Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How Damn Long Does It Take to Carve a Mountain Into an Indian?

It’s the summer of 1971, I’m eighteen years old and I and my two equally non-svelte brothers are all jammed in the back seat of the family’s 1962 Chevy Bel-Air. It’s cramped back there and we’re fighting for space, as we will continue to do for the next four thousand miles. We are on a family vacation to South Dakota. We’re on our way to see Mt. Rushmore.

And, of course, points along the way. There is a sense of adventure in the air; an opportunity for new experience. And the new experiences begin at the Illinois State Fair. Now up until that point my only knowledge of a state fair was through some blurry photos in a school textbook about alien cultures, such as Illinois, and that corny old movie starring Pat Boone. (I’m too young to remember the really old one with Dick Haymes.) And now I myself was at my first state fair, complete with cows, sheep and pigs. It was exotic beyond words.

After we had arrived in South Dakota, many uncomfortable miles later, and viewed Mt. Rushmore we learned of another mountain that was being carved right at that very moment. How lucky for us to have arrived during the actual creation of the Crazy Horse monument, even if we had almost no idea who Crazy Horse might have been or why somebody would want to carve his image into a stone mountain.

After seeing Mt. Rushmore the Crazy Horse monument was something of a disappointment. Actually it would have been a disappointment after seeing just about anything. From the viewing platform we looked off in the distance to see a flat rock with a hole cut through it. A mural on a wall told us that the flat part of the rock would be Crazy’s extended arm and the hole would be, well, his armpit I suppose. The entire experience reminded me of the episode of The Flintstones when they go to see the Grand Canyon and discover only a trickling stream. “They expect it to be a big deal some day,” says Fred.

I was not an unromantic kid (all that came later) and as I stood there I looked forward to the day when I would return to see the completed sculpture. In my young mind I estimated that it would probably take about four, and maybe as many as five, years to get the job done. After all, we had read that the guy who was doing the carving was now being assisted by his sons, so I figured that with the whole clan chipping away they’d knock the thing out in no time.

Over the years a photo of the monument under construction would occasionally appear in a newspaper or magazine, and invariably I’d clip the article and send it to my parents or they’d clip it and send it to me. And the only constant in these photos was that Crazy Horse seemed to look exactly the same as he had back in 1971, armpit hole and all. I was sure that there was progress being made, but I’d be damned if I could see it.

And now we are in the computer age and it is a simple matter to keep track of the memorial’s progress. A quick trip to Wikipedia reveals a picture of Crazy Horse as he looks today, and damned if he still isn’t a big rock with an armpit. OK, to be fair, Crazy Horse now has a face. In fact a dedication ceremony was conducted about ten years ago. For the face.

And no doubt there was at least one teenager at that ceremony who looked up at the giant rock with the armpit and made a silent vow: One day soon he would return to see the finished product. Keep dreaming, kid.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Scraps: A Happy New Year

This is one of my favorite scraps in the pile, not just because it is nearly the oldest but also because it includes not only the date but the name of the newspaper as well. It was clipped by a person unknown from the The Sun, which was published in New York, and is dated January 1, 1864.

Or more specifically, “Jan’y 1, 1864." Below the date is a headline proclaiming “A Happy New Year,” followed by a column of copy that expresses more optimism than you might expect during a time when the country was suffering through what remains to this day its bloodiest war.

The article claims that, “Never before have the New Year chimes awakened brighter anticipations” and “The gloomy clouds of war seem about to drift away, and bright Peace appear…” Whether there was real cause for this optimism or it was simply wishful thinking is hard to say from our comfortable perch one hundred and fifty years in the future, but we do know for sure that on the day these sentences were written the surrender at Appomattox was still well over a year away.

On the flip side of the scrap, under the heading The Year 1863 is list of “important and other events” for that year. Topping that list are several paragraphs from January 1st, the day when President Lincoln issued what we now refer to as the Emancipation Proclamation. In the article it is referred to as a Proclamation of – and it is from here that a thumb-sized piece of the ancient newspaper is missing, taking the historic word with it.

Below this are two charts: one lists the number of slaves in certain “states and parts of states” that have been liberated by Lincoln’s proclamation. The other names the states where the “institution of slavery” is not disturbed. Included here are Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and others, leaving a total of 830,000 slaves “still in bondage.” (Just in case you thought the Emancipation Proclamation freed all the slaves.)

Other events recalled from 1863 include a riot in Detroit that began with “a negro outraging a little white girl,” and a lecture by reformer Henry Ward Beecher that was “disturbed by a mob.”   Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and who supported abolition and women’s suffrage, would later stand trial for adultery. Also in 1863, General Ambrose Burnside took over the command of the Department of the West, although today he is better remembered for his facial hair, and for lending his name to what we now call “sideburns.”

Incidentally, a copy of The Sun cost a penny in 1864, which is the equivalent of only fifteen cents today. This seems like quite a bargain. After all, can you find a newspaper for fifteen cents? Can you find a newspaper at all? 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Campbell’s “Pork” & Beans

Mom was alright. Even though she wanted it for herself, if you happened to be in the kitchen when she poured that can of Campbell’s Pork and Beans into the saucepan, and if you were the first to find it, she’d let you eat that tiny piece of pork that was always hidden somewhere among the beans. Like I said, Mom was alright.

Did I say pork? What it was, and continues to be, is more a bit of fat, the sole purpose of which, it seems to me, is to protect the Campbell's folks from having to have only the word “beans” on their red and white label. I got a little nostalgic the other day when I opened a can, and you know, I never even found that tiny scrap of fat. It must have been an oversight on my part; I'm certain that Campbell’s is unfailingly vigilant about putting that tiny glob in each can. It’s like some glutinous, artery-clogging Crackerjack prize.

What I don’t understand is how they get away with calling it Pork & Beans in the first place. Oh, I suspect that a hundred or so years ago when flatulent cowboys sat around the campfire, it truly was pork and beans, with big hunks of glistening pig floating around in there with all them beans. Why, if the cook had even once dared to serve beans with just a single, dime-sized morsel of fat, well, I have no doubt he would have been lassoed, tied to his own chuck wagon and dragged around the cactus-strewn prairie for a few miles. And deservedly so.

Originally I thought that they are legally compelled to call it Beans and Pork, as beans, being the major (and practically the only) ingredient, should be listed first. Then I realized that this is only required on the list of ingredients, not in the name of the product itself. (The three main ingredients, incidentally, are water, beans and, of course, America’s national beverage: high fructose corn syrup.)

Still, if you bought a can of, say, Lobster and Wild Rice, and got home to find only a can of rice with but a tiny speck of lobster not large enough to fill a molar, well, I bet you’d be plenty peeved. And yet we’ve been putting up with this Pork and Beans scam since I was a kid, and probably a lot longer than that.

So Campbell’s, why don’t we do this: Let’s just drop the whole charade, do away with that piece of “pork,” and just call your product Beans. Or better yet, Barbeque Beans. It certainly would be more honest, and there would be other benefits besides. For example, based on the quantity in each can, I would estimate that you barely use one whole pig per half a million cans, or so. So admittedly, even if you eliminated the pork from your product you’d probably save only one pig’s life a year. It doesn’t seem like much to you, I know, but I’m sure he’d appreciate it. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Scraps: Be the First One on Your Block

At first $299.95 would seem like a hefty price tag for a television in 1953. And I suppose it was. Additionally, when you adjust for inflation it turns out that price is the rough equivalent of $2600 today. It’s a lot, to be sure, but it’s not outrageous.

After all, people pay more than that for their flat-screens every day. Of course, the picture on today’s models is somewhat larger than what we see featured in the newspaper scrap above, not to mention a lot clearer. Oh, and you probably won’t be needing any rabbit ears on that new plasma you just lugged out of Best Buy.

And so to believe that in 1953 only the well-heeled could afford a television would be a mistake. While it’s true that only five years earlier, in 1948, only about half a percent of American households had a TV, this number had, by 1953, exploded to over 55%.

Let’s say you’re doing pretty well for yourself in Eisenhower’s America. After all, most people were. So you drive your new Studebaker down to Towne Television, (which, incidentally was in Norwalk, Connecticut) and select your TV from the many types, styles and finishes shown in the advertisement. You pluck down your $299.95, or perhaps take advantage of their “budget terms,” and just like that you have a brand new television set. And one with “Rotomatic Tuning” no less! So then, what are you going to watch?

Classics, that’s what! Many of the programs that aired in 1953 remain familiar to us today, and several of them are still on the air, including Meet the Press, Candid Camera and The Today Show. Other shows from that year that are gone but not forgotten, as least not by me, are Howdy Doody, The Ed Sullivan Show, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Jack Benny Show, Dragnet, I Love Lucy, American Bandstand, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Truth or Consequences, Adventures of Superman and Dragnet. Imagine, gathering with your family in the living room each night to watch these great shows, and so many more, all for only $2.31 a week.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Scraps: Nuts to You

In this scrap, Charles A. Thayer is claiming that the prices on his fruits and nuts are the lowest in Kings County. At least I assume we can include fruits, as only the letter “s” is remaining from that word. Below, in addition to the nuts, we can see the prices of raisins, prunes and lemons and so can safely assume the word was indeed “fruits.”

It’s interesting to see the phrase, “Kings County” used. Many of you have heard of the area of New York known as Queens, but have not often heard of its neighbor Kings, or Kings County. In truth you may well be familiar with this section on the western tip of Long Island, but you know it better as Brooklyn.

And so to the nuts! Almonds seem to be the big ticket item here, and many a housewife must have complained at the price of 22 cents a pound. Brazils, Filberts and Peacans fare a little better, at only 15 cents a pound. And while my spell check has underlined, in shocking red, that spelling of pecan, at the same time I hear the voices of those from long ago as they whine, “That’s how we spelled it back then!” 

And perhaps they did. Still, doubt remains, as in the ad the word “department” is misspelled with an “h” in the position where the second “e” should be. This is clearly a result of poor 
proofreading, as we can safely say that at no time in history, today or in 1884, was the word ever spelled like that. I wonder if some poor guy got in trouble, or fired, for the error.

Hey, good catch. How do I know that this scrap of paper is from 1884? You can see there is no dateline on the top of the page. Ah, but a look on the other side of the scrap shows three columns of news under the heading “News of the Day,” and on the very edge of the fourth column there is a bit of a calendar displaying just a part of the first three months of the year, along with the year itself, which is 1884. My birthday was on a Sunday that year, even though my first birthday was actually still seventy years away.

In the news we are told that a great disaster occurred near Ontario, Canada, where there was a collision between two trains. It says, “What had before been a car full of strong, hearty men became in an instant a sickening death trap filled with mangled, bleeding humanity.” Now that’s some evocative writing!

In other news…”five men dead and two dying is the result of a lynching case in McDade, Texas.” Now, I have no idea what is being said here, although I’m not sure if it’s because I’m not fully understanding this 19th century English, or the writer is being vague on purpose. I suspect the latter.

Another story tells us that a woman in Illinois invited a man to her house. The man had allegedly “made aspersions on her character,” and when he admitted to the woman that he had, she shot him. Dead. Also, an intoxicated couple died when they drove their wagon over an embankment and were “smothered in the snow.” You know, I can’t help but think that people from 130 years ago would have really enjoyed television. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Scraps: Introduction

Even though I hadn’t opened the trunk in over fifty years, I knew at least some of the items I would find there. In fact, I remember when we had put them in. First, of course, would be the Kennedy newspapers, carefully placed into what would be their home for the next half century a mere two days after the events in Dallas. It made me laugh to think how, when Mom and I had put them away, we couldn’t even have begun to imagine the year 2014, much less that these papers would be worth only about fifty dollars in that distant time. And that would be if they were in good condition, which I soon saw that these weren’t.

There were other newspapers in there, too. There were copies published nearly six years later, declaring that “Man Walks on Moon.” I remembered the headline but forgot that the front page date on that historic day had been cleverly written as “Moonday, July 21st 1969.” And there was another paper from 1969, The Daily News, that announced what might not have been considered a tragedy on par with some of the other world events of that time, but try to convince a kid who was a big baseball fan of that. “I just can’t hit anymore,” said the quote, and with that Mickey Mantle had announced his retirement.

There were other items in the trunk, which we had actually referred to as the “cedar chest” because, well, that’s what it was. The saddest of them all for me, even sadder that the headlines of assassinations and the retirement of sports heroes, was my mother’s wedding dress. Unless my mother had tried it on somewhere along the way, and I don’t think she did, the last time the dress had been worn was in 1950, when my mom was a twenty-two year old girl. Along with the wedding dress were two faded wedding favors, still filled with the traditional candied almonds.

Also in the cedar chest were several late 19th century bibles, a discovery that might have excited me years ago, before I realized that books from that era were quite common, and as such had little value. Still, I enjoyed, as always, carefully flipping to the copyright page and finding the date of publication. Even more poignant were the occasional names handwritten into the books, sometimes accompanied by an inscription, always written in that elegant 19th century style. “For William, Christmas 1883, from Father James,” said one.

And there were the scraps. Not complete newspapers by any stretch of the imagination, but simply browned, crumbly bits of paper that had been piled together for fifty years, and perhaps much longer. A cursory examination of the decaying papers gave me no clues as to who might have saved these relics, or why. There was no common thread that I could decipher, and the topics were as varied as much as the time periods the papers had spanned. Advertising, sports, classifieds and news were all there, although no major world events that I was familiar with were represented.

And yet to me the fragile fragments, breaking up more and more with each of my touches, were no less interesting because of their lack of momentous historic headlines. In fact, most of the pages were utterly fascinating. And at that moment I knew that I would return to examine the artifacts at a later date, when I could spend more time, and be more methodical.

And so, as gently as I could,  I returned the stack of scraps to the dark place where they had lay hidden undisturbed for over five decades, careful not to let any of the desiccated brown flecks flutter down onto my mother’s faded white wedding dress. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Please Beer With Me

There were six bottles of beer in the refrigerator. How long they had been there, I had no way of knowing. I was in the third week of cleaning out my father’s house, and I guess you could say the beer was part of my inheritance.

I never much cared for beer. I never liked the taste, right from that very first illicit sip from Dad’s bottle when I was a kid. I used to attend “beer blasts” in college, where for the admission price of a single dollar you could drink all the beer you wanted, all night long. More often than not you would have found me sipping a cup of water. The only time I ever drank beer on somewhat of a regular basis was when I lived in a warm-weather climate, and even then I would have much preferred a chocolate milkshake from McDonald’s.

And now each day I found myself throwing away contents from Dad’s refrigerator, and was surprised to find that the six bottles of beer continued to make the cut. Tossed were those dozen or so bottles of Boost that Dad would never need to drink, two or three containers of fruit juice of indeterminate age and a half gallon of milk that had only just bumped up against its expiration date. And still the beer remained.

And then one night, the day’s chores completed and the television calling my name, I pulled one of the beers out of the refrigerator and we headed together to the waiting couch. I suppose I looked at it as a well-deserved reward at the end of any busy day, which was odd considering how I had felt about the beverage my entire life.

Before I even got the bottle to my lips the aroma hit me, and I was surprised to find it to be quite pleasant. I took my first sip of a beer in probably a year or two, and found that to be pleasant as well. And so I eased back into the couch and spent the next half hour enjoying both my television show and my beer.

The next night I repeated the ritual with another beer from the refrigerator, and again found it to be an enjoyable way to pass some time. And then everything changed. I opened a third beer on the following night and noticed right away that the now familiar aroma just wasn’t there. The beer itself seemed almost flavorless, reminding me more of a harsh seltzer water than the flavorsome beverages I had enjoyed on the two previous evenings. What was going on here?

It didn’t take long to figure it out. The six bottles in the refrigerator were made up of two different brands, three of each kind in fact. Now I knew that we are living in the age of micro-brews, a time when people who once might have been dismissed as basic alcoholics have now been elevated as some sort of esteemed taste-masters, and that the best of them can pontificate on the subtle differences between dozens, or even hundreds, of brands of beer.

For me, though, it was a revelation that I, with basically no history of beer consumption, much less any knowledge of the ubiquitous brew, could tell the difference between these two quite common brands. I wondered if I actually was noticing a true distinction, and actually identifying the superior product, or if instead I was, as in so many other aspects of my life, completely full of shit.

Someday I’d like to talk to a true beer connoisseur or, failing that, even just an enthusiastic beer aficionado. I would tell him that there was a noticeable difference between the two beers and I, even with my obvious lack of a palette, had much preferred one over the other. I’d go on to tell him the names of the beers, which were Beck’s and Heineken, and then see which he thought I had identified as the superior product. I can’t help but wonder what a true lover of beer would say. What would you say?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Elvis’s Tombstone

I was reading an old comic strip the other day, Doonesbury to be specific, when I noticed it. In the strip Boopsie is at Graceland, standing before Elvis Presley’s grave. She is quite humbled by the experience, and reverently reads the inscription on the tombstone. Boopsie apparently glossed over one of the lines, but it definitely caught my eye. It says, “He became a living legend in his own time.”

I know, I know. With the current state of the world, with droughts presaging the coming water wars and a nasty and ever-spreading pestilence nibbling its way to our shores, why am I so concerned with such picayune details as a few poorly written words on the tomb of a long-dead singer? Aren’t there more perilous and urgent things for me to worry about?

And yes, of course there are. And so I now confess to you what must already be obvious to even the most casual reader; that I am a quibbler, a pettifogger and a top-drawer picker of nits. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of you this very day wrote to me and said, Leonard, your the biggest fusspot I have ever seen! To which, of course, I’d hastily reply, It should be ‘you’re,’ not ‘your.’

Or perhaps, God help you, you’re much like me. Perhaps the line on old Elvis’s gravestone bothers you, too, because you know that while someone can be a living legend, or a legend in his own time, to say that someone was “a living legend in his own time,” is grammatically incorrect.

Or, at the very least, it’s horribly redundant. The only time, in fact, that a person can be a living legend is in his own time. Once he’s not living, then he’s no longer in his own time, right? And so, although I don’t have very high hopes for this, I think the inscription should be changed. Think of all the impressionable school children who visit Graceland each year.

And don’t even get me started on the correct spelling of the poor guy’s middle name.
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