“What do y’all want to be called?”

[Excerpt: When All God’s Children Get Together, “Segregation Woes and New Life Today”]

by Ann Miller Woodford

ann-woodford-wnc-artistAnn Miller Woodford is our guest contributor to this Shelf Life in the Mountains. She is a native of Andrews, NC, and is an author, artist, speaker, and founder/Executive Director of One Dozen Who Care, Inc., a community development organization in western North Carolina.

“What do y’all want to be called?” That used to be a frequent question asked of Black people in the region. Even Blacks still do not agree on what term is offensive, so my advice has been to follow those who research the most inoffensive terms, such as major newscasters. The terms “Colored” and “Negro” went out in the 50s and 60s. However, it must be understood that some older African Americans held on to those terms far too long, since those were much preferred over being called “Nigger,” “Darkie,” “Spook,” “Coon,” “Jungle Bunny,” “Porch Monkey,” “Boy” or “Girl.” The term, “Afro-American” also is becoming antiquated, but “Person of Color,” “African American” and “Black” are still viable terms, if one must distinguish our race of people.

Just as White Appalachians often feel disrespected when typecast as “rednecks,” “hicks,” “country” or other derogatory labels, Affrilachians do not appreciate disparagement by other racial groups, as well. It should be understood that though any group may tease themselves in jest; they do not appreciate others ridiculing them with politically incorrect labels. We should, however, note that the use of “African American” can be applied to a White Native of Africa such as the South African-born actress and activist, Charlize Theron. On the other hand, Black people who are not naturalized citizens of the United States are not African Americans.

We all have the African, Scots Irish, and Cherokee blood that makes up Black Appalachians, because White masters had children by slave women. Some people do not use the term African American, because they know some others choose Black by skin color, or some would rather not be called any racial name; they say just call me human.

The late Rev. Frank Blount of Murphy mentioned that his mother was “left puzzled” by not knowing exactly what her ethnicity was. Mrs. Blount said that as a student at Virginia Union College, people often asked her what she was by race. They also did that to my sister, Mary Alice Miller Worthy, and the One Dozen Who Care, Inc. president, Patricia Hall, in the places where they have worked. All three considered themselves to be African American.

Not many families ever discussed their racial mixture, because it could cause embarrassment, concern, or upset. Folks like my father’s family, though they had the same mother and father, ranged in color from very white skin of his two youngest sisters to the dark brown color of my father’s skin.

“Out of wedlock” children, especially if bi-racial, in past days, were often put down inside and outside of families.

In a taped interview in the late 1960s for a college paper, I came home on holiday and asked the question of some Black people in the Happytop community of Andrews, “What would you rather be called — colored, Negro or Black?” My grandfather, Cleve Miller, an octogenarian at the time whose own mother was a slave until she was nine years old, answered the question in a self-determined way: “African is what I would rather be called!”

During that same time, two of his oldest grown children said that they would rather be called “Colored.” School-age youngsters I interviewed at that time, refused to be called any of those terms.

Since legitimate media reporters, such as, newspaper, radio and television reporters, commentators, and anchor persons must keep up with current terminology, it may be wise to pay attention to any politically correct wording that they use. Most Black people in our region seem to respectfully endure the word “Colored,” although most wonder why it is even a question anymore.

AW Ptg Grampa w sausage mill

Portrait by Ann of William Cleveland “Cleve” Miller, her grandfather

My Favorite Mystery Writers 2

When I’m not reading history or biography I tend to read mysteries, suspense novels,  and / or thrillers.  I have written in this blog before about some of my favorite mystery authors.  Here goes with some more!   I love British police procedurals, series that have a strong woman as the main character, mysteries with a touch of humor to them,  thrillers with an international twist, the noir genre,  and mysteries that are set in the near past (19th and 20th centuries).  Over the years, I’ve come to realize that some authors mean to have their books read in the order in which they are published, so I read them thusly.

Some authors are content to let their characters live in a particular time and others stretch their lives out to encompass long periods of time.  Here are some examples.   Jacqueline Winspear enters Maisie Dobbs’ life when Maisie is a young teenager in the first decade of the 20th century.  In her twelfth book,  an adult Maisie travels to Berlin in 1938.   Contrast that with Sue Graftons Kinsey Millhone, who appears to be stuck in the 1980s and  ages  one year every two and half books.    Anne Perry‘s character Thomas Pitt has been combating criminals and traitors in London for the last twenty years of the nineteenth century through thirty-one volumes in the series.  He and his wife, whom he met in his first case, married at the end of the first book and now have two teen-aged children.   Elizabeth George‘s Inspector Lynley mysteries seem to follow chronologically one right after another.

Although I prefer British mysteries written by British authors, I have found there are American writers who write mysteries set in the British Isles almost as good as the natives.  Elizabeth George is one of these.   Inspector  Thomas Lynley is a peer who likes to downplay his title, but dates a woman who is also an aristocrat.  His creator has paired him with a duo of detectives, Barbara Havers and Winston Nkata from totally different cultures:  Havers is from a lower middle class background who lives with aging parents  in council (public) housing;  Nkata is a black man who came from a violent, troubled youth.

Martha Grimes is another American author whose main character is a Scotland Yard detective.   Grimes is unique because all her mysteries have titles that are the names of real pubs in Great Britain.   Her main characters are Richard Jury, and Melrose Plant, a friend who helps Jury with some of his cases.   Plant is a hereditary peer who has given up his titles to the dismay of his American born aunt.  Jury and Plant’s worlds go from Islington, the area of London where Jury lives, to New Scotland Yard where he works, to Long Piddleton, where Plant’s ancestral home is located.   Secondary characters inhabit these locales and other places where Jury has to go for his cases.

An author’s success with a series of books inhabited by the same characters, such as Grimes’,   depends on similar characteristics that make for hit series on television.  First, of course, there has to be good writing.   The main characters have to be believable and supported by an entertaining secondary cast of characters.  A good example of this is one of my favorite authors whom I haven’t mentioned yet, Daniel Silva, who writes thrillers that could mirror tomorrow’s headlines.  The main character of Silva’s books is Gabriel Allon, an Israeli art restorer who doubles as a spy/assassin.  Among Allon’s supporting cast is his second  wife, Chiara, also an agent for the Office, the Israeli intelligence agency they both work for.  In addition to her, he has a team who supports him in whatever op they are running.  Various agents from MI6, CIA, etc. also populate these books, along with villains from a number of Arab organizations, both real and fictional.

To close, I’d like to remember one of my favorite writers, Ruth Rendell.   She died in May 2015 at the age of 85.  She was honored by the Queen as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1996 and as a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, in 1997.  As such she was an active Labourite member of the House of Lords until she had a stroke four months before she died.  “The last words of Ruth Rendell’s 66th novel, which can be revealed without a spoiler, consists of someone declaring: “Now it’s all over. ” May she rest in peace!

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

with only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population (see ACLU infographic at the bottom of this bl0g).

Several weeks ago, the Jackson County Public Library hosted a screening of Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot for the 50 year anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Those who marched were demanding their right to vote. Those who marched were demanding that their fellow Americans had rights equal to theirs. It was when I watched this documentary produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center that I realized much of my understanding of America’s civil rights era was static–stuck in the 1960s. That didn’t last long. Selma:The Bridge to the Ballot began to bear striking similarities to the current social climate in which we all live now. I had become part of a truly frightening thing–history forgotten on the old dusty textbook pages–then that very same history is once again repeating itself–right under my nose. When history is treated like a cyclical, dynamic, and multidimensional entity, current events can be seen through a lens that is not only more holistic in understanding but also vital to our understanding of justice, freedom, and equality. Justice, freedom, and equality granted to all citizens of the United States…not just a few. So, I ask myself, are all citizens of the United States equal? They should be. But not even on paper are we all equal.

Consider the police shootings of black men, a nation that is arguably as divided now as in the times of the Civil War, and the sobering reminder that racism is still alive, well, and thriving in the land of the free. Michelle Alexander aims her eagle focus on the incarceration situation in the United States. She directly links mass incarceration and our prison booms to inherent, insidious racism that pervades various institutions that were set in place to protect its citizens.

Leading up to the march from Selma to Montgomery, several oppressive institutions specifically in the south, were stifled, reformulated, and renamed in order to keep current with federal legislation such as Emancipation, Desegregation, Civil Rights, etc. In her book titled The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander takes the reader on a journey through the lives of Africans brought as slaves and indentured servants to the Americas, their fight for dignity, human and civil rights, their triumphs, their tragedies. She focuses her keen eye on the issue of mass incarceration of specifically black men (although she does acknowledge that the issue of mass incarceration is facing men and women, black and brown in this country).

Alexander starts her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by explaining social caste, the concept of race and how it began, white supremacy and how it justified and propelled the European slaughter and brutalization of American Indians and Africans (and later freed African American citizens). In the quote below, Alexander explains how both caste and class are understood and negotiated in the mind of America:

“We avoid talking about caste in our society because we are ashamed of our racial history. We also avoid talking about race. we even avoid talking about class. Conversations about class are resisted in part because there is a tendency to imagine that one’s class reflects upon one’s character. What is key to America’s understanding of class is the persistent belief–despite all evidence to the contrary–that anyone, with proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self-image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on one’s character. By extension, the failure of a race or ethnic group to move up reflects very poorly on the group as a whole” (13).

In the quote above, Michelle Alexander gets down to the root of upward mobility in society and how it is possible for some and extremely difficult and unlikely for others. She explains that this misconception informs many people’s understanding of certain classes not as locked in and static, but somehow able to overcome the restrictions of class and caste. Below, she breaks down race in the United States much like she does class and caste:

“The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world’s people been classified along racial lines. Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery–as well as the extermination of American Indians–with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the new colonies.

“In the early colonial period, when settlements remained relatively small, indentured servitude was the dominant means of securing cheap labor. Under this system, whites and black struggled to survive against a common enemy, what historian Lerone Bennett Jr. describes as ‘the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against black and white bondsmen.’ Initially, blacks brought to this country were not all enslaved; many were treated as indentured servants. As plantation farming expanded, particularly tobacco and cotton farming, demand increased greatly for both labor and land” (23).

So now she explains why race is so important in our society–our country. Race is something that shaped our country for good or ill, and that’s why Alexander urges that we simply cannot live under the false understanding that we are, in fact, in a colorblind society. Simply by understanding that most black people are here because they were brought in chains as servants and slaves, many of them and their ancestors and their descendants (still) perishing under awful circumstances, one cannot assume that we all have equal opportunities in this society. Below, Alexander explains the dehumanization phenomenon that occurs when already slave-powered imperialism and demand upon land and labor meets indigenous populations:

“The demand for land was met by invading and conquering larger and larger swaths of territory. American Indians became a growing impediment to white European ‘progress,’ and during this period, the images of American Indians promoted in books, newspapers and magazines became increasingly negative. As sociologist Kelly Kilty and Eric Swank have observed, eliminating ‘savages’ is less of a moral problem than eliminating human beings, and therefore American Indians came to be understood as a lesser race–uncivilized savages–thus providing justification for the extermination of native peoples” (23).

She then explains the trajectory that imperialism, slavery, and racism takes on–ultimately leading to the ideology of white supremacy:

“The notion of white supremacy rationalized the enslavement of Africans, even as whites endeavored to form a new nation based on the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all. Before democracy, chattel slavery in America is born” (25).

Emancipation was soon passed. The plantation economy was in shambles in the South. Poor whites began to see themselves better than their newly “freed” black neighbors, because, the few rights poor whites possessed were still much more. After the Emancipation, the economy was in shambles. Alexander explains: “Even among poor whites, the collapse of slavery was a bitter pill. In the antebellum South, the lowliest white person at least possessed his or her own skin–a badge of superiority over even the most skilled slave or prosperous free African American” (27).

But once Emancipation was enacted, the same story plays over again, just by a different name. Vague laws were created and vehemently enforced, creating an inmate population that led to “convict leasing,” a program that put convicted blacks on a bidding block for private bidders looking for labor:

“Once again, vagrancy laws and other laws defining activities such as ‘mischief’ and ‘insulting gestures’ as crimes were enforced vigorously against blacks. The aggressive enforcement of these criminal offenses opened up an enormous market for convict leasing in which prisoners were contracted out as laborers to the highest private bidder. Douglas Blackmon, in Slavery by Another Name, describes how tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested during this period, many of them hit with court costs and fines, which had to be worked off in order to secure their release” (31).

Through convict leasing programs, slavery was reborn–just under a different name. There were high death rates for the prisoners as well as no means to pay off debts. The private bidders who “bought” the laborers were even less invested in the laborers than slave owners were about their slaves, according to Alexander.

She goes on to explain that the harsh punishments for insignificant “crimes” resulted in the first of many prison booms in the U.S. The boom was mostly made up of young black males, resulting in what Alexander calls a new caste. An undercaste.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the Populist party gained momentum when they began to try and unite people among class lines rather than racial ones. After the populist party gained much speed and support by insisting that poor whites and blacks unite and demand social justice together, conservatives and liberals alike were alarmed. Conservatives saw this boom for the populist party as a reason to drive a wedge between poor whites and blacks again:

“Segregation laws were proposed as part of a deliberate effort to drive a wedge between poor whites and African Americans. These discriminatory barriers were designed to encourage lower class whites to retain a sense of superiority over blacks, making it far less likely that they would sustain interracial political alliances aimed at toppling the white elite. The laws were, in effect, another racial bribe. As William Julius Wilson has noted, ‘as long as poor whites directed their hatred and frustration against the black competitor, the planters were relieved of class hostility directed against them’’’ (37).

“The general public generally traces the death of Jim Crow (era) to Brown v. Board of Education, although the institution was showing signs of weakness years before. By 1945, a growing number of whites in the North had concluded that the Jim Crow system would have to be modified, if not entirely overthrown. The consensus was due to a number of factors including the increased political power of the blacks due to migration to the North, and the growing membership and influence of the NAACP, particularly its highly successful legal campaign challenging Jim Crow laws in federal courts.

“Far more important in the view of many scholars, however, is the influence of WWII. The blatant contradiction between the country’s opposition to the crimes of the Third Reich against European Jews and the continued existence of a racial caste system in the United States was proving embarrassing, severely damaged the nation’s credibility as leader of the ‘free world.’ There was also increased concern that, without greater equality for African Americans, blacks would become susceptible to communist influence, given Russia’s commitment to both racial and economic equality. In Gunmar Myrdal’s highly influential book An American Dilemma, published in 1944, Myrdal made a passionate plea for integration based on the theory that the inherent contradiction between the ‘American Creed’ of freedom and equality and the treatment of African Americans was not only immoral and profoundly unjust, but was also against the economic and foreign interests of the U.S.” (38).

After the Civil Rights Movement garnered support and success with the help of JFK and LBJ, Alexander explains that this moment of triumph was short lived. Just like in the past, slavery by a new name was emerging: “With the success of the Civil Rights Movement and the launching of the Poor People’s Movement, it was apparent to all that a major disruption in the nation’s racial equilibrium had occurred. Yet as we shall see below, Negroes stood only a ‘brief moment in the sun.’ Conservative whites began, once again, to search for a new racial order that would conform to the needs and constraints of the time. This process took place with the understanding that whatever the new order would be, it would have to be formally race-neutral–it could not involve explicit or clearly intentional race discrimination. A similar phenomenon had followed slavery and Reconstruction, as white elites struggled to define a new racial order with the understanding that whatever the new order would be, it could not include slavery. Jim Crow eventually replaced slavery, but now it too had died, and it was unclear what might take its place. Barred by law from invoking race explicitly, those committed to racial hierarchy were forced to search for new means of achieving their goals according to the new rules of American democracy” (40).

It is here that Alexander explains what she means by “new Jim Crow.”

“For more than a decade–from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s–conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime. Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature, and federal courts were accused of excessive ‘lenience’ toward lawlessness, thereby contributing to the spread of crime. In the words of then–vice president Richard Nixon, the increasing crime rate ‘can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them.’ Some segregationists went further, insisting that integration causes crime, citing lower crime rates in Southern states as evidence that segregation was necessary.

“Some segregationists went further, insisting that integration causes crime citing lower crime rates in Southern states as evidence that segregation was necessary. Unfortunately, at the same time civil rights were being identified as a threat to law and order, the FBI was reporting fairly dramatic increases in the national crime rate. Beginning in the 1960s, crime rates rose in the United States for a period of about ten years. Reported street crime quadrupled and homicide rates nearly doubled. Despite significant controversy over the accuracy of crime statistics during this period (the FBI’s method of tracking crime was changing), sociologists and criminologists agree that crime did rise, in some categories quite sharply. The reasons for the crime wave are complex but can be explained in large part by the rise of the ‘baby boom’ generation–the spike in the number of young men in the fifteen-to-twenty-four age group, which historically has been responsible for most crimes. The surge of young men in the population was occurring at precisely the same time that unemployment rates for black men were rising sharply, but the economic and demographic factors contributing to rising crime were not explored in the media. Instead, crime reports were sensationalized and offered as further evidence of the breakdown in lawfulness, morality, and social stability in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement”  (40-41).

Throughout this book, as you can see, there are worlds of knowledge regarding our current social state. Below is an infographic by the ACLU explaining the mass incarceration age in America. Alexander explains how laws like “three strikes you’re out” and mandatory sentencing, racial profiling, and more has led to the new Jim Crow era. Black men experience much harsher sentencing for minor drug crimes compared to white men. This is not a political issue that divides us among party lines. This is a humanitarian issue that must be treated like any other Human Rights issue across the globe. massincarceration_20110617_0

If you want to help, donate to Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU, Black Lives Matter, and more.

LD

On Janisse Ray, Environment, and History’s Knack for Repeating Itself

I have recently revisited Georgia-born author Janisse Ray’s work of nonfiction titled Ecology of a Cracker ChildhoodThe book’s innards are in the title as Ray alternates chapters where she recounts her  childhood memories with contrasting subject matter of the unique ecology of southern Georgia’s coastal plain otherwise known as the longleaf pine wiregrass ecosystem. Janisse Ray focuses her narrative on the connection she’s had with nature since she was a child growing up on her father’s junkyard in the small town of Baxley, Georgia. Janisse Ray’s childhood respect and love for the flatlands and rivers of south Georgia is what propelled her to become an environmental activist later in her life. She fought to save the Altamaha River as well as Moody Swamp of the Moody Forest Preserve. All of her works, poetry and nonfiction, deal with the ecological reality that is facing, has faced, or will face Georgia.

Ray’s understanding of humans, nature, and their effects on each other is well-present and striking in her childhood memories as well as in her accounts of the natural and human history of Georgia. She explains the detrimental consequences that followed after the industrial logging boom following the Civil War. The longleaf pines of the wiregrass ecosystem were logged nearly to extinction. To date, there is only a fraction of a percent of old-growth longleaf pine forests left in Georgia. Janisse Ray grew up right in the middle of the Southern Coastal Plain of Georgia in a mostly rural Appling County. She sometimes calls it ugly–because it is. It always has been, in a way. Georgia’s ugliness is attributed to its past: slavery, racism, environmental degradation, poverty, etc. Janisse Ray’s Georgia is a far cry from tall columns and extravagant plantations and gatherings–her Georgia is dilapidated, rusty, worn, cluttered, but still wild, beautiful, vast, and full of possibility.

Areas of Georgia, much like Ray’s hometown of Baxley, have time and time again acted as battlegrounds where people in power with interest in land and resources clash with resisting landowners and citizens. This situation played out when Europeans and members of the Creek nation were in contact with each other. The Creek people participated in the trade economy that began in Georgia when the James Oglethorpe and his colonists began to move in. Whitetail deerskin was one of the main commodities traded by the Creek. Toward the beginning of the 19th century, the whitetail deer population had been vastly over-hunted, the United States were pushing for the Creek to adopt a rancher/planter lifestyle to which many of them resisted, and ultimately, a civil war broke out that ended with a treaty signed over to Andrew Jackson (and also his namesake) that ended in the Creek ceding 22 million acres–much of which was in southern Georgia. Ultimately, the dispossessed Creek were rounded up and forcibly removed to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi.

The ghosts of Georgia will never forget the dark legacy that has plagued Georgia since before it was Georgia. When I was a student at Valdosta State University, a new battle was coming to fruition in the form of coal and biomass plants–projects that many were opposed to, many were open to, and many were utterly unaware. A land ripe with resources, possessing a significant number of people living below the poverty line and minorities, is the first place that is considered for energy projects that pose a risk to the drinking water, delicate ecosystems, and many other socio-economical aspects. Why? It’s called environmental racism. Environmental racism is a term that refers to the type of discrimination that occurs when low-income or minority communities are targeted for energy projects that pose a risk to their health and environment. This is playing out thousands of miles away over the Dakota Access Pipeline. The proposed pipeline is meeting resistance because it will go through sacred land, disrupt and destroy cultural resources, pollute drinking water, and more.

The Colonial Pipeline is yet another pipeline that has made the headlines recently when there was a massive leak in Alabama–causing gas shortages and water and land contamination. The Colonial Pipeline snakes through states like Alabama, Georgia, and other southeastern states and all the way up to the northeast. The state of Georgia has also made headlines for fighting off yet another pipeline called the Palmetto Pipeline that would go all the way down the Georgia coast. Community members of Savannah, Brunswick, Augusta, and other surrounding communities successfully but temporarily were able to halt construction on this project because of their environmental concerns. A judge ruled in favor of a temporary moratorium on petroleum corporations using eminent domain as a means to take land for pipeline projects. But this is not where is ends. There is yet another pipeline going through Georgia.

This time it is through south Georgia.

The very same south Georgia that was ceded by the Creeks. The very same south Georgia that was purged of most of its majestic longleaf pines and many of the creatures that were dependent upon it. The Sabal pipeline construction has begun on the land adjacent to the land my family has owned and tended since around the Revolutionary war. The family who owns the property adjacent to ours was given thousands of dollars to allow the pipeline to go through their land that is cow pasture, forest, ponds and streams, and more. If they were to resist the offer from the contractors, the land would be eventually taken as eminent domain. The Sierra Club has recently filed a lawsuit against the Sabal pipeline as it will go through several state parks, wetlands and watersheds, and act as a major threat to the quality of drinking water–most of which is in an aquifer beneath a layer of very porous limestone. As if a pipeline’s risk to water isn’t enough–limestone is a very absorbent material that will allow any leakages to readily seep into the water table.

It’s times like this that I turn to figures like Janisse Ray. In her writing, she laments the bygone days when huge, majestic longleaf pines stood like “batallions coming out of the mist,” and the many species that dwindled alongside their giant pines–their keepers. She does not, however, leave the reader with a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. She stresses the importance of family–no matter how dysfunctional. She focuses on the importance of activism and education when environmental and social issues arise. She does not ignore the fact that many conservation efforts are alive and well in all corners of this earth, and there is always a reason to hope and dream and fight for what is dear. She reminds us that nature and her creatures, including humans, are resilient and ever-changing.

Why Read Moby Dick?

I don’t recall if I ever attempted to read Moby Dick in the past.  I have faint memories of seeing Gregory Peck on the movie screen as the one legged Captain Ahab driven to madness in his striving to get revenge from the great white whale.  At that time, over sixty years ago, we had Classic Comics.  They would now be called graphic novels.    (To see the cover of Classic Comic of  Moby Dick  click on the title. )  So why at my advanced age did I decide to read Moby DickTo begin with, I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book Award winning book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, about the real incident in 1820 on which Melville based his novel.   Second, I read his  book entitled, Why Read Moby Dick.

 The story of The Essex takes place in a time, 1820, when, as soon a ship was out of sight of the shore, its crew was out of reach of help should a crisis occur.  Although navigation had improved since the European explorers cast off their harbors, ship to shore communication had not, and would not until the invention of the radio at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

According to National Geographic’s website, a Sperm Whale is 49 to 59 feet long and weights 35 to 45 tons.  The whale that sunk the Essex hit the ship’s bow, splintering it, causing the vessel to start sinking.   The survivors left the wreck in three whale boats (the smaller vessels actually used to hunt the whales) and eventually attempted to make it to west coast of South America, which was over 2,000 miles to the east.  There are no spoilers here – to find out how survivors, if any, were rescued, you will have to read the book!

Whales had a very valuable product:  oil!  Before the discovery of petroleum,  whale oil was used in lamps and other products.  But getting whale oil was a dangerous occupation and very labor intensive.   Crews on whale ships would stay at sea for up to three years while searching the oceans of the earth for whales.  For example,  The Essex left Nantucket on August 21, 1819 sailing east, with the prevailing winds, to the Azore Islands, then southeast to Cape Azore Islands off the coast of Africa.  The next step of the vessel’s journey was southwesterly along the east coast of South America, then around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean.  After preceding north, picking up provisions along the way, up the west coast of South America, The Essex headed west, south of the Galapagos Islands, until November 20, 1820, when she was rammed  by a whale and sunk.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s father was a English professor who introduced his two sons to Moby Dick at a young age.  Philbrick states he has read Moby Dick at least a dozen times.  He has found:

“Contained  in the pages of Moby Dick is nothing less the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contribute and to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.” (p. 6)

Unfortunately, Moby Dick did not sell well during Melville’s lifetime.  From the time the book was published, 1851, until the author’s death, 1891, the now classic  sold only 3,715 copies. That’s under a hundred copies a year.   It was not until after World War I that critics, especially contemporary  20th century writers,  took notice of Melville’s novel.

Although I’ve had a copy in my library for over sixty years,  I have not taken time to read Moby Dick, but I am reading it now.  Why should I read it at all?  Why should you read it?  What role did Nathaniel Hawthorne play in the writing of Moby Dick?  Read Nathaniel Philbrick’s relatively short book to answer those questions.

Go to the following websites if  you desire to find out more about sperm whales and the 19th century American whaling industry.

 

America the Dutiful

Freedom of information is an internationally recognized fundamental human right (as an extension of freedom of speech). The ideology of free speech is thought to have emerged in ancient Athens in the late 6th or early 5th century BC. England’s Bill of Rights 1689, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1791), The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)- these historic and foundational documents all enshrine the free communication of ideas as “one of the most precious rights of man” and a core principle of democracy. Your freedom of speech is being fought for every day:

edasnerhwofmay2013The free access to information is not a privilege, but a necessity for any free society. One of my favorite things to do as a young man was wander through the stacks of my hometown library. I’d just browse until I found something interesting. Libraries have definitely changed my life.

-Ed Asner

“Freedom of information” is often referred to today in terms of government transparency- like the Freedom of Information Act. But there are other informational avenues under attack, less often recognized. As part of Banned Books Week, libraries in Macon, Jackson, and Swain Counties have been celebrating & raising awareness  with displays encouraging the public to check out books that are frequently challenged or banned. Since 1982, more than 11,300 book titles have been challenged (the ALA publishes a list of the 100 most frequently challenged book by decade if you want to be a renegade reader!).

Authors are not only guaranteed the freedom to write what they want (some limitations may apply), everyone has the freedom to read what they want (read fREADom – Celebrate the Right to Read for my soapbox rebuttal to “What about the children?”)

Stop by your library and checkout a banned book!

Freedom of Speech has been interpreted as freedom of expression in any media and extends into freedom of information and the right to privacy (the EFF has won several court cases protecting privacy and free speech online).  In addition to Banned Books Week, we observe Banned Websites Awareness Day on the Wednesday during Banned Books week, Sept. 28th this year. This day seeks to raise awareness of the growing information censorship in schools and libraries alike.

Part of this issue relates to CIPA (Children’s Internet Protection Act), enacted by Congress in 2000 to “protect” children from accessing harmful or obscene content on the internet. This legislation was tied to the funding mechanism which subsidizes internet for schools and public libraries. In order to protect their funding (better safe than sorry?), many organizations over-filter and reach well beyond the requirements of CIPA. This, combined with an imperfect technology, means that access to many legitimate, educational websites is blocked for children, teachers, librarians, and the general public.

img_1210

Many schools even block access to social media sites such as Facebook & Twitter. Some of these students are tasked with learning about media and outreach avenues as a means to educate and are not given access to the tools they need to learn. We’re doing a disservice to students (and teachers) by limiting their experiences; in addition to not getting practice critically filtering web-based information on their own, we’re also reinforcing the idea that social media & the internet are distractions to learning rather than tools to connect, communicate, and educate. Teaching students that the internet is a cesspool and a waste of time… well, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. By shielding people from the internet, we foster exactly what we’re trying to protect them from— and failing to cultivate good digital citizenship in the process.

orwell-quoteThe issues of censorship go beyond publicly funded institutions. There have been 20 documented government ordered “internet shutdowns” globally in the first 6 months of 2016.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, anyone can claim ownership of content and have it removed from web hosts or search engines without any proof and without any recourse or appeal (in practice- most web hosts and content providers don’t want to/can’t spend the time needed to investigate claims and will simply remove content automatically). Many times, bots (rather than actual human beings) issue takedown requests en masse and without review, sometimes with hilarious results (Warner Bros mistakenly files DMCA takedowns for its own websites).

What can you do? Exercise your freedom— inform yourself and express yourself. And support the rights of others to do the same— just don’t take those unfollows on Facebook during election season too personally!

 

 

Letters to and from the front, II

Recently I was prowling the book donations at the thrift store where I volunteer  and I came across a copy of  War Letters:  Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll.  The Legacy Project, which is the source from which these letters came, was founded in 1998 as a gathering place for veterans and their families to donate correspondence written by members of American armed forces to and from their families while on active duty.   Since its founding  the Legacy Project’s name has been changed to  “The Center for American War Letters,” and it’s collection is housed at Chapman University in Orange. California.  War Letters was made into a documentary on PBS’s American Experience, which can be watched on YouTube.  Unless otherwise noted, the excerpts  quoted below come from War Letters which was copyrighted ©2001 by Andrew Carroll.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States armed forces were already fighting an undeclared war in the Atlantic Ocean trying to protect conveys supplying Great Britain.  The Japanese aggression made it clear American service men and women would be scattered around the globe, especially after Germany declared war on the United States.  How were families who had relatives stationed abroad going to stay in touch with their loved ones?  And vice versa how were members of the armed forces going to get letters from remote parts of the world delivered to their families at home.   Confederate women who were left in charge of the southern plantations couldn’t rely on their postal service to deliver letters to their husbands in a timely fashion, but times and technology had changed immensely in three quarters of a century.

Writing from Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was doing basic training, Morton D. Elevitch wrote to his mother: “This week they are teaching us to kill.  Now you probably looked away and shuttered.  Well, Mom, I don’t like the idea, either,  but we all know its for our good….By the way everything is done in double time this week .  We move in place and from place to place on the double — puff puff.”  (War Letters, p. 196)

Tracy Sugarman to his wife June, from Great Britain, March 1944:  “Reading material, Junie. Things like Reader’s Digest – Coronet, Cosmopolitan maybe. When you send them pooch – *have them in a package* – otherwise some news hungry soldier or sailor will swipe them & they’ll never get here I’m told”.¹

During World War II, the United States Post Office made it easier for service and their families to stay in touch with each other.  Victory Mail, or V Mail as it was commonly known made use of standard size stationary and microfilm to speed servicemen’s mail.²    Sugarman occasionally used VMail to write to his wife.  An example is here.

Servicemen would receive correspondence from home about siblings also in the service.  For example,  Bill Lynn’s mother wrote to him in September 1944 giving him news about his older brother Bob:  Dear Billie, will drop you a few lines as I haven’t from. and I have good news, from the last letter I sent you.  Bob will back in the States at the last of this month.  I sure was happy when I read the telegram from the government last night.  I hope you are well and O.K….well I didn’t know what to send you for xmas but you can be looking for a box, and I hope you will like it.  so write me soon.”  Lynn was killed in the Pacific in 1945, three days after his nineteen birthday.  (War Letters, pp. 222-223)

Some American servicemen were abroad when their children were born.  Lt. Walter Schuette wrote a letter to his daughter:  “You arrived in this world while I was several thousand miles from your mother’s side.  There were many  anxious moments then and since.  This message comes to you from somewhere in England.  I pray to God it will be given to you on or about your tenth birthday. I hope to be present when that is done.  It shall be held in trust by your mother or someone equally concerned until that time….With this letter you will find a war bond of $2500 maturity value, and list of names.  A list of names to you, honey, buddies to me.  Men of my company, who adopted you as their sweetheart when you came into the world.  It is these men who bought you the bond as a remembrance of when they were soldiers with your daddy…”   Happily, Walter Schuette was able to read that letter to his daughter, Anna Mary, in 1953!  (War Letters, , p. 227)

After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 and the United States dropped two Atom bombs on their homeland, peace barely lasted five years.   The Cold  War was between the Communist world, primarily the Soviet  Union, its European allies, and the Chinese; and the western democracies centered around NATO.  In East Asia, counties such as Korea and Vietnam were split:  Communists to the north and NATO allies to the south.   On June 25, 1950, forces of North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea.  President Truman sent American military forces, commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, under the auspices of the United Nations to help the South Koreans.  MacArthur’s force quickly drove the Communist North Koreans back to the border with Chinese Manchuria.  But that victory didn’t last long because Chinese forces made a surprise raid into North Korea and defeated the American and South Koreans at the Chosin Reservoir, eventually driving them back to to the 38th parallel.

In a letter to his father, Pvt. Bob Hammond describes the bitter fighting at Chosin from his hospital bed in Japan:  “Three days and nights of bitter fighting went on with heavy losses on both sides.  We were outnumbered 10 to 1. We were trapped and surrounded.  We had over 200 wounded guys.  I watched  a good buddy of mine die of wounds and lack of medicine.  I cried, I felt so utterly helpless.  On Dec. 1, 1950, we were ordered to fight our way back to the Marine Div. which was 8 miles back.  We had about 30 trucks which were carrying the wounded.  We went about 2 miles and suddenly a slug ripped thru my knee and chipped the bone.  I got into an ambulance which had 16 men in it.  We moved slowly and passed a few roadblocks and before I knew it, it was dark.  They were on all sides of us and we were masecured (sic).  Our driver was killed and the ambulance crashed into a ditch.   Machine gun slugs tore thru the ambulance killing a G.I. and Capt. sitting across from me. He slumped on me and I shoved him back in order to get the rear door open.  It was jammed, but I jarred it open in few minutes and fell out….”  (War Letters, p. 335)

In the 1950’s it was Korea, in the 60’s and the 70’s it was Vietnam.  The following  is an except from a letter from a young demoralized American Marine, L. Cpl. Stephen Daniel writes to his parents telling about the death of a close friend:    Mom and Dad:  Well its Friday morning.  Last night one more Marine died.  No one will ever here (sic) or care about it except his parents and us.  A good Marine has died and there is no nation to mourn for him or fly our flag at half mast.  Yet in this one night this Marine did more for his country than any President or Senator ever did.  His name was Corporal Lee…He was a good Marine and a better person.  He didn’t deserve dieing in a damn country not worth fighting for.  He didn’t deserve diein’ for people who won’t even fight for themselves.” (War Letters, 412-413)  Eight months later, on Easter Sunday, 1969, Daniel fell victim to a sniper’s bullet and died on the spot.

War correspondence, as we seen in the few excerpts above, dealt with many concerns.  Most important it created a lifeline to connect the service person with a touch of home when they serving far away.

¹http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp-stories/loc.natlib.afc2001001.05440/pageturner?ID=pm0024001

² http://postalmuseum.si.edu/VictoryMail/

Read It Again, Sam: 15 Music Biographies

I really fell in love with music at the same time that many of us do, as a teenager. I’d heard plenty of music in our house before then, from Big Band to the Beatles to Kiss to The Statler Brothers, but it took a bit for music to really grab hold of me, and to develop my own musical identity. Over the following decades that identity has shifted and morphed some, but not to any great degree. I like what I like, and you should too.

See, that is the thing. Music is a great unifying force, but we do allow it to be divisive as well. It shouldn’t really matter to me what music you enjoy, even if I think it is lousy. Often we will disregard an entire genre just on principal. Not cool. The fact is that music is something we should all be able to agree to disagree on. Let’s give that a try, shall we? I myself do not care for Led Zeppelin.

Girl in snow
This random picture is totally not a distraction from my inflammatory statement. Did it work?

I know, that seems almost sacrilegious, and it nearly caused a familial rift with my father-in-law. But here is the thing: I freely acknowledge that Zeppelin is a great and influential band. Just because I don’t like Robert Plant’s vocal stylings doesn’t mean I’m saying that they are no good. We should try to focus on the positives, not the negatives.

So, music biographies. There are a lot of them. We have dozens of them here at this library. Plus the ones that don’t technically qualify as biography, since biographies are about a person and a band isn’t a person. Books about bands go in the music section (782 in Dewey). I thought about some different ways I could approach this, and in the end decided it was about the music. Each title I selected is therefore accompanied by a song tidbit. Hopefully you will be inspired to read (and listen to) not necessarily these books (artists), but any that strike your fancy.

45 rpm records
Yes, I know what these are. I used to have a bunch.
  1. David Bowie: Starman by Paul Trynka. It took Bowie a while to make it big in the US. One of his earliest hits on this side of the pond was “Young Americans”, from his 1975 album of the same name. Backup vocals on the track were provided by a young American (pun totally intended) who would go on to have some success of his own: Luther Vandross.
  2. Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of The Clash by Pat Gilbert.  “Should I Stay or Should I Go” was The Clash’s first #1 single in the UK, albeit a decade after it was first released. It reached #17 on its initial release, and only #45 in the US. You can hear Mick Jones yell “Split!” on it, as he was startled by Joe Strummer during the recording session. The title of the song presaged the band’s breakup.
  3. In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, & Duran Duran by John Taylor with Tom Sykes. Taylor is the bass player for Duran Duran, and has some tales to tell. Note that I say “is” and not “was”. Many people view them as an 80s band, but they have never stopped recording or touring. In fact a new album drops shortly. One of their first hits was the iconic “Girls On Film”, written by lead singer Andy Wickett. Bonus points to all of you going “wait, what? Who?” Wickett was soon replaced by Simon Le Bon, and was paid £600 for the rights to the song.
  4. Take Me To The River by Al Green with Davin Seay. Green’s “Love and Happiness” was co-written with Teenie Hodges, who started on it in between intimacies with his girlfriend and watching wrestling. Loyal readers will know we are all about the wrestling here. Hodges sang (yes, sang) the guitar riff to Green while they were in the car, and they recorded it that same night.
  5. Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica by Mick Wall. Once upon a time I didn’t like Metallica, but I got better. The band broke big commercially with their fifth album, and one of the singles off of it, and their first true (power) ballad, was “Nothing Else Matters”. Singer and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield wrote the song one handed, sort of. He was on the phone with his girlfriend, and was using his other hand to pluck out a new melody on his guitar, which became this song. Hetfield is also notorious for writing the lyrics to his songs well after the music is written. Some Metallica demos feature him just sort of humming along for songs that have no words yet.
    da Vinci painting
    Leonardo da Vinci’s “Portrait of a Musician”. See what I did there?

     

  6. Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story by Ellis Amburn. Orbison was at the zenith of his success in the early 60s, as he put 22 songs onto the Billboard Top 40 in those years. His song “In Dreams” was a bigger hit in the UK, propelling him into a tour with an up and coming band he had never heard of called The Beatles. He followed that up with a tour of Australia along with some chaps called The Rolling Stones.
  7. Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton. It is odd now to look back and realize that Parton was once a partner. She started performing as a child, and found success early. She was asked by country singer Porter Wagoner to join his syndicated television and road show. Fans of his program were slow to warm to her, and some thought that she would never go any farther. Her single “Jolene”, which she based off of real life experiences, proved the critics wrong, and her stardom was assured. Now, who’s up for Dollyworld?
  8. Slash by Slash with Anthony Bozza. Slash has played guitar for many projects over the years, but he is still best known for his work with Guns N’ Roses. One day in the studio he was messing around on his guitar doing warm up exercises when he came up with an interesting riff. Although he didn’t think much of it, the rest of the band did and had him play it again. Hearing this going on, lead singer Axl Rose started writing lyrics (about his girlfriend, Erin Everly, daughter of one of The Everly Brothers) and voila, a song was born. That song was “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.
  9. Girl In A Band by Kim Gordon. Gordon was the bass player and a vocalist for Sonic Youth. Back in the day she was asked to interview LL Cool J for Spin magazine and the two artists clashed. In fact, they clashed severely enough that it inspired a song, “Kool Thing”. The song has several references to LL, and the video director kept the theme going by styling it similarly to LL’s “Going Back To Cali” video. On top of all that, Chuck D from Public Enemy provides guest vocals on the track.
  10. It’s Only Rock’n’roll: The Ultimate Guide to the Rolling Stones by James Karnbach and Carol Bernson. “Gimme Shelter” was a fitting song to come out at the end of the 60s. Songwriters Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (both of whom have their own biographies) channeled the turmoil of the era into a song suitable for the end of the world. Richard said that his guitar fell apart on the last take, “as if by design”.
    Record store
    Hey, a record by my favorite band is in this pic!

     

  11. Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme by Mary Wilson, with Patricia Romanowski and Ahrgus Juilliard. Sometimes success comes quickly. Sometimes. The first handful of singles that The Supremes released failed to find that success. In fact, they came to be known as the “No-hit Supremes” around the Motown offices. The ladies didn’t have high hopes for their next song, feeling that it might not have the hook to make it a hit. “Where Did Our Love Go” did in fact have that hook, and was their first #1 single. The next four singles they put out followed suit.
  12. Does The Noise In My Head Bother You?: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir by Steven Tyler with David Dalton. Tyler is the singer of Aerosmith, and there are a legion of stories about that band’s rollercoaster career. The one I like best is about what is probably their most famous song, “Walk This Way”. You probably think this is where I do a Run-D.M.C. name drop, but you’d be wrong. No, what I like is where the name of the song comes from, which is from a line in the movie Young Frankenstein. I may not always like Aerosmith’s songs, but I have to give props to Mel Brooks fans.
  13. Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters by Robert Gordon. Maybe this is an obvious one, but here goes. Waters recorded “Rollin’ Stone” in 1950 as a variation on the oldie “Catfish Blues”. How did his version come out? Both Rolling Stone magazine and The Rolling Stones band are named after it.
  14. Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams by Paul Hemphill. Thinking of Williams might make you lonely and tearful…wait, wrong song. The story goes that he wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart” thinking about his first wife whilst driving with his second one. She wrote down the lyrics on the passenger seat for him. I’m assuming it was a pickup truck.
  15. Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young. Sometimes famous tunes come about in peculiar ways. Young’s “Heart of Gold” features acoustic instead of electric guitars. Why? He had hurt his back and couldn’t play the heavier electric one, hence some “softer” songs as he healed up. James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt provide backing vocals on this one.
    Aquarius Records storefront
    Aquarius Records in San Francisco. I used to buy records from Aquarius Records, but not this one. It was run by an old hippie, though.

    You all have your assignments now. Read and listen, share and discuss. Here is another good list of music memoirs. Oh, and if you aren’t sure what to listen to, maybe try The Ink Spots, or The Dresden Dolls, or Sleater-Kinney, or Dethklok, or M.I.A. And please share with me what you like.

     

 

Cindy Lou’s Lesson and the Miracle of ZuZu’s Petals

Somehow, it really is a wonderful life.
Somehow, it really is a wonderful life.

OK, I get that we’re supposed to appreciate this most Festive of Seasons for its deeply personal spiritual foundations — Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Eve.

And I really do understand those meanings — the promise of new beginnings; hope for this sad, sad, world; the appraisal of our lives and our connections to those around us.

I suppose that’s what the Season of Advent is about — preparing our hearts and minds for the miracles that are at the core of existence. I try, really try, to appreciate the wonders that are the birthright of each of us.

But regardless of my circumstance, regardless of my earnestness,  all too often my beliefs are shaken by the vagaries of 21st century life. I approach the holidays with a vague sense of unease, a hint of irritation at the demands that accumulate as the days grow shorter and the night stretches out forever.

That’s why I’m grateful for a quintet of movies that manage to pull me back from the abyss every time, that never fail to remind me of the goodness and gentle decency that lies at the heart of this season.

I hope you find time during your busy holiday season to bask in the glow of “”How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story,” and
“A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Each weaves a powerful spell and each captures the bedrock message of these glorious days.

Then he got an idea. An awful idea. The Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea!
Then he got an idea. An awful idea. The Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea!

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (the animated version, not the Jim Carrey jab in the eye) marries the timeless words of Dr. Seuss with the Looney Tunes-honed animation style of Chuck Jones. Delivered with the extraordinary vocal talents of Boris Karloff and Thurl Ravenscroft (who sings the irresistible “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”), this is one for the ages. If you’re not touched by the scene when the Grinch finally, finally, learns why the Whos down in Whoville aren’t crushed by the removal of their presents and feasts, well, maybe your heart is two sizes too small.

Christmas Day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp. Christmas Day will always be just as long as we have we. Welcome Christmas while we stand, heart to heart, and hand in hand.
Christmas Day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp. Christmas Day will always be just as long as we have we. Welcome Christmas while we stand, heart to heart, and hand in hand.

A different form of animation, “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” finally captures the glory and dread at the heart of Dickens’ strange and marvelous tale. All too often adaptations jettison the truly macabre images that Dickens has scattered throughout.

Ebenezer Scrooge must go through an extraordinary journey before he finds comfort and joy.
Ebenezer Scrooge must go through an extraordinary journey before he finds comfort and joy.

Take, for instance, that grotesque moment when The Ghost of Christmas Present opens his cloak to reveal the emaciated children named Ignorance and Want. This frisson of revulsion and horror is critical to the tone of Scrooge’s journey and his ultimate salvation, yet it’s seldom given its due in TV or movie adaptations. Here, the scene plays out as it Dickens intended and is the richer for it. It’s astonishing that Disney, of all the studios, gave it the green light.

disney-christmas-carol-001While you’re watching this masterpiece of mood, pay attention to the play of light in each scene. It’s as though Rembrandt had access to a full suite of animation programs.

Not even this version’s refusal to sugar-coat the awful truth’s revealed on Mr. Scrooge’s amazing night can match the terrifying shock of recognition found at the heart of George Bailey’s trip into darkness.

In 2006 I was watching the annual broadcast of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the same time my life was crumbling in the same spectacular fashion as Jimmy Stewart’s Building and Loan president. When that terrified, broken man prays for something, anything, to pull him back from the abyss – that’s me. And I’m guessing a lot of other adults, too. The entire movie is a testament to the uneasy path we all take on this tightrope strung between heaven and hell.

 

Try not to be moved by George Bailey as he peers into the darkness.
Try not to be moved by George Bailey as he peers into the darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holy Cow, I hope I haven’t ruined the holidays for you with these encounters with these sad characters at the center of these tales.

Let’s consider another journey, which while also fraught with obstacles, never descends into bitterness or peril.

a_christmas_story_13“A Christmas Story,” Jean Shepherd’s timeless recollection of a boyhood Christmas in 1940s Indiana, rings with truth for anyone who’s ever been a child, in any age.

Ignored by critics at the time of its release, in my book, "A Christmas Story" deserves a Major Award.
Ignored by critics at the time of its release, in my book, “A Christmas Story” deserves a Major Award.

Young Ralphie’s indefatigable quest to snare a Red Ryder carbine action 200 shot range model air rifle takes him through terrain trod by every kid. The frustrations, perils, setbacks and close calls that are a part of everyday existence for children, that adults ignore or choose to forget, are delivered in a series of vignettes that ache with authenticity.

In the world of “A Christmas Story,” grown-ups are incomprehensible and rarely aware of the little dramas that are constantly unspooling around them.

There are no adults present in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a program that strips away the commercialism and cynical gamesmanship of the American holiday experience to reveal the sweet, simple Gospel account at the heart of Christmas.

"I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn't have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don't know what Christmas is all about." A Charlie Brown Christmas is spiked with heart-breaking moments.
“I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.” A Charlie Brown Christmas is spiked with heart-breaking moments.

The fact that every line in the show is delivered by a child gives the story its bite and heart-warming tenderness.

"I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love." Yet it also celebrates the warm spirit of the season.
“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” Yet it also celebrates the warm spirit of the season.

All of these are available in the Fontana Regional Library. I hope that during the frantic days and evenings leading up to the holidays, you’ll carve out a bit of time for yourself and watch one or all of these titles. See them alone or with your loved ones. See if, on balance, it really is a wonderful life after all.

And please know that I’m wishing you a joyous season.

An Enigma Inside A Question Inside A Book Part 2

The problem with researching real life mysteries is that there are just so many of them.  Too many for one blog post, so here is a second installment, with even more conundrums from the annals of history.  Enjoy!

DB Cooper

Christina:  When it comes to unsolved mysteries, DB Cooper is the king. To this day, no one is really sure of what really happened to Cooper, but there’s been no shortage of people who claimed to be the missing hijacker (or to have known where he stashed the stolen loot).

Cooper’s story isn’t that old. In late November in 1971, he hijacked a 727, demanded a ransom and threatened to blow up the plane, and parachuted before he could be captured. The story stands out for a number of reasons; Cooper’s real identity was never revealed, he was described as “friendly” and “calm” by those he held hostage, none of the hostages were killed or even injured, and no one knows if he survived.

What sounds like something out of a James Bond movie actually happened, and details of the hijacking are laid out here.  His legacy is one of mystery, with occasional clues. In 1980, an eight year old boy was digging around the Columbia River and found deteriorating bills that the FBI confirmed was part of Cooper’s ransom.

Not sure that the vending machine will take these bills.
Not sure that the vending machine will take these bills.

Another question that looms over the case is that the rest of Cooper’s money was never spent. The FBI recorded the serial numbers of all of the ransom bills, but since the hijacking, none of the money was ever circulated. Not one bill. Which leads to speculation: If Cooper didn’t survive the fall, where is his body? And where is the missing cash?

This is one of those mysteries that might never be solved, and therefore Cooper has become an almost mythical creature, reaching anti-hero status and the subject of obsessive speculation.

Have you seen this man?  If you do ask him for a loan.
Have you seen this man? If you do ask him for a loan.

D.B. : a novel / Elwood Reid

Skyjack : the hunt for D.B. Cooper / Geoffrey Gray

 

Amelia Earhart

Chris:  Here is a truly enduring mystery. Earhart was a very accomplished flyer back when airplanes were still pretty new. Her feats would have been notable even for a man! Ah, different times those were. She was the first woman to solo a transatlantic flight. She was awarded the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross, an honor limited now to military personnel.

In 1936 she started planning a flight around the world. While others had already done this, her route would have been the longest, at 29,000 miles. After a first attempt was foiled by mechanical issues, she took off from Miami with navigator Fred Noonan. They had covered 22,000 miles, over South America, Africa, India, and southeast Asia, and had only the cross the Pacific to complete the historic trip, when tragedy struck.

Ready to go!
Ready to go!

Or something happened. On their approach to tiny Howland Island, the plane disappeared. No definitive trace was found of the plane or the occupants. The prevailing theory is that they ran short of fuel and crashed into the ocean. As we know from the recent Malaysian 517 incident the ocean is a big place. We can understand how the wreckage might never be found.

But we don’t know for sure that is what happened. There are plenty of other theories, like that they landed on another island and lived on for some years, or were captured and executed by the Japanese, or that Amelia never crashed at all, but finished the flight, changed her name, and moved to New Jersey.

In the end we can only wonder and surmise what really befell a pioneer of both aviation and women’s rights. Well, we can only wonder, but others do more than that. To this day there are expeditions to that area of the Pacific looking to solve the mystery.

I was Amelia Earhart / a novel by Jane Mendelsohn

The sound of wings : the life of Amelia Earhart / Mary S. Lovell

 

Princes in the Tower

Christina:  History is full of tragic stories, but ones of neglected or abused children are especially heartbreaking. The story of the Princes in the Tower is a notable example.

Nice hair.
Nice hair.

Edward IV of England died an unexpected death in 1483, leaving two sons (Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York) and a brother (Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard the III). Before the eldest son, Edward V, could return home from a trip, the royal party was intercepted by his uncle and two of his protectors were beheaded. Richard later claimed both boys were illegitimate, and therefore unsuitable for the throne, and sent them to the Tower of London. After about a month, the boys disappeared.

The general assumption is that both princes were murdered, with their uncle (and the subsequent king) Richard III as the prime suspect. Some popular theories have the king’s allies as the culprits, with no shortage of possible assassins.  To be fair, there is no proof that the princes were in fact murdered, but it is true that no one had seen the royal boys since.

Like most other tales of disappearance, there were people claiming to be one of the princes in the Tower long after it was generally accepted that the princes had died.  Ultimately, public fervor against the king after the treatment and death of his nephews lead to the Rebellion of 1483, and Richard the III’s eventual death in battle.

Sure, looks like a swell place to grow up.
Sure, looks like a swell place to grow up.

In 1674, two small skeletons were discovered when construction was being done on the Tower of London, and though they were unable to do forensic testing at the time, they were generally accepted as the remains of the princes and were buried in Westminster Abbey.  Both the royal family and Westminster Abbey spokespeople have refused DNA testing on the remains, believing that “the mortal remains of two small children…shall not be disturbed”.

The tale of the princes in the Tower has captivated many artists and writers, and there is no shortage of references to the doomed royal brothers in paintings, fiction, and nonfiction books.

Great tales from English history. Joan of Arc, the princes in the Tower, Bloody Mary, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, and more / Robert Lacey

The white queen / Philippa Gregory

 

Crop Circles

Chris:  Take a look at this picture, and tell me how the pattern was created:

Crop_circles_Swirl

There are two opposing viewpoints as to how this was done. As you can see, they are very opposing:

Aliens did it!
Aliens did it!
Some dudes did it!
Some dudes did it!

Crop circles came to prominence in the 1970s, notably in England. Speculation as to who, or what, was creating them carried on into the 90s, when some gentleman revealed that they had made many crop circles using nothing more than boards and rope. No flying saucers required.

Indeed, it seems that hoaxters are behind the majority of crop circles. Many different people have explained how they create them. This also explains why so many circles are in unfenced, easily accessible fields close to roads. In some cases weather can create weird patterns in the field, and in Tasmania wallabies made some, after eating poppies and running about in crazed circles. Some of the largest and most elaborate circles were created as advertising.

Signs DVD

Round in circles : poltergeists, pranksters, and the secret history of cropwatchers / Jim Schnabel

Crop circles : signs, wonders and mysteries / Steve and Karen Alexander

 

Atlantis

Atlantis is sort of an underwater Shangri-La, a mystical palace that was doomed to sink under the ocean (like that guy from Titanic). Mention the mystical place at a party and you’ll find at least one person who will proclaim that “Atlantis is real, man, it’s real!”

Well, it’s not. And it never was.

A slightly inaccurate map.
A slightly inaccurate map.

Sadly, an awesome story like Atlantis’s is a mythical tale, full of fiction and embellishments. Plato made up Atlantis, having it act as his own example of a perfect place that ended up being destroyed because the gods were angry (But when WEREN’T the gods angry? Seriously.). Plato’s utopia caught the imagination of Francis Bacon and Thomas More, who expanded on the idea until someone eventually decided that Atlantis was in fact a real place. This thought is often credited to Plato’s student Crantor, who claimed to have seen references to Atlantis written in hieroglyphics on a column in Egypt.

The rumors of Atlantis snowballed with various people in history describing the riches and splendors of Atlantis, as well as the priceless artifacts from the doomed continent. Even recently, a series of lines spotted on Google Earth was deemed to be remnants of Atlantis.

Seems legit.
Seems legit.

But the public was dismayed to learn that those lines were, in fact, created by sonar boats. Conspiracy theorists hold out on this,  however, and insist that the government is in fact hiding evidence of the lost continent to the public. (…Why? Oh wait, aliens!)

Search for Atlantis now, and you’ll find tons of resorts and themed places, not an ancient underwater city. Bummer.

Mysteries of Atlantis / Edgar Evans Cayce, Gail Cayce Schwartzer, Douglas G. Richards

The lost empire of Atlantis : history’s greatest mystery revealed / Gavin Menzies

 

The Amityville Horror

Chris:  This was perhaps the first scary book I ever read. The tale of a family moving into a new house only to move out a month later after being terrorized by demons was spine tingling enough without that fact that it was true. Or was it?

My first edition copy.
My first edition copy.

I remember that when I first read it oh so many years ago, thinking that it was true since the cover said so, that it got over the top at the end. My suspicions were raised. Now years later with a more skeptical eye and the Internet to aid in research, they seem confirmed.

What we do know is that there was a mass killing in the house before the Lutz family moved in, that they did move out 28 days later, and that members of the family stick to the story to this day. We also know that with all the legal wranglings and lawsuits involved with the book and movies (11 films to date) that there are a lot of versions of what happened out there.

So I find it informative to look at some of the corroborating evidence. The damage to the house mentioned in the book was not evident to the next tenants. The tracks in the snow are problematical since there was no snow reported in Amityville during that time. In the book the police are called to the house, but there are no actual police reports backing this up. Oh, and that photo taken by the paranormal investigators of the “ghost boy”? Not a boy at all, but a camera man kneeling down.

An iconic house, which has since been remodeled to remove those "eye" windows.
An iconic house, which has since been remodeled to remove those “eye” windows.

In the end my advice to you if you are reading the book or watching one of the movies is not to worry about whether it is true or not, or if I think it is true, but to just enjoy a nice scary story.

The Amityville horror / Jay Anson

The Amityville horror DVD (original)

 

Area 51

Oh man. Area 51 can be a touchy, “don’t get me started” subject for some people, but it’s a treasure trove of secrecy. The U.S. government has had a field day denying evidence of Area 51, even denying its existence until last year.

Most conspiracy theories are convinced that Area 51 is a housing place for alien artifacts, most notably the UFO that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The fact that the site is off-limits to even military air traffic seems extreme, and the ominous, threatening signs plastered around Area 51 only add to its mysterious presence.

 

They are not kidding.
They are not kidding.

The most plausible theory is that Area 51 is in fact a hub for military aircraftwith the government encouraging the extraterrestrial rumors so that anyone who spotted top-secret aircraft sounded unreliable. Hey, the military’s allowed to have fun too.

Dreamland : travels inside the secret world of Roswell and Area 51 / Phil Patton

Area 51 : an uncensored history of America’s top secret military base / Annie Jacobsen

 

The Loch Ness Monster

Chris:  Is Nessie the most famous cryptid of all? It has to be either Nessie or Bigfoot, right? Besides popularity another thing they share is a wealth of sightings and anecdotes and a dearth of actual evidence.

Loch Ness certainly seems a good place for a sea monster to hide. The Scottish lake is 22 miles long and hundreds of feet deep, plenty of space for Nessie to hide. This adds to the seeming plausibility, until you start getting into the sciency stuff such as breeding populations.

Stories of a strange creature in the loch date back centuries, but it was a sighting in 1933 the spurred the current interest. Since then many people have reported seeing something, and many have taken photos and videos of, well, something. We know that many of these are hoaxes, which makes figuring out which might have some legitimacy even harder. Besides actual hoaxes there are many natural things that can be misidentified as Nessie, such as flocks of birds, logs, and the wakes of boats.

The famous Surgeon's Photograph.  some skeptics thought it might be a circus elephant bathing in the lake!  Now known to have been a hoax.
The famous Surgeon’s Photograph. Some skeptics thought it might be a circus elephant bathing in the lake! Now known to have been a hoax.

It certainly would be wonderful if Nessie was real. And maybe he is. Napoleon Dynamite thought so. But a lot of people have spent a lot of time, money, and expertise looking with no success to date, so I am not holding my breath.

Abominable science! : origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and other famous cryptids / Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero

Mysteries unwrapped : mutants & monsters / written by Oliver Ho ; illustrated by Josh Cochran

 

Stonehenge

Stonehenge, besides being a hilarious scene from This is Spinal Tap, is a collection of prehistoric stones that were arranged in a circle. The arrangement of the circle was no easy task, with the stones being dragged from 250 miles away from the site. Plus, there were almost 100 of them, each weighing about 4 tons. Experts aren’t even sure how the site was constructed (*cough* *cough* ALIENS!)

No words needed.
No words needed.

People still have ceremonies at Stonehenge, and even weddings.  There are some pretty cool-looking modern Druid ceremonies performed as well, complete with awesome costumes.

Stonehenge : a new understanding : solving the mysteries of the greatest stone age monument / by Mike Parker Pearson and the Stonehenge Riverside Project

Don’t know much about mythology : everything you need to know about the greatest stories in human history but never learned / Kenneth C. Davis

 

Oak Island (The Money Pit)

Chris:  This has always been one of my favorite mysteries. Buried pirate treasure? Booby trapped tunnels? A curse? What’s not to love?

An appealing story to youngsters.
An appealing story to youngsters.

Oak Island is just off the coast of Nova Scotia. It is a privately owned island about 140 acres in size. It was in 1795 that the treasure hunting began, with the discovery of what appeared to be a filled in pit. Over the years many expeditions have tried excavating the pit. The main problem is flooding. Inevitably after digging down so far the sea intrudes and progress is halted.

You can see here how close the pit is to the water.
You can see here how close the pit is to the water.

 

Different diggers have reported that at various intervals they find a layer of material other than dirt, including flagstones, logs, and coconut fiber. Hmm, no coconuts grow in Canada! This all gave credence to the idea of buried treasure. There was even a stone found that said two million pounds were below. Of course that stone disappeared and there is no proof that it is anything other than a fanciful story.

Six men have died on Oak Island hunting for treasure, giving rise to tales of the treasure being cursed. Some people will tell you that the pit is nothing more than a sinkhole, which are common in the area. The layers of logs and such are simply debris that washed into it. But I think you’ll find that the crew that is digging there now would disagree.

Oak Island gold : one of the world’s most baffling mysteries / William S. Crooker

The money pit mystery; the costliest treasure hunt ever / Rupert Furneaux

 

The curse on King Tut’s Tomb

I remember being in middle school and watching a video on Tut’s Tomb. Most of the videos we had to watch were torturously boring and badly made, but this one captured EVERYONE’S attention. Let’s face it, mummies are cool, and curses? Even cooler.

After class everyone was convinced that King Tut had a curse placed on those who might disturb his final resting place. I’ll admit, for a long time, I was one of them. Then, you know, I grew up, started reading more, and yeah, I don’t think the tomb of King Tut was cursed. If you’re not convinced, here’s a great site listing the epic rumors with the more mundane facts.

Speculation has been made that the more likely culprit in the tomb was germsbut the conclusion seems to be that it’s unlikely at best.

I'd wash my hands if I were you.
I’d wash my hands if I were you.

Pharaoh curses have been the stepping stone for plenty of horror movies and mysteries, but there doesn’t seem to be much fact behind them. Still, knowing that there are in fact pharaoh tombs with curses inscribed on them is rather harrowing. An example from the tomb of the ancient Egyptian ruler Khentika Ikhekhi:

“As for all men who shall enter this my tomb… impure… there will be judgment… an end shall be made for him… I shall seize his neck like a bird… I shall cast the fear of myself into him”

Okay, that’s scary. And seriously cool. If you’re looking for inspiration for writing song lyrics for a metal death band, look no further than pharaoh curses.

The murder of King Tut : the plot to kill the child king : a nonfiction thriller / James Patterson and Martin Dugard

The mummy’s curse : the true history of a dark fantasy / Roger Luckhurst

 

So there we are.  Ten more imagination kindling mysteries.  Let us know what you think about these, and what other ones keeping you wondering.

Find a list of the books and movies listed in this blog here:

 https://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=27610;page=0;locg=155;depth=0

(Edited 12/5/14 to fix/replace broken links and to correct typos.)