a spokesman for the Irvine
government announced, "I do think it's fair to say we have no plans to erect a memorial."
So those deceased ocean bass will fade into memory.
Perhaps in some more enlightened age, someone will create a
fish cemetery, where fish who meet tragic ends can be decently interred and monuments raised.
For most, it will still be the frying pan.
Or, perhaps there should be, on the mall in Washington, a marble
monument honoring all animal accident victims: The Roadkill Memorial.
* * *
The new, improved Miss Liberty
The Statue of Liberty is open to the public
again, after the National Park Service spent a year and $30 million to make some improvements on the old girl. Visitors can
now climb up into the crown again, where there are windows where most crowns have jewels.
It's curious that people like to climb up
inside a statue for the view. Sculptors generally make statues to be looked at, not from.
One of the things done to enhance visitors'
experience inside Ms. Liberty is to make it easier to climb up to the crown, by putting in more steps. If that sounds a tiny
bit contradictory, it's not because the job was a government project.
There used to be 354 steps to the crown from
where the elevator ends, abaft the lady's sandals. But each step had an awkwardly high rise that apparently didn't bother
our sturdy ancestors when the statue was dedicated in 1886. The new stairway has 393 steps, but each is shorter, to reduce
the amount of puffing and wheezing from the climbers.
It's about 111 feet from the lady's heel
to the top of her head, measured straight up, not by curved stairway. Steps in most houses I've lived in have had about 14
step per story. That makes the statue's climb equal to me making about 14 round trips on our cellar stairs.
That thought would discourage me from trudging
up inside the statue. (You have to come back down, too.) Of course, the view at either end of our cellar stairs is not as
interesting as New York harbor. On a nice day.
Frederic August Bartholdi got the notion
to create the statue as France's gift to the United States, and first came to
New York in 1871. He went home and started designing. He modeled the face after his mother.
Money was raised in France and here for the
project. Pulitzer's newspapers got donations from 120,000 Americans. The Paris Opera raised funds in April, 1876, with a cantata
written for the occasion by Charles Gounod.
The statue wasn't finished when Bartholdi
came to Philadelphia in 1876 as a French delegate to the Centennial Exhibition. In August, when the fair was half over, the
arm was brought to Philadelphia and displayed in Fairmount Park.
Then it was shipped to New York, and stood
in Madison Square until 1882. The head was displayed at the Paris World's Fair in 1878.
Finally, the whole statue was assembled in
Paris. Bartholdi hired an engineer to design the infrastructure, a fellow named Gustave Eiffel, who was getting ready to erect
a 1,050 foot tower (finished in 1889.)
Then Liberty was taken apart, crated, and
sent to New York. When there was a parade in New York on the day the statue was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland, clerks
at the New York Stock Exchange impulsively threw stock ticker tape out the windows as it passed by, and started a tradition.
My perversely favorite view of the Statue
of Liberty is watching Robert Cummings and Norman Lloyd fight to the death atop the torch in Alfred Hitchcock's 1942 movie
"Saboteur." Lloyd, who was the bad guy, tumbled, grabbed onto a finger, but ultimately fell 300 feet to the ground.
Miss Liberty's index finger is eight feet
long, and three feet six around at the knuckle. No wonder Norman couldn't hang on.
[Note: After this column was published, the National
Parks people decided not to reopen the statue as planned.]
* * *
Getting off the fence
The Oct. 29 issue of Newsweek magazine published a letter from
a guy in Texas that annoyed me a bit. It said in entirety:
"One week, Newsweek features an article arguing that Obama's
got to go. The next week there's a piece calling Romney a deformer. Get. off the fence."
Here's a fellow who is angrily puzzled by a publication that
makes the peculiar decision to give both sides of a subject. I assume, or at least hope, that the magazine editors' intention
was to offer some balance in the election information uproar by offering some opinion and analysis, and perhaps even some
facts, about both sides.
The current thinking, or lack thereof, among a lot of people
these days is that being on the metaphorical fence is a weakness. One must be on the bright side that is always correct and
righteous (known as "my side,") or on the shadowy side that is wrong and possibly evil ("their side.")
As a relic whose journalism career started in the Truman administration,
I get increasingly uncomfortable with what seems like a growing demand that what is still called the news media should choose
sides and slant the news until it nearly topples over in a pile of nonsense.
Readers used to accuse publications of bias. The political
left liked to depict newspaper publishers as capitalistic fat cats who controlled the news to big business's advantage. The
right saw newspaper staffs as hotbeds of radical liberalism.
Sometimes the critics were right. Many times both sides labeled
the same newspaper as biased, for opposite reasons.
Through the years, I got many a letter or phone call charging
me with being one-sided on a subject. Charging is the right word. It was rare that anyone ever contacted me to thank me for
presenting their side of a subject. Naturally, they knew they were in the right, so it was no surprise to find me agreeing.
But being condemned for being on the fence is somewhat new.
These days, neutrality seems often to be considered more evil than being the enemy.
I used to tell my news writing classes years ago that ideally,
they should cultivate the ability to cover a meeting of a political party they wouldn't join, listen to a speaker they disagreed
with, and come back and write an article telling not what they thought the speaker said, or wished he said, or only the parts
they liked or didn't like, but honestly present what he really said.
That was known as reporting, back in the namby-pamby days of
yore. Colorful facts were okay, but facts came first. Some modern media do retouching more than coloring.
As a columnist, I became allowed to express opinions. I'm doing
that now, as you make have noticed. But I don't like to be thought of as on the fence.
Straddling the fence is uncomfortable. People put ideological
pickets and barbed wire on fences. I wish that they would be quiet occasionally, and listen to what people like them are hollering
from the other side. And courteously yell back what's happening on their side of the fence. They both might learn something.
* * *
Some City Hall nostalgia
There was a fire in a women's restroom on the fourth floor
of City Hall last week, resulting in a brief evacuation, sprinkler systems raining down and other such annoyances. The event
stimulated my crumbling memory to recall what the Hall was like 50 or 60 years ago.
The administration reporters, who covered the mayor, City Council
and other municipal tomfoolery, had fairly respectable quarters on the second floor near the mayor's office. Those of us who
dealt with crime, fires and other activities of more normal citizens were up on the sixth floor, in room 619.
That reporters' room and its immediate environs were, to put
it delicately, not elegant. I was based there at night, in surroundings dark and lonely.
The only other activity in that dismal nighttime part of City
Hall was across the corridor from the reporters' habitat, where a bunch of fire department operatives kept watch over the
complicated Gamewell fire alarm board, responding to its pinball machine-like flashing lights by dispatching equipment here
The Sheriff's cell room was down the hall. Loved-ones looking
for someone recently detained because of some minor nocturnal infraction often stopped in at room 619, the first lighted doorway
after the elevator, to ask directions.
The worried visitor sometimes was clutching a pair of high-heeled
shoes. A turnkey once informed me that women frequently lose their shoes in the course of being arrested, and I have no reason
to doubt him.
When the police or fire radio in the office squawked out some
activity that required personal attention, I left the cold stone walls and ancient furniture to go out in the real world and
represent the Evening Bulletin at the scene of the calamity. Inquirer and Daily News reporters did the same.
On dull nights, we information-gatherers used the telephone
to brighten the evening of cops in their district stations, asking if anything noteworthy was happening. The guys from the
other papers were, at least theoretically, a bit more aggressive, because their papers were publishing at the moment. Anything
I trolled up was for the next day's Bulletin.
But the fire in the
rest room last week turned my nostalgic reflection toward the men's room that was a just down the hall from room 619.
Before renovations spoiled City Hall with modern appliances
and tile and such in the late 1950s, that men's room was unchanged from when it first went into service in about 1900. High
above each urinal, near the ceiling perhaps 15 foot high, hung a water tank enclosed in a decorative wooden box.
A water pipe came down from that box to the appliance. A long
chain hung down, to be pulled to release the water.
The room had a massive oak door with shiny brass hinges and
a brass doorknob that bore the engraved seal of the City of Philadelphia.
on the inside of the door, where men exiting the room couldn't miss seeing it, was a two-foot-square wooden plaque on which,
in gilded Victorian lettering, was the stern municipal admonition:
"Gentlemen, please arrange your clothing before
leaving the room."
* * *
Vote, or sit on your blisters
The presidential election festivities are in full bellow, surrounding
us with debating and advertising and speech-making out the political wazoo. Multitudes of fact checkers follow in the politicians'
hot air wake, looking for honesty with about as much luck as Diogenes.
Does it all really matter? Or is campaigning just a quadrennial
annoyance, like the Olympics, solar eclipses, World Cup soccer or a 29th day in February?
An article in a magazine reported on several studies of American
voters. The studiers (universities swarm with them) came to some interesting conclusions. Or were they confusions? Take your
study asked groups of liberals and conservatives to read an article mentioning George Bush's claim that his tax cuts increased
revenues. Then they were told that the claim wasn't true. Questioned later, the liberals accepted the correction, but the
conservatives were nearly twice as likely to say the tax cuts had increased revenues, even after being told otherwise.
Guinea pigs in this study also were given an article saying
that John Kerry in 2004 said he would lift Bush's ban on stem cell research. They were informed later that Bush never banned
stem cell research. The correction changed the conservatives' minds, but not
Those researchers decided that facts that contradict our biases
actually have the effect of reinforcing them. I'm not sure what that means to creators of political advertising.
Another researcher questioned some Democrats and some Republicans
to determine their level of political knowledge, then asked them to evaluate the Bill Clinton presidency. Analysis of the
results determined that the people who were best informed about government, politics and similar dull stuff were the ones
who revealed the most bias in favor of their chosen party, not the uninformed dumbbells like some people we know (but not
you and me.)
Yet another study showed a television news report of political
goings-on to different audiences, telling some that it was from Fox News, others that it was from CNN, and still others that
it was from an independent television station. The investigators found that the viewers made assumptions about the bias of
the identical report based on what they thought was the source.
The implication is that we could skip all the speeches, debates,
travel by the candidates and tricky advertising. Let elections proceed powered by the prejudices of the voters.
Look back 152 years. All that most folks knew about the candidates,
Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, they had read in newspapers. Lincoln and Douglas had debated while running against each
other for Senate in 1858 (Abe lost,) but in the 1860 presidential proceedings, Lincoln stayed home in Illinois and let other
Republicans beat the metaphorical drums. Douglas traveled the country, making speeches everywhere. Lincoln won.
Yes, the hoopla may matter, but it's the voting that counts,
and non-voters may get what they deserve. Abe Lincoln said it once:
“Elections belong to the people. It's their decision.
If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
* * *
Take a letter, please, Ms. Dell
"Well" as I was saying to my computer this morning, "when you
save their computer does every little thing" At least, that's what the computer thought I said.
Actually, what I had said was, "Well, what do you say there,
computer? How's every little thing?" The computer typed out its own version. It was doing its best.
My wife bought me some software that lets me talk to the computer
with a microphone, and the little sucker dutifully types out what I'm saying. Or tries to. A cute blonde stenographer might
have been more efficient, and more interesting, but I'm stuck with a laptop named Dell.
I had never spoken to my computer before, except to mutter
imprecations when it did something annoying. I was dictating to it for the first time.
The computer did mess up that first sentence a little, as you
may have noticed. But dictation was new to both of us. So I decided to introduce myself more formally.
"Good morning, computer," I said. The machine copied my words
nicely, but without quotation marks, the comma or the period. So I told it to delete the last three words, which it did, and
dictated "Quotation mark How are you this morning question mark I'm the guy who usually bangs on your keyboard period quotation
As I spoke, everything I said was magically typed out on the
computer screen. It was a bit spooky. There were a few mistakes, but I've had writing
students who did worse.
A couple of times, a little box appeared on the screen, saying,
"please say that again." But I'd be darned if I was going to start repeating myself just because some dumb machine insisted
I passed the electronic time of day with it for a while, and
it kept repeating my words on the screen like a typographical parrot. I began to wonder how long it will be before these contraptions
start writing columns by themselves, and probably work cheap.
I decided to give it a test. "Okay, computer," I said. "If
you're so smart, where does the Wissahickon Creek empty into the Schuylkill?"
it or not, the smart-alecky computer spelled Wissahickon correctly. When I signed up for this program, it asked for permission
to read my files. Pretty darn nosy, but how can you argue with a machine? Apparently, that's how it learned to spell some
weird local names.
But what it typed out was, "If you're so smart, where does
the Wissahickon Creek MP into the screw kill?" I can't say that I blame it for that. There are probably people who live in
Schuylkill County who can't spell Schuylkill.
"No, dummy," I said (including the required punctuation.) "Not
MP. The word is empty, and screw kill is spelled s-c-h-u-y-l-k-i-l-l. Got that?"
It nagged me, "Please say that again." I got annoyed. "Why
should I say that again?" I muttered. "I told you how to spell Schuylkill." The computer typed, "Why should I say that again?
I told you how to spell squiggle."
I think the computer and I need a little more work with this.
Or, as the computer repeated when I grumbled that last sentence, "I think the computer NRA needlework with this."
* * *
Mormons from Philly "off to Utah"
The Mormons building a temple on the Parkway here, and one
of their brethren wanting to live on Pennsylvania Ave. down in D.C., brings to mind the slight early history of Mormons in
Joseph Smith launched the Mormon faith in 1830 in New York
state. In 1839, he was in Philly, and established a Mormon church at 7th and Callowhill. He preached here as late as 1840.
early-day Latter-day Saints, converts from abroad, came through Philadelphia. Only 10 years after Smith's apostle, Brigham
Young, said "This is the place" about Utah (and many of Young's eventual 27 brides had said "I do" about him) a ship load
of folks came here, bound for Salt Lake.
It attracted attention because at that time, the federal government
had decided that the Mormons were rebelling against the United States, although the Mormons didn't seem to think so. President
James Buchanan sent troops to Utah, and wanted to replace Brigham Young as governor with somebody with more conventional religious
beliefs and fewer wives.
When the ship "Westmoreland" docked on the Delaware in 1857,
it unloaded 552 European Saints, most of them from Norway. A fellow named A. F. Cannon, identified as General Mormon Emigration
Agent for United States Shipping Ports, had made arrangements with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to send the group West.
Shortly afterward, the ship "Tuscarora" arrived with 537 more
new Mormons, from England, Scotland, Wales, Denmark and Sweden.
On June 1, which happened to be Brigham Young's 56th birthday,
a local astrologer named Hague got a heads-up from assorted heavenly bodies that the Mormons were doomed (and made sure the
newspapers heard about it.) He prophesied that 1857 "will tell the time of Brigham's eclipse, and 1858 will find him in a
darker cloud; 1859, I expect the finale at the farthest." Either Hague or the stars got it wrong.
On May 7, 1860, after the government had eased off its picking on the Mormons, converts gathered again in Philly to get transportation to Utah. One account
said that 700 new Mormons rendezvoused here. About half came from New York. Others were English, and about 50 were Philadelphians.
On May 8, the Evening Bulletin gave some of them a send-off
with a brief article headlined, "Off to Utah." It said:
"Yesterday afternoon, a party of Mormons, who have been sometime
past staying in our city, left for the West, by the way of the Reading Railroad, from the depot at 13th and Callowhill Sts.
The party numbered some 100 grown persons, and as many children, the sexes being evenly divided.
"They were comfortably dressed, and apparently in good health
and spirits. Among them were several young women, from 16 to 20 years of age, who appeared to be well pleased at the prospect
of a journey to Brigham Young's 'Kingdom'.
"Some of the men carried guns, and all had a liberal allowance
of baggage. As the train moved off, the party joined in singing a hymn. They seemed to be in high spirits at their departure
for the Land of Promise."
William Penn's spirit probably smiled tolerantly as they passed
through his town. He knew how it felt to be outside the religious mainstream.
* * *
Philly's big show 100 years ago
In the first week of October 100 years ago, Philadelphia staged
The Historical Pageant of 1912, a week-long show in Fairmount Park, with more than 3,000 volunteer performers in elaborate
costumes, and an estimated 250,000 spectators.
The musical and dance extravaganza on Belmont Plateau depicted
the history of Philadelphia "from William Penn to the Consolidation."
Advertisements promised "The Story of Philadelphia in 18 scenes.
Realistic Battle of Germantown. Reading of the Declaration of Independence. Picturesque Meschianza. Franklin at the Court
of France. Field brilliantly illuminated at night by the most powerful searchlights, spotlights and the largest footlights
There was a chorus of 1,000 voices, two bands, and nearly 5,000
performers, including 500 children in "a fairy dance."
The show was the brainchild of Dr. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer,
a editor and author. He organized 13 committees with dozens of members, some with the know-how to stage his spectacle, others
After two years of preparation, daily rehearsals began in the
park on Thursday, Oct. 1. Workmen erected grandstands. Behind some trees, 70 big tents went up for costumes, scenery, performers
and horses. Dr. Oberholtzer and 100 helpers rehearsed the thousands of actors.
Word of the rehearsals spread, and Park Guards had to deal
with hundreds of onlookers as costumed volunteers practiced historical period dances. The director used a megaphone to warn
sternly against anyone sneaking in steps of the current ragtime dance, the Turkey Trot.
By Monday, the show was ready. Performances were scheduled
for 2 P. M. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, and 8 P. M. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Seats cost 50 cents, reserved seats
$1, $1.50, $2 and $3.
Thousands attended. Schools east of Broad St. closed on Monday,
and west of Broad on Wednesday, so children could come.
Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg attended on opening day, with other
officials and most of the 174 members of City Council. Dr. Oberholtzer and helpers directed from a tower above the grandstands,
communicating by signal flags and telephone lines to field directors on foot and horseback. The show began as 500 little girls
in fairy costumes danced across the field.
There followed scene after scene of musical and dancing portrayals
of moments of Philadelphia's history, with William Penn, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and all the historical favorites,
surrounded by large casts. in front of replicas of famous buildings.
The biggest crowd reaction came when stage hands erected a
facade of Cliveden mansion, and Continentals and redcoats fought the Battle of Germantown, with a cavalry charge and lots
of smoky cannon fire and musketry.
The pageant ended with a procession of all participants, past
a platform where stood 28 young women, each representing one of the former county municipalities that had been consolidated
into the city in 1854. They surrounded "Lady Philadelphia," portrayed on day one by Lucretia Blankenburg, the mayor's wife.
The pageant was so popular, the schedule was extended for the
following Monday and Tuesday. Then, the city returned to normal. The fairies were allowed to keep their costumes.
* * *
Ben Franklin's trip to Canada
The Ontario General Contractors' Association is in Philly this
week, having its 74th annual conference. It's nice to see a bunch of Canadians coming to town who are not carrying hockey
Their arrival reminds me of some obscure Philadelphia history
(okay, I admit it, almost everything reminds me of some Philadelphia history) when Benjamin Franklin traveled up to Montréal, which is not in Ontario but is right across the creek.
About 35 years ago, I visited an uncle-in-law who lived in
Ontario, outside of Alliston, mostly
potato farm country then.
We camped out back of his place,
and though we had normally comfortable sleeping bags and some auxiliary padding, we squirmed all night on ground that felt
like a marble slab. I concluded that Canada is harder than the United States.
Which has nothing to do with Ben
Franklin. He started out from Philly at the end of March in 1776 to discuss the revolution with the Canadians. With him were
three guys from Maryland: Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a wealthy patriot; his cousin John Carroll, a Jesuit priest, and
Samuel Chase, a slick-talking lawyer.
The Carrolls were chosen for the
trip because both were Catholics educated partly in France. Chase was the token Protestant.
The delegation arrived on April
29 at Montreal, where Gen. Benedict Arnold (still on our side) was presiding over the tail end of a pathetic American attempt
to invade Canada.
The idea was for Ben and his friends to soft-soap the French Canadians into joining our revolution,
The French and English didn't much care for each other in those days, so the notion seemed viable.
But the French Canadians weren't
buying it. They outnumbered the English Protestants where they were, and didn't see any point in getting involved with the
mostly English colonists down below..
When word arrived on May 6 that
British reinforcements had arrived by sea at Quebec, both Arnold and Franklin decided it was time to leave. The colonial army
was broke, and Ben Franklin lent Arnold 353 pounds to help finance the withdrawal. Ben was back in Philly by the end of June.
An oddity of the expedition came
because Ben Franklin was always a printer. He learned to set type when he was 17, and ever after, any time he got near a press,
he itched to print something.
While he was in Montréal, he ran
into Fleury Mesplet, a 42-year-old printer who had come to Philadelphia in 1774, looking for work. Mesplet had printed "Lettre
adressee aux habitants de la province de Quebec, ci devant le Canada" ("Letter to the inhabitants of the Province of Quebec
in Canada), some Continental Congress propaganda.
He was in Montreal with the army.
Ben convinced him to stay there and start a printing business. The Canadians
threw Mesplet in jail for a year. When he got out, he started a magazine that annoyed the authorities, and went to jail for
three more years.
But in 1785, he founded La Gazette
de Montreal, which became the Montreal Gazette, a newspaper still being published, which wouldn't exist if it wasn't for our
* * *
How many nudists per auto?
Looking through clippings of some columns I wrote in 1969,
(a year when Neal Armstrong walked on the moon, I still had hair, and columns were written on typewriters,) I came upon statistics
about the number of persons who rode in automobiles.
In 1940, the column said, each automobile on the road in the
United States contained an average of 3.2 persons. Having two-tenths of a person in your car sounds rather gruesome, but averages
are like that.
In 1950, the statistics went on, each car on the road averaged
2.1 persons. In 1960, each car contained only 1.4 persons.
Those declining numbers, I pointed out then, introduced a disturbing
mathematical problem. In what year would each automobile on the road in the United States be entirely empty?
I next quoted a newsletter report that the average speed of
horse-drawn vehicles in Manhattan in 1900 was about 11 miles per hour. The average speed of automobiles in 1969 was about
eight miles an hour.
That caused me to cogitate that possibly in about the same
year that each car on the road would contain an average of nobody, someone would have invented a new form of transportation
in Manhattan that didn't move at all.
Here in 2012, working at the keyboard of a device that didn't
exist in 1969, I checked on the Internet to see how those statistics shook out after four decades have gone by. I found that
in 2009, the freshest figures I located, the average speed of an automobile in Manhattan was 1.7 miles per hour.
So Manhattan hasn't dropped back to a standstill yet. But it
must be fun for New Yorkers to relax in their crawling cars and watch the pedestrians whizzing by. An average marathon runner
does about 12 miles an hour. Usain Bolt can run 100 meters at 27 miles an hour.
And automobile capacity has changed since those simpler days
of the 1960s. In 2009, each automobile on the road in the U. S. contained an average of 1.59 persons, a bit higher than the
1969 average. But today, we have assorted sizes of vehicles to complicate the statistics.
sport utility vehicle, a conveyance unknown on U. S. roads years ago, contained in '09 an average 1.78 persons. A van averaged
The experts who apparently loiter by the roadside and count
the number of folks in passing vehicles also announced that motorcycles were carrying an average of 1.18 persons.
That same 1969 column told of a police officer in Reading who
stopped an automobile in which were three naked girls. He let them drive on when they explained that they were on their way
to a nudists' convention.
I wrote that I decided to save the clipping, as a legal precedent.
I would be able to show it to a police officer if I ever got into driving trouble.
If I were stopped for speeding, I could just say, "That's all
right, officer. I'm on my way to a speeders' convention."
And I envisioned a carload of armed robbers, roaring away from
a looted bank, shouting to pursuing patrol cars, "Can't stop now! We're late for the opening session of the annual Grand Larceny
I have been unable to find any statistics on the average number
of naked people per automobile. Or on motorcycles.
* * *
Republicans met first in Philly
The exhilarating political conventions are behind us now, and
we can all breath a sigh of relief. Or was that a yawn?
But at party convention time, those of us interested in Philadelphia
history and other dull subjects think about the first Republican Party Convention, which took place in Philly in 1856. The grand new party had been organized in 1854 by a conglomeration of members of the collapsing
Whig Party, anti-slavery Democrats, abolitionists, conservative Know Nothings and other trouble-makers.
The three-day convention assembled on June 17 in the Musical
Fund Hall on Locust St. west of 8th. The old hall still stands, now a condominium building.
The Musical Fund Society was founded in 1820 by Philadelphia
musicians, professional and amateur, for "the cultivation in skill and diffusion of taste in music, and the relief of decayed
musicians and their families."
1824, the society bought a Presbyterian church building on Locust. It was replaced by a concert hall designed by William Strickland,
architect of such Philadelphia landmarks as the Merchant's Exchange,. the Second
Bank of the U. S., the old Naval Home and the tower of Independence Hall.
Notable musicians and singers appeared at the hall. The most
sensational was Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale," who gave concerts there in 1850 and 1851. Popular music fans were buying
official Jenny Lind bonnets, gloves and shawls, and singing her big hit, "Birdling, Why Sing in the Forest Wide?"
The newly-hatched Republican Party hired the hall in 1856.
"Our town is again alive with the bustle and excitement of a grand convention," The Evening Bulletin exulted.
The delegates nominated John C. Fremont, who was military,
not political. He was famous for his exploration of the Rocky Mountains, and for being military governor of California as
the expanding United States pried that valuable territory away from Mexico.
Fremont had turned down an offer to be nominated by the pro-slavery
Democrats at their convention in Cincinnati a couple of weeks before. They settled on James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, considered
soft on the slavery question.
Fremont won with 530 votes to his only opponent's 37. The real
contest was in selection of a running mate, with 15 names put in nomination, including a little-known Illinois lawyer named
Abraham Lincoln. William L. Dayton, a former New Jersey senator, beat Abe handily.
Buchanan defeated Fremont for the presidency. Four years later,
Lincoln would succeed Buchanan as president, Fremont would be commanding general of Western troops as the Civil War began,
and Lincoln would fire Fremont for ignoring his policies.
The beat went on at Musical Fund Hall, but the newer, larger
Academy of Music dominated the concert scene. As the 20th century began, fewer musical performances were held there. Though the society's musical and charitable activities continued,
the hall was sold in 1924 to a labor organization. The society got the hall back in 1937 and leased it to a boxing promoter
until 1942, then sold it again to a tobacco company that used it as a warehouse.
The Redevelopment Authority acquired the hall in 1964.It sat
empty for years, still strewn with old cigar boxes. It became condos in 1981, but its place in history is remembered at political
* * *
Dreaming the possible dream
We've been hearing a lot about "the American dream" lately
from politicians, economists, journalists and other annoyances. Discussions of that dream are vague and variable in detailing
exactly what the dream is, but most seem to think it's getting harder to make it come true.
Some commentators and punditaters propose that the American
dream is to see our children have a better life than we have. I don't know how that works for dreamers without children. I
guess they'll just have to go ahead and have the better life for themselves.
Some experts bleakly predict that the impending generation
will be the first American kids since Virginia Dare was in diapers who won't be better off than their parents. Does that mean
that the poor little generation will have smaller houses, less education, smaller salaries, less traveling, fewer dinners
in fancy restaurants, cheaper automobiles, or diminished whatever else? And/or does it mean they will consequently laugh less,
smile less often, frown more, be less happy, or whatever?
Or could it mean that the current generation overdid, and now
overestimates what the American dream entails? Maybe the upcoming generation will be happier if the future simplifies a bit,
and their predecessors' expectations calm down. Maybe they will be more like their grandparents' generation, only with a lot
more electronic gadgets.
From the earliest days, many dreamers of the American dream
did their dreaming in other countries. They struggled across borders and oceans to ensure that their children would have that
better life that's expected for every next generation.
It's still that way. A report on census data from the Pew Philadelphia Research Institute says that immigrants now make up about 20 percent of all U.
S. small business owners, although they comprise only about 13 percent of the population. Immigrants are also about 16 percent
of the work force.
American dreams come in varying sizes. An inner city kid can
dream of living in a bigger row house in a better neighborhood. The kid in a bigger row house would like to grow up and move
to the suburbs.
Some dreamers dream of making big money. Some even dream of
working hard to achieve that goal.
The American dream has always implied that anybody can be a
millionaire. There has been much written about the self-made successful person.
The philosophies of Ayn Rand have been kicked around. One of
her biographers said that the individualistic heroes of her books were "rebellious outsiders."
Maybe we could all be successful that way, but if we all were rebellious
outsiders, what would we be outside of?
There are more dreams to work toward than ones that involve
wealth or possessions. A good life, a good career, activities that bring satisfaction, are all the dreams many folks need.
A harsh fact is that the bigger the dream, the less likely
it is to come true. Every American-born child could become president of the United States, but we've only had 43 of them. (One did it twice, which hardly seems fair.)
The impossible dream was fine for Don Quixote, but choosing
a possible goal and working hard for it is more practical, and usually more fun even if you don't achieve it.
* * *
A one-item pen collection
Looking through a box of old junk (junk being loosely defined
as something you keep for 10 years and throw away two weeks before you suddenly need it), I came across my Reynolds Rocket
ball point pen. I hadn't thought of it for years.
The Reynolds Rocket, kiddies, was alleged to be the first ball
point pen. It wasn't. But most people had never heard of such a thing before it arrived. It's aluminum, with a pocket clip,
and a nose that clicks back to uncover the tip.
It was advertised that the ink would last two years. It didn't.
The ads also claimed that the pen would write under water, which few people wanted
to do, and which led to the joke, "Do you have an under water pen?" "No, but I have an Underwood typewriter."
If you don't remember the Reynolds pen, you may not know what
a typewriter is, either. But when a family friend gave me that pen, they were the latest rage.
Gimbels in New York introduced them on Oct. 29, 1945, with
full page ads proclaiming them the "fantastic, atomic era, miraculous pen." On the first day of the sale, 5,000 customers
showed up and Gimbels had to call the cops. Some 30,000 pens were sold the first week, for $12.95 each.
My pen quit writing about 67 years ago, and it has long been
in a box where dead pens and other forlorn objects linger. I searched the web to see if there was anyone eager to buy such
an antique for a large amount of money. There wasn't.
I found all sorts of information, most of it confused and contradictory.
Web sites offer to sell newer, more streamlined Reynolds pen models they say are Rockets. They're not.
Tales of the creation of the pen vary severely. Attempts had
been made for decades to improve the traditional fountain pen, which needed to be refilled with liquid ink every so often.
In 1938, a Hungarian journalist named Laszlo Biro patented
a fairly successful ball point pen in England. Milton Reynolds, a wheeler-dealerish American businessman, saw a Biro pen in
Chicago or Buenos Aires, depending on which dependable source you depend on. He manufactured that model of his own and made
a lot of money.
With profits from his pen, Reynolds bought a twin engine airplane,
set a round-the-world speed record, and the flew over the K-2 mountain in the Himalayas, to prove his theory that it was taller
than Mt. Everest. It wasn't.
He got rich investing in such things as the first birth control
pills and Iranian oil, and retired to Mexico, where he died in 1976 at age 84.
There is material about Reynolds out the proverbial wazoo on
the web, but I located only one person who knows what the original Reynolds Rocket was. He is Richard Binder, a fountain pen
dealer and expert in Nashua, New Hampshire, which boasts that it is the only city that Money magazine has named the Best Place
to Live in America twice (so if you have the impulse to live someplace twice, Nashua would be it.)
Binder has a personal collection of 400 pens, and says that
the Rocket was the first Reynolds pen he bought. (He must be an old guy, like me.) So, I guess I have a one-item antique pen
* * *
When vote fraud was an art
The current hullabaloo about voters needing photo identification
would have the Philadelphia politicians of 100 years ago laughing. The incumbent party in those days didn't try to prevent
anybody from voting. In those simpler times, they encouraged everyone to vote as often as possible (but not for the opposition
Most experts say that people voting twice or more in modern
elections are pretty rare. That's probably because today's politicians are too wussy to try to get away with that. A goodly
number of them engage in activities that get them incarcerated, but not for something so petty as vote tampering.
Not so, back in the days when Philadelphia was "corrupt and
contented." Lincoln Steffans coined that phrase in his study of American cities in 1904. He called Pittsburgh "hell with the
lid off," too, so Philly actually came off good by comparison.
Vote fraud was an art in those days. The early 20th century
Republican political machine in Philadelphia produced votes in bulk with apparent ease. Steffans wrote of a reformer who,
as a test, sent a registered letter to each voter on the rolls of a selected election division. Of the lot, 63 percent were
returned marked "not at," "removed," "deceased," etc.
He found 44 voters registered in one four-story house, from
which 18 letters came back. Many other houses produced similar results. A row of six houses had 127 voters registered.
was impressed by a politician from the ward that contained Independence Hall, who gave a speech in which he named some of
the founders of the nation. "These men, the fathers of American liberty, voted down here once. And," he added with a grin,
"they vote here yet."
Unlike so many American innovations, Philadelphia did not invent
voter fraud. An obscure instance comes to mind from 1858, when a small town lawyer in Illinois was running for office against
an incumbent famous senator.
The superintendent of an Illinois railroad backed the senator,
and gave him a free pass to use while campaigning. He often lent the senator his personal rail car.
election day, the railroad executive learned that the rival candidate had chartered a train to ship a cargo of illegal voters
to a precinct where his party needed extra votes. The railroad chief gave his workers orders; the locomotive hauling the fraudulent
voters mysteriously broke down, and wasn't fixed until the polls closed.
The sad news here is that the backwoods candidate who tried
to export dishonest voters was Honest Abe himself. The railroad superintendent was Gen. George Brinton McClellan, a Philadelphia
Lincoln lost that one, but two years later (one hopes with
no shenanigans) he was elected president, and in the Civil War he became McClellan's commander, and eventually had to fire
him. In the middle of the war, McClellan unsuccessfully ran against Lincoln for president. No photo IDs were necessary.
The first ever photo IDs probably were a Philadelphia invention.
They were issued to officials, reporters, exhibitors and vendors at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876. No voting was required.
* * *
All things being equal
Gen. Raul Castro Ruz, President of the Council of State and
President of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Cuba, told the United States, a few weeks ago, that his government
is willing to meet with our government. He said the Cubans are willing to discuss any topic, so long as it is a conversation
Ah, equality. All things being equal, there is little that
is more important than equality.
we have Cuba, a country just a bit smaller in size and population than Pennsylvania, with a gross domestic product of $114
billion, wishing to be considered the equal of the United States of America, with 30 times its population, 90 times its area,
and a GDP of $15 trillion.
I guess that should be no surprise to us. A mere 236 years
ago, we tossed the same audacity at a bunch of blokes who believed that, as George Orwell suggested, some people were born
more equal than others.
Life was simpler for everybody, but harder for most, when most
people were destined at birth to a certain level of existence, with a few at the top, some in between, and the rest at a miserable
bottom. Then, Tom Jefferson sent the top fellows a note that told them that all men were created equal.
Tom didn't mention that after we're all created equal, from
then on it's every man for himself. It's the opportunity that is equal, not the person, and even some opportunities are rigged
to be more equal than others.
The way equality works, King George III would never have written
to Thomas Jefferson that they were equals, and I doubt that Barack Obama would write it to President Castro.
The late C. S. Lewis, in a context that placed his tongue largely
in cheek, wrote: "No man who says 'I'm as good as you are' believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never
says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain."
People in modern times enjoy deriding Jefferson, Washington
and a few other of our founding dudes here and there, for hypocrisy in proposing that all men were created equal, but not
including the slaves they owned. No one seems to notice that they were also proclaiming "We're as good as you are" to King
George, Lord North, and an endless list of princes, dukes, earls, barons and assorted other kinds of titled big-shots.
Even in their idealistic frenzy to create a truly democratic
society, our forefathers were inclined to create hierarchies and entitlements. Revolutionary soldiers' idea of a democratic
army was to elect their officers. They didn't seem to consider not having officers, and most guys they elected immediately
began acting the self-important way enlisted men through the ages have been familiar with..
George Washington was being addressed as "Your Excellency"
while he was still a general, and I never read of him, or any privates, objecting. In the first session of the U. S. Congress
in 1789, John Adams, of all people, proposed that the president of the United States be addressed henceforth as "His Serene
Highness." Barack should mention that to Raul.
* * *
Should baseball go high-tech?
Baseball fans have been criticizing umpires ever since the
sport was invented. Players, sports writers and broadcasters also moan and grumble about bad calls.
has made it worse. When an umpire misjudges a play, cameras aimed from every angle can show what happened, close up and usually
That has prompted suggestions that instant replays replace
the time-honored aftermath of a disputed play, which involves an umpire and a manager glowering at each other with jutting
jaws, saying rude things.
The subject came up when Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig spoke at a Baseball Writers Association gathering. Talking specifically about fair
or foul calls and the question of trapped balls, the commissioner said that instant replay would not be applied until "we
have the technology to do it."
Has Bud never
seen a ball game on television? Don't we already have the technology to photograph and record where a baseball goes?
The report of that opinion made me long for the days of my
boyhood, when the baseball commissioner was Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. One could accept with admiration, if not awe, the
prouncements of a commissioner who was an actual federal judge and was named after a Civil War battlefield. Now we have Allan
Huber Selig, who has a degree in political science, was in the automobile leasing business and calls himself Bud.
Bud apparently hasn't noticed that cameras and sensors are
everywhere. Cameras catch you driving through a red light, and photograph the license plate of your car doing about the same
speed as a batted ball.
Cameras in the mall parking lot watch you, and sensors at the
doors detect you leaving stores with unpaid-for merchandise. Devices in airports pry into the contents of your luggage, and
even can see if you are wearing explosive jockey shorts.
What would be so hard to aim cameras at bases, or have sensors
keep an electronic eye on foul lines? The sport has tested instant replay to judge contested fouls, fan interference or whether
a ball has left the park. But the procedure is done solemnly, apologetically, as though it is shameful to doubt the infallibility
of those guys in blue suits.
Baseball happily adopted the measurement of the speed of pitches,
which is interesting to know but largely irrelevant. (It's also irrelevant that probably the first device to measure pitch
speeds was invented by the late Dr. Israel Monroe Levitt, director of the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute for many
years, who had pitched for a sandlot team called the East Phillies when he was young, about 80 years ago.)
In fact, technology exists to correct the least reliable and
most important duty of umpires, calling balls and strikes. Sensors on each edge of home plate could determine whether a pitch
is outside. Motion capture technology that movies use to animate fantastic creatures could easily be adapted to clip sensors
on the appropriate high and low spots on players' uniforms to monitor that parameter.
I hear the purists and nostalgiacs groaning. But wouldn't it be better to light a sensor than to curse the umpires?
* * *
Old teachers remembered
As I look back, and the distance back keeps getting longer,
I've been thinking of teachers who influenced me.
I think of Roland D. Cain, an English teacher at Northeast
High School, who would entertain us by reading Chaucer or "Macbeth" aloud in the original accents. He advised the school newspaper
One of his classroom exercises was to pass out column-long
clippings of New York Times news articles, and tell us to condense them to seven paragraphs. I inwardly blessed him regularly
10 years later, as a rewrite man at the Evening Bulletin, when a night editor would hand me a long story from the day's paper
and say "Give me this in three 'graphs" for the next day's early editions.
Upon graduation, when I told Mr. Cain I had applied at The
Bulletin, he tried to talk me out of it. He said I would never make much money. He was right, but what fun I had.
Dr. James D. Gordon became faculty adviser of the newspaper
after Mr. Cain, and taught me a lot about being an editor by letting me figure things out for myself. We talked more about
writing as a craft than about journalism.
My first full-fledged journalism teacher, at the old Charles
Morris Price School, was Henry Charlton Beck. He had become a newspaperman in the Twenties, after studying a bit at Penn.
He played the fiddle in a theater orchestra on the side.
For a while, he was editor of the Camden Courier-Post. He told
of the day he became angry with a reporter, and sarcastically ordered him to go get a story about the leaves in the gutter
in a nearby town. Henry intended the ridiculous assignment as punishment, but the guy came back with a headline exposé of
a scandal in a municipal street cleaning department.
In the Thirties and Forties, Henry wrote a series of books
about the history and culture of New Jersey pinelands and old towns, classics
published by Rutgers University Press. He was a copy editor at The Bulletin in the early Forties, and active in Episcopal
He wrote mystery novels with newsroom background. But one was
entitled "Death at a Church Supper." He liked to say, "It's amazing it doesn't happen more often."
At age 44, he changed directions and became an Episcopal priest.
"Went into the collar business," he used to say. He edited church publications, and in his spare time taught the mechanics
of news writing with sharp insight.
Also at Price School was Don Rose, who taught feature writing.
Don came from England in 1908, and mostly taught college courses (including Hebrew) until 1927, when he began his column in
the old Evening Ledger.
I read his "Stuff and Nonsense" column when I was a little
boy. He moved to The Bulletin when the Ledger collapsed in 1942, and wrote there until he died in 1964.
Where Henry Beck had given precise assignments of articles
to submit in class, Don was lackadaisical. Our homework was to write anything we wanted, "as long as it's good." He didn't
hesitate to tell us when it wasn't, and why.
And there was Herb Brooks, who taught fiction writing at Price.
His criticism was vicious, but usually correct. They're all gone now, but they deserve this small posthumous shout-out.
* * *
Accumulated random thoughts
Here is a collection of some random thoughts I've been collecting
recently on scraps of paper, or in scraps of my brain.
THOUGHT No. One: News media and municipal people have begun calling squares parks,
as in "Norris Square Park" and "Franklin Square Park." That sounds stupidly redundant to old-time Philadelphians, but the
usage is spreading, here and also in New York.
I haven't heard anybody yet say "Rittenhouse Square Park,"
but it could happen any day now. And since people seem confused about whether Logan Square is a square or a circle, we could
end up with "Logan Square Circle Park."
In the traditional Philadelphia lexicon, a city block was a
square. When I was a kid, people didn't use the word block.
My house was two squares from Harrowgate Square, which was
a park, but not a Park. My grandfather was on the crew in 1917 that tore down the last houses on that square along Kensington
Ave., so that square could become the Square.
THOUGHT No. Two: The signs sticking up on top of the
Parking Authority's fee-collecting juke boxes say "Kiosk Located Here." That must mean nearly nothing to any strangers to
town or other uninformed parkers. If the city hired somebody who could communicate in straightforward English, the signs would
say, "Pay for Parking Here."
THOUGHT No. Three: Articles about Andy Reid, the Eagles impresario, visiting his
high school alma mater in Los Angeles, mentioned that the nickname of the school, John Marshall High, is the Barristers. They
obviously use that courtroom moniker because John Marshall was one of the more supreme chief justices of the Supreme Court.
How nice that a school picked a name with meaning. Any school
can be tigers or bruins or titans or chargers.
When I was at Northeast High School, a bunch of decades ago,
our teams were called the Archives. Our somewhat arch rivals at Central High were the Mirrors. Those appellations came from
the titles of the two schools' literary magazines. Northeast teams have now become Vikings, though Norwegians are scarce around
Cottman and Algon, Central teams are Lancers for no apparent reason, and not many high schools have literary magazines.
THOUGHT No. Four: In a magazine article, a woman suggested a way to solve what she called the duration problem of reading
a long book while traveling: "If you download the Kindle app across the iPad and iPhone, you can get about 10 hours," she
revealed. Good advice. Or, you could buy the book. You know, the version made out of paper. You could travel with that for
years, without recharging anything.
THOUGHT No. Five: The Hollywood masterminds who put movies on DVDs or Blu-Rays or
whatever usually provide subtitles as an option, but sometimes they don't. I suspect that they think English subtitles on
American films are mainly for foreign diplomats and illegal immigrants.
There are many movie viewers with hearing problems, who find
those subtitles a blessing. Currently about six million Americans are over 80, that age group is growing four times faster
than the general population, and I'm sure that many of those folks appreciate English subtitles.
* * *
Consensus and some nonsenses
When the national aggregation of Occupiers finished improving
our lives on July 4 and moved on to other places in need of their ministrations, they ended the day with some meetings. They
assembled some fuzzy focus groups, working to compile a list of the things that those gathered in Philly would like to achieve.
It wasn't easy. It's hard enough for one person to decide what
to do in any given circumstance. Add another person, and the possibility for indecision and conflict is immediate.
together a group, such as family, church, labor union, sewing circle, Boy Scout troop, burglary ring, corporate board, Rotary
Club, kids on a playground, or any other accumulation of people you could name,. The possibility immediately arises of vacillation,
dissension, argument, fist fights and most other manifestations of unpleasant behavior.
The problem the Occupiers has is that they are, or want to
be, representative of 99 percent of the population. If you can't agree with your in-laws, or your co-workers, or those annoying
people next door, or some other teeny percents of the population, how are you going to get an accumulation of Occupiers, much
less their beloved 99 percent, to agree on things?
I was intrigued by an Occupier quoted in the Inquirer, who
felt that it was presumptuous to draft a list of goals for the non-organization.
"In my opinion as an anarchist," he said, "I'm not going to
condone any sort of message stapled to the Occupy movement before we have the consensus of all of the 99 percent, if not 100
An anarchist (I now quote the Oxford American Dictionary) is
a person who believes that government and laws are undesirable and should be abolished. In that context, it's every person
for him or her self, so it would be vital to know what everybody wants.
How would he go about getting that consensus of the 99 percent
the Occupiers want to represent? (The one percent wouldn't have time to speak
to him. They're otherwise occupied.)
The Census Bureau says that the population of the United States,
as of this writing, is 313,890,894 persons. But people keep getting born, dying, immigrating, emigrating and sneaking in,
so there's a net gain of 13 people every second. The number will be bigger by the time you read this.
Children make up much of that population. Most of them are 99 percenters, not fortunate enough to be born with a silver percent in their mouths.
The Census Bureau number-manglers seem to feel that about 65
percent of the populations is registered to vote. Let's say there are, therefore, about 205 million adults who vote. About
203 million would be 99 percent of them.
Our anarchist friend would probably demand that non-voters
such as children and adult slackers be included, but I recommend that he get the consensus of the registered voters just for
I've got an idea for the anarchist. To get a consensus, why
don't we have all those 99 percenters go to the polls and elect people to represent them?
Oops! That sounds as though the result might be laws and a
government, and no self-respecting anarchist would want that.
* * *
Take them to our leader
On the day that the news media and the Internet busybodies
discharged overwhelming amounts of coverage and verbiage about the Supreme Court sanctifying Obamacare, there seemed to be
almost as much written, broadcasted and otherwise inflicted on us about a survey that said Americans think Obama would handle
a space alien invasion better than Romney.
The ruckuses weren't really equal. I typed "Supreme Court Obamacare"
into Google and was offered 422 million entries, while "Romney Obama aliens" found only 48 million mentions.
But that's still a lot, for such nonsense. The survey was taken
by the National Geographic people. There is a strong suspicion that it had something to do with a television show about space
alien matters that they were ballyhooing.
Reporters and commentators gleefully leaped on the publicity
gimmick, reporting that 65 percent of Americans said that the president would be better than his opponent at repelling an
attack from outer space. Most didn't seem to notice that the people surveyed were a randomly selected 1,114 Americans 18 years
old and over.
Now, I admit that I am not a statistician, but, give me a break.
This poll did not measure the couple of hundred million Americans it claimed to. What we got was 65 percent of 1,114 people
picking Obama as the alien slayer.
The survey went on, with what would be a straight face if surveys
had faces, to say that the poll revealed that nearly half of Americans would volunteer to have their boss be experimented
on by space aliens.
That result supposes not only that the 1,114 responders represent
the millions of Americans who have bosses. It begs the question, are aliens from outer space prepared for, or even interested
in, performing experiments on selected human beings?
And that, in turn, begs the question, is there such a thing
as an alien from outer space? The survey reports that only 36 percent of those surveyed said they believed in the existence
of such aliens in the first place, so who cares which presidential candidate
would be most likely to trounce such critters?
Non-believers accounted for 17 percent of the vote. The remaining
48 percent said they were not sure. (That comes to 101 percent, but I'm just giving you the figures the pollsters reported.
An extra one percent is not my problem.)
The poll also determined that more of the polees believe in
aliens than in superheroes or zombies. That would seem not to concern Obama or Romney. President Lincoln already took care
of the zombie problem in that current movie, and the superheroes are on our side.
If members of that 1,114 bunch encountered an alien, the surveyors
reported, 22 percent said they would try to befriend it; 15 percent said they would run away; 13 percent said they would lock
the doors; two percent said they would try to fight it, and 55 percent said the government has men in black to handle the
situation. (That's more than 100 percent, too, but this is science fiction.)
Nobody was specific on how Obama or Romney would repel the
invaders. Probably Obama would force them to buy health insurance. Romney would make them ride on the roof of his car.
* * *
July 4, 2012
by James Smart
The first Fourth of July
Sometime around July 1, 1777, some Philadelphia big shot must have said to his
The anniversary of the Declaration is coming up. We should celebrate."
They had other things on their minds. A British fleet was lurking
off the coast. Congress had moved to Baltimore because of the threat, and had just officially come back to Philadelphia in
March. Some congressmen didn't bother to return, afraid they would just have to pack up and leave again. (They were right.
Three months later, the British occupied Philly.)
When the Declaration of Independence was approved in 1776, John
Adams wrote home to the missus, "The second day of July,
1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding
generations as the great anniversary festival."
the city wasn't ready on July 2. And the date on the Declaration said July 4 anyway. So Americans celebrated Independence
Day on July 4. And still do.
It was a clear, hot Friday. At sun-up, the Pennsylvania navy
began slipping away from the docks, a dozen warships, 13 war galleys and some 300 transports, to line up in the Delaware,
from Walnut St. south to Fort Mifflin, flags blowing from the masts.
Citizens lined the waterfront. Congress adjourned at noon and
joined the crowd. By 1 P. M., the yardarms were full of standing sailors.
Then, one cannon on each galley and 13 on each warship, nearly
200 guns, let out a roar that rattled windows for miles.. The salute was repeated 13 times, one for each state.
On the open ground near Society Hill, the First and Second
Troops of Light Horse gave three cheers between each blast, their horses prancing and snorting at the noise.
When the salutes died away, more than 50 congressmen and officials
entered the City Tavern at Second and Walnut, led by the Hon. John Hancock of Massachusetts, president of Congress. Among
the guests at the multiple-course dinner were two of the most respected generals of the Continental Army, Gen. Horatio Gates
and Gen. Benedict Arnold.
Music for the event was provided by a captured Hessian military
band that had been marched over from the city jail at Sixth and Walnut. A corps of British deserters who had joined the First
Georgia Regiment lined up outside and fired a musket salute between band numbers.
After dinner, the bigwigs drank 13 toasts. Between each toast,
the 1,000-man Carolina Brigade on the Society Hill common fired 13 volleys of musketry, accompanied by the Hessian band and
blasts from some brass Hessian field pieces captured at Trenton.
Then the troops paraded. They finished about dusk Church bells
were rung, and windows all over town were alight with candles.
Many citizens had not celebrated. At heart, they were still
subjects of King George And many roughneck "patriots" roamed about, heaving rocks through unlit windows.
The mayor had ordered all watchmen to be on duty from 8 to
11 P. M. to avoid rioting, and had sent a bell-ringer around, announcing that all window lights must be out by 11 P. M.
At midnight, the city was quiet. Even ruffians didn't stay
up late in 1777.
✰ ✰ ✰
An old-time political scandal
This month is the 40th anniversary of the Watergate affair,
when five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington and touched off a political scandal
that ultimately sent 43 people to jail, including some top administration officials, and resulted in Richard M. Nixon resigning
from the presidency.
Curiously, and perhaps particularly American, the brains behind
the crime, G. Gordon Liddy, is today a radio host and political celebrity.
The anniversary reminded me of a political conspiracy in 1874,
that I discovered while doing research for my book, "Adonijah Hill's Journal."
In February, 1874, a group of prominent Washington citizens
convinced Congress to create a committee to investigate corruption in the Capitol. Leader of the group was a businessman named
Gen. Orville Babcock, a White House official, was accused of
exaggerating measurements of public works projects so contractors could collect excessive payments. A major contractor was
subpoenaed to produce his books. Alexander denounced the books as fakes.
The conspirators in the fraud concocted an elaborate scheme
to discredit Columbus Alexander. Babcock approved it.
They would stage a burglary of the office of an Assistant U.
S. Attorney, who was one of the conspirators, steal the contractor's records from a safe there, and plant them on Alexander
to discredit him.
The whole story of the plot is too complicated to fit in this
column. I have 27 single-spaced typed pages of details, from old law publication articles. It culminated in a nearly comic
On the night of April 23, the Assistant U. S. Attorney told
the D. C. police chief (not in on the plot) that he had a tip that his office would be burgled. He suggested they let it happen
and follow the burglar. They hid in his office building, and heard the break-in.
The safe-cracker, who had been highly recommended by the chief
of the Secret Service, did his job and sneaked out the back. An associate, who was to be arrested but allowed to "escape"
by the Secret Service, carried away a bag of stolen papers.
The police chief and the federal attorney followed him from a distance. They were joined by the head of city detectives, whom the chief had stationed
outside. As they crept along, a politician who knew them happened by, and joined them.
At one point, they rounded a corner and bumped into the burglar.
He was lost, and politely asked the posse which way was F St. They told him.
When the burglar got to Columbus Alexander's house, ready to
deliver the incriminating papers, he rang the door bell for some 20 minutes. Alexander, who they were sure would be at home,
The conspiracy collapsed. The Assistant U. S. Attorney was
so upset, he vomited. A celebration supper at a Washington club, planned by some of the corrupt politicians, was canceled.
The police chief became suspicious, and in the subsequent weeks
there were investigations and arrests. Those conspirators could have used a man like G. Gordon Liddy.
Here's the kicker: I found Columbus Alexander's family tree
on line. His great-grandson is G. Gordon Liddy.
* * *
What fun! It's election year
If you look at politics as a sport, a tendency among journalists
and other public nuisances, the upcoming presidential election is shaping up to be a lot of fun.
A recent national poll discovered that more Americans claim
to be politically independent these days than any time since Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term. Only 32 percent of voting
age citizens admitted that they are Democrats, and 24 percent confessed to being Republicans.
That left 38 present of the adult population wandering in that
political wasteland where they are compelled to make up their own minds. Unfortunately, the decision they make might be not
to vote at all.
I have long identified myself as a Middle-of-the-Road Extremist
(Our slogan: We Disagree With Everybody.) But I have always dutifully voted, even when it was difficult to decide which candidate
was the worst.
Media pundits who pundified about that poll's indication that
folks are abandoning their traditional alliances seem to believe that quitters are quitting the Republican party because it
has become too conservative, that Democrats are defecting because the party leans too far left, and that the non-partied are
meeting somewhere in the political middle.
Unfortunately for pundithood, it is possible that Tea Party
Republicans have picked up their Tetley bags and walked out because they think the Romney Republicans are too moderate. Democrats
on the opposite extreme (who have not yet chosen a symbolic beverage) may have departed because President Obama has not magically
established their vision of government.
Whether there is a shift to the middle, or people are falling
off both ends, it will be interesting to see what effect these supposedly uncommitted voters have in November. The effect
is particularly unpredictable if the disaffected Tea Party enthusiasts decide not to vote at all.
Since Lyndon Johnson hung it up in 1968, we have had only three
terms of Democrat presidents until Obama. Jimmy Carter lasted one term; Bill Clinton held on for two.
Both Carter and Clinton are Southern Baptists. It may be unfortunate
that religion plays a part in elections in the land of Constitutional freedom of religion, but conservative Christians had
a lot to do with those Democrats landing in the White House.
Obama is an African-American. It may be unfortunate in the
land of Constitutional racial equality, but many conservative Christians, and not just in the South, have their doubts about
Obama. And now they must choose between the president and a Mormon, whose faith they consider apostate, or at least wrong-thinking.
When Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976, white voters were
89 percent of the electorate. When Barack Obama was elected, the number of white voters was 74 percent. The 2010 Census reported
that non-Hispanic white voters are now 77.5 percent of voters
Does all of the above give you enough fuel to start a good
argument? Personally, I'm looking forward to watching those fun-filled results on election night in the fall. It will be more
entertaining than watching the World Series, the way the Phillies are going.
* * *
by James Smart
Longest may live the Queen
The British did a lot of whooping and hollering in honor of
Queen Elizabeth having endured 60 years of reigning She deserved that national shout-out.
She has an occupation that takes up most of her time, and attracts
devotion and respect, but with some measure of disobedience and disdain. It's a lot like being a parent, except that she's
the perceived mama of 63 million people.
You have to like your job to stick with it for 60 years. But
she does have job security. The last time a monarch had his job terminated was 363 years ago, when Elizabeth's 8th great-grand-uncle,
King Charles I, lost his job and, not incidentally, his head. Most modern human resources departments probably never consider
The British tried getting along without a king, but their new
unroyal CEO was no fun, so about 10 years later, they brought back Charles's son, and once again had a Charles in charge.
That illustrates the down side of Elizabeth's situation. She
didn't have much choice. It's the family business, and she was expected to take over, even if she preferred another line of
It's not a job you can just walk away from. Her uncle Eddie
did it, and came off looking a bit like a jerk. Which he probably was.
Elizabeth may well break the throne-warming record set by Queen
Victoria, her great-great grandmother. In 1896, Victoria passed the 59-year ruling record of her great-grandfather, George
III, who died in 1820 at age 81.
Queen Victoria ruled over an empire much bigger and more British-controlled
than Elizabeth does today. Victoria had an additional title, Empress of India, which shows how much Britain had its royal
hooks into in those days.
King George III had a giant empire going for him, too, but
he blew it. His administration treated America as though it were a third world country that needed parenting from his little
island, and lost a whole continent to a bunch of subjects he found revolting.
didn't have a chance to organize festivities to honor George III's long reign, but gave him a nice funeral. He was buried
in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, where most kings and queens of England have been entombed ever since.
seen a photograph of a ticket to George III's funeral, issued by the "Office of the Groom of the Stole" (meaning stool.) That
title goes back to the 15th century, originally a high ranking royal staff member who helped their majesties with personal
matters you may not want to know about.
Britain did put on a big shin-dig in London in 1897 to celebrate
Victoria's 60th year, although not quite as elaborate as Elizabeth's recent frolic. Victoria lived on until January, 1901,
and died at age 81.
Elizabeth II turned 86 on April 21. She looks to be in pretty
good shape, riding horseback, going hunting, raising thoroughbred horses, and also doing all the stuff monarchs are expected
to do, always with a cool demeanor and spiffy hats.
Her mother lived to be 100. Elizabeth has a good chance to
pass Victoria's record and become the queen of royal longevity. So, mark your calendar for another possible celebration in
* * *
by James Smart
A big year, 100 years ago
This Year is the 100th anniversary of a lot of interesting
things. For instance, 1912 was the year of the invention of the heart attack.
Well, not exactly. People's hearts had been attacking them
for years. But when folks complained of chest pains, and sometimes keeled over, doctors would diagnose the problem as indigestion,
or food poisoning, or angina pectoris. "Angina" comes from the Greek word for strangling, and "pectoris" from Latin for chest,
so doctors were just telling the patient what he already knew, in two languages.
The medical industry had noticed in autopsies that there were
often clots in coronary arteries, but considered it just an aspect of aging. They called
the blockage "thrombosis," which is Greek for clot, but sounds better when you're describing something you're not sure
In 1912, a Chicago doctor named James D. Herrick wrote a paper
in the Journal of the American Medical Association about his diagnosis of a living heart attack patient, 55 years old. He
explained how clots destroy heart muscle, and changed doctors' understanding of heart attacks.
Another thing invented in 1912 was the fourth down, if a down
can be considered a thing. Football previously had only three downs per possession, since 1898. I'm not sure why an extra
down seemed desirable, but we still have it, so it must have been a good idea.
Whoever mandated the football rules also made a touchdown worth
six points. It was formerly only five.
And they allowed a new-fangled piece of business, the forward
pass, to count as a touchdown if caught in the end zone. Why they didn't name that a grab-up is not known.
While football teams were learning the new rules, two separate
teams of biochemists, one at the University of Wisconsin and one at Yale, discovered Vitamin A in 1912. It was also the year
that Richard Hellmann started making mayonnaise, and the National Biscuit Co. began making Oreos.
The Girls Scouts of America had their start in 1912; the first
troop was in Savannah, Georgia. The concept was adapted from the Girl Guides organization in England. Hadassah, the Jewish
women's organization, was also founded.
Two grocery stores opened in California in 1912 with no clerks
waiting on people. They were called self-service markets; one used the name "groceteria." The word supermarket seemed to sprout
mysteriously later, about 1930.
The letters SOS, tapped out as three dots, three dashes and
three dots, was adopted as a world-wide distress signal by an international radio-telegraph conference. New Mexico and Arizona
became the 47th and 48th states.
Leon Leonwood Bean started a clothing store up in Maine. His
business got big, and is still with us. Frank Woolworth organized five small shops into a chain of five and ten cent stores,
which is no longer with us. Now we have dollar stores.
Born in 1912 were
Julia Child, Perry Como, Pat Nixon, Wernher von Braun and Jay Silverheels. Died in 1912: Clara Barton, Bram Stoker, Wilbur
Wright, John Jacob Astor and August Strindberg,
It was an interesting
year. Most years are.
* * *
Some reflections on Memorial Day
On this Memorial Day, there is a lot of interest in the Civil
War as its 150th anniversary rolls along. For the parents and grandparents who raised folks my age, memories of that war always
hung over their households.
My grandfather would be 150 years old this year. When he was
old and I was pre-school age, he told me stories of his father's days in the Union army. There were no tales of battles and
heroism. He told mostly of his father marching around, following Gen. McClellan on the Virginia peninsula, subsisting on hard
tack and beans as his teeth loosened up and his hair began to fall out because of scurvy.
Grandpop was gone before I became old enough and interested
enough to investigate the facts about the family and the war. It's a kind of story many American families can tell on this
sesquicentennial of that lethal conflict.
My great-grandfather was 27 when the war started. He had been
married seven years, had a six-year-old son, and worked in a textile mill. He had no great reason to join the army.
brother Joe enlisted two months after the war began. He became a private in Co. 1, 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Then, kid brother
Jake signed up in Co. B, 90th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.
Soon, the oldest brother got the itch to go soldiering, too.
My grandfather was born on July 11, 1862. On August 12, his father enlisted in Co. B, 68th Pennsylvania Volunteers.
weren't the letter-writing type. Joe was a brick maker by trade; Jake was a harness-maker. The family has no collection of
battlefield correspondence to tell what the boys were going through.
In March of 1864, Jake died of disease in Virginia, age 23,
On Jan. 11, 1865, Joe, 27, followed him. They were casualties of war, but no medals are given for their kind of sacrifice.
great-grandfather made it through to the end of the war. Any memories of his adventures have been buried with the old folks.
To imagine some of his experiences, we have to turn to the
history books. His regiment was in big battles: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the last charge at Petersburg. The 68th
was one of four Yankee regiments at the Peach Orchard on the second day at Gettysburg, He was one of about 980 men facing
nearly 3,000 Confederates.
At the end of the war, about one man out of eight in the original
68th roll call was dead. My great-grandfather came home with a bad leg, from falling off a wagon. No medals for that, either.
the early 20th century, on the day before Decoration Day, as they called May 30th then, my grandmother would take the old
push lawn mower on the trolley car up to the cemetery, to make sure that my great-grandfather's grave was tidy when the Sons
of Union Veterans squad came on the holiday to put a flag on the plot and fire a rifle salute.
She was the daughter of a German immigrant. He was her father-in-law.
She didn't know or care much about war, or history, or politics, but she understood the sacrifices some families made to serve
their country. Some still do.
* * *
What's in an old-time name?
The folks at the Social Security Administration have issued
their annual list of the most popular names applied to arriving babies last year. They must have a lot of time on their hands,
between the days when they shower checks upon grateful codgers.
Not only does their web site offer the list of favored infant
monikers, but it provides much other useful information. There's a section on "Effects on Medicare when in jail," which I
haven't yet consulted, but it's comforting to know it exists. One never knows when one might be ill or incarcerated, and possibly
Another title on the Social Security site is "Speeding up the
hearing process." That could be valuable. When you're confronted by a polical speech or a dull lecture, it would be splendid
to be able to hear it faster.
As to the vital news about baby names, which was thoroughly
thrashed about by various media lately, the fact that strikes me the most is that, for the 13th year, the most popular name
affixed to new male babies is Jacob.
My family was ahead of the trend. I had a grandfather, a great
uncle and a great-great-grandfather named Jacob, and narrowly escaped being a Jacob myself.
a Biblical name, of course. The first Jacob, or at least, the first famous one, was the father of the dozen boys who founded
the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The meaning of the Hebrew name is usually given as "supplanter," because Jacob sneakily took
his brother's place and got his old man's inheritance.
But in a sort of trickle-down name usage, James got to be the
English equivalent of Jacob. In the 17th century, the reign of King James I was called the Jacobean era, and the Highland
Scottish troublemakers who supported James Stuart were called Jacobites.
Later, the nastiest bunch of head-removers in the French Revolution
were the Jacobins, so named because their Paris headquarters was in Rue St. Jacques, the French version of James or Jacob
While assorted speculations have been speculated, nobody seems
to know why Jacob is the hot name for American boys. The number one name for girls is Sophia, the Greek word for wisdom. That's
better than "supplanter."
Here are the top 10 boys' names: Jacob, Mason, William, Jayden,
Noah, Michael, Ethan, Alexander, Aiden, Daniel.
Now, the top ten for girls: Sophia, Isabella, Emma, Olivia,
Ava, Emily, Abigail, Madison, Mia, Chloe.
The name that seems most strange to me is Jayden. It first
crept into Social Security's top hundred in 1994, but no one has a good explanation for it. Some Star Trek aficionados point
out that when Commander Data, the sallow-complected robot on the Second Generation series, got amnesia in one episode, someone
who found him wandering gave him the name Jayden.
That raises two questions. Such a flimsy event makes a name
popular? Robots can get amnesia?
The upshot of the name-popularity announcement is this: If
you want your child to have an unusual name, select, for a boy, John, Joseph, Robert or Thomas. For a girl, Jane, Mary, Helen
or Joan. Avoid those everyday names like Jayden or Madison.
* * *
Why update good old stories?
The British have shipped us a few more chunks of their alleged
Sherlock Holmes television series in which Holmes and Watson are portrayed by
two fellows who look barely out of adolescence, and which is set in modern London with its super-sized Ferris wheel and gherkin-shaped
skyscraper and all that, and nary a Hansom cab or gas-lit street in sight.
It has long been fashionable for stage, screen and tube to
shift classic theatrical works to modern locations. Creative types get some sort of ego-goosing thrill from such projects
as setting "Hamlet" in Milwaukee, or putting "Carmen" to work in a Starbucks with Escamillio being a quarterback instead of
Everyone to his own taste, but personally, I prefer leaving
Hamlet in Denmark where he belongs, and placing Julius Caesar in ancient Rome and not converting him into a modern fascist
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stuck Holmes and Watson smack in his
own time. If Conan Doyle had wanted them to be in the 21st century, he would have written science fiction. And if some present-day
dramatists want to give us a pair of 21st century detectives, they should darn well create their own.
If this sort of updating of familiar works continues, I suppose
the next thing BBC might inflict on us is 21st century tales of Robin Hood. The producers could borrow from the American terminology,
and have the Merry Men rob from the one percent to give to the 99 percent.
I see Daniel Radcliffe as Robin. Pippa Middleton would be a
perfect Maid Marian. The Archbishop of Canterbury could do a cameo as Friar Tuck, and
Tony Blair could be an economy-sized Little John.
The British are good at updating stuff, but we could both modernize
and Americanize some well-know tales. How about a 21st century American "Christmas Carol," with a young Scrooge to match the
young Sherlock Holmes?
Scrooge would be a twentyish chap who created an Internet social
networking system and became fabulously wealthy. As he sits counting his dollars and gigabytes, he is visited by the ghost
of Bernie Madoff or somebody. You know how it goes.
The old newspaper play, "The Front Page," could become "The
Front Web Site." Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" could be moved from the Salem witch trial to a Tea Party committee trying
to get Barack Obama to confess that he was born in Hawaii and Kenya simultaneously.
We could have "My Fair Co-Ed," with a young professor coaching
a teen-age Eliza from Queens, New York, on a 21st century college campus:
Hank Higgins: "The New York girls wear pearls and curl their
Eliza: "The Noo
Yawk goils wayeh poils an' coil theyeh hayeh."
Hank: "Try again, Liz."
Another thought: Will theatrical people in the future produce
updated versions of our contemporary plays? Will they put on a "Pygmalion" or "My Fair Lady" with Henry Higgins teaching a
robot how to speak like a human?
In the 23rd century, will somebody be doing an adaptation called
"A Spacecraft Named Desire," set in a city on a large asteroid? Imagine Blanche
Du Bois cooing, "I have always depended on the kindness of astronauts."
* * *
Grisly reading for young adults
In a mail-order book catalogue, on the children's book page,
I came across a title, "The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs." It's described as for "young adults" so maybe, being a "not getting
any younger adult," my opinion is irrelevant.
But this work of what I sincerely hope is fiction seems to
be an account of a pair of young siblings who discover the instructions and equipment for taxidermy, and use it to stuff and
preserve their beloved but deceased mother in an attempt to keep her around for a while.
reaction, in a word, was "yuck!"
Perhaps it is wrong to judge the book without reading it. And
readers, either young adults or old ones, may disagree with me.
Young adult is a loose classification at best. It could mean
anything between middle school and law school. There are college undergraduates who never read anything they aren't required
to, if that. There are grade school kids who read Dickens and Dostoevsky.
Fiction aimed at all ages these days is loaded with vampires,
werewolves, serial killers and other unpleasant individuals, so perhaps I am old-fashioned and oversensitive. But a cheerful
account of a couple of kids skinning Momma and preserving her hide for display doesn't strike me as high-class reading for
It's possible that any youthful readers mature enough to handle
the subject might well be the ones most likely to ignore it. It might give others
bad ideas, or bad dreams.
Maybe I'm over-reacting. I was an early reader myself, and
read material that introduced me to many disagreeable aspects of life. I was reading the newspapers by the second grade, and
there is nothing much more scary to an eight-year-old than a daily presentation of crime, war, accidents, sickness, that mysterious
s-e-x, and the other regular activities of our planet.
Being known as a ravenous child reader meant different things
to different friends and relatives, depending on their own views of both childhood and the printed word. At Christmas and
birthdays, when I was in grade school, some aunts and family friends would present me works with titles like "Buddy Down on
the Farm" and "Baseball Joe at Yale."
Others, demonstrating their idea of my possibly more grown-up
tastes, bestowed such works as "Treasure Island" and "Tom Sawyer." I read them all, of course.
Meanwhile, after Christmas, I waited until my father was finished
with his gift books, so I could pore over the latest Leslie Charteris mystery, or "The Nine Old Men" by Drew Pearson (about
the Supreme Court.) I had plowed through much of his Sinclair Lewis novels, Dickens, Mark Twain and such. I didn't always
understand everything, but I was reading.
I don't remember my parents ever forbidding me to read anything.
If I asked them to explain something I read and didn't understand, they would do it.
But I can't help wondering what my mother would have said if
I told her that I was reading about a couple of kids whose mother died, and they skinned her, stuffed her and preserved her.
Even if I had reached the lofty status of "young adult."
* * *
Occupiers in action, 75 years ago
The fire that wiped out the old Thomas W. Buck hosiery mill,
and took two firefighters' lives, recalls the days when knitting mills employed more Philadelphians than any other blue collar
occupation, and guys who ran the ladies' high fashion silk stocking looms considered themselves the elite of the trade.
I know, because my father was one of them. His union, Local
No. 1, American Federation of Hosiery Workers, was big and feisty.
And this is the 75th anniversary of a legendary hosiery sit-in.
On May 6, 1937, strikers occupied the Apex Hosiery Mill, where Fifth and Luzerne Sts. and Rising Sun Ave. form a triangle.
The mill was built in 1901. Robert Meyer and later his son,
William, operated the Apex there from 1908 until it closed in 1954. Brown Instrument Co. used it for a while. It then was
Roberto Clemente Middle School until 1997.
The 300,000 square foot, six story brick building is empty,
neglected and possibly dangerous, like the Buck building. The School District can't find a buyer.
The hosiery union was formed in 1913, and by 1918 had bargained
the work week down from 54 hours to 45. In the booming 1920s, as both the salaries and hemlines of working girls hit an all-time
high, so did silk stocking production.
A good knitter could bring home $7,000 a year (to compare,
the mayor's salary was $18,000.) Philly had 38 percent of the nation's stocking looms; national production in 1929 was 26,900,000
When the Depression hit, some mill owners resisted the union.
That's why 5,000 demonstrators gathered outside the non-union Apex mill on that May afternoon. The bosses told the workers
inside to go home.
Strikers invaded the building at 3 P. M. There was some rough
stuff. One of 18 men injured was Henry Mackley, whose brother, Carl, had been shot dead during a 1930 strike. The union had
built an apartment complex for workers, in Juniata, and named it for Carl.
For eight weeks, 256 union members occupied the mill. The union
delivered cots and other necessities.
The occupiers established a routine. They got up at 7 A. M,
washed, shaved and had calisthenics before breakfast. Men took assigned turns handling breakfast, lunch and dinner, cooked
at union headquarters at Frankford Ave. and Orthodox St. and passed in mill windows.
Strikers also stood watch around the clock at windows and doors.
During the day, those with no duties read, listened to the radio, or played cards, checkers, or baseball in the mill yard.
A strikers' orchestra performed evening concerts, and there
were movies after dinner. A few men complained about one hardship: a majority had voted to put up "No Smoking" signs.
Mayor S. Davis Wilson got a court injunction, and brokered
agreements with the union. On June 23, he and union officials entered the Apex, and led out the occupiers. Leaders of the
victorious procession carried American flags. An amplifier played march music. Some 15,000 hosiery union men and women on
the street cheered.
They couldn't know that soon, du Pont would create nylon, Japan
would send us bombs instead of silk, and silk stockings would fade from the feminine wardrobe.
* * *
It's Person Who Assists Day
April 25 has again been proclaimed Administrative Assistants
Day, by whoever is in charge of proclaiming such things. It used to be Secretaries Day, on which bosses bought their secretaries
flowers or candy, or took them to lunch.
Now it has become Administrative Assistants Day, or in some
accounts Administrative Professionals Day. It raises some questions, such as: Are the possessors of the fancier title still
doing the same work as when they were lowly secretaries? Are bosses patronizingly still rewarding them with flowers or candy?
What would Don Draper do?
The dictionary advises that a secretary is "a person employed
to help deal with correspondence, typing, filing, and similar routine work." The dictionary also mentions the Secretary Bird,
"a long-legged African bird with a crest likened to quill pens placed behind a writer's ear." Either the dictionary or the
bird, or both, hasn't heard that quill pens seem to be on the way out. The bird should now be the Administrative Assistant
An assistant, says the dictionary, is "a person who assists."
Gee, what are the odds of that?
The reason for the newer title, I suppose, is to kill the old
fashioned image of a secretary as someone who does low level, routine work, and to suggest a job with more important duties.
old thinking was reflected in a routine years ago by comedian Jackie Mason, who complained that our country had a secretary
of the army and a secretary of the navy. What did secretaries know about running armed services, Mason asked. But, he pointed
out, the mail was handled by a postmaster general. There, we could use a secretary.
This day that we pause to honor the secretaries among us was
instituted in 1952, by Harry M. Klemfuss, Mary Barrett and C. King Woodbridge.
Klemfuss was an executive of the Young& Rubicam advertising
agency, a firm mentioned in an early episode of the "Mad Med" television series when its employees threw water out their office
windows on anti-war demonstrators in the street below. I'm not sure why Klemfuss decided that secretaries should be acknowledged
was president of the National Secretaries' Association. Her interest in the program is obvious.
So is the involvement of Woodbridge; he was president of the
Dictaphone Corp., whose recording device relieved countless secretaries of the finger-numbing process of taking notes.
As our civilization matured, the celebration in 1981 became
National Professional Secretaries Day, and Administrative Professionals Day in 2001. A full week of related activities are
wrapped around the big day.
The celebration does not include the 14 secretaries in the
president's cabinet. I'm sure there is no likelihood of them becoming administrative assistants. Administrative Assistant
of State does not have a good ring to it. (The attorney general is the only one who isn't a secretary.)
The word cabinet, meaning a small meeting room, started with
kings of England a few hundred years ago. Their cabinets don't have secretaries. They have ministers, who administrate, so
it all works out nicely.
* * *
Hot books on Obama and Maya
Looking through some book catalogues, I noticed two current
trends in publishing. There were seven books complaining about President Obama. There were 16 books reporting that the world
is coming to an end.
The Obama books included one that claims to expose his nefarious
plans to rewrite the Constitution and replace Judeo-Christian values with failed radical leftist beliefs. Another says that
Obama is intent on enriching his Wall Street friends, corporate lobbyists and union bosses.
Those two activities would seem to cancel each other out. But
another book reveals that the stimulus program was to protect the jobs of government workers.
If you don't like the sound of those, you can buy a book that
offers to detail the administration's true plans to remake America, hinting that the plans are not good. Another book promises
to explain that Obamacare is worse than most critics suspect.
Perhaps strangest of all is the book describing Obama's "profound
rage that comes from his African father, an anti-colonialist rage against the wealth and power of the nation he now leads."
though that anti-colonialism was a good thing. Isn't that why our nation got organized in the first place?
If you feel a need to read those books, I'll provide titles
on request. If you don't have the patience, try the seventh one, which probably sums up the whole subject. Its subtitle is:
"Obama's Plan to Subvert the Constitution and Build an Imperial Presidency."
The good news is that we don't have to worry about Emperor
Obama, because the world is going to end this year.
There were warnings about that last year, too. (For the record,
it didn't happen.)
Last year's predictions were mostly founded on religion, so
naturally, nobody paid any attention. We were all too busy ignoring the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule and whatnot to ignore the coming Apocalypse.
This year, it's the ancient Maya civilization that informs
us of our impending doom, say those new books. Those Pre-Columbian dudes carved their calendars in stone, so you know they
must have been right. If you can't trust hieroglyphs, what can you trust?
The prophets who profit by writing that the end is nigh cite
ancient Maya calendars on stone cylinders, which they say divide history into 5,125 year cycles, all the way back to whatever
they go all the way back to. The current cycle ends on Dec. 12, which is mystically 12/12/12, and then it's Maya-bar-the-door.
Experts on ancient Maya say there are no predictions of catastrophe
in the Maya calendar. So do modern Maya. There are a whole bunch of them still living down in Meso-America and thereabouts,
and even a lot of them up here in regular America (not even including Maya Angelou and Maya Rudolph.)
The Maya these days use a flat circular calendar that looks
like a stone pizza. It has only a 52 year cycle, and it doesn't mention any Judgment Day.
If the ancient Maya had anything nasty to say about President
Obama, they kept it to themselves. That wouldn't stop anybody from writing a book about it.
* * *
Naming America's top molecule
I read somewhere that there is such a thing as Molecule of
the Year, and decided to look into it, because I don't know what we all would do without molecules. The subject was more complicated
than I expected.
In 1989, the journal called "Science" started naming a Molecule
of the Year annually. In 1996, the journal changed the award to Breakthrough of the Year. That makes sense. Breakthroughs
are rare events in science, while there are molecules all over the place.
Other scientific aggregations then leaped into the molecule-honoring
void. In 2002, a Molecule of the Year competition was started by the International Society for Molecular and Cell Biology
and Biotechnology Protocols and Researches, affectionately known among molecule lovers as the ISMCBBPR. But if the ISMCBBPR
has made its selection for 2011 yet, Google doesn't seem to have heard about it.
Syncom, a Dutch biotechnology company, awarded a Molecule of
the Year honor, but to two of its scientists, not to an individual molecule. The men were cited for executing a 55 step custom
synthesis project towards a novel complex chiral molecule. I don't understand that, but
you gotta love 'em for it.
The American Academy of Science chose l-arginine as the top
2011 molecule. It's an amino acid that's vital to cardio-vascular health, so it deserves a little recognition.
The molecule mavens at the University of Wisconsin named a
Molecule of 2011, too. I tremble at how this molecule's name will look in a column of newspaper type. But here goes. It is:
If that's more than you can handle, you will appreciate the
folks at the Breaker Laboratory at Yale University. Their selection for Molecule of the Year is: Fluorine.
The scientists who go to the trouble of looking for a Molecule
of the Year should get together and settle the issue. There should be a World Series of Molecules, where molecules compete
and decide the real champion.
Better yet, it could become a television series. I'm surprised
that Simon Cowell hasn't got onto it. What could be more spellbinding than a panel of famous scientists judging the contestants
for America's Top Molecule? Or maybe Donald Trump would preside over the contest. How would a typical molecule react when
somebody tells it, "You're fired!"
* * *
Who's who of closed schools
Most of the public schools the reform commission is closing
were named to honor once prominent men. It's interesting to consider who they were.
It's sad to see the Levering name go. There has been a schoolhouse
on that site since William L. Levering gave the land for the first one in 1771. He was a descendant of Wigard Levering, the
first permanent settler in the area in 1691.
Of the other schools on the hit list that were named after
people, William Henry Harrison and Philip H. Sheridan probably have the names most likely to be recognized. There are 12 Philadelphia
schools named for presidents, and eight named for generals.
William H. Harrison, our ninth president, was 68 when inaugurated,
the oldest president. He was in office for a month.
March 4, 1841, his inauguration day, was cold and stormy, but
Harrison insisted on riding a white horse to the capitol, and refused to wear a coat or hat. He delivered an hour and 45 minute
inaugural address. Then, he led a parade to the White House. He caught cold, went to bed with pneumonia on March 27, and died
in the White House on April 4, the first president to die in office. Vice President John Tyler took over.
Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan was a West Point graduate, five
feet five inches tall, and a 30 year old infantry captain with a desk job when the Civil War started. He agitated for battle
duty, and was made a cavalry colonel in 1862. His leadership in the field won him his first star 35 days later, and by 1864
he was a hero and a major general.
The other schools slated for closing are Drew, Fitzsimons,
Pepper and Rhodes.
Dr. Charles R. Drew was an African American researcher whose
developments of blood storage and transfusion methods saved thousands of lives on the battlefields of World War II. He was
killed in an automobile accident in 1950, at age 45.
Thomas Fitzsimmons was born in Ireland in 1741, and came to
Philadelphia as a boy. He and his brother became prosperous in colonial trade with the West Indies, and he was one of the
founding members of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in 1771. He helped organize the Pennsylvania Navy in the Revolution,
served in the Continental Congress in the 1780s, and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He died in 1793.
There have been a peck of Peppers in Philadelphia since Heinrich
Pfeffer came over from Germany in 1751. The name on the school belonged to George Wharton Pepper, who died in 1961 at age
94. He was a lawyer, and a Republican senator from Pennsylvania in the 1920s. He was not the George Pepper whose bequest started
the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Eugene Washington Rhodes was a Temple University law graduate.
He married Bertha Perry, whose father, Christopher Perry, founded the Philadelphia Tribune, now the oldest African American
newspaper, in 1884. Rhodes became editor of the Tribune, but didn't give up law. He was for a time an assistant U. S. Attorney
and served in the Pennsylvania legislature. He died in 1970, at age 75.
An encyclopedia of all the persons whose names are on Philadelphia
school buildings. would make interesting reading.
* * *
Insuring automobiles and health
Some people oppose the government requiring everybody to have
health insurance. They don't seem to feel that way about other things the government tells us to do.
There are lot of laws that require everybody to cooperate,
for the common good. Take traffic lights. When auto accidents started to become frequent, 80 or 90 years ago, governments
put up signals to control intersections.
Most drivers obey stop lights. And, does anybody ever protest
tax money being used to pay for them?
When cities began getting bigger and more densely built up,
150 years ago or so, it became obvious that volunteers couldn't handle the fire fighting. City governments organized salaried
fire departments, with everybody sharing in the cost through taxes.
Some Philadelphians opposed the creation of the paid fire department
when it was started in 1871, but today, it's so accepted that taxpayers protest when the city cuts fire department activity
to save money.
Those who never have a fire chip in, taxingly speaking, for
the fire department. All taxpayers also contribute to education, even those with no children. Few people seriously complain
These laws are a form of sharing. We all pay to provide things
that some of us need and others don't. If we do need them, they're there.
And state governments have mandated that automobile owners
buy accident insurance. The idea, as with most insurance, is that it's fair and practical that all drivers share the risk.
Everybody pays into it, whether or not they ever need it, so that funds are there to help drivers who do need it.
Health insurance is the same deal. There is a significant difference,
though. If an uninsured automobile owner has an accident, he never takes the car to a repair shop and demands that the mechanics
fix it for free.
People who have no health insurance, when they break a bone
or acquire a hole in an inconvenient body area, will go to a hospital and ask for free treatment. Our soft-hearted society
doesn't approve of them being told to go away and bleed somewhere else.
They get repaired, and the rest of us are forced to help pay
for it by shelling out higher than necessary medical payments, whether we have insurance or not.
So, what's wrong with the government requiring everybody to
take responsibility to care for their bodies as well as they do their automobiles, by having insurance?
Some young people say that they don't need health insurance
yet. They'll sign up later. But nearly everybody gets sick eventually, and everybody dies once. It's wise to invest in health
insurance when you're young, so you can afford to die. Dying can be expensive.
Requiring universal medical insurance often evokes cries of "Socialism!", a dirty word to all red-blooded Americans. Socialism
can often be defined as a government service the definer doesn't want.
He doesn't mind such good old American institutions as public
schools, the postal service, paved highways or trash collection, which governments actually provide. So why is he so upset
when the government insists that he take care of health insurance himself?
* * *
The days when films were film
There is not much film in films anymore. Hollywood, probably
like you and almost everyone else, is using digital cameras.
Movie theaters are converting to digital projectors. Kodak
is bankrupt; the company's founder, George Eastman, made the motion picture industry possible when he invented roll film in
Bad enough for Kodak that most photographers no longer buy
film. Major income for Kodak came from making tons of film for the many prints of movies that used to be distributed to theaters
Maybe soon, no actors will suffer when the scene they were
in ends up on the cutting room floor. Now those cuts will go wherever deleted pixels go.
This trend made me feel nostalgic (it's not painful, but there's
no cure) about a summer job I had at age 15, in the year "The Lost Weekend" won the "best picture" Oscar. (Look it up; research
is good for you.)
I was a stock boy at National Screen Service, on the northwest
corner of 12th and Vine Sts. The site was obliterated when Vine St. was widened.
National Screen's Philadelphia branch had a cutting room, with
lots of scraps of 35 mm film on the floor. That was where trailers, those previews of coming attractions, were spliced onto
feature films before the Clark Transfer trucks came to pick up the big film cans and distribute them to theaters.
My job was to fill orders from theaters for posters to adorn
their lobbies and facades. There were 30 by 40s, 40 by 60s, high narrow posters called inserts, lobby cards, 8 by 10 glossies
(photo stills from the film), and the posters that got pasted up: half sheets, one sheets, three sheets and the 24 sheets
that went on full size billboards.
Every film that was released had a National Screen Service
number. The entire movie industry used NSS numbers to identify posters, trailers, and any peripheral item to a film.
numbers related to the release date of the film. The first feature film of 1945 would be 45/1. The second would be 45/2, and
National Screen Service began handling trailers in 1920. It
was logical that NSS got into distribution of posters and other promotional material, and by the early 1940s, it had a near
monopoly on the system.
In the 12th and Vine building was a huge card file of all movies,
going back to the 1930s or further. When a theater ordered posters for a rerun of an old film, the file was needed to get
the stock number. I had a good memory, and soon had a head full of film numbers..
We stock boys dreaded filling orders from the big cheap-ticket
24-hour skid row movie houses around 8th and Vine, seedy former movie palaces such as the New Garden and the 4-Paws (formerly
owned by old-time showman Adam Forepaugh.)
Because most of the patrons were sleeping anyway, they usually
ran forgotten old films, three features changed daily, often obscure westerns. They ordered almost every size poster for each
film. That sent us digging into the card file, and climbing high shelf racks.
Posters are distributed differently now. National Screen is
gone. The film industry has changed. And soon, there may never be film in films.
* * *
Whom do writers write like?
On his Facebook page, Dan Rubin, who writes for another newspaper,
mentioned the existence of a Web site called "I Write Like." Give it a sample of your writing, it analyzes it, and its little
electronic brain tells you what well-known writer you write like.
Naturally, I tried it. I fed it last week's column. It performed
its digital cogitation, and told me that I write like H. P. Lovecraft.
What? My ordinary contemporary prose comes out resembling that
of a writer of florid Gothic horror stories in the Depression era? Well, it says so right there on the World Wide Web, so
we all know that it must be true.
That dismaying exercise made me curious about whom other writers
write like. I typed in the first 385 words of "Moby Dick." Instantly, "I Write Like" announced that Herman Melville wrote
like Robert Louis Stevenson.
That logically led me to ask the digital smart aleck whom Robert
Louis Stevenson wrote like. The program responded that Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote like Robert Louis Stevenson. What
are the odds of that?
To ask about somebody a little more modern, I entered the first
223 words of "The Sun Also Rises." The computer said that Ernest Hemingway wrote like Kurt Vonnegut. I was afraid to ask whom
Vonnegut wrote like.
Heading way back in the writing industry, I gave "I Write Like"
the first 167 words of Hamlet's favorite soliloquy, from "To be or not to be" all the way to the "bare bodkin." The analysis
was that Shakespeare wrote like Shakespeare.
This made me wonder whether the analysis meant that nobody
else could write like old Bill Shakespeare. So I tried some prose from the same era as "Hamlet," the first 10 verses of the
13th chapter of St. Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, as translated by the crew of scholars King James I put together.
The verdict was that it was written like Shakespeare, too.
The next test produced no surprise. Dickens wrote like Dickens.
I concluded that the analyzing machine compares samples of known writers against other samples of known writers, so inevitably
it decides that writers write like themselves.
So I gave it a try with someone not thought of as a writer.
I tossed in the first 332 words of George Washington's farewell address when he left the presidency. "I Write Like" claimed
that he wrote like Edgar Allen Poe. That was so bizarre that I decided it was time to quit.
But there were two more writers' names that just had to be
analyzed. I handed "I Write Like" the first 160 words of the last column Dan Rubin wrote before going on a recent hiatus.
The strange answer was that he writes like Cory Doctorow, a Canadian-born British science fiction writer and advocate of free
sharing of digital media. Doctorow is author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction." I'm not aware
of Dan Rubin producing anything for idiots, so far.
Finally, I inserted the first 306 words of "The Dunwich Horror,"
one of H. P. Lovecraft's better known grotesqueries. The result: he wrote like Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Shucks. I was hoping it would say that he wrote like Jim Smart.
* * *
Politicians and the Good Book
Politics and religion have become all tangled up during the
presidential primary festivities. It's enough to make one wish for the good old days when the principal thrust of religious
folks was to save peoples' souls, which they usually attempted by persuasion, not legislation.
These days, they're intent on changing people's behavior, with
the intended changees' spiritual condition seeming to be immaterial. Making sin illegal didn't eliminate sin in the past,
but then, neither did evangelism.
It's easy to drag religion into political debate because the
nice thing about the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Koran, or any other accepted scripture is that politicians, as well as
normal people, can always find something in the text to justify just about anything they want to do, or want to stop other
people from doing. (The latter is more fun.)
Seven score and ten years ago, our forefathers brought forth
a great Civil War, and both sides could find in the Bible justification for their opinion of slavery. I'm not sure that either
could find scriptural justification for bringing forth a war that killed nearly a half million men, but maybe nobody looked.
In the English translation of the Bible that King James I authorized
400 years ago, the word "slave" appeared once, in the book of Jeremiah, and "slaves" once, in the book of Revelations. That's
all, according to Strong's Concordance, the granddaddy of Bible references, which even reports how many times the word "the"
is in there (3,588.)
The 1959 translators of the Revised Standard Version used the
word "slave" 19 times. We've come a long way.
Slave owners in the past cheerfully adopted parts of ancient
Old Testament laws, which said it was all right to buy and sell "heathens" as servants. I don't recall any cotton-picking
Southerners following any other Mosaic procedures, such as not growing any crops every seventh year, which is also in the
Hebrew law books.
Endorsing selected parts of the Bible they agree with is a
handy exercise for politicians and their admirers. Some politicians say that they literally believe every word in the scriptures.
They also say that health and welfare programs should not be administered by Washington.
They must have skipped the place in St. Matthew's gospel in
which Jesus describes the last judgment, when those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, cared for the sick, clothed
the needy and welcomed strangers (immigrants?) will be rewarded. Those who did not will be punished.
But, not individuals. He said that "before Him shall be gathered
all nations" to be judged. Are our elected leaders properly preparing our nation for Judgment Day?
in the charity department, the Bible tells of a first century one-percenter who asked Jesus for advice. Jesus told the guy
to sell his possessions and "distribute unto the poor." St. Luke reports that the man "was very sorrowful; for he was very
Politicians need not worry about such things. They can just
cite parts of the Bible they like better.
* * *
That other guy's job looks easy
It's interesting to listen to people on the extreme political
right agree on something with those on the extreme left. Many of them mutter the same criticism lately. They're disappointed
in the job the president is doing.
That's natural with Republicans. If a Democrat walked on water,
they'd complain that he hadn't wiped his feet first.
But some of the leftiest Democrats are unhappy with him, too.
He hasn't magically brought world peace, economic prosperity, universal equality and all the other neat stuff that they would
take care of overnight, if they were in the White House.
It seems not to occur to some people that there just might
be a little more to the task than they could conceive. Just about everybody knows how to run the country.
You can learn their opinions on the Web, in taprooms, on radio
call-in programs, in college dorms and faculty lounges, in corporate board rooms, or any place where folks gather and blather.
Fully informed by the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, or Time magazine, or the Fox news or Democracy Now channels,
they know how to handle that cushy job in Washington.
Most of us, at one time or another if not always, believe that
we could manage businesses and institutions better than the supposed experts assigned to do it.
We all know what they're doing wrong at hospitals, schools,
insurance companies, restaurants, the post office, banks, the telephone company, the cable TV company, all city, state and
federal departments, the electric company, the police, labor unions, newspapers . . .
Whoa! Now we're in familiar territory. It may be different
now, with 21st century tools and methods, but I'd guess that many people still don't understand how a newspaper works.
I once answered the phone on the city desk of a big newspaper,
and talked to a man who said he had been robbed, and we didn't report it. When did it happen? "About a month ago." What did
the police say? "Oh, I didn't call the police."
A similar caller asked why we didn't cover a meeting of his
organization. Some questioning revealed that nobody had told us there was going to be the meeting, but he didn't consider
that a good excuse. "I thought you were supposed to report the news," he grumbled. "I didn't think we had to tell you."
That's the way we often are about other people's jobs. We expect
the businesses and organizations we deal with to perform what we perceive to be their function, and do it the way we think
it should be done. How hard could it be to run the school system, or the hospital, or the postal service, or the presidency?
For all I know, the president thinks it would be easy to have
done the work I once did on the staff of a big newspaper. He wouldn't know much about inverted pyramids or second day ledes
or cover-backs or brace make-up, or whatever new jargon must be used in today's digitized newsrooms.
But I have a feeling that he knows how to do a lot of things
I don't, things required for presidenting. So, I'll assume that he's trying his best, if he'll assume the same about me..
* * *
Prehistoric fun with sticks
The other day, I stumbled across the fact that three years
ago, the National Toy Museum declared that the world's oldest toy was the stick. The museum, part of the Strong National Museum
of Play in Rochester, N. Y., is an institution that takes toys seriously. They must have a scholarly basis for sticking up
for the stick.
But I have read claims by anthropologists that ancient dolls
that have been dug up here and there are the oldest known toys. That has obvious credence, since dolls must be made deliberately,
whereas sticks were likely just lying around the prehistoric landscape, for any ancient kid to pick up and mess with.
And sticks would seem to have had competition as toys. If we
could look back at the days of homo erectus, or of Cain and Able for the non-Darwinians in the audience, I'm reasonably sure
we would find children also playing with rocks, another plentiful object.
I'm trying to imagine myself as a tike about seven million
years ago, skittering about outside the family cave. I would think that rock throwing would be an obvious way to the pass
the time. I assume that rocks would be easier to come by than sticks. The latter would mostly still be attached to bushes
Modern children continue the tradition. Get your average small
boy beside a body of water with small rocks nearby, and he will be compelled, presumably by some atavistic force, to start
heaving rocks into the water.
I did a bit of pebble skimming on creeks, lakes and bays in
my early youth. I don't remember ever having the impulse to do anything creative with a stick.
Does throwing a stick for a dog to fetch count in this discussion?
The National Toy Museum enshrines only objects used by human players, as far as I know.
there is a question as to whether human or dog is doing the fetching. Once, I tried to teach a dog to fetch a stick. I would
throw it, and encourage the dog to go get it. He would decline, staying with me and wagging his tail.
I would then go get the stick. The dog would come with me.
I would throw the stick again. We would repeat the process. The dog obviously enjoyed watching me fetch the stick. Prehistoric
dogs may have done the same thing.
As for dolls being the earliest deliberately made toy, possibly
the first dolls were made of sticks. Stick arms, torso and legs would be easy to fasten into human form. The head might be
a rock. I don't know how they would fasten the things together in those days. I don't recall reading of any anthropologists
or archeologists discovering cave glue.
While early homo sapiens mommies probably didn't like it, the
boys would quickly learn to wallop each other with sticks, emulating the behavior of the menfolks. Letting kids play with
toy weapons can acclimate them to violence when they get older.
Cain and Abel probably played rough stuff with sticks when
they were little Then, when they grew up and the nasty sibling rivalry set in, Cain became wroth (that's how people got angry
in the Old Testament) and slew his brother. The Bible doesn't mention whether he used a stick.
* * *
by James Smart
Repealing the laws of physics
Dr. Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday last month got heavy media
coverage, because he is perhaps the world's brainiest scientist, mentioned alongside Newton and Einstein, and because he has
miraculously kept working nearly 50 years after conventional medical wisdom says he should have died because of Lou Gehrig's
He functions laboriously in a hi-tech wheelchair, but his brain,
trapped in a contorted body, communicates through a computer and continues to explore physics and the cosmos, and to astonish
physicists and cosmologists.
His birthday inspired me to dig out from my files (read that:
boxes of papers and books, in exquisite disorder) a 1975 article by Dr. Jerry Pournelle, the first time I heard of Hawking.
went to a lecture by Hawking at California Institute of Technology. Hawking was already in a motorized wheelchair, but could
still speak, in a heavily slurred voice.
The audience was theoretical physicists, graduate students,
and assorted possessors of heavy-duty brains. As they sat, straining to hear and understand, Hawking poured out information
that essentially told them that much of what they thought they knew could be wrong. And Hawking chuckled and laughed as he
The announced title of the lecture was on a slide projected
on a screen: "The Breakdown of Physics in the Region of Space-time Singularities." That was then replaced by an almost identical
slide, except that the word "Physics" was crossed out, and "Physicists" written above it. Hawking laughed quietly.
Hawking's lecture, if I understand it (which is doubtful) went
something like this. Einstein and others established that gravity affects light, and that nothing can travel faster than light.
A big enough mass could create gravity that would hold back light. Therefore, the mass could not be observed. Scientists call
that a space-time singularity.
The required conditions must have existed at the beginning
of the universe, so there must be a big fat singularity at the Big Bang site. There are other singularities. So-called black
holes are caused by collapsed stars, and a singularity lurks inside each one.
Hawking told the physicists, singularities cause the laws of physics to break down in nearby regions of space, so that anything
unpredictable can happen. Time can reverse. Alternate or duplicate universes can exist.
"Matter and information can fall into these holes," Hawking
said near the end of his lecture, "or, can come out. And what comes out is completely random and uncorrelated."
paused, and grinned broadly. "Of course, we might have to wait quite a while for it to emit one of the people here this afternoon,
or myself. But eventually it must."
There was a silent moment, and then the theoretical physicists
and other huge intellects began to laugh.. They had just been told by the world authority on their science that, in the long
run, anything is possible.
Who knows? Maybe someday that singularity at the point of the
Big Bang will spew out another Stephen Hawking.
* * *
February 8, 2012
by James Smart
The dart-throwing chimpanzee
The folks at the Vanguard investment
factory in Valley Forge, in the recent edition of the quarterly dose of optimism they mail to uneasy clients, reported on
a study of the accuracy of predictions. Perhaps predictably, the study found the record of expert predictions to be somewhat
Economic experts run in great herds
through the canyons of Wall Street, bellowing confident truths about the future. Washington, and all places where politics
festers, produces a related species of authorities on what lurks just over the informational horizon.
Such predictors were studied by Philip
Tetlock, Ph.D., a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Vanguard's report,
Dr. Tetlock spent 20 years, ending in 2003, keeping an eye on some 30,000 predictions assembled by 300 experts on politics
"As a whole," the professor is quoted
as saying, "experts were slightly more accurate than the proverbial dart-throwing chimpanzee."
I'm not sure how he drew that conclusion,
because, as far as I know, the chimpanzee has never published. But predicting has always been overdone in the news media,
and recently it is more prevalent than ever, and more annoying.
Newspapers and broadcasters seem to
devote more time and space to analyzing political candidates, and predicting which ones will succeed or fail, than they allot
to reporting what's happening.
I would like all that effort devoted
to telling me everything the candidates are saying and doing, to let me make my own analysis, and do my own predicting if
I feel like wasting my time.
Sports news is particularly guilty
of over predicting and over analyzing. Television stations dispense tiny amounts of information late on Sunday nights about
the professional football committed that day. We are barely told which teams won, and maybe the scores.
Then, instead of covering what happened
that day, a couple of athletes and broadcasters spend an hour speculating, cogitating, ruminating and prognosticating.
We get similar outbursts of unnecessary
expertise from announcers before and during games. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're proven wrong. Either way, who
Before elections, predictions and
analysis predominate the journalistic coverage. We often learn things about candidates only when facts intrude in a typical
dosage of punditry.
Predicting offers a collateral benefit
to journalists. After their forecast of the outcome of an election or a game or a season proves wrong, they can concoct an
analysis of why things didn't work out the way they prophesied.
We need more people like Dr. Tetlock
to keep an eye on the alleged news gatherers, and to embarrass them into giving us more news and less opinion. At least, that's
my opinion. But I predict that nothing will change.
That dart-throwing chimpanzee should
have his own television show. It might be more entertaining than watching John Clark and Howard Eskin speculate at each other.
* * *
February 1, 2012
by James Smart
Speed dating for book lovers
The Free Library of Philadelphia is
sponsoring some Literary Speed Dating events next week. I haven't heard the rules, but speed dating usually consists of an
occasion at which people who are hoping to meet compatible partners spend a short time, a minute or two, conversing, and then,
at a signal, everyone moves on to chat with another person.
The idea is for folks to
have quick auditions with several others, and possibly find someone they might like to get together with again. The library's
events are free, but registrations are required.
The Andorra branch will
have a session for singles age 25 to 35 on Thursday, Feb.9, at 6 P. M. E-mail
Marsha at email@example.com to register.
The librarians' announcement
of the arrangements encourages participants to bring along a book. No, dude, not your little black book. They suggest bringing
a book you loved, hated, or just want to talk about. Maybe even read.
This sounds like a good
way to handle speed dating. The books people bring along could tell a lot about their approach to relationships. A guy who
brings a book by Leo Buscaglia (nearly all have "love" in the title) would make one kind of quick impression on a girl; a
guy toting "The Joy of Sex" would give a different message.
Certain types of titles
would be calculated to make a quick hit. A young woman carrying Ray Didinger's "Eagles Encyclopedia" would get the average
guy's attention. A fellow carrying the new biography of Rudolf Nureyev would convey artistic sensitivity to the girl.
Just to cover other bases,
the woman might also bring along a good cook book, suggesting a nonspeedy way to a man's heart, and the man could flaunt "The
Essays of Warren Buffet" as a sign of financial acumen.
Andorra is one of five library branches inviting singles ages 25 to 35 to get literary with each other.
The Tacony branch apparently serves a more mature population, and will have an event for ages 35 to 45.
The Central Library down
town will have a session for singles over 50. That's a pretty big over. I'm not sure someone 51 and someone 91 would hit it
off, no matter what they were reading or what their speed.
The library at 6th and Lehigh will gather single Latinos from 25 to 35. Gathering at the library on
7th St. next door to where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, perhaps somehow appropriately, will be singles
25 to 35 who are men dating men or women dating women.
It seems that a gay Mexican
on Social Security is out of luck in the library's speed dating program. Maybe he can stand outside a library, reading his
date-attracting book of choice, and hope for the best.
Speed dating, literary or
otherwise, is very 21st century. I'm surprised they're not doing it on Twitter. What would the great lovers of the past think
about having a time limit? I'm picturing the guy proclaiming;
"Soft, what light in yonder
window breaks. It is the east, and Juliet is the..."
"Time's up, buddy. Move
on to the next balcony."
* * *
Handling money the old time way
There was a flap at Christmas time when, because of the three
day postal holiday, many Philadelphia public school teachers did not receive their paychecks until after Christmas. Some complained
that they couldn't do their Christmas shopping, and the holiday was ruined.
School authorities suggested that teachers should have their
pay electronically deposited into their bank accounts. (That way, if the pay arrives late, they can snarl rude things about
the bank instead of the post office.)
Workers down in the minimum wage trenches might wonder why
teachers can't stay a little ahead on the cash, or use credit cards, to prevent such financial emergencies from emerging.
Teachers start at about $40,000 a year, and the median salary is about $53,000.
But nobody knows what troubles other people have seen, and
that has long included financially troubled teachers. The late lamented Advanta Corp. started its rise to financial heights
60 years ago by providing short term loans exclusively to teachers.
I don't know whether the public school curriculum includes
any instruction on how to manage personal finances. When I was in grade school,
in days of yore or thereabouts, there was an attempt to explain frugality and such ideals to us kids.
A local bank had set up a savings plan, so pupils could bring
their pennies to school and have them deposited in a savings account. A teacher suggested that we bring in part of our allowances.
I had never heard of an allowance as a family function. Money
at home was dispensed on an as-needed basis at best. If I wanted 12 cents to get into the Saturday matinee at the local movie,
and maybe a nickel for a box of Good and Plenty from the lobby candy machine, I raised it by hauling neighbors' discarded
newspaper to the junk yard, or similar remunerative tasks.
Somewhere around sixth or seventh grade, our teachers started
to explain to us other useful information about daily life. The teachers never asked us what we already knew, and seemed to
have little idea of life in a row house neighborhood.
They gave us unrealistic instructions about how to use a telephone.
This must seem more than quaint to the folks, young and old, who now carry telephones on their persons, and use them to send
written messages and take pictures.
In those pre World War II days, many of my classmates did not
have telephones at home. Many of our neighbors used the phone booth in the candy store down the street.
We had a phone. (My father was extravagant.) Neighbors would
drop in to use it, saving a walk to the store. They would offer a nickel to pay for it. My family would say not to bother.
Some sneakily left a nickel anyway. We would find coins on a radiator or windowsill.
Our teachers also taught us about checking accounts. That seemed
an annoying waste of time. Working class folks got paid in cash. People talked about pay envelopes, not pay checks. Utility
bills and such were paid in cash at the companies' local offices.
I was paid in cash until I was 25. I had savings, though. In
a metal box on my bedroom bureau.
* * *
Zombie facts are hard to kill
When I buy a book on a historical subject that I know something
about, I read the bibliography in the back first (unless it doesn't have one because it's fiction or because the author was
just fooling around) to see what sources the writer used that I don't know about. I like to see what research professional
historians have done.
I learn a lot that way. Sometimes, unfortunately, I learn that
the professionals have done it wrong.
The other day, I bought a 625 page biography of a famous colonial
Philadelphian. It was 30 bucks when it was published in 2010, but I waited until it was remaindered for $6.95.
Checking the bibliography, I spotted a publication that sounded
like a great resource. The citation said it was by a well-know historian, and published in 1875. I suspected a problem and
checked up on that author. He was born in 1914.
That made me suspicious of the whole darn book. But anybody
can make a mistake. (I find it regrettably easy.)
Skimming through the book, looking for parts I knew would interest
me, I then found a page on which the author had identified the general of a late
18th century infantry regiment as commander of a cavalry unit.
Being an old fashioned guy, the natural result of being an
actually old guy, I like to think that I can believe what I read in big fat hardcover history books. There should be something
we can trust in this, the age of misinformation.
That great electronic exercise in free speech and expression,
the Internet, allows anybody to provide us with incorrect information. Some people do it deliberately, some accidentally.
An untrue "fact" brought to life in any medium is difficult to kill, a sort of
undying zombie fact..
One danger to the truth is humor, which can be taken seriously.
I plead accidental guilt. Once I wrote a tongue-in-cheek article about the history of the pretzel, making what I thought were
funny and obviously outrageous statements. Pretzels had been found in the tombs of pharaohs; they had been brought here on
the Mayflower; what Marie Antoinette famously said was actually, "Let them eat pretzels."
I didn't think anyone would take the jokes seriously. Months
later, some of the ersatz pretzel history turned up as fact in a pretzel industry leaflet.
In another incident, when an advertisement identified the statue
on City Hall tower as Benjamin Franklin, I wrote a column saying that there was suspicion that Ben Franklin and William Penn
were actually the same person, giving ridiculous fake evidence that I thought was funny.
Some time later, the then new president of the Historical Society
of Pennsylvania, who hadn't been in town when that column appeared, told me about a strange phone call he had from a person
asking about the Franklin-Penn theory. I confessed that it was my fault.
I'm going to start reading that book I just bought, wondering
if any zombie errors are in it that I won't detect. Sadly, if the author misinforms me, it's not because he's trying to be
* * *
No new column for January
production problem. Sorry.
* * *
January 4, 2012
by James Smart
Long live the president (or not)
Time magazine likes to plop odd little statistics in corners of pages here and there. In a recent issue, it sprung
the fact that the average life span of the first eight Presidents of the United States was 79.8, in an era when life expectancy
for men was under 40.
The item added that, overall, two out of three of our presidents have outlived the life expectancy of their contemporaries.
This seems a contradiction of the common notion that the stress of being in charge of the White House wears out its occupants.
I hit the reference books for some elucidation on the subject. Of those
first eight presidents, I found, the one who died the youngest was George Washington. He was only 67.
John Adams, the second president, lived to be 90. Thomas
Jefferson, who was next, died at 83.
The age at death of the final five of that first eight
was Madison, 85; Monroe, 73; J. Q. Adams, 80; Jackson, 78, and Van Buren, 79.
The presidents who died the youngest were Kennedy, 46, and Garfield, 49. Their deaths don't tell us much about longevity,
because both were shot.
The presidents who lived the longest were Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, who both made it to 93. The only other president
who hit 90 (exactly) was Herbert Hoover.
The president who died the youngest natural death was James K. Polk, at age 53. He had served only one term, and died
103 days after he left office. Unpleasantly, reference books list the cause of his death as diarrhea, a problem that plagued
him throughout his life.
Only eight presidents of our 44 died in office. William Henry Harrison was the first. He was the ninth president elected,
and died of pneumonia in 1841, after only one month in the White House. He had insisted on riding in the inauguration parade,
and delivering an address an hour and three quarters long, with no coat or hat in cold, stormy weather. He was 68.
Zachary Taylor was next, dying in 1850 after serving 16 months. He had typhoid, cholera and bilious fever. He was 65.
The next three who died in office were Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, and William McKinley. They were all assassinated.
Warren G. Harding was in office for two years and nearly five months. He is said to have had pneumonia and a stroke,
following high blood pressure and heart problems.
Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a stroke after serving two months and 23 days into his fourth term, a length of a presidency
unlikely ever to happen again.
Jack Kennedy was assassinated. It's sad to contemplate that half of our presidents who died in office were shot to
At the moment, we have four living presidents The oldest, George H. W.
Bush, is 87. The youngest, Bill Clinton, is 65. Maybe one of them will break
the Reagan and Ford record.
Life expectancy for an American born in 1961, the year the stork delivered President Obama, was only 66.6. Today's
babies can expect to make it to 10 more years than that.
For some oblique reason, this discussion of longevity reminds me of an old Pennsylvania Dutch riddle: "Who was born,
but never died?
The answer: "You, and a lot of other people."
* * *
That jingle bells accident
On routine patrol last night, noted a one
horse sleigh, make and model undetermined, dashing through the snow near Main Road outside of town. Subject vehicle was seen
proceeding at a rapid rate of speed oe'r the fields.
Occupants of said sleigh were observed to
be laughing all the way. Further surveillance revealed that driver and passenger of vehicle were singing a sleighing song.
Their spirits at that time seemed to be bright.
Horse drawing the vehicle was noted to be
lean and lank. It was seen to have a deliberately bobbed tail, with several attached sleigh bells ringing loudly. Said bells
were remarked to be jingling all the way.
At this point in scrutiny of the behavior
of the sleighers, I determined to pursue said sleigh, in order to cite the driver for reckless sleighing, excessive dashing,
unnecessary jingling in violation of the anti-noise ordinance and unauthorized going o'er fields.
Before I was able to gallop close enough
to signal the sleigh to pull over, the bobtailed horse hitched to the subject sleigh got into a drifted bank. This naturally
resulted in the sleigh being upsot.
Upon arriving at site of upsotting, found
two occupants and bobbed-tailed horse standing in the snow, adjacent to drifted bank. Neither occupants nor animal appeared
injured. Offer of aid, or call for ambulance, was declined.
Occupants of the one horse open sleigh were
a male and a female. Male identified himself as James Pierpont, 35, of Boston, a musician and song writer. Female identified
herself as Miss Fanny Bright, age not disclosed, of this town.
Pierpont stated that he had thought he would take a ride, due to what fun it is to ride and sing a sleighing song. He further
indicated that Miss Bright was seated by his side when the upsotting occurred.
During interrogation, Pierpont suggested
that the cause of the accident was that misfortune seemed to be the horse's lot.
Subject was advised that equine misfortune is not considered a legally accepted justification for being upsot.
Subject was able to walk a straight line
while holding his finger on his nose. The horse was also able to walk a straight line.
A tow sleigh was summoned, and sleigh was
removed from drifted bank. Pierpont and Miss Bright were instructed to follow me back to the Justice of the Peace office,
where Pierpont paid fines for the afore mentioned violations, as well as breaking into a drifted bank, upsotting a sleigh
and related offenses.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Pierpont
was seen writing furiously in his notebook. He said that despite the unfortunate ending, the sleigh ride was an interesting
experience, and that perhaps he would write a song about it.
As a deputy sheriff who knows nothing about
song writing, I see nothing in the situation that would provide ingredients for a song. I fear that the musician's head may
be suffering from hearing too many jingle bells.
* * *
Sorry, problems again: No December 21st column.
Enjoy a holiday of your choice.
The case of the impenitent yob
A 16-year-old burglar got folks in England
violently upset a few weeks ago, on the Web and in the newspapers, when he declined to apologize for burgling. I wonder if
the same situation in the U. S. would cause as much uproar.
The West Yorkshire police nabbed this "yob"(British
slang for a young working class ruffian), and magistrates sentenced him to a 12 month intensive supervision and surveillance
was part of ISSP, a British program for handling young repeat offenders, managed jointly by police, social workers and educators.
The sentence required that he write a letter
of apology to his victims. This is what he wrote, with the original deficiencies of spelling and punctuation:
"I dont no why Iam writing a letter to you! I have been forced to write this latter by ISSP. To be honest I'm not bothered or
sorry about the fact that I burgled your house. Basically it was your fault anyways. I'm going to run you through the dumb
mistakes you made.
you didnt draw your curtains which mist people now to do before they go to sleep. Secondly your dumb you live in Stainburns
a high risk burglary area and your thick enough to leave your downstairs kitchen window open. I wouldn't do that in a million
years. But anyways I dont feel sorry for you and Im not going to show any sympath or remorse.
The police were so appalled by the letter
that they weren't going to send it to the family. But it was leaked, and newspapers and social media reacted to it as though
the kid had confessed that he was Jack the Ripper and wasn't sorry. An image of the letter in the boy's handwriting was published.
Newspapers, Twitters and commentators saw
the letter as a failure of society in general, and a sign that British youth was deteriorating morally.
Curiously, one response to the yob's letter
was distributed, in this era of instant electronic communication, on pieces of paper. It was a handwritten reply, written,
or at least purported to be, by the family whose home the boy robbed. Someone posted photocopies of it on poles all around
the streets. The letter said:
To the coward who burgled our home
In the few pounds you make from stealing
ours and our children's hard earned, beloved and sentimental possessions will bring you sadness, misfortune and the dark days
you so rightly deserve .The love and sentiments attached to the items you took, you will never understand. However our love
and our children will bring us to terms with what you have done to our family and on everything you are not and could never
You saw the photographs of our children's
innocent faces and were still able to steal from them. We will never understand the kind of person that makes you. This is
our good fortune and the loss you have to bear.
A hard working family, Red Post Hill
The letter was widely reproduced. It received
an outpouring of sympathy from the public. Isn't it strange that in this world of many truly outrageous acts, there was such
intense outrage over a boy who merely refused to be repentant?
* * *
Sorry: No column December 7, due to production problem
* * *
At work with W. C. Fields
The Philadelphia Inquirer is abandoning its
ivory tower on Broad St., and herding what's left of its news staff down to the former Strawbridge & Clothier department
store at 8th and Market Sts. I have some affection for that old building.
My mother worked for Strawbridge's from age
14 to 46, with time off here and there to produce children. As a boy, I often visited the 13th floor Accounts Payable office
where she wrangled a Model ST Comptometer, an early 20th century computing machine.
When I got a bit older, I developed another
sentimental affinity for Strawbridge's. I became a fan of the late W. C. Fields,
history's premier example of the Philadelphia row house sense of humor. And Fields,
originally Claude W. Dukenfield, once briefly worked for Strawbridge & Clothier.
When he was 13, Claude's grandmother arranged
for him to toil as a cash boy at the store. Describing it in later life, Fields made one of his frequent improvements on reality,
and blamed his father for the experience. He wrote that his "thrifty parent" got him the job, "and forgot to get one for himself."
The duty of a cash boy was to move through
the store, gathering cash from the registers and taking it to the receivables office. Fields claimed that the hardest part
about carrying all that money around was walking past the door.
Recalling the ordeal of regular employment
40 years later, Fields wrote of the experience with colorful Fieldsian exaggeration.
"I had to be at work each morning at eight,"
he recounted. "Often, insufficiently clothed, I would wade through drifts of snow to my knees before catching the car that
took me to labor. This was really too much to bear, and I did everything possible to get myself discharged.
"I walked through a skylight three times
with the hope that it would make the owners irritated enough to discharge me. Instead, they mended the skylight and congratulated
me upon my escape from death.
"The fourth time I walked through the skylight
and fell on the general manager's head. He rubbed the place on my body where his head hit me; then took me before the Board
of Directors. They agreed to let me stay on providing that I would say I was sorry because I had shocked the general manager.
I resisted all entreaties, and they reluctantly parted with my services."
There is reason to believe that Fields embroidered
that account a bit. The truth is that the cash boys were replaced by a system of pneumatic tubes.
The Strawbridge gig was not Fields's first
employment. Previously, at age nine, he had accepted a position in a cigar store somewhere around Rising Sun and Allegheny
Aves. Even at that tender age, it was right up Fields' larcenous alley.
"He only carried one brand of cigar," Fields
wrote of his employer. "It sold for three cents. If a customer asked for a 10 cent cigar, he was handed one which sold for
three cents. 'The customer is always right,' my boss would say, 'so never allow him to be disappointed'."
* * *
November 23, 2011
by James Smart
Some memories of Bil Keane
Bil Keane died a
couple of weeks ago, at age 89, and the world has been deprived of a major sense of humor. Bil was a Philadelphia kid who
taught himself to draw, and leaves us with "Family Circus," possibly the most popular panel cartoon in comics history.
His son, Jeff, will
keep the cartoon family alive. It appears daily in 1,500 newspapers worldwide (Yes, there are still that many papers.)
Bil came from Crescentvile,
in the Northeast, and started drawing at St. William's school, probably when the sisters weren't looking. He was in the 8th
grade in 1936 when his first published cartoon appeared, in a contest in the Daily News. He won a dollar. The next year, he
started drawing cartoons for Good News, the Northeast Catholic High School magazine.
He served an 80-paper
route for the Evening Bulletin, and submitted drawings to Heigh-de-Ho, the Bulletin's teenagers' column. After high school,
The Bulletin hired him as a messenger for the advertising department. He next became editor of the employee magazine.
He was drafted in
World War II, and worked on military publications in the Pacific theater. He met his future wife, Thelma, in Australia.
In 1945, he joined
The Bulletin's art department. I got to know him when I started at The Bulletin in 1948. We had similar senses of humor; whether
that's good or bad is subject to debate.
In 1972, Bil was
named best syndicated panel cartoonist by the National Cartoonists Society, and I interviewed him for a magazine article about
himself. This could not be done by someone with no sense of humor. Some examples of Bil's answers:
On the subject of
why his last name is spelled Bil: "I drew on the walls, and my parents knocked the L out of me."
On a cartoon series
called "A Yank Down Under" that he did for U. S. Army newspapers in Australia: "A
lot of people thought it was about dairy work."
About being a staff
artist at The Bulletin: "I got quite good at drawing staffs."
About moving from Philly to Arizona: "My wife wanted to be
closer to Australia."
Are the situations
in his comic, "The Family Circus," based on real life in the Keane household? "On
the contrary, our real life is based on the cartoon. If something funny happens in the cartoon, we try to work it in at home
the following week."
About having five
children: "We considered having more, but it would have made the cartoon too
The Keanes moved
to Arizona for health reasons, but Bil stayed in touch with what was happening in his home town. In 1967, The Bulletin moved
my column from its long-time spot on page four to the back page, which also featured several panel cartoons, including George
Lichty's "Grin and Bear It," Hank Ketcham's "Dennis the Menace," and Bil's " Family Circus."
A note arrived from
Bil in Arizona, congratulating me on joining him on "the page where the action is."
"Only thing that
worries me," he wrote, "is how can Ketcham, Lichty, etc., and I expect to be funny competing with that hilarious cartoon head
they run at the top of your column?"
He was referring
to a picture of me.
November 16, 2011
by James Smart
with the universe
One thing we can be certain of is that nothing is certain. The
universe is full of surprises.
A good-sized universal surprise came in September, when a bunch
of neutrinos traveled faster than the speed of light. Everybody who has been paying attention knows that's impossible. Albert
Einstein figured it out more than 100 years ago, and if he was certain, all of us regular folks felt that we should be certain,
Einstein's dictum that nothing can outrun light was accepted by
physicists, cosmologists, space scientists, ordinary guys who like to sound smart, and just about everybody but Dan Roddenberry
and George Lucas. Einstein, unfortunately, didn't live to hear someone say, "Warp speed, Mr. Sulu."
We were all comfortably sure about light speed. Then, some scientists
in Switzerland gathered up some spare neutrinos they had lying around, and sent them underground 454 miles to Italy. The neutrinos
arrived 60 nanoseconds sooner than they were expected under the old Einstein speed limit.
Scientists everywhere were upset. If something moves faster than
light, it will arrive before you can see it. In an Einsteinian sort of way, it could arrive before it left.
You'll notice that the experts weren't astonished, as most of us
might have been, that the neutrinos zipped right through the Alps, which are rather thick. They can explain that. And they
all know what nanoseconds and neutrinos are.
(A nanosecond is one billionth of a second. A neutrino is a subatomic
particle that has no electrical charge and no mass; sounds like an abandoned church.)
Einstein also predicted that anything traveling at the speed of
light would increase to an infinite size. Fortunately, neutrinos have no mass, so I guess they have no size, either.
Any competent scientist could explain why nothing can go faster
than the speed of light, until something did. Now, people who discuss such things will be running around talking about Heisenberg's
uncertainty principle. I'm good with that, because I'm not certain what the principle is.
Most physicists these days accept the uncertainty principle. So
why are they so consternated when neutrinos behave uncertainly?
Einstein, himself, was annoyed by the uncertainty aspect of the
new quantum physics that tap-danced around some of his thinking. It was in an argument over the subject in 1928 with another
physicist, Niels Bohr, that Einstein made his oft quoted statement, "God does not play dice with the universe." Bohr replied,
"Stop telling God what to do, Albert."
Dice are uncertain because they are so random. Honest players can't
control them. More likely, God is playing poker with us. Scientists still don't understand the "dark energy" and "dark matter"
hidden from us, constituting perhaps 90 percent of the universe. They haven't yet figured out what 90 percent of the human
genome is for, either. The mission of science is to get God to play more of His cards, but He holds His hand pretty close
to His celestial vest.
v v v
pleasing scraps of anything
Notes I've been making about tidbits in the
news have accumulated, so I'll unload some here. Before starting, I looked up the word tidbit to see where it came from. Some
quick Googleation gave the disappointing non-enlightenment that its origin is obscure. A dictionary defines tidbit as "1.
a tasty small piece of food; dainty; 2. a pleasing scrap of anything, such as scandal."
So, this column offers some scraps that I
hope are pleasing. I don't recommend eating the column.
Number 1. The gossip writers report that Lindsay Lohan, the actress and random troublemaker, is going to pose naked in
Playboy magazine. Question: Does this count as part of her court-ordered public service?
Number 2. A man who grew wildflowers on his lawn instead of grass was fined
by a suburban municipality for growing "noxious weeds." It strikes me that plants
are identified as weeds when they are easy to grow; whether they are pretty doesn't matter. Chrysanthemums are okay, dandelions
are not. Things that are difficult get the most appreciation. Folks win gold medals for running and swimming; nobody wins
medals for sitting or floating..
Number 3: My suggestion for the mayor's re-election slogan: One good term
deserves a Nutter.
Number 4. A prisoner in a jail in Camden filed 110 phony income tax returns
on behalf of himself and 60 other prisoners, and collected $215,000 in refunds before the Feds caught him. The Internal Revenue
operatives can spot a tiny discrepancy in somebody's tax return and audit the poor guy out the wazoo, but they don't get suspicious
when 60 guys in the same jail are filing for refunds?
Number 5. Some animal lovers got upset when Michael Vick, well-known football-heaver,
bought a pet parrot, because of his former involvement in dog fighting. I'm not sure there's a connection. Is there such a
sport as parrot-fighting? Parrots might be more likely to have debating matches. "Resolved: That Polly Does Want a Cracker."
Number 6. Prince Charles, a royal heir by trade, announced his support
for projects to restore forests in Romania, and mentioned that, since European royal persons have been marrying each other
right and left for centuries, he is distantly related to Romania's own Vlad Dracula, Prince of
Wallachia, the15th century inspiration for the worlds most famous undead person. The problem here is that Vlad was
a deforester. He destroyed trees, to make sharpened stakes on which he impaled
invading Turks, lots of his own subjects, and anyone else who annoyed him.
Number 7. Somebody not busy Occupying something should get together with somebody not at a Tea Party, and organize a bipartisan
movement called VOICE. The acronym stands for Vote Out Incumbent Congresspersons Everywhere. Just for the next couple of elections,
VOICE members would vote against all incumbent law dispensers. Maybe we could flush out the whole bunch and start over..
v v v
Remembering radio writers
Norman Corwin died a couple of weeks ago, at the age of 101.
When I was a little boy, there was no television. We had to absorb words and noises from the radio and see things in your
mind, not on a screen. One of the greatest creators of those radio words and noises was Norman Corwin.
I was in about second grade when his long poem, "The Plot to
Overthrow Christmas," was first broadcast. It was repeated in later Decembers.
I don't know whether kids today would sit still for it. Their
attentions want short spans, maybe with an EZ-Pass. In those days, our attentions still took the mental ferry to span stories.
Corwin's anti-Santa conspirators were all historical villains,
operating from their abodes in Hell. Medusa, Circe, Haman, Nero, Caligula, one of the Borgias, Ivan the Terrible and Simon
Legree were the connivers whom Corwin had chortling "Just think how it would tickle us, to liquidate St. Nicholas." My father
had to explain to me who all those evil dudes were.
Two of Corwin's s major broadcasts bracketed the World War
II. He was working on a program for the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, in 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
That show, on Dec.15, became a patriotic manifesto, broadcast
on all four networks, with a cast that included James Stewart, Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore, Walter Brennan, Walter Huston,
Edward G. Robinson, Orson Welles and the New York Philharmonic led by Leopold Stowkowski. The audience was estimated at 60
million. (The population of the U. S. was about 130 million.)
Then, in 1945, Corwin was working on an hour-long inspirational program to be broadcast when the war
ended. When Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, CBS asked President
Truman if the program should be used that night. Truman said to go ahead. Corwin assembled it quickly, with recorded news
from the war, music and actors interspersed with his poetry.
Corwin's body of work was huge, and recordings of many of his
programs are for sale. But radio writers don't get much attention these days. I have long-time memories of many broadcasts,
but have had a hard time learning who wrote them.
From that same era as Corwin's Santa Claus plot, I remember
a drama of "The Devil and Daniel Webster" and a free verse version of "The Pied
Piper of Hamelin." The Webster may have been a reworking of the Stephen Vincent Benet play, and the Piper may have been taken
from Robert Browning's poem.
One writer I admired was Carlton E. Morse. His dramatic series,
"One Man's Family," was the radio equivalent of literature's "Forsythe Saga," and was on the air weekly from as long as I
can remember until 1950. His other creation, "I Love a Mystery," was a detective adventure series that slickly used the sounds
and voices of radio to present action scenes equivalent to anything on film or TV, except that they took place inside my head.
Morse is one radio writer who knew the worth of his work. He
donated his scripts and other material to Temple University. I read through them there once, about 45 years ago. I wonder
who has looked at them since.
v v v
Night of the promotional dead
Now is the season when historic sites use
ghosts for promotional purposes. Every October, assorted locations normally looked on with reverence, or at least a bit of
respect, feel the need to take advantage of the superstition-based nonsense of Halloween to bring in crowds, and raise some
cash while pretending to raise some spooks.
It's all in fun, of course, and folks who
are delighted at being startled by cheerfully fabricated horrible apparitions are entitled to their annual dose of goose bumps.
But isn't it a bit sad that people will flock to a battlefield or graveyard not to honor individuals who died for their country,
but for the pretended hope that the deceased heroes might pop up and frighten them?
The Halloweening varies from guided tours
with gently scary story-telling to simulated gore fests with fake monsters and ghouls. Historic sites that elect to become
haunted in October do try to infuse a little history into their presentations. The spirits at Historic Rittenhouse Town demonstrate
how live members of the Rittenhouse family made the first paper in America there 300 years ago. And visitors to Stenton mansion
learn about James Logan, William Penn's secretary, who was so well educated that his ghost probably says "boo" in seven languages.
He died in the house on Halloween of 1751.
Grumblethorp house should be well haunted.
British Gen. James Agnew died of his wounds in the parlor there during the Battle of Germantown in 1777, and his bloodstains
are still on the floor. Perhaps a sign of poor housekeeping.
At Laurel Hill Cemetery and Eastern State
Penitentiary, Halloween sightseers are entertained by actors portraying specters and other disturbing inhabitants. If a real
ghost should show up at those places during the festivities, everybody would just assume it was an impersonator.
The old penitentiary offers ersatz haunting
and horroring for 29 nights during the Halloween season, and uses about 200 performers. The organizers advertised for make-up
artists to convert normal Philadelphians into gruesome sights, specifying that applicants must "have knowledge of Skin Illustrator
and prosthetic application." Yes, there is an app for disfigurement.
Venues that annually discover supernatural
manifestations, and invite the public to come admire them, all hope that visitors will show up at unhaunted times, too. Many
worthy apparitions around Philadelphia are ignored, because they inhabit places not anxious to attract the public.
One of my favorite unappreciated ghosts is
the late Chloris Ingleby, who frightened neighbors around 9th and Spruce Sts. through the years. Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's
brother, rented a house on 9th St. in 1815, just after Waterloo. Ms. Ingleby's complicated romance with a servant of Bonaparte's
ended in her being shot dead in the courtyard, where later residents claimed she has wept and wailed regularly
Another crying lady used to be detected around
the 204-year-old Sparks Shot Tower at 2nd and Carpenter, but I haven't heard much about her since the property became a playground.
Not even on Halloween.
Drunk moose meets falling grouse
A television news broadcast showed a picture
of a moose awkwardly suspended in the branches of a tree. The caption, or headline, or whatever, said:
DRUNK MOOSE STUCK
IN SWEDISH APPLE TREE
I immediately added that to my collection
of most memorable headlines. It somehow reminded me of one of my favorites from 1995:
QUEEN HIT BY
The headline about the Queen's encounter
with the grouse was on a newspaper article, which explained the circumstances of what was almost certainly an unusual royal
event. Her Majesty was with a hunting party, one of the gunners blasted a grouse on the wing, and the bird dropped on Elizabeth
II. Harmlessly, I'm happy to say.
But the meager television coverage of that
moose's predicament didn't give us any incidentals of the incident. All we had was the photo and the headline.
It was plain that the moose was, indeed,
a moose, and the tree was a tree, and the moose was in it, looking somewhat sheepish as well as mooseish. But we had only
the inadequate description by the news writer to know that the moose was stuck, that it was drunk, and the tree was apple
I'll accept on faith that the tree was an
apple tree, although I didn't see any apples in it. Of course, I did see a moose in it, yet I don't think there is such thing
as a moose tree.
also is no way of telling from the picture that the tree is Swedish. Arboreal nationalities are difficult for most of us to
detect. Unless the tree exhibits national pride, and calls itself a Scotch Pine or a Norway Maple, how can we tell whether
the apple tree is Swedish?
Maybe if the yournalist reported that the
moose yust yumped into the tree, we might have had a clue.
We also have to accept the headline writer's
judgment that the moose was drunk. Moose inebriation may be commonplace in Swedish orchards. Let's hope that the Swedish authorities
have adequate means and experience to detect moose intoxication. It would be unfortunate to cause unjustified doubt of a respectable
Giving a moose a breathalyzer test would
seem like a complicated procedure. So would ordering a moose, especially a tipsy one, to walk a straight line. (Getting a
moose out of a tree, drunk or sober, doesn't sound easy, either.)
And where does a moose get booze? It's hard
to imagine a moose walking into a bar, except as the beginning of a mediocre joke. It may be illegal in Swedish saloons to
put up discriminatory signs saying, "We don't serve mooses," and few drinking establishments anywhere in the world have a
bouncer big enough to throw out a drunken moose.
That moose should be consoled that it's not
alone. Many a human being, after excessive consumption of spirituous liquids, has found himself in a situation equal to, or
worse than, being stuck in a Swedish apple tree.
I'm watching now for the ultimate addition
to my memorable headline collection, though the odds against it are mighty long:
GROUSE FALLS ON
v v v
It takes a heap of taxes
The administration's plan to reassess all
the properties in the city started me thinking about what a strange process real estate taxing is. The city taxes money the
home owners don't have, and often don't want.
Taxing non-existent money isn't unusual.
The city taxes businesses on what it estimates the business will make in the next year. Uncle Sam makes business people, who
don't have pay checks from which he can deduct money, fork over advance quarterly income taxes on income that hasn't yet come
But most strange of all is the real estate
tax, which is essentially based on what the city assessors think the home owner would get if he sold the house. He may have
no desire or intention to sell the house, but the city annually taxes hypothetical money he would get for it if he did.
Home owners may have bought the house when
they were 25 years old, and had the mortgage paid off in 20 years. They did not buy it for an investment. They bought it to
be a home.
the years, they saw the value of the property, and the city tax bills, go up regularly. But they were employed, and making
good money, and the house was paid for.
they are 65. The value of the property, according to the tax assessors, continues to go up. The owners' income now is
pension and Social Security money, and it will not increase much, if at all.
They love that old house, and don't want
to leave it. They know the area, they know the neighbors, and they know every shrub out back and every creak in the hall floor
boards. But the property is now worth five times the price they agreed to pay in 1970, and the city thinks they should pay
the taxes on the house is worth to somebody else.
Possibly, the neighborhood is changing. If
they're lucky, it's going down hill. That way, they can afford to stay in the old homestead and watch the neighborhood deteriorate.
the area hasn't changed much, the increase in assessment will reflect only the fact that everything costs more these days,
and the increase in that market value figure may not be unbearable when the tax bill comes. If they see more upscale folks
moving in nearby, the rising tax bill will punish the old timers for having been good stewards of the neighborhood.
Forcing good citizens to move, as the city's
response to their property becoming theoretically more valuable, doesn't make
much sense. Real estate people and business people may disagree, and talk about believing in a free market, and all that,
but I wonder if they could explain that to their grandparents if it were their old folks who complained about being forced
out of the old homestead.
Edgar A. Guest, a corny poet popular about
a century ago, started one of his works, "It takes a heap o' living in a house to make it home. . ." Too bad, when people
are compelled to leave a house where they have done a heap of living because the tax system works against them. There must
be a better way.
v v v
Some last meals to die for
There was a big fuss in the media recently
about a prisoner in Texas who chose a long and elaborate menu for his last meal before being executed for murder, and then
didn't eat any of it. The prison officials' feelings were so wounded that they announced that condemned prisoners will no
longer get the traditional choice of a last meal.
In case you missed it, the repast requested
by the doomed prisoner was two chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, three
fajitas, a meat lover's pizza, a pint of ice cream, and peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts.
The jailers were upset when the guy didn't
eat the stuff. I don't know how the other death row prisoners felt about it. Did they have to eat the leftovers?
The prisoner obviously must have had a bad
upbringing. You can't blame his mother for him committing what news writers like to call "a hate-crime slaying." It probably
never occurred to her to say, "Now, sonny, I don't want you to go slaying anybody you hate." But she surely was derelict if
she didn't tell him, "You must eat everything that's on your plate before you
can go outside and play." Or, "before you get yourself executed."
Last meals of condemned prisoners have always
had a strange fascination for the unincarcerated. Proof of that in our era is that there is much information available about
the subject on the Web. Long lists are posted of the final gustatory selections
Before the recent episode in Texas, an intricate
chart was posted, in 2007, headed "Final Meal Requests of Death Row Prisoners in Texas." It reveals that in November of 2000,
one Texan went to his reward after consuming his request of one jar of dill pickles. In the same month, a condemned man with
a Hispanic name ordered three beef enchiladas with onions, three cheese enchiladas with onions, spanish rice, a bowl of jalapenos,
french fries, a cheeseburger with the works, a bowl of mayonnaise, a bowl of ketchup, a bowl of pico de gallo, three Dr. Peppers,
a pitcher of ice, a banana split, and four quesadillas.
The generous supply of Web statistics on
the subject disclose that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, ate a reasonably normal last meal in 2001. For the previous
Federal execution, way back in 1963, the condemned man requested, for his last meal, one olive, unpitted.
who needs to explore the subject further should go on line and check out a Weblog called "Dead Man Eating," conducted by a
fellow named Mike. There is also material on the Website of "Serial Killer Magazine," a specialized fan publication that also
honors noted serial killers by selling their images as action figures, and on posters, T-shirts and trading cards. (The rookie
cards must be really interesting.)
One death row occupant in Texas in 2000,
asked for his final request, answered, "Justice, equality and world peace." The request was obviously denied; just look around.
Anyway, those things are inedible.
v v v
The mere whim of a majority
Gov. Corbett's recent proposal that election
laws be changed in Pennsylvania was unappetizing food for thought. The governor suggests that the state's electoral college
votes be apportioned differently, because the strong Democratic vote in this part of Pennsylvania "unfairly" outnumbers the
Republican vote in the rest of the state.
I immediately thought of Alexander Cummings,
founder of the old Evening Bulletin newspaper, who, when more than half of the paper's stockholders voted him out as
publisher in 1860, was quoted as protesting that he would "not be subject to the mere whim of a majority."
Not being a politician, I probably don't
understand all the ramifications of the electoral process. But I was always under the impression that the way elections worked
was that the fellow with the most votes wins. For instance, in Pennsylvania in 2008, Barack Obama got 3,276,363 votes, and
John McCain got 2,655,885 votes, and consequently, Obama won in the state's electoral votes.
Think what you will about the slightly goofy
process of the Electoral College, making adjustments to the apportionment of votes to sooth the feelings of the losers doesn't
strike me as the supposed American way of doing things.
There are times when the majority seems to
get skizzled, but it isn't usually by official procedure. I'm thinking of the cynical quotation, "The people who cast the
votes decide nothing; the people who count the votes decide everything."
No, that wasn't George W. Bush talking to
Al Gore, or even Rutherford B. Hayes talking to Samuel Tilden. It was old Joe Stalin who said that.
If Gov. Corbett doesn't think it's fair that
Philadelphia area voters outnumber the voters in the rest of the state, maybe he should let the city succeed from Pennsylvania,
acquire a few electoral votes of its own, and stop the unfair practice of being a majority.
If the governor manages to make some sort
of voodoo adjustment to what used to be called the democratic (with a small D) process, where does that leave us independent
voters? Being a dedicated Middle-of-the-Road Extremist (I disagree with everybody), I have always been willing to accept the
whim of the majority. A new system might make it worthwhile for independent voters to vote for the candidates we like least,
in order to counterbalance the adjustments the vote counters make to keep the majority from being too major.
And how would this kind of adjusting work
on a national level? A system for making the blue states less blue, lest they discolor the red states?
I suppose the national step would move some
Democratic votes (with a capital D) to Georgia or Louisiana, where they wouldn't do much damage to the poor Republicans.
Call me old fashioned, but if I get put in
charge of any decision making, such as what we have for dinner or which film we order from Netflix, I plan to stick with the
old system that was good enough for our forefathers: Those in favor, say aye. Those opposed, nay. The ayes have it.
v v v
by James Smart
Corporations are just folks
Corporations are people. That good old American
concept, which goes back to early 19th century Supreme Court hypotheses, has recently been reaffirmed by the modern Supreme
Court and also Mitt Romney, so it must be true.
If a corporation can do anything a live individual
person can do, corporations may have to rethink the way they live their quasi-human lives. For instance, we probably should
stop thinking in terms of corporate mergers. If corporations want to live together, they should get married.
If it is no longer true that marriage is
exclusively between one man and one woman, and corporations are people, shouldn't corporations be required to get a marriage
license when they merge? They should promise to stick together for richer or poorer, better or worse and all that stuff, as
long as they both shall be profitable. There could be blessed events when they spin off little companies. We've all heard
of parent companies.
There should be pleasant ceremonies, to which
other corporations are invited. The more sentimental corporations present would probably sniffle little corporate sobs as
the ceremony began: "Do you, AT&T, take T-Mobile to be your lawfully wedded subsidiary?"
corporate CEO must be eligible to preside over such a ceremony. If captains of ships can perform marriages, captains of industry
If, sadly, two corporations' marriage fails,
they should be required to get a divorce. Of course, the way it's done these days, companies would probably want to live together
a while before marriage, to see how it works out.
And there is nothing to stop a corporation
from marrying a human being. They're both persons. Wealthy corporations, like wealthy men, might want to marry trophy wives.
A corporation could be proud to have a lovely model or movie star as its spouse.
Corporations, legally declared to be included
in that "We, the people" phrase that starts the Constitution, must have all the rights of the first 10 Amendments. That means
that they have the right to bear arms. The National Rifle Association surely would be happy to sign up some corporations as
members. Can you picture the Wal-Mart Militia, or the First Troop, Microsoft Cavalry?
Corporations, like the rest of us people,
have the right to assemble peaceably. That's why there are trade shows. They have the right to worship as they please, and
worshipping money is a well-known creed. And, fortunately for some recent Wall Street misbehavers, a corporation, being a
person, can't be tried twice for the same crime.
Like all citizens, the Supreme Court tells
us, corporations may give money to political candidates any which way they choose. So, if the corporations are just regular
Joes when it comes to elections, shouldn't they vote on election day, too? How a bunch of corporations can line up at the
polls to cast that individual ballot, I don't know. The corporations are people, so let them figure it out.
Up the creek with goats
The Friends of the Wisasahickon organization
is considering using goats to control the growth of invasive plants in the park. I am only an Acquaintance of the Wissahickon,
and my acquaintance with goats is also casual, but I wonder about the plan.
I am sure that if goats are turned loose
along the creek, they will devour the invasive plants. They will most likely also eat the non-invasive plants, as well as
fence posts, trash, trash containers, droppings on the horse trails, discarded water bottles and, in short, anything they
can get their ruminating jaws around.
Goats I have seen like to outwit any efforts
to direct their activities. They also like to butt things, including people, and if I encounter any goats while walking along
the Wissahickon, I will cautiously avoid them.
My first major observation of a goat came
when my third grade teacher, Miss Mabel Wick, took me and two other boys from her class on a Saturday to visit an old farmhouse
she had bought. She probably thought it would be good for us grubby little city kids to get out among the fresh breezes and
butterflies. I didn't spoil her altruism by mentioning that I often spent time on my uncle's farm.
She stopped at the shop of a blacksmith who
was doing some work for her. He had on the premises a large Billy goat with curled horns, like a Dodge hood ornament.
As the smith talked with Miss Wick, the ram
would back off about 20 feet and then charge him, galloping with head down and intent to hit. The burly blacksmith would,
at the last moment, grab the goat by the horns and wrestle it onto its side, never missing a beat of the conversation. The
goat would back off, and come charging again. Over and over, always with the same result.
That experience convinced me, early in life,
that goats might be basically deranged. The next goat of my acquaintance, five years or so later, confirmed it.
My uncle acquired a nanny goat, and staked
her on a long chain. She soon ate all the vegetation the chain length allowed, even though more than sufficient food was given
her. Then she ate leaves off a peach tree, which she had been stationed near to provide shade, not snacks. She stood on her
hind legs, reaching as high into the tree as she could.
When she had stripped away all the leaves
she could reach, she spent several days patiently using her horns to maneuver a wooden picnic table about 15 feet, to get
it under the tree, hoping to stand on it and eat higher leaves. I shudder to think what she might have accomplished unsupervised
in the Wissahickon woods.
My uncle put her in a stall in the barn at
night. When thunderstorms came up, she bleated continually in terror. That's understandable, for a lightning-averse person
or goat. But she also ran back and forth, noisily head-butting the walls. What this was meant to accomplish vis-à-vis the
weather, I'm not sure. But I hate to think of the Wissahickon Valley becoming a performance of Goats Gone Wild every time
v v v
September 7, 2011
man who didn't make history
It was about this time 234 years ago that Patrick Ferguson didn't make history. He decided not to shoot George Washington.
It was September, 1777. The Battle of Brandywine was in progress. British and American troops were maneuvering around the
Chester County countryside. Capt. Patrick Ferguson and his green-jacketed riflemen were in the thick of it.
Ferguson came from an old Scottish family. He was 33, and had been a soldier since he was 14. He had bought his captain's
rank in the 71st Highlanders Regiment in 1768 (that's how things were done in those days.)
In June, 1776, Ferguson demonstrated his remarkable new invention, a breech-loading rifle, at the
Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, South London. In high wind and heavy rain, he fired four shots a minute for five minutes
at a target 200 yards away.
The rifle proved faster, easier to load and more accurate than the typical muzzle-loader, and more dependable than a flintlock
musket in wet weather. It had a 35 inch barrel, and weighed about seven pounds.
Its trigger guard acted as a crank that opened the breech. The marksman dropped in a standard .615 caliber rifle ball and
dumped in some powder. Reversing the trigger guard closed the breech and leveled off the powder.
Ferguson got a British patent on his weapon on Dec. 2, 1776. Only 100 of the
guns were produced.
Old-timers were doubtful about the new contraption, but Ferguson got permission to form a corps of riflemen to fight in America.
As the American forces began resisting the British invading army at Brandywine on Sept. 11, 1777, Ferguson's small detachment
of His Majesty's 70th Foot Regiment was moving cautiously through the woods, ahead of the British army's advancing Hessian
troops led by German Gen. Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen.
Peering from the edge of the woods, Ferguson saw two mounted men passing by. One was wearing a European uniform. The other,
on a handsome bay horse, wore a blue uniform coat and a very high cocked hat.
As the second horseman passed by, 100 yards away, Ferguson stepped out of the woods, leveled his rifle, and signaled him to
stop. The man looked at him coolly, and kept riding. Ferguson couldn't bring himself to shoot the man in the back.
A few minutes later, Ferguson's right elbow was shattered by a ball from an American sharpshooter. The next day, as his wound
was being treated by British army surgeons, he told them about the strange encounter.
A doctor who had treated wounded American prisoners told Ferguson that the Americans said that Gen. Washington had been patrolling
the front all day, accompanied only by a foreign officer. (It was probably Polish Gen. Casimir Pulaski.) Patrick Ferguson
realized that the man he decided not to shoot was George Washington.
Ferguson's rifle unit was disbanded. He was killed at the Battle of Kings Mountain, N. C., in 1780. He could have had no idea
how history might have been altered if he had made a different decision on that September day.
v v v
August 31, 2011
by James Smart
When the trumpet didn't sound
After the world didn't end
last May, the Rev. Mr. Harold Camping had to revamp his prediction formula. He just turned 90, and is seriously ill.. It may
be little consolation to him, but he isn't the first failure at predicting the apocalypse. His most notable predecessor was
the Rev. William Miller, 167 years ago.
Miller was an upstate New
York farmer, born in 1792, a Baptist layman who ordained himself and began devoting his time to figuring out when, as an 118
year old hymn describes it, "the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more." Picking and choosing unrelated
bits from the Bible, a popular pastime for prognosticators, he started counting from the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem
in 458 B. C.
He noted that the 8th chapter
of the Book of Daniel said that after 2,300 days, "then shall the sanctuary be cleansed," and took that to signify the end
of time. On the useful hypothesis that to God, a day is actually a year long, Miller concluded that the trumpet would sound
Miller published his prophecies,
and traveled the country delivering warning lectures. He gathered thousands of followers, and settled on Oct. 22, 1844, as
the final day.
In Philadelphia, Millerites
rented an empty church on Juliana St., which ran from Wood St. to Callowhill St. between 5th and 6th Sts., in the 2nd Ward
of Northern Liberties District, just across the city border of Vine St. Their meetings grew frequent as the big day approached.
On one evening, a gang of men crept up on the packed meeting house and suddenly lit torches just outside the windows and set
off a barrage of fireworks in an attempt to excite the congregation.
Unperturbed by such shenanigans,
Millerites began preparing white "ascension robes" to wear on the day of judgment. A store abandoned at 5th and Chestnut bore
a sign, "This shop is closed to honor the King of Kings, who will appear about the 20th of October."
Juliana Chapel was crowded
on Sunday, Oct. 20. A mob of unbelievers gathered outside, throwing stones at the windows and shouting insults. The police
of Northern Liberties and Spring Garden Districts, with a Philadelphia sheriff's posse led by Mayor Morton McMichael, put
down the disturbance.
Millerites began abandoning
their houses and going to places they felt suitable for awaiting the end. Many camped at suburban Camac's Woods (around today's
11th St. and Montgomery Ave.) The largest crowd assembled in tents on Isaac Yocomb's farm in Darby.
On the 22nd, a hurricane
struck the city. There was flooding, ships on the rivers were destroyed and houses were demolished. The Millerites were not
surprised, and many skeptics began some worried reconsideration.
The faithful sang and prayed,
as their white robes were soaked with rain. Dawn came, and the world was unchanged. Some stayed for a few days, but soon the
last of them went back to the city. The lucky ones had neighbors who had protected their property from looters.
v v v
August 24, 2011
by James Smart
Best jobs for the degreeless
reader of this column, (not to imply that some of you are irregular), inspired by a recent discourse here about the value
of a college degree, sent along a report of the five occupations currently expected to have the most openings, that pay well,
and don't require a four year degree. The report, compiled by an expert who most likely has a degree, includes some occupations
that surprised me.
two careers on the list are two kinds of nursing. Nurses of the registered variety are number one. The U. S. Department of
Labor estimated more than 100,000 new openings for registered nurses this year.
bachelor's degree programs are more comprehensive, obviously, but many community colleges turn out RNs in two years. Salaries
for nurses, says the expert, run from $47,000 to more than $80,000 a year.
practical nurses, and other non-registered types, are also in demand. They can pull down $40,000 or more, after only a year
the top five jobs list are computer specialists, who can get an associate degree from a community college, work as a systems
or network administrator, and expect to earn $66,000 and upwards, maybe even cracking the six figure ceiling.
profession on the undegreed but well-remunerated list surprised me. It's hair dresser. The job expert points out that the
population of the United States is growing, and though he doesn't get this specific, it figures that maybe half of the new
populators are women, and 100 percent of them have heads, nearly all with hair on them. Demand for hair stylists and cosmetologists
has to grow. Vocational training is available. While the base pay is modest, the operatives with skill and a smooth line of
gab can make more in tips than they might want to admit.
expect to find the fifth career on the list, either. It's auto mechanic. According to the report, grease monkeys are averaging
$40,000 a year, and since that's an average, obviously the best guys make more. It's a job that can be learned in high school,
or on the job.
desirable attribute that all five of these occupations have in common is that they can't be outsourced to India or someplace.
Although, the way civilization is going, who knows? Somebody may invent a way to send hairdos or spark plug changes through
the air electronically.
see journalism on that list, never could have, and probably never will. But I've had more fun on the job, through the years,
than your typical nurses or auto mechanics, and I'll spot them a few bucks for that.
didn't used to be fussy about a staff member's college degree, or lack thereof. Walter Lister, managing editor of the old
Evening Bulletin 45 years ago or so, when it had a bigger circulation than the New York Times, used to tell job applicants
not to worry about having a journalism degree. If they had one, he promised them that he could retrain them in no time.
August 17, 2011
by James Smart
Oh, no. Something else to do
article said that there are five million users of Facebook under age 10. I should ask a 10 year old kid to help me. Facebook's
value eludes me.
reason is not that I am a luddite, which I'm not, or that I'm an old fogy, which I am but that's still not the reason. I was
using computers before Mark Zuckerberg was born and before the word friend became a verb. I have created and maintain two
websites, and do lots of on line research and e-mailing. But Facebook and I don't get along.
planned to join a social network, because, like so many recent technological wonders such as e-mail, cell phones, GPS and
Angry Birds, it would just be Something Else to Do. I can't get done everything I want to do, and neither need nor want Something
Else to Do.
remained anti-social, networkwise, until an e-mail from my dentist, recently retired, invited me to be his friend on Facebook.
He may not know that Facebook trolls the e-mail address book of new recruits, and sends invitations indiscriminately to everyone
they electronically know, in its Orwellian endeavor to infest every computer on the planet.
yes. I quickly received e-forms to fill out. Facebook wanted to know my age, sex, what high school I attended, and all sorts
of information. I found that Facebook has no sense of humor. For instance, it asked what language I speak, but refused to
me upload a photo of myself, and put it and the information on a page it calls my wall. I tried to add photos and news items.
Some appeared, some didn't. A few appeared twice. If I tried to delete one duplicate, they both vanished.
I was still trying to decipher the system, all sorts of news started showing up, including from friends, acquaintances, and
a granddaughter, and I replied to some of them. Things seemed to be going well.
a few weeks, I got a testy message from the faceless faces at Facebook, demanding that I identify myself. They asked me to
copy two scrambled words, which I did.
you really sure?" Facebook asked. "We suspect that the information you entered is not correct. Please confirm!"
How that proved I am really me, I don't know. We went through a series of messages in which they e-mailed me some code, which
incorrectly arrived as spam, and told me to enter a new password, though I had never had an old one. For a while, I was mixed
up with another James Smart who apparently sells dog training books.
things settled down. I've never since been asked for the password. I started a second Facebook page for my book, "Adonijah
Hill's Journal." I try to add things to both pages; occasionally it works. Facebook crops pictures in stupid ways and is otherwise
tons of personal news from people I hardly know, and supplications for befriendment from young female strangers who send glamorous
photos and tell me I look "trendy." My fears were realized: it's just Something Else to Do.
v v v
August 10, 2011
by James Smart
The dog day whim-wams
folks on the street, and even television weather-guessers, have been proclaiming our recent run of 90-plus temperatures as
the dog days. Nobody has consulted your average dog about how he or she feels to be associated with uncomfortable temperatures,
but dog owners might want to apologize to their pets and assure them that it's nothing personal.
idea of dog days seems to have started with some star-gazing ancient Romans. The hottest days of the summer arrived when the
star Sirius rose at sunrise. Sirius, whose name probably came from a Greek word for brightness, is the brightest star, and
it is the main star in the constellation the Romans called Canis Major, which means big dog.
Romans called the hot period dies caniculares, which is dog days in Latin. The idea caught on, in several languages, through
the years. People down through the centuries, and in different countries, designated different starting and ending dates for
the dog days.
days used to start in early July, but now, the idea usually comes up in early August. The reason for that, from an astronomical
point of view, is that the activities of sunrises and stars look different in different latitudes.
the connection of the sunrise to the Sirius rise have changed through the centuries, and happen later now than in ancient
times because of the precession of the equinoxes. I'm not sure how precession of the equinoxes works, but I guess they understand
it at the Franklin Institute, and that's what counts.
the Middle Ages, the dog days became regarded as an evil time, when sweltering people tended to misbehave. That's no surprise.
We have people today who get surly and unpleasant when the thermometer hits 100, and we have air conditioning.
books of the 16th and 17th centuries designated the beginning and end of "dog daies." It was feared to be a time when the
faithful might "dissent from the church."
How common the dog days idea was
in the 18th century shows up in Thomas J. McGuire's fine book, "The Philadelphia Campaign," a history of the British invasion
of Pennsylvania in 1777. He finds Americans, British and Hessians calling the heat of July and August the dog days. John Adams,
in an Aug. 13 letter from Philly, mentioned "the scalding wrath of the Dog Star."
The phrase got to be more tongue-in-cheek
as time went by. Washington Irving, in his book "Salmagundi" in 1807, wrote that New York was afflicted with "midsummer fancies
and dog day whim wams."
and off through the years, the idea was attached to the hot weather weeks as the time dogs were most likely to go mad. Some
people began to believe that the hot weather was named for the ailing dogs. We don't know what ancient Romans would say about
any relationship of the star Sirius to rabid dogs.
may have more dog days, so drink lots of fluids, try to stay cool, keep your dog cool too if you have one, and don't give
in to the fancies and whim wams.
v v v
August 3, 2011
by James Smart
The archbishop's Indian roots
Philadelphia's new archbishop was appointed, the media out on the Western plains or thereabouts gave a different emphasis
to the announcement than those around here. The headline in the Topeka, Kansas, Capital-Journal said "Potawatomi to lead Philadelphia
Chaput is a member of the Potawatomi Prairie Band Nation. The name Potawatomi, in the Algonquin tongue, means "people of the
place of the fire," because, more than 300 years ago, they were the caretakers of the council fire where the Ojibway, Ottowa
and other Woodland Indians met, here in the East.
Potawatomis moved west. In 1701, they were one of the tribes invited by Antoine de Cadillac to set up villages to engage in
the fur trade, near a new French trading post and fort called Detroit.
came a time when the U. S. government forced the Kansas Potawatomis to disband, withdrawing federal services, breaking up
the reservations and forcing the Indians to assimilate into the white population. That was in 1953.
that's not a typing error. It was done in the Eisenhower administration, not in the days of Custer and Crazy Horse. In that
part of the country, Indians are traditionally the minority of choice for mistreatment.
time, Archbishop Chaput was a pupil in Our Lady of Perpetual Help grade school in Concordia, Kansas. After St. Francis Seminary
High School in Victoria, Kansas, he entered the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin in Victoria, where the brown-robed friars administer
St. Fidelis Church, nicknamed "Cathedral of the Plains," which, with 140 foot towers and pews for 1,100, was the largest church
west of the Mississippi when it was built 100 years ago.
served mostly in Kansas after his ordination in 1970. In 1988, Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop of Rapid City, South
Dakota, where 40 percent of the Catholics are American Indians. He took up the crozier, the bishop's staff, but added to it
an eagle feather.
also in 1988 that Chaput led a Potawatomi delegation in traditional clothing to Rome for the canonization of St. Rose Philippine
Duchesne, a French nun who evangelized the Potawatomi in the 1840s.
Chaput became the first Native American archbishop. His move to Philadelphia, whose archbishops usually are named cardinals,
suggests that he will become the first American Indian cardinal. It probably won't happen until Cardinal Rigali turns 80,
and loses eligibility to vote for the next pope.
archbishop won't find any Potawatomi in Philly, as far as I know. There are seven Potawatomi bands in the United States now,
in Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan and Indiana, and two bands in Canada. They run a bingo casino in Milwaukee.
feel a vague kinship with the remnants of the local Leni Lenape. The Lenape say that their name means "the original people,"
and the Potawatomi call themselves Neshnabek, which in their language means the same thing.
v v v
July 27, 2011
by James Smart
From farm market to music hall
The big building on Spring Garden
St. between 10th and 11th is going to be turned into a concert venue. It will be called Union Transfer, because a shipping
concern of that name operated there in the early 20th century, and the name is painted on an outside wall.
Higher up on the building, on a dormer
hard to see from the street, is the structure's original name, Spring Garden Farmers Market, and the date 1889.
Farmers' markets are popular lately. The old Reading Terminal Market thrives, although former Reading Railroad
commuter lines are part of SEPTA now, and trains roll through underground instead of terminating. Small farmers' markets pop
up on weekends in parks and open spaces around the city.
It's nothing new. Farmers sold their
products outdoors in Philadelphia from the earliest days. Moveable booths and stalls (called shambles) were set up in the
middle of High St. People called it the Market St., and the name eventually became official.
In 1709, the city authorized the first permanent market sheds on Market St. They soon extended from the
river to 8th St.
City government decided to get rid
of the Market St. sheds by the end of 1859, so farmers and merchants began erecting large market buildings. Markets rose up
on Broad St. below Race, and on Race between Broad and Juniper. Another big one, the Western Market, opened in 1859 on the
northeast corner of 16th and Market.
Market sheds were gradually erected
down the middle of wide Spring Garden St. By 1880 they extended from Ridge Ave. to 6th St, where Spring Garden then ended.
In 1888, Mayor Edwin Fitler signed an ordinance that all sheds must be removed from Spring Garden by Jan. 1, 1890. A corporation
formed to build the Spring Garden Market, which will soon be filled with music by such groups as Wild Flag and Dum Dum Girls
that would have astonished Mayor Fitler and his contemporaries.
In researching my book, "Adonijah
Hill's Journal," which is set in 1876, I found that there were at least 28 independently owned farmers' markets in Philly
in that year, plus seven owned by the city. The largest was the Farmers Market, on the north side of Market between 11th and
12th Sts. Some accounts say that farmers sold products on that site as early as the 1650s. An 1876 guide book called it "the
finest market structure in the city, and well worth a visit by strangers."
Next to it was the Franklin Market,
on the corner of 12th St. The Franklin was originally on 10th St. below Market, but moved alongside Farmers. Both were absorbed
into the new Reading Terminal when it was built in 1893. In 1876, the Reading passenger terminal was at 9th and Green Sts.
Tracks ran up 9th St.
In center city in 1876, there were
also markets on Market St. at 5th, 16th, 19th and 21st. A huge market for Jersey produce and seafood stood between Delaware
Ave. and Front St. from Spruce to Dock Sts. Most neighborhoods had markets of their own. Nobody had ever heard of any called
v v v
July 20, 2011
by James Smart
An exposé of the potato chip
A paper published
in the New England Journal of Medicine last month got a lot of attention, and has become jocularly known among health care
professionals as The Potato Chip Study. Looking it over in my capacity as a health care amateur, I would say that the study
concludes that it is better to eat things that are good for you than things that are not.
that all along. Researchers are not allowed to suspect things, and therefore had to go to all the trouble of studying120,877
people over a 20 year period so they could say with scientific certainty that if you scarf up potato chips like there is no
tomorrow, there most likely will be a tomorrow and on it you will be fat.
researchers say that all the studying led to 1,570,808 person years of data to analyze. I don't want to bother figuring out
what that would be in the dog years people like to joke about. You shouldn't feed your dog potato chips anyway.
the study kept track of other things than chips, such as French fries, fruit, nuts and yogurt. The researchers also poked
their scientific noses into how much sleep the studyees got at night (and maybe at other times), how much time they spent
watching television, whether they smoked, and all sorts of other how-muches.
know why the item on their data chart that caught everyone's eye was the potato chip. Maybe, in our society's collective guilty
conscience about dreadful eating habits, chip guilt predominates. Perhaps Mssrs. Utz, Lay, Herr, Pringle and other chip chaps
can be secretly pleased about winning this otherwise unfortunate popularity vote.
study found that those folks who pack in a bag of chips a day for a couple of years can expect to put on a pound and three
quarters. Make that French fries and they'll add three pounds.
The researchers also kept an eye on folks who whiled away the person years eating fruit,
nuts and yogurt. It turned out that the goody-two-chews who gobbled nuts every day averaged losing about a pound over four
would happen if somebody ate potato chips and nuts on alternate days, adding three and a half pounds in four years with the
chips but simultaneously knocking off a pound with the nuts? I won't try to figure out how many chip days and how many nut
days would make the weight come out even.
from eating to sleeping, the researchers found that people who slept less than six hours or more than eight hours gained more
weight. The findings about chips, fries, nuts and yogurt was no surprise. We've been hearing stuff like that for years. But,
set the alarm for seven hours to control your weight? That's new news.
study also found a correlation between time spent watching television and weight gain. We can't blame television for that.
Sitting and reading, or sitting and doing nothing at all, should have the same effect as sitting and watching "Real Housewives
of Manayunk." Unless you're also eating a bowl of yogurt with fruit and nuts.
v v v
July 13, 2011
by James Smart
All the news that's fit to sniff
Dozens of bloggers and
other Internet annoyances went wild writing about the recent introduction of candles that smell like the New York Times. These
candles sell for $65, and I presume that one has to burn them to get that aroma of inky newsprint. Nostalgic New Yorkers who
now read all the news that's fit to digitize, on computer, Kindle or other 21st century paraphernalia, can get an old fashioned
aromatic newspaper accompaniment. By candle light.
They could, alternately,
go down to a newsstand and get a real copy of the Times for two bucks. They could read it by the light of a cheaper candle,
while inhaling the aroma of the actual newspaper, and save some money. But there's no accounting for what New Yorkers do.
At least, most writers
expounding on the creation of the Times-scented candle understand that newsprint is the paper that newspapers are printed
on. Many people use the word as though it described the editorial content of the newspaper.
Newsprint is made from
mashed-up wood of trees, usually spruce, fir and pine trees. It is not treated with the chemicals that create higher grades
of paper. That makes it cheaper. It also makes it turn brown and crumble as the years go by.
These days, a lot of recycled
material goes into newsprint. The clippings you're saving from this modern newsprint may last longer than ones from several
I don't know how many
readers of newspapers, or those of us who have worked at producing them, have affection for the odor of inky newsprint. I
remember being in the pressroom in the bowels of the old Evening Bulletin building at Juniper and Filbert Sts., back in the
Pleistocene era, with sweaty guys rolling 1,500 hundred pound rolls of newsprint into the giant presses, in air full of ink
mist, heat, humidity and perspiration, and believe me, I don't want a candle with an aroma from there.
If the idea is that people
will accept news-providing electronic devices more quickly if they are accompanied by newspaper odor, maybe Henry Ford and
Louis Chevrolet and those dudes would have done even better if they had provided drivers of early automobiles with candles
that smelled like horses. How about gasoline-scented candles to burn in your new electric car?
I've made the transition
from typewriter to computer without any fragrance-related issues, but I suppose that old-time writers who had to switch from
longhand to typewriters might have been comforted by a candle that smelled like an ink well.
If burning newspaper-scented
candles has a sort of subliminal (or subnasal) affect on people, possibly burning one when you have company will instill in
your friends the feeling that you keep up with the news. You might create an impression of business acumen by burning a Wall
Street Journal candle, or cause people to think you are erudite by using an Encyclopedia Britannica candle. I wonder if National
Enquirer candles would sell?
July 6, 2011
by James Smart
The ears through the years
A newspaper article written by a doctor reported that people's ears get bigger with age. The cartilage of our ears,
it said, grows throughout our lifetime, and the earlobe elongates and sags due to gravity. Gravity also makes aging noses
get longer, the doc wrote.
I admit that I have been aging for quite a few years, which was not my idea but happened anyway, and my ears are, indeed,
looking more Dumboesque as the number of candles on the cake approach the conflagration stage. Apparently, that is perfectly
Much more dismaying than the lengthening of the ears is the fact that the rest of me is getting shorter. That must
be gravity, too.
Nobody had measured my height for quite a few years. I think most of us assumed
that we topped out somewhere around voting age or thereabouts, and Momma could stop making those marks on the doorframe.
Then, in a physical examination a few years ago, the nurse pulled a slide on a scale down to my thinly decorated cranium,
and, jotting on her clipboard, said, "Five feet five." I told her that wasn't right. I was five seven and a half since high
school. It was recorded on my draft card.
Of course, it also said it was 1948 on my draft card, and the years have not stayed the same number, either. But the
years' numbers have been advancing, not shrinking. I guess that has something to do with gravity, too.
The medical troubleshooters performed bone scans and other conjuring, and announced that it was nothing to worry about,
just the spaces in my spine closing up a bit. It sounded to me like saying that the mortar was gone from a brick wall, but
the bricks will stay stacked anyhow. But you can't argue with medical conjecturers. That's why they and Blue Cross make the
I did worry somewhat when I pro-rated the amount of shrinkage. At the indicated rate, if I lived to be 100 I would
be three and a half feet tall.
It's possible that the draft card wasn't accurate. I remember the doctor who examined me saying that I had nothing
to worry about in the draft. I had such flat feet that I would be rejected by the military instantly. Gravity at work again,
I didn't tell the doctor that walking was my favorite recreation, that I enjoyed hiking long distances, that I did
a mile in 12 minutes, and that my allegedly defective feet never hurt. I never did get drafted, I still like to walk for hours,
and my feet are still as flat as when I was 18.
With my normal pace these days, though, a mile takes 20 minutes. Again, probably something to do with gravity. Or maybe
I'm slowing down because of wind resistance against my increasingly bigger ears.
As for my nose, I don't think gravity has dragged it down much yet. Maybe when it does, it will smooth out that little
kink in my nose, the result of an unfortunate slow reaction of my left hand while boxing in junior high, which allowed a kid
named Tony Loreno to catch me with a right hook and realign some cartilage. No gravity was involved.
June 29, 2011
by James Smart
Do diplomas equal brains?
A recent newspaper article said in its headline that Pennsylvania's legislators are not as smart as New York's. The
first sentence of the article said, "Your Pennsylvania legislators: smarter, at least on paper, than Delaware's; dumber than
The basis of the article was a report that three-quarters of Pennsylvania's 253 legislators hold at least a bachelor's
degree. California, Virginia, Nebraska, New York and Texas are the states with a higher percentage of law makers with degrees.
(About two-thirds of the New Jersey legislature have degrees.)
The problem with the article was that the report did not, as it claimed, reveal the number of legislators who are smart.
What it found was the number who managed to get through college successfully.
Unfortunately, possession of a college diploma does not necessarily indicate that the owner is smart, or even educated.
And the lack of a degree is frequently merely an indication that the non-degreed person never went to college.
It seems neither good news nor bad that three quarters of our Harrisburgers have college degrees. That's about the
same percentage of presidents of the United States who acquired diplomas. Ten of our 44 presidents didn't earn degrees. Some
never went to college, and several dropped out.
Abe Lincoln had one year of schoolhouse education, and he seemed to be fairly intelligent. George Washington dropped
out of William & Mary, although he received a certificate for his surveying course.
In the old days, a man could study law in a law office and be admitted to the bar without a degree. Even in modern
times, Harry Truman dropped out of law school but still practiced law. And William Henry Harrison didn't have an undergraduate
degree. He attended the University of Pennsylvania medical school in 1791, but dropped out half way through; the entire medical
school course then lasted 32 weeks.
Andy Jackson studied in a law office. When Harvard gave him an honorary law degree while he was president, Harvard
alumnus John Quincy Adams protested, calling Jackson "a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could
spell his own name." But Andy was smart enough to out-general the British army in 1814 and win eight years in the White House.
Now, comparing presidents of the United States with the legislators in Pennsylvania may be like mastiffs with Chihuahuas.
The point is that completing a course of formal education is not necessarily an indicator of intelligence.
Conversely, intelligence is not always an indicator of sensible behavior.
We have recently seen a dismaying number of apparently smart political figures who were caught in some not-so-smart activities,
and worse, tried to lie their way out of it.
Only 26 percent of the citizens of Pennsylvania have college degrees. I wonder if anyone is making a study of how many
residents of other states have higher education. If those numbers are announced, though, news writers should remember that
it will not indicate how smart the comparative citizenries are.
June 22, 2011
by James Smart
Lament for the Tasty airplanes
a suggestion for those folks down in Georgia who are taking over the production of Tastykakes, a responsibility almost as
profound as taking charge of the Liberty Bell or the Mummers Parade. Bring back the paper airplanes.
has to be pretty old to remember Tastykake paper airplanes. Perhaps unfortunately, I meet that description.
days when S. Davis Wilson was mayor, Admiral Byrd was exploring the Antarctic,
Babe Ruth had just quit baseball and I was a short-pants kid, Tastykake gave away, as a promotion, little blue and white paper
airplanes made of stiff paper. My memory these days, like a paper airplane, tends to do dips and glides, but as I remember
them, the planes were about seven inches from nose to tail..
fuselage was double, with a metal clip at the nose to provide balance, and was notched so the wings, adorned with the Tastykake
logo, could be inserted. Elevator fins snapped into the tail below the rudder, and the little glider was ready to fly. A flip
of the wrist sent it sailing, and its design was so elegant that it stayed aloft for satisfying duration.
and Tastykake truck drivers occasionally gave the planes away, and they were handed out at block parties and such events.
Blue balloons with the Tastykake logo were also company give-aways.
lucky when it came to acquiring Tasty airplanes. Gertrude Smith, whose brother, Leon, was pastor of our church, worked for
Tasty Baking Co. Consequently, every kind of picnic or social event the church put on was well supplied with airplanes and
balloons for the kids. Occasionally, Ms. Smith attended one of those functions personally, and her husband, Tom Hobson, a
jolly guy, always had pockets full of planes and balloons to hand out.
remember that they ever gave away Tastykakes. It didn't matter. The cakes were easier to come by than the airplanes. If Dad
gave you a nickel to go down to the corner store and indulge yourself, some kids would opt for a Hershey bar, but the more
prudent knew that three chocolate Tasty cupkakes, or a lemon pie, were a better investment. The pie had a bonus; the box,
with three portholes down each side, made a dandy boat to float in the gutter when it rained.
don't sneer at the puniness of the nickel, you modern allowance-collecting kids. It cost Dad a dime for a gallon of gas in
old Tastykake slogan was "the cake that made Mother stop baking." Many Philadelphia mothers baked every day when Tasty Baking
Co. started out in 1914. The alternative was for Mom to walk down to the little corner bakery, where the baker would shoo
the flies off a pound cake and cut a slice for her. Tasty pound cakes were safely wrapped in waxed paper.
The pound cakes were too big for some folks, so Tasty came
out with a half sized version called a Junior. The seniors are gone, but Juniors are still with us. But, where are the paper
June 15, 2011
by James Smart
Danger: exploding watermelons
reports from China said that 115 acres of watermelons were rendered useless because they exploded. Most of the articles blamed
the phenomenon on farmers who applied too heavy doses of a growth stimulating chemical on the melons.
who enjoy worrying about such things leaped on the subject immediately, as another example of why we should not mess with
mother nature and pump fruit, vegetables, milk cows and edible animals with hormones, chemicals and assorted unnatural improvements.
A few stories did mention that some non-treated melons also were blowing up unprovoked, but news purveyors prefer an explanation
rather than a mystery.
mentions of the problem led to entertaining visions of big green melons suddenly blowing apart with a great splattering of
seeds and pink goo, with a water spray soaring upward in a melon version of a mushroom cloud. But photos from China revealed
that the melons were small and puny, compared to old-fashioned U. S. A. watermelons, and didn't blow apart picturesquely,
but just split open haphazardly and laid there looking useless.
are films on YouTube showing good green American watermelons being thoroughly exploded, with fragments flying every which
way and a huge cloud of water vapor blasting up. That was not accomplished by spraying any growth chemicals on the subject;
some kind of tubes are seen connected to the unfortunate melons.
melancholy (I had to use the word) Chinese situation was the first I've heard of a spray-on substance that makes things grow
larger. It's good that the explosive side effects were discovered before over-achieving athletes found out about it. Aspiring
basketball players would be dousing themselves with it, possibly leading to a center coming down court and exploding in mid-dribble.
for watermelons, I don't know if they're allowed in airline carry-on now, but the possibility of an explosive watermelon will
surely put them on the airport security people's forbidden list. Cantaloupes might be looked on a bit suspiciously, too.
last time I recall living things mysteriously exploding did not involve anything as inanimate as a watermelon. About this
time of year in 2005, news media got excited when thousands of toads began exploding in parts of Europe. No farmers or growth
chemicals were involved.
checked the works of Charles Fort, who devoted most of his life (1874 to 1932) to collecting information about unusual phenomena.
The words melon and watermelon are not in the index. ("Toads, fall of," is cross referenced to "Frogs, fall of." There are
nine pages of frogs falling from the sky. Or sometimes, toads.)
indexed 31 items about explosions. Most describe mysterious sounds of explosions, sometimes multiple booming that went on
for days, which people in the areas who heard them couldn't explain. It obviously never occurred to them, or to Charles Fort,
that the source of the noises could have been watermelons.
June 8, 2011
by James Smart
Retiring without a club house
and other sources of wisdom regularly afflict us with articles and advertisements advising us how to plan for and enjoy retirement.
Being an old guy who has both planned to retire and actually done it, I naturally have a few opinions on the subject.
One of the first gems
of guidance experts usually offer is that we should plan our finances so that we can live in retirement in the same life style
to which we were accustomed when employed. This is good news for anyone who has been living on a salary of about $218 a week,
since the average Social Security benefit for retired Pennsylvanians is $875 a month. Most of us do better than that, and
also have other sources of retirement income, such as a pension, some savings, or possibly rich relatives with generous wills,
although those tend to be scarce where I come from.
I started to plan when
I was about 50, so I would be able to live in retirement the way I lived then. The problem is, there were then no monthly
bills for cell phones, cable television, Internet, satellite radio, and other improvements to our lives that insist on monthly
payments and frequent purchases of new and improved equipment. Financial advisers rarely recommend that folks should factor
in some retirement money to pay for necessities that haven't been invented yet.
I consulted a couple of
professional financial advisers about retirement planning, and all they wanted to talk about was insurance and my estate.
When I told them that what I wanted to know was how to live on my Social Security and savings for the rest of my life, they
seemed genuinely puzzled.
While telling people about
to retire that they should be able to live the way they always did, at the same time our society portrays retirement as a
time to change. The general view is that people who retire should immediately move to a new "55-plus" development, a resort
area, or a retirement home, and that all they want to do is travel, play golf,
or find other fun-filled ways to pass the time until the hearse arrives.
try to lure me into moving into their facilities by advertising such offers as yoga classes, arts and crafts rooms, Tai Chi,
water volleyball, and a club house. Planners of retirement places feel that a club house is essential to old folks. Many retired
people, like me, look forward to being in our own house, as long as possible, doing things we didn't have time to do while
working, with no need for a social director.
What I want to know if
I decide to move into a retirement community is what it costs (the ads rarely mention prices), how's the food (the brochures
favor the word "gourmet" but the residents don't always agree), is it near transportation (not out in the sticks where I would
need a car when I'm 93 and shouldn't drive) and other practical considerations. I'd be willing to pay a bit extra if they
promised never to try to make me do Tai Chi or make pottery.
June 1, 2011
by James Smart
A fight to save public notices
The daily newspapers are upset over House Bill 633, currently looming in Harrisburg, that would permit state and local
governments in Pennsylvania to place public notices on government Web sites, instead of in newspapers. The Inquirer has criticized
the proposal editorially, and has run ads asking for readers' support in opposing the law.
The Inky expresses fear that government's communication will go largely unnoticed, and that the million or so Pennsylvanians
who have no access to the Internet will be cut off from information. The paper calls the proposal "harmful both to government
transparency and free enterprise."
Cynics might conclude that the free enterprise being harmed is the money the newspapers take in as payment for the
so-called Legal Notices. But there is a legitimate concern that this bill is just a cute attempt by some of our elected misrepresentatives
to obscure access to nonsense arising in the Legislature or City Council, as well as every little borough council and school
board in the Commonwealth.
If the Legislators are making this move out of a desire to reach the electorate better in this era of new forms of
communication, they should pass a law that requires Legal Notices to be placed in both print and electronic media, not in
one or the other.
I am an old fan of Legal Notices, and other routine material that used
to be set in what was called agate type, in the days when printing was done the manly way, with metal type, not assemblies
of ink-attracting megabytes.
When I started reading, as a short-pants kid, I read anything I could get my eyes on. We had three newspapers delivered
in those days, and I read just about everything, whether I understood it or not. News, and sports, and department store ads,
The Evening Bulletin ran agate type lists of Marriage Licenses Issued, Divorces Filed, Divorces Granted, Ship Arrivals
and Departures, Birth Notices, Death Notices and Legal Notices. I read it all. Did I learn anything? Not much, but it was
stuff to read.
One thing I did learn was that information often lurked in the Legal Notices before the news pages got around to it.
Thirty years later, as a columnist for The Bulletin, that was still true. Often, I would call some public official and ask
for the dope on some controversial upcoming action, and he would mutter, "How did you find out about that?" The answer was
that I read it in the legally required government advertising in the classified ad pages.
Today, I play a waiting game when I read the Legal Notices. For instance, the notices recently mentioned a proposed
ordinance to create a "condemnation corridor" affecting structures along a widening of I-95, and another to rezone the block
bounded by Ridge Ave, Green Lane, Dupont St. and Lawnton St. Now, I watch to see how long it will be before the newsroom operatives
catch up with it.
And I don't want to have to search for that stuff on the Internet.
May 25, 2011
by James Smart
Tinkering with time in Samoa
are reports that Samoa is altering the International Date Line, the imaginary line where yesterday ends and today begins.
Or today ends and tomorrow begins. Or whatever.
news magazine wrote that clocks in Samoa will "jump forward" 24 hours in December "when it crosses to the east of the International
Date Line." What? Any clock that is functioning properly, if it "jumps forward" 24 hours, will say the same time as when it
started and nobody will notice.
Samoa is not going to cross the line to the east. Samoa is an 1,127 square mile island, and can't be moved easily. It's the
date line that's moving, which, being an imaginary line, can be imagined anywhere somebody pleases.
imaginer in this case is the prime minister of Samoa, whose name is Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. His reason is to put Samoa
in the same time zone as its main trading partners, Australia and New Zealand.
displeases beneficiaries of Samoa's $77 million a year tourism industry. For over 100 years, travelers have come to stand
on the west end of the island and watch the planet's official last sunset of that day. Now, the little U. S. territory of
American Samoa, southeast of regular Samoa, will be the last place to see today's sunset.
move puzzles many people. An editorial in a Samoan newspaper said of Mr. Malielegaoi.'s decision, "We fear the day when we're
all going to wake up in a snowy country somewhere close to Russia."
will stay put. The date line doesn't have to. It was created in 1884, when astronomers from around the world met in Washington,
D. C., to tackle the problem of time confusion. Local time then could vary, not only from country to country, but from city
astronomers agreed to divide our globe into pole-to-pole meridian lines, 15 degrees apart. The "prime meridian," zero degrees,
ran through the venerable Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. On the opposite side of Earth's 360 degree circumference,
the 180th meridian came right down the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
conference set up a universal midnight-to-midnight system called Greenwich Mean Time (or Zulu, to you fans of "NCIS" on television.)
But the agreement rules that it "shall not interfere with the use of local or standard time when desirable." So we have our
arbitrary U. S. time zones, and the 180th degree International Date Line has bends and kinks to keep certain islands in advantageous
zones, and to keep a piece of Russia from being on Alaska time.
the Samoans are disturbed now, imagine Ferdinand Magellan's crew, returning from history's first trip around the world in
1522. They kept a careful log of days traveled as they sailed west, but arrived in Spain a day earlier than the locals insisted
it was. They sent a delegation to Pope Hadrian VI to ask if he could explain that, but he was busy with Henry VIII and Martin
Luther and invading Turks, and probably didn't have time to worry about a mislaid day.
Degrees to make the small bucks
Newsweek magazine and its web alter ego The Daily
Beast assembled a list of the most useless college degrees. The 10 majors that don't pay, they warn kids now contemplating
higher education, are:
5. Fashion design
6. Child and family studies
8. Mechanical engineering
The study was based mostly on career salary levels.
It's easy to say that money isn't everything if you have enough of it, and judgments of how much is enough vary widely. But
I would like the Beast's experts to compile an alternate list, of degrees in professions that give the most satisfaction.
You'll note that journalism stands proudly atop
the underpaid list. Let's pause a moment while I accept your pity. Thank you.
But the pleasure of writing, and the adventure
of reporting about people and events, was what attracted me to journalism, and I'll happily discount a percentage of my lifetime
earnings for the fun I've had. I could have become a Certified Public Accountant, and thus might afford a better house, car
and retirement plan, but I would not have interviewed such folks as John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and
would never have covered 82nd Airborne maneuvers or been an extra in an Old Vic "Romeo and Juliet."
Similarly, few students who go for a music degree
are thinking about remuneration. They love music and want to produce it, with or without income. You don't see lawyers or
stock brokers performing their talents on street corners.
With horticulture and agriculture, Philly kids
who bus long distances to Saul High School to learn agricultural sciences and manure-shoveling are most likely there because
they love to tend animals and grow things. Students of fashion design at Philadelphia University may dream of making a fortune,
but also of seeing their creations being sauntered down a runway and applauded.
And if by advertising, the list means the creative
types, winning a Cleo for a dazzling TV commercial may rank higher in their ambition than salary. (Advertising salespersons
are a different sort.)
who think only of earning top dollar may consider the above list and go elsewhere. Plenty of kids who see their passion on
the list will ignore its warning.
May 11, 2011
by James Smart
A Civil War submarine scare
The main front page headline of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin of May 17, 1861, said,
CAPTURE OF AN INFERNAL MACHINE."
The Civil War had just begun, and citizens were a bit jumpy. For several days, people had been telling the police about
a mysterious boat slinking around in the Delaware River. Police Lt. Benjamin Edgar and his Harbor Patrol were on the lookout.
On the afternoon of the 16th, they spotted a nearly submerged object lying hidden behind the lower end of Smith's Island,
in the river opposite South St. It was a cigar-shaped iron tube about 20 feet long and four feet in diameter, with a propeller
at one end protected by a circular cage. Only its back showed above the water line, with a ridge along it and a hatch at the
forward end, bolted tightly shut. "Two tiers of glass bull's eyes" lined the sides, wrote a Bulletin reporter.
About midnight, a police boat caught two men in a skiff loaded with pig lead, rowing toward the mystery craft. They
were brought to the Central Police Station in City Hall, at 5th and Chestnut Sts., and what The Bulletin called "their iron
pet" was towed to the Noble St. wharf. A little after daybreak, crowds began to gather on the waterfront, discussing whether
the vessel was a Confederate "infernal machine," climbing on the lumber piles on the wharf to get a better look, and being
shooed away by policemen when they got too close.
The cops offered to show the Bulletin man the inside of the strange vessel. The reporter dropped from the high wharf
into a skiff alongside, and jumped over onto the back of "the iron mystery." A police officer held his coat and hat, and the
reporter squeezed into the narrow hatch. Inside, he found a crank for operating the propeller, rods to manipulate fins for
steering, and an array of pipes, pumps and brass faucets.
A policeman offered to reveal how the boat could submerge when certain valves were opened, and began to demonstrate.
"We had not full faith in his skill in infernal machines," the Bulletin man wrote, "and we had no special fancy for going
to the bottom of the river inside of an iron pipe." He climbed out and went to
The two men in custody there were Alexander Rhodes, 19, a Frenchman, and Henry Kriner, 18, an American. They said that
the sub-marine craft was invented by a Frenchman named De Villaroi about two years past, and it had been kept and tested at
different times at New Castle, Marcus Hook and Rancocas. Men had stayed under water in it for up to three hours, and moved
about freely under water, they claimed.
They had brought the craft up river, they said, because Mr. De Villaroi had permission to test it at the Navy Yard,
at Federal St., for the purpose of obtaining a patent. Officers of the Navy Yard said they had never heard of it.
An investigation continued, officers searched for De Villaroi, and curious
crowds lounged around the wharf. Police assured everyone that there was no danger, and there was no Rebel plot for an underwater
attack on Philadelphia.
Some Biblical sex and violence
One of the surprises I had from people
who have read my book, "Adonijah Hill's Journal," was the number of them who asked how I chose the name Adonijah for the fictitious
1876 newspaper reporter who is the imaginary writer of the otherwise true-to-history diary. I tell them that it sounded right
because Biblical names were common in the 19th century. My own family was full
When I called my character Adonijah,
I assumed that most people would have heard the name, even if they couldn't identify it. The Biblical, historical, Adonijah
was the fourth son of David, the second king of Israel, about 3,000 years ago. His name was likely to come up when anyone
studied in Jewish religious classes or a Christian Sunday school.
I enjoyed Bible reading when I was
a kid. Adonijah's story is like many Biblical yarns, with sex and violence and other neat stuff. Today, youngsters see those
activities on television and in movies. In my day, if you craved tales of murder or adultery or such adult activities, the
Bible was a place a little boy could read them without worrying that his parents would catch him.
was a pretty busy guy; being king takes up most of your time. But in the early days, he found time to have six wives, and
each of them had a son.( He eventually totaled eight wives and 17 sons.) The fourth son was Adonijah.
Years later, David was strolling on
the roof of his palace one afternoon, and observed a beautiful woman neighbor, in her courtyard, taking a bath. David was
smitten. Already having a bunch of wives didn't mean a fellow couldn't get smitten. He told a servant to find out who the
unclad woman was. Turns out, she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, an officer in David's army who was currently on the front
lines in a war with the Ammonites. Her name was Bathsheba.
David invited Bathsheba over to the
palace, and one thing led to another, and then he sent her home. But, guess what? A while later, Bathsheba sent the king a
little message: "I'm pregnant." Her husband was still out walloping Ammonites, so David could put two and two together.
suddenly got ordered into the hottest part of the battle, where he was fatally punctured by Ammonite arrows, and David married
the mourning widow Bathsheba. What's another wife and baby, more or less? They named the kid Solomon.
More years passed. David was old and
dying, and being nursed by a pretty young girl. Adonijah decided that he would inherit the throne, and even threw a big party
to celebrate. But Bathsheba complained to David, and talked him into appointing Solomon to be the next king.
died, Solomon took charge, and everything seemed to settle down. But Adonijah wouldn't let up. He asked Solomon if, since
he couldn't be king, could he at least marry the girl who cared for David on his death bed. Solomon got annoyed and had Adonijah
executed, and that was that.
Adonijah Hill, the protagonist of my
book, was just a guy from Fishtown. His life was interesting, but none of that Biblical sex and violence.