Archive for the ‘Late nineteenth century (1865-1900)’ Category

During the course of Barack Obama’s first term as President, much has been made of his group of czars.  I honestly don’t know much about the people involved, but there is much consternation, particularly from his opposition on the Republican side.  It is claimed that these men and women (I’m assuming both men and women are included) are influencing decisions being made by the President without the benefit of being elected by the people or appointed or approved by Congress.

But as Today’s History Lesson uncovers, President Obama isn’t the first Commander-in-Chief to get a little “outside help”.  And while it’s true that our example isn’t nearly as far-reaching or controversial as what we see in the White House today, it had a truly profound effect on the President in question.

The assassination attempt on President James Garfield not only shocked and angered the nation, it terrified Chester Arthur, the Vice President.  As we may recall, Garfield had been elected the previous year (1880) in most unlikely fashion, having been nominated at the Convention without ever being a candidate.  A groundswell of emotion and good will swept him into the White House.

And Chester Arthur?

He was actually a political opponent of Garfield, and was controlled by Roscoe Conkling, the senior Senator from New York who was, until the election, probably the most powerful man in America.  He was also very unpopular, so much so that when the news broke that Garfield had been shot, conspiracy theorists immediately pointed at Conkling and, by extension, Chester Arthur.  In her masterful book Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard writes, “It was widely assumed that he [Arthur] was in close and constant discussions with the man who had made him, planning for the day when he would be king, and Conkling his Cromwell.  So little respect was there for the vice president and so openly had he aligned himself with the president’s fiercest enemy, that to accuse him now of conspiring with Conkling was simply stating the obvious.

But to the contrary, Arthur was distraught over the President’s plight.  A journalist, finally gaining an audience with the Vice President who had largely disappeared from the public eye, noted that “His whole manner, rather than the words he uttered, showed a depth of feeling. . .which would astonish even many of those who think they know the man well.

Unknown to many, Chester Arthur had a “czar”.  Thirty-two year old Julia Sand was not elected and was not appointed.  And while she may have been an invalid, she knew how to write a letter.  Arthur received his first letter from her shortly after the President was shot, and she didn’t mince words.  “The day he was shot,” she penned, “the thought rose in a thousand minds that you might be the instigator of the the foul act.  Is not that a humiliation which cuts deeper than any bullet can pierce?”  She continued, “Your kindest opponents say: ‘Arthur will try to do right.  He won’t succeed, though – making a man President cannot change him.’ ”  She then worked to encourage the troubled Arthur.  “But making a man President can change him!  Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life.  If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine.  Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you – but not to beg you to resign.  Do what is more difficult and more brave.  Reform!

The letter clearly affected Chester Arthur…he kept it.  The letters from Julia kept coming, urging him Arthur to be strong and courageous, to think for himself, and to free himself from the bonds with which men like Roscoe Conkling would tie him, which is exactly what he did following the death of Garfield and his swearing in as the country’s 21st President.  And while Arthur would only serve out Garfield’s term, he did so as a respected and hard-working President.

On August 20, 1882, President Arthur made a special trip and met Julia Sand for the first time.  She was stretched out on the sofa, and Millard writes, “Arthur would stay for nearly an hour, pleased to finally have a face-to-face discussion with one of his most trusted advisers.

Recommended Reading:  Destiny of the Republic – If you read just one book of history this year, read this one. It’s that good.

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Now that Garfield was dead, Americans’ greatest fear was that Guiteau would get away with murder – not because he was innocent, but because he was insane.  The insanity defense was already widely known and almost uniformly despised.  Even Garfield, ten years before his own murder, had expressed deep skepticism about the plea.

So begins the aftermath of the assassination of President James Garfield from the pen of Candice Millard in her book “Destiny of the Republic.”  Charles Guiteau had shot the President in July of 1881, and the President had succumbed to his wounds two months later.

And just like clock-work and daily sunrises, Guiteau submitted his “not guilty” plea to the judge in October.  “I plead not guilty to the indictment,” Charles would say.  “The Divine pressure on me to remove the president was so enormous that it destroyed my free agency, and therefore I am not legally responsible for my act.”  In other words, Garfield’s assassin blamed God for his actions.

And so the trial, which ran from November to January, centered on Guiteau’s mental state.  The defense brought psychiatrists to the stand that, after studying Charles, found him to be crazy.  The prosecution brought even more of them to the stand to prove him otherwise.  Guiteau himself claimed that his insanity had occurred only at the time of the shooting.  He claimed that he was now sane as any man, and wouldn’t shoot Garfield (were he still alive to be shot) for any amount of money.  He believed Garfield’s doctors were the true assassins of Garfield, as their rudimentary and unsanitary treatment had ultimately killed the President (a point which was pretty sane…and pretty accurate).

Those in the courtroom (and around the country) watched the drama unfold, and most of them just wanted Charles Guiteau dead for his crime, regardless of mental condition.  And to their relief, jury deliberations lasted less than one hour.  The jury found Guiteau sane and guilty.

Even after the verdict, Charles Guiteau hoped he would be set free.  He wrote to the new President, Chester Arthur, on several occasions, desirous of a pardon.  Guiteau believed his death would “make a terrible reckoning for you and this nation.  I made you…and the least you can do is let me go.”  John Guiteau, who had defended his brother at trial, requested a stay of execution in order to gather more evidence of insanity.  All entreaties were denied.

On June 30, 1882, Charles Guiteau climbed the steps of the gallows, read some Scripture from the Bible’s book of Matthew along with a short poem, and was hanged for his crime.

Recommended Reading:  Destiny of the Republic

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The next day, as the delegates made their weary way back to the hall, few of them held out any hope for a quick conclusion.”  These words, from Candice Millard’s terrific book Destiny of the Republic, seem rather obvious after our discussion from yesterday’s version of Today’s History Lesson.  The nomination process at the 1880 Republican National Convention had turned into a nightmare, as the previous day’s twenty eight ballots had failed to determine the party’s Presidential nominee.  Millard continues, “When the first ballot of the day, the twenty-ninth, showed little change from the day before, their fears were only confirmed.” June 9, 1880 was starting out just the way the previous day had ended.

You and I aren’t used to this kind of gridlock.  Well, actually, we are if we’re referring to “traffic with an accident two miles ahead.”  We understand that.  But in our experience, the outcome of nominating conventions is well-known in advance.  And since they are now televised, events need to fall into preset time slots.  Hiccups are anathema to live TV.  And, let’s be honest, in today’s political world, where the press has largely prostituted itself to one party or another, a multi-balloted nomination looks less clean and potentially provides not only the opposition, but a host of media outlets, with one more hand grenade in its arsenal.  Thirty ballots?…no way!!

But this convention had thirty, which became thirty-one, then thirty-two, then thirty-three ballots.  This was beginning to look suspiciously like the Democratic convention twenty years before, which required a remarkable fifty-nine ballots (over two conventions) just to select the candidate (Stephen Douglas) that would lose to the winner (Abraham Lincoln).

Then came the thirty-fourth ballot, and that single vote for James Garfield from the previous day became seventeen, as Wisconsin gave him most of its votes.  Garfield was shocked!  He wasn’t even running and immediately protested.  Addressing the convention president, he said, “The announcement contains votes for me.  No man has a right, without the consent of the person voted for, to announce that person’s name, and vote for him, in this convention.”  The president (who was something of a Garfield supporter himself), told him to sit down and be quiet.  It was about to get crazier.

The thirty-fifth ballot saw votes from Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, and North Carolina given to Garfield, who suddenly had fifty votes and was rapidly becoming a viable candidate, despite his vehement protests.  He urged his own delegation from Ohio to remain true to John Sherman.

Like cracks in a dam, however, the little drips of water that were the thirty-fifth ballot led to a “collapse and gusher” in the thirty-sixth.  The votes for Garfield poured in.  John Sherman saw the proverbial writing on the wall and, writing from his office in the Treasury Department, sent a quick telegram to the Ohio delegation, urging their unity in a vote for Garfield.  He urged other states to do the same.  When Ohio’s turn came, Garfield shouted his vote for Sherman, but it was no use.  His voice was just one in the flood and was swept away.  When the votes were tallied, James Garfield sat with 399 votes.

A fairly popular congressman, an excellent orator, and a man who came to the convention to speak on behalf of another candidate had just been handed the Republican nomination.  When the convention president asked if the nomination be made unanimous, it was Roscoe Conkling – arguably the most powerful man in America at the time and a backer of Ulysses Grant – who stood in stunned defeat and made the motion.  When it was seconded, bedlam erupted.  A roar of elation swept the floor, and Garfield was surrounded by well-wishers.  Garfield’s response to the congratulations was classic…”I am very sorry that this has become necessary.

The momentum continued and carried Garfield to victory in the general election as well.  Of course, we know that the term “President” would be applied to James Garfield for less time than other man except William Henry Harrison, as an assassin’s bullet would end his life just months after taking office.  But to my knowledge, no nominating convention has been so soundly turned on its head as was the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago.

Recommended Reading:  Destiny of the Republic

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Every four years, I am treated to thousands of Presidential commercials on TV.  I get numerous fliers and brochures in the mail, created in a such a way as to convince me of a particular candidate’s viability.  I get dozens of phone calls (which I almost never answer) reminding me of the importance of voting.

From all possible paths, thirty-second soundbites are driven into my consciousness.  It’s become a rather painful experience.  Since this year is one of those “every four years” (and we’re only in June), I’ve got about five more months to endure.  And because this promises to be one of the most expensive elections – I recall Newt Gingrich saying that President Obama would likely raise close to $1 billion and, in all likelihood, Mitt Romney won’t be far behind – I expect that my senses of sight and hearing will be assaulted like never before.

This summer, we’ll be invited to watch each party’s national convention on television.  As of now, we don’t know who’s going to speak or what will be said, but we can expect hours of endless banter about the silliness of the opposing party’s platform, the inability of the opposing party’s candidate to lead, and the disasters that await our country should the opposing party win.  And we pretty much know the outcome of each convention:  President Obama will be the Democratic nominee and Mitt Romney will stand for the Republican Party.

There won’t be any 1880 surprises.  Remember that one?

The 1880 Republican Convention opened on Tuesday, June 2nd in Chicago with not one front-runner, but three viable candidates.  Two-term President Ulysses Grant was running for a third term.  James Blaine, the Senator from Maine, was also running, as was Treasury Secretary John Sherman.  Throughout the week, there was jockeying between the candidates and their supporters.  On Saturday evening, each of the candidates was presented to the floor by a speaker.

The speaker for Sherman was James Garfield, who had originally supported Blaine, but switched when Sherman entered the race.  Taking the stage after Roscoe Conkling had whipped up the crowd in support of Grant, Garfield was nervous.  He had no prepared speech, and didn’t have the political power of Conkling, a Republican strongman.  But he was an excellent extemporaneous speaker, and did an admirable job.

On June 8, 1880, the convention moved to the voting phase.  The delegates knew that no single candidate had a majority of the votes required to secure the nomination, so it would require at least two votes.  But no one could have guessed how crazy this process would become, nor how it would end.  Beginning at 10:00am, the first ballot (as expected) didn’t produce a nominee.  Neither did the second ballot, but it did produce a small surprise.  One vote, from a Pennsylvania delegate, was cast for James Garfield.  And vote after vote, the gridlock continued…along with one little vote for Garfield.  Eighteen ballots were cast before dinner and ten after, yet no one candidate could garner the necessary 379 votes.

It was late, nerves were frayed, and it was time for bed.  The convention adjourned for the night.  The next day would see an incredible turn of events…but that’s for tomorrow.

Recommended Reading:  Destiny of the Republic – An excellent read!

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So…it’s Valentine’s Day.  Card companies and flower companies and candy companies love this day for obvious reasons.  People that work at places that sell cards and flowers and candy probably love it a little less, just because of the manic shopping that takes place in the days leading up to (and especially the day of) the holiday.

In general, it’s a fun day with some treats and time spent with those we love.

But it’s not that way for everybody.  For some, Valentine’s Day conjures up pains or hurts that they’d rather not remember.  That was certainly the case for a young Theodore Roosevelt.

On February 14, 1884, the young man who would be President suffered the most grievous of losses.  It may not be the best source for this type of incident, but since I read about it in Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn, it’s the source I’m using.

“The blow of a lifetime came early, on Valentine’s Day 1884, perhaps the best-known single day of trauma in the formative period of a future president.  In the morning, Teddy’s mother died of typhoid fever at the family house on Fifty-seventh Street; she was forty-six.  A few hours later, the suddenly orphaned Roosevelt lost his bride in the same house, to Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment, which had been masked by her pregnancy.  He scrawled a big, shaky X on a diary page and wrote a single sentence: ‘The light has gone out of my life.'”

The young man, in his mid-twenties and a budding politician, chucked it all and headed west, where friends and family and politics wouldn’t be around, and where the Badlands and open country could maybe concoct an elixir to clear the head of a man crushed by loss.  It would be two years before he returned to Manhattan.

Recommended Reading: The Big Burn

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It’s a Friday night, it’s hot like a furnace, and it’s a 4th of July weekend.  I highly doubt many of you are sitting by your computer wondering what Joel is going to write on July’s first day.  And that’s fine, because I’m not wondering, either.  I know what I’m going to write, and I know it’s going to be pretty quick.

Back in May, I visited the dentist…oh, yay, I’m writing about the dentist on a holiday weekend.  You’re probably thrilled if you’re not reading.

Normally the visit involves 45 minutes of torture, where I get to watch TV with my mouth ajar.  The assistant, who came in earlier and put her broom and pointy hat in the corner, is now mumbling things like, “My husband never makes the bed…my kids never pick up their toys…my husband…”.  The worst thing is she has those really sharp things in her hands and she punctuates each “never” and each “always” with a scrape across my teeth.  Nurse Ratchet then finishes with a smile and says, “You should floss more.”  I want to say, “You should take an anger management course”, but that slight smell of sulfur and brimstone in the air tells me it’s probably best to keep my mouth shut.  Besides, it’s not like I’ll be in any condition to speak for at least another hour.

But this time, I got Nurse Relief instead.  She was awesome.  My appointment wasn’t all that bad, though I’ll never say I enjoyed it.  It was tolerable.  Maybe it had something to do with flossing, that new hobby I picked up and began doing religiously in January.  But I think it was also because Ms. Relief didn’t have a devil-spawn above her manipulating the strings.

Going good so far?…yeah, I didn’t think so.

So way back in 1893, President Grover Cleveland went to the dentist.  I’m pretty sure he hated it, too, because they found cancer in his mouth.  Three weeks later, on July 1, 1893, the President “went on vacation”.  CNN and FoxNews (or whoever ran the show back then) probably showed pictures of the yacht right there off Long Island.  Of course, the vacation was just a ploy to keep people from worrying too much.  Even his wife (who was pregnant at the time) didn’t know.

The President was on the boat…but so was a surgeon.  And on this day in history, the surgeon removed the cancer from the President’s mouth.  Of course, the operation (done through his mouth to avoid all the cutting) involved removing some of his jaw and palate, which left his face somewhat disfigured.  So the news folks were fed a line about the President having a couple of rotten teeth removed, which they apparently bought.  Eventually, the President was fitted with an insert-thingy (I’m a computer guy, not a doctor) that made him look normal.

Now had I been a news reporter, I would have been suspicious right away.  Oral surgery is a delicate procedure…at least it better be when it’s done on my mouth.  So who does tricky dentistry-type things on a boat that’s rocking in the water?  I guess Nurse Ratchet was his surgeon, too.

I bet this is the where the phrase “Don’t rock the boat” got it’s start.  And it’s probably why we see the right side of President Cleveland’s face on the $1000 bill.

Recommended Reading:  The President is a Sick Man – Hot off the presses!

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It’s our last evening in Estes Park, and the cloudless sunshine has given way to clouds and scattered sprinkles.  But who cares?!?  The weather’s been gorgeous, with lovely temperatures, light breezes, and skies as blue as blue can be.  And this morning, the warm temps and lack of snow meant that we were able to drive up the Fall River Road for the first time, where the bright sunshine permitted some breathtaking views.  Coming up Trail Ridge Road is impressive in its own right, but Fall River Road is even better.

I suppose it’s fitting that we finish our stay in Colorado with an historical event that’s indigenous to the state.  And even if it isn’t fitting, I’m doing it anyways.

The population of Creede, Colorado is (as of a 2007 count) 422.  Exactly half the population is male, with the better half making up the other half.  It’s not very big, but then again, all of Mineral County (of which Creede is the county seat) is home to just 830 people.  Located in southwestern Colorado, this small town of just six-tenths of a square mile is near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

But it wasn’t always small.  Creede wasn’t always home to just 400 people.  In fact, at one time, it was a bustling late 19th-century city of more than 10,000.  And all of those people had Nicholas Creede to thank.

Nicholas Creede was born in Indiana as William Harvey in 1843.  His family was dirt-poor and, desirous of fewer mouths to feed, pushed William from the nest at just 18 years old.  Harvey headed west, making his way as a lumberjack and scout.  Eventually he found himself in Colorado’s mining camps.

Harvey changed his name to Creede after a “Billy Harvey” committed a murder in Denver.  I’m not sure it was ever determined whether “Billy” and our “William” were one and the same, or if he just wanted to avoid confusion, but regardless, fame came to the new name.  He enjoyed success as a prospector in places such as Del Norte and Leadville.  But his greatest success occurred on this day.

On October 2, 1889, Creede discovered a large vein of silver that came to be known as the Amethyst Vein.  It’s told that when Creede made his discovery, he exclaimed, “Holy Moses!”  And that would become the name of the mine.  The mining camp that sprouted up around Holy Moses would bear Nicholas’ name, and Creede was born.  Actually, it exploded onto the map as the last major “silver rush” of the west brought thousands of treasure seekers to Creede.  The first baby born was named Creede Amethyst.

Nicholas Creede would make a fortune, but like many before and since, his wealth would ultimately be his undoing, leading to all kinds of problems and eventual suicide.  But on this day, Creede had struck it rich.

Recommended Reading:  Nicholas Creede and the Amethyst Vein

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In the last couple of years, the Republican Party seems to have fractured a bit.  Of course, there have always been “wings” to the party…a more conservative wing and and one with a more liberal bent.  The same holds true for the Democratic Party.  And I suppose there are more subgroups than just the liberals and conservatives.  I happen to be in the subgroup that prefers to lick postage stamps rather than peel-and-stick…I’m just nostalgic that way.

Anyways, now there’s this Tea Party, which I think is a Republican Party off-shoot…I think.  I don’t know for sure, and I don’t really care all that much, either.  We’re here for history…aren’t we?

I mention that because it provides something of a lead-in to Today’s History Lesson.  During the late 19th century, there were factions within the Republician Party.  There were Stalwarts, who either were men “marked by outstanding strength and vigor of body, mind, or spirit“, or they were more conservative Republicans who really liked President Grant and wanted him in office for a third term.

On the other side were the more moderate Republicans, called Half-Breeds (they called themselves that?!?), who liked more moderate guys, like President Rutherford B. Hayes (whose middle initial is, for some reason, extremely important).  For the 1880 elections, the Half-breeds wanted to nominate James Blaine, who apparently was more in the mold of Hayes.

Neither side liked the other’s candidate, so a compromise was reached with the selection of the “middle man”…Half-Breed James Garfield (no middle initial required).  The Vice Presidential candidate was Chester Arthur, a Stalwart.  Got that?  There’s probably more to it, but I’m certainly not an expert on the subject (I’m still working to plow through James Madison’s biography).

Garfield won the election, took office in 1881, and was promptly shot by an angry Charles Guiteau, who gave himself the title of “Stalwart of Stalwarts” (rather ironic, given the cowardly nature of his deeds).  President Garfield lived the better part of 3 months before dying on September 19th.

The next day, September 20, 1881, would see Chester Arthur (shown above) sworn in as the 21st President of the United States.

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I took today off from work, simply because as we move into a holiday weekend, about 75% of our company’s workforce will be doing the same.  And while there’s plenty to do, the prospect of a 4-day weekend was too tantalizing to pass up.  But still I ended up riding my bike to work and back home (as I’ve been doing often since April) just for the exercise.  I got a haircut, then walked out of the Great Clips to a flat tire on the car.  The valve stem had failed (it failed on one of the other tires last year).  I started changing it, but the bolts were rusted in place and I had no WD-40 (or any penetrating liquid) in the car.  And I’d left my cell phone at home…it was just a haircut after all.

So my wife’s boss very generously drove some spray to my car and (because he’s stronger than me) helped me break the bolts free.  After he left I still had to wrestle them off…any idea how hot bolts get just from the friction of removal?  I got the spare on (one of those hideous little donut tires), then made my way to Costco (where I’d bought the tires)…only to find out there was a 3-hour wait in the tire department.  I’ll go back on Monday.  I got back home at 3:30 in the afternoon (my haircut was at 11:30), thinking that a day in the office may not have been so bad.

Such are the vicissitudes of days off…anyways, I better say something historical on the anniversary of our Founding Fathers’ vote for independence.

Sometimes, in our weaker moments, we’ll think things that we shouldn’t.  When I’m driving and someone in another car acts foolishly (which I never do), I wish I was a passenger in his (or her) car so it would be easier to hang up their cell phone and hit them with my shoe.  Or maybe a co-worker oversteps his (or her) bounds of authority at your expense, and you begin plotting retribution.

Thoughts are powerful things, particularly when they don’t just stay thoughts.  I can’t name all of the famed “Seven Deadly Sins”, but at least some (lust, greed, pride, envy) definitely start out as merely thoughts.  And as long as we kill them while they remain in our brains, we’re alright.  It’s when the “translation to action” happens that the real trouble begins.  Years ago, comedian Jake Johannson had the idea of “safety rhymes”.  When talking about drive-by shootings, he joked that maybe a rhyme would prevent people from pulling the trigger.  He humorously suggested, “I’m going to shoot that guy…let’s have some pie!”

Clearly a safety rhyme may have done some good for Charles Guiteau, who had nasty thoughts running around in his head.  He had repeatedly been denied a job working in the U.S. consul in Paris, and it made him angry.  The new U.S. President, James Garfield, had been in office less than 4 months, and was putting the final touches on his Administration…and it didn’t include Guiteau.  But rather than seek gainful employment elsewhere, Guiteau let his thoughts get away from him.

On July 2, 1881, an angry Guiteau took a gun and used it to shoot President Garfield as he walked through the Washington, D.C. railroad station.  The Commander-in-Chief was hit twice, in the arm and the back.  But it was the bullet in the back that did the most damage, and ultimately took the President’s life nearly three months later.

We’ll never know what Guiteau’s life would have been like had he disposed of his evil thoughts properly.  But we know for sure that his actions cost the life of the President, and ended his own the following year on the hangman’s noose.

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I know I need to go, but I never look forward to it.  In fact, the only thing that gets me there is scheduling the next trip at the end of the current visit.  Twice a year, every year, I make the trip downtown.  I usually go first thing in the morning, and I try to get there 15 or 20 minutes early, just in case I can get started ahead of time.  Know what I’m referring to?

Of course you do…you probably hate it like I do.  A visit to the dentist’s office.

Actually, my dentist is a super-nice guy…which, now that I think about it, probably isn’t a huge compliment.  I think they have to be nice guys, because attitude and demeanor may be the only things most people like about the dentist.  You lay in a chair with your mouth wide open while an assistant (usually named Nurse Ratchet) vents her anger at her husband and children on your gumline.  There are sharp instruments and drills and something called a Water Cavitron (I might have gotten that wrong because Ms. Ratchet’s voice was overwhelmed by the screams from the next room).  Supposedly, it uses water to remove tarter deposits, but it’s real job is to cause mind-numbing pain.

And if you ever have a cavity?!?  There’s another whole plate of torture tools that get used.  A giant needle of novocaine that looks way too large for my mouth.  Then there are more drills.  Some kind of cement-type stuff…ok, it’s enough.  Fortunately, I’ve only had to experience these “special” implements on a couple of occasions.

Let’s be honest, we get checkups at the dentist for one reason only.  The alternative (not going at all) is that much worse.

Imagine if you were visiting the dentist around the turn of the century.  Not the 21st century…the 20th century.  Back when dental technology was in the relative Stone Age.  Novocaine?…probably a double-shot of alcohol or a rock to the head.  Instruments were probably more like chisels.  That’s what President Grover Cleveland faced on June 13, 1893.  It was on this day that the President noticed that the roof of his mouth was sore.  Like you and I, the first six-letter word he thought of was “cavity.”  So he visited the White House doctor, probably dreading an upcoming visit to Nurse Ratchet followed by “the implements”.

What they would end up finding was another six-letter word…a much more sobering word…”cancer.”  Grover Cleveland would eventually be diagosed with a form of carcinoma and, in less than three weeks, would have part of his jaw removed and replaced with an implant.

And the details surrounding the President’s surgery are probably worthy of investigation, so maybe we’ll pry into that in a couple weeks.

Recommended Reading: Presidents – All You Need to Know

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In the wake of the Children’s Blizzard that ravaged the upper Midwest in Janauary of 1888, something of a war of words broke out in the newspapers.  First, there were arguments among the midwestern papers over how many fatalities the massive storm had actually caused, along with accusations of a coverup to purposely reduce the number of those killed.

Then publications out east picked up the stories, adding their own commentary to the mix.  In his book The Children’s Blizzard, David Laskin writes the following:  “What was at issue here was not just the accuracy of the death toll figures, but the truth about the climate of the prairie.  A region that could slay a thousand innocent American citizens in the course of an afternoon did not look like a fit place for human habitation – quite the contrary – whereas if the figure stood at a mere couple of hundred, that could be written off as an unfortunate sacrifice on the path to progress.  In essence it was an argument over image and reputation:  prairie public relations.”

This back-and-forth, our-lifestyle-is-better-than-yours banter went on for about six weeks…until March 12, 1888.  It was then, exactly two months after the blizzard that ripped through the Midwest, that the “citified” folk experienced first-hand the trauma of horrific weather.

Just after midnight on the 12th, heavy rain changed to heavy snow over New York City and temperatures dropped drastically.  For the next 36 hours, much of the eastern seaboard was pounded by unrelenting snow and 50-mile-per-hour winds.

This winter (the 2009-2010 season) has seen some pretty impressive snow totals, both here in the center of the United States and also out east, but the fallout from the 1888 storm was staggering.  Saratoga Springs: 58″.  Albany: 48″. New Haven, Connecticut: 45″.  Wind gusts of 80mph (just like in the Children’s Blizzard) blew the snow into drifts 50 feet tall.

As most electrical, power, and communication lines were run above ground, all of these services were completely lost, and downed lines became serious hazards for those struggling to make their way around.  Elevated trains stopped where they were, and New York City largely went dark.

Bitterly cold single-digit temperatures added to the misery.  Four hundred people perished in what became known as the Great White Hurricane.  The New York Times would write, “For the first time in their lives [New Yorkers] knew what a western blizzard was.”  Writers for the New York Tribune added, “The city was left to run itself.  Chaos reigned, and the proud, boastful metropolis was reduced to the condition of a primitive settlement.”

It would be easy for cynics to say that New Yorkers got a “good old-fashioned spanking” for talking down those on the western prairies, because that’s how it appears.  But the truth is that both storms, the Children’s Blizzard and the Great Blizzard of 1888, were devastating for the regions they affected.  Playing the “gotcha” card was the wrong tactic, though some surely laid that card down.

As we have seen, the winter of 1888 was an especially volatile, and 19th-century technology wasn’t enough to prevent wholesale loss of life, whether one was “living securely” out east, or making a go of it out west.  But as we have also experienced with our most recent weather, even 21st-century technology isn’t always enough.

Recommended Reading: The Children’s Blizzard

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Samuel Glenn was a Sergeant in the Signal Corps.  His job was to, three times a day, take weather measurements and then send them up the chain to the weather guys.  The weather guys would then plot those readings on maps, which would give them a picture of what the weather was doing.

These days, computers and sophisticated electronic sensors handle most of these measurements (and many more besides) almost instantaneously, but in the 1880’s, that was how it was done…and Glenn was dedicated to his task.

At 11:42am on January 12, 1888, Glenn had slowly (he was fighting a stomach illness) made his way to the roof of the station in Huron, South Dakota.  His readings earlier in the morning showed temperatures that were more than 20 degrees warmer than the previous day.  The reason?  That surge of warm, moist air that we talked about the day before yesterday.

All throughout the Midwest, it was one of those “throw-open-the-doors-and-raise-the-windows” kind of days.  Temperatures that had been well below zero for some time were now, in places, 30 above zero…it was like spring.  Hundreds of children, kept home because of the cold, not only went to school, but did so without their heavy coats…some without coats at all.

Glenn’s position on the roof gave him a perfect view of what happened in that minute between 11:42 and 11:43, and it’s recounted in David Laskin’s brilliant book The Children’s Blizzard“‘The air, for about one (1) minute, was perfectly calm, and voices and noises on the street below appeared as though emanating from great depths.  A peculiar ‘hush’ prevailed over everything.  In the next minute the sky was completely overcast by a heavy black cloud, which had in a few minutes previously hung suspended along the western and northwestern horizon, and the wind veered to the west (by the southwest quadrant) with such violence as to render the observer’s position very unsafe.  The air was immediately filled with snow as fine as sifted flour.  The wind veered to the northeast, then back to the northwest, in a gale which in three minutes attained a velocity of forty (40) miles per hour.  In five minutes after the wind changed the outlines of objects fifteen (15) feet away were not discernable.'”

Within two hours, Glenn would be experiencing wind gusts of nearly 80 miles per hour.  That massive storm that two colossal fronts had created was now smashing into the Midwest with the coverage of a hurricane and the power of a tornado (many witnesses reported the tornado-esque sound of a freight train).  Along with the gale force winds came snow, some comprised of water droplets blasted by the wind into needles that made it impossible to see, others crushed to a dust-like consistency that made it nearly impossible to breathe.

As the massive blizzard blasted through each succeeding town, it largely caught everyone by complete surprise.  The weather changed in the matter of a minute or two.  Today, we have computerized weather models that allow forecasters to make at least general predictions far in advance.  What’s more, we actually have a communication system in place that doesn’t require oats to run or fingers to tap.  But in 1888, those systems didn’t exist.  Even if storm warnings were given promptly, their transmission was still largely by word-of-mouth or a paper pinned up at the post office.

Some school teachers immediately released their students to race home, but it was already too late.  Others kept them in the school houses to ride out the storm, but the blizzard was so violent that the buildings couldn’t keep out the cold and the wind.

Many that tried to make it home either became lost in the almost complete blindness, or succumbed to the brutal windchills.  The temperatures?…some stations reported drops of 18 degrees in just three minutes.

It was a story that was played out over and over as the storm blew east and south.  In its wake it left the real killer…brutal, brutal cold.  Behind the storm came high pressure and Arctic air.  In many midwestern locations (including the Iowa town in which I live), the historical record lows for January 12th, 13th, and 14th are still dated 1888.  And the frigid blast continued south, dropping temps in Dallas into the 20’s and to near freezing as far south as Mexico.

Hundreds of children and not a few adults, disoriented by the blinding snow and exhausted by efforts to reach safety, now faced temperatures of -40°F.  They simply couldn’t do it, and so they died…by the hundreds.  Sadly, some of these may have been saved by 20th-century medical practices, but they, like the weather and communications systems, didn’t exist in the 19th century.

The Children’s Blizzard (so named due to the number of children lost) claimed as many as 500 lives.  One historian would write, “A scene became quite familiar in many localities, the arrival of a party in quest of a doctor and bearing either on their arms or in some sort of conveyance, the half frozen body of a neighbor or two who have been exposed to the storm…”.

In the 1880’s, the Midwest was still pretty much the “wild west”, and people choosing to settle there – many amid promises of land and a bright future – quickly discovered a very harsh and unforgiving region.  But nothing could really prepare these men and women for the brutality of the Children’s Blizzard.

Back east, people in the relative safety and warmth of their cities took comfort in (and sometimes boasted of) their “advanced” protection.  But 1888 was just beginning, winter wasn’t nearly over, and the east would soon feel it’s wrath as well.

Recommended Reading: It’s a double dose today. Of course, The Children’s Blizzard. But in addition, read the Weather Doctor’s account.

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Sulfur dioxide is one of the by-products of volcanic eruptions…all eruptions send it into the atmosphere.  Small eruptions release a little, big eruptions a lot.  Sulfur dioxide acts like a “radiation mirror”, reflecting the sun’s energy back into space.  Really big volcanic eruptions can cause enough solar power to be reflected to actually cool the earth and alter weather patterns.  Mt. Krakatoa’s eruption in August of 1883 did just that, and it affected the weather for several years.

And as we already know, weather is unstable enough.  David Laskin writes, “Constantly and futilely, the earth’s atmosphere seeks to achieve equilibrium.  Weather is the turbulent means to this perfect, hopeless end.  Contrasting temperatures try to balance out to one uniform temperature, pressure differences strive for resolution, winds blow in a vain attempt to finally calm down global tensions.  All of this is enormously complicated by the ceaseless rotation of the planet.  Weather is the steam the atmosphere lets off as it heaves itself again and again into a more comfortable position.  Weather keeps happening because the equilibrium of the atmosphere keeps getting messed up.”

As Christmas of 1887 gave way to the New Year, a large pocket of super-cooled air formed over Alberta, Canada, caused by a combination of factors.  Winters in northern Canada feature only a couple hours of sunlight, and much of that can’t be absorbed by the snow-covered surface.  Add in high pressure, very light winds, and the possibility that Krakatoa’s residue was still in play, and a region that averaged temperatures of -15°F in January was now a polar-esque -35°F.

At first, it’s hard to see how this is really news-worthy.  After all, it’s Canada, it’s winter, it’s cold.  You kind of expect it.  If the weather turns especially cold from time to time, well, that’s what happens.  Our recent weather south of the border hasn’t been, for the last 2 weeks, all that much warmer.  But things changed on January 10, 1888.

It was then that the jet stream dove down from the Yukon and ran into the Canadian Rockies.  The currents slid down the mountains, warming as they did, and collided with the super cold air mass that had stagnated there.  The drop in air pressure created a powerful low that, propelled by high pressure behind it, began sliding to the south.

In the meantime, many hundreds of miles to the south, a wave of warm, moist air was surging northward from Oklahoma, which would dramatically warm the upper Midwest, and provide welcome relief from the unseasonably cold weather.

Both air masses, the cold from the north and the warm from the south, were impressively powerful on their own.  But when the warm air collided with the cold, it would create a storm of awesome power.  Stay tuned

Recommended Reading:  The Children’s Blizzard – A “glue” book.  Once it’s in your hands, it gets stuck until the last page is finished.  A huge kudos to a co-worker for lending me his copy.  I now have one of my own.

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On June 2, 1886, 49-year-old Stephen Cleveland got married.  It’s not a big surprise, because lots of people get married at some point in their lives and, as you all know, June is the month when most weddings take place.  So why waste Today’s History Lesson on a such a “common little miracle”?

Well, Stephen Cleveland didn’t actually use his first name, but his middle name…Grover.  And when Grover Cleveland tied the knot on this day way back then, he just happened to be the President of the United States.  And he’s the only President (so far) to have been married in the actual White House.  And his wife, Frances Folsom, became (and still is) the youngest First Lady in our nation’s history, taking her position at just 21 years old.

And I think those things make it worthy of at least a little press…so there!

Recommended Reading: Presidents – All You Need to Know

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Last summer, we looked at the devastating effects of flooding when we discussed the failure of the Lawn Lake Dam in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Three people were killed, millions of dollars in property was destroyed, and the Park was left indelibly marked.  But that failure, occurring at 11,000′ above sea level, was actually pretty small in both size and effect when compared with the subject of Today’s History Lesson.

On May 30, 1889, torrential rains fell over western Pennsylvania.  In a 24-hour period, the area received as much as 10″ inches of rain.  Most of us know that those kinds of rains cause instant flooding, as rivers and streams simply cannot handle that kind of run-off and the rain falls too quickly to be absorbed into the ground.  This storm was no exception.  Towns like South Fork and Johnstown, Pennsylvania were simply swamped with water that, in places, ran 10 feet deep.  But worse was to come…much worse.

Fourteen miles upstream sat the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, an exclusive resort area.  Purchased 10 years prior, it had been developed into a refuge for Pittsburgh’s wealthiest residents.  The centerpiece of the resort was Lake Conemaugh, a man-made lake held in place by the South Fork Dam…until May 31, 1889.

Nearly a foot of rain from all over western Pennsylvania overwhelmed the lake’s supporting dam and, despite efforts to relieve the pressure, the South Fork Dam failed just after 3:00pm.  When we discussed Lawn Lake, we said that 218 million gallons poured down the mountain toward Estes Park.  The South Fork Dam released an estimated 4.8 billion gallons of water.  That’s 22 gallons of water for every gallon that left Lawn Lake.  And what’s more, 4.8 billion gallons of water poured into an area that was already heavily flooded.

The first town of South Fork, because it sat on higher ground, was spared the worst.  The next town, Mineral Point, was razed to bare rock.  An hour after the dam collapsed, this new flood, carrying with it part of bridges, huge rocks, trees, an homes from upstream, slammed into Johnstown with waves up to 60 feet high and speeds of 40 miles per hour.

The town became a seething death trap of water, mud, and debris.  Of course, none of us was alive to witness the event or see the aftermath, but the photos that remain show utter destruction.  There has never been an exact count of the lives lost, but more than 2,200 is sure.  The cleanup efforts lasted for years.

Johnstown, PA, has certainly seen its share of terrible flooding in the years since 1889.  But mentioning “the Johnstown Flood” in knowledgeable company brings just one event into focus.

Recommended Reading:  The Johnstown Flood – Another of McCullough’s fabulous works.  The guy simply cannot produce bad literature.

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Andrew Johnson took over as President of the United States when President Lincoln was assassinated.  And because Lincoln had been killed so early in his 2nd term, President Johnson ended up serving nearly a full term.  But, as many of you know, he came within an eyelash of being removed from office.

When Johnson became President, he also became the head of the existing Cabinet, which included Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War.  It didn’t take long for the two to discover their differences, as both had opposing ideas about how the post-Civil-War Reconstruction should be carried out.  And so Johnson sought to remove him from his position.

However, the Tenure of Office Act stood in his way.  This bill had been vetoed by President Johnson, but Congress had overridden the veto in March of 1867.  The Tenure of Office Act denied the President the power to remove a Cabinet member, appointed by a previous President and approved by Congress, without Congressional permission.  Got it?  Johnson said the law hamstrung the President and was unconstitutional.  And frankly, Congress (who didn’t get along with the President anyway) had passed the measure simply to protect Lincoln’s cabinet.

President Johnson thumbed his nose at the ruling and sacked Secretary Stanton in August of 1867 anyways.  Stanton refused to leave.  When Johnson tried to appoint a new Secretary at the beginning of the next Congressional session, the House took action and impeached him on February 24, 1868 with a 3-count charge.

The President was acquitted of the 1st count on May 16th, but the three-month trial would come down to a nail-biting vote on the final two counts on this day in history…May 26, 1868.  The Senate needed 36 votes to convict and, when the counts were tallied, 35 votes had been received.  Andrew Johnson was acquitted on all counts, each by the same 35-19 vote.

Subsequent Supreme Court rulings would show that President Johnson’s position on the Tenure of Office Act was correct.  Congress had plenty of reasons to dislike Andrew Johnson, and history has come up with many as well.  But the firing of Secretary of War Stanton probably shouldn’t be one of them.

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©Water Valley Casey Jones
Railroad Museum

I’m guessing that many of us remember bits of stories we heard as kids.  I certainly do, and I’ve spent a little keyboard time telling you about them.  I’ve mentioned Dad’s reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to us and the old Uncle Remus stories that grew up in the deep South.  But there are others.  They are ones we hear and then pretty much forget…until we catch a tagline or piece of a conversation that somehow jogs our memory and takes us back.

Every once in a while that happens to me.  It did a several months ago when I heard an oblique reference somewhere to Daniel Boone.  Immediately, I was taken back to grade school days when we learned about the famous huntsman and explorer.  I remembered watching that TV series about Daniel Boone early Saturday mornings and singing with the intro…

Daniel Boone was a man
Yes a big man
With an eye like an eagle
And as tall as a mountain was he

…or something like that…it’s been a bundle of years.  So now I’ve purchased a biography of the man and, if I hurry, I’ll get to read it this year.  I wonder if the same thing will happen with Casey Jones.

Ring a bell?  He was the legendary train engineer who sacrificed himself to save his passengers when his train collided with another.  Remember?  It’s coming back…and maybe it’s taking you back to the time you first heard the story.  Casey Jones was conducting the Cannonball Express from Memphis to Canton, a journey of about 200 miles.  The train was scheduled to leave at 11:15pm on April 29th, but didn’t leave until nearly 1am the next morning.

Casey, who had developed a bit of a reputation as a risk-taker, wanted to get the passengers to Canton for their scheduled arrival at 4:05am.  So off he went, flying down the line.  Over the course of the journey, Jones used his experience and familiarity with the route to shave minute after minute off the journey.  In fact, he was within a couple of minutes of being on time when disaster struck. 

Rounding a big curve at nearly 75mph, the red light of a caboose shown out ahead.  Knowing a crash was imminent, he told his fireman to jump (which he did), and Jones went into damage control, laying on the train whistle (to warn people ahead), reversing the engines and slamming hard on the brakes.  Amazingly, Jones’ actions reduced the train’s speed to about 35mph, which was enough to prevent any serious injuries to the passengers.

But it wasn’t enough to save Casey Jones who, at the front of the train and refusing to jump to safety, took the full brunt of the impact and died on April 30, 1900…less than 20 minutes from his destination.  His selfless actions (with a little help from eyewitnesss accounts) made him an instant hero.  It was fueled by those times as well, when train engineers were somewhat romanticized and made larger than life.

Regardless, the legend of Casey Jones (which is more than legend and almost completely based in reality) is another one of those “take you back to your younger days” stories that nostalgic people just need.

Recommended Reading: Casey Jones – Another one for the kids…pass the legend on to them.

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All you fans of college sports, have you ever thought about where the University of Oklahoma got their team name?  Me neither.  But when putting together a little article for today, I learned where “Sooners” originated…and then I kind of wondered why I hadn’t thought about it before.

At precisely 12:00pm on April 22, 1889, the Oklahoma Land Rush began.  More than 2 million acres of land in the middle of modern-day Oklahoma were essentially free for the taking, and settlers by the thousands gathered on the borders of the land in the days leading up to the 22nd.  And then the day finally arrived.  The sun came up, the flags were unfurled, the guns went off at noon, and the madness began.

A human stampede estimated at nearly 50,000 was unleashed, all of them vying for their little piece of the American Dream, which at the time, was something around 150-160 acres.  Needless to say, places like Oklahoma City were established at some point in the afternoon.  And I will guess that, while running water and indoor plumbing were still a ways off, some watering holes were serving sodas and milk (or something like that) in pretty short order.

And the Sooners?  Well, they were the thorns in everyone’s side.  Sooners were those folks that sneaked into the territory before the guns sounded, found their primo piece of land, and staked their claim.  They greatly upset the people that had followed the rules, who promptly sued the cheaters.  It greatly upset the court system, which had to deal with land-rights issues for years.  And who knows, it probably upset a steer or two, as disputing land owners probably branded them more than once.

And, 120 years later, Sooners are still making people miserable.  Those people just happen to be fans of the other 11 Big-12 teams.  Go figure…

Anyways, this would certainly not be the final “land lottery” in Oklahoma.  Just 4 years later, the Land Rush of 1893 would see 100,000 people competing for less than 50,000 parcels of land.  And somewhere out there, before the guns sounded, ancestors of Barry Switzer and Jeff Capel were probably sneaking around…once a Sooner, always a Sooner.

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Secretary of State William Seward was a genius.  I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but in retrospect, his push for the purchase of Alaska from Russia was a masterstroke for the United States.  People scoffed at the idea of yet another huge land purchase, despite its ridiculously cheap price of $.02 per acre.  “Seward’s Folly” they called it.  Some reasoned that the vast territory acquired in the preceding 60 years had yet to be properly populated.

The massive Louisiana Territory (1804), the Annexation of Texas (1845), the Oregon Territory (1846), and the lands from the Mexican Cession (1848) had created the landmass that would ultimately comprise the “lower 48” states.   The Alaska territory was a frozen wasteland…and it wasn’t even connected.

But Alaska was so cheap!  The Russians, who owned the territory, wanted to get out of the “Russian America” business, primarily because right next door was the rival British Columbia and, should a war break out, the land would be easily lost.  And Britain clearly didn’t want to pay for Alaska when the Russians had asked them about it.  So rather than risk losing it for nothing, why not sell it for something?

For the American government, their justification also had to do with the British.  The Russians had been a Union ally during the Civil War, while the British had clearly not been.  So the purchase would help the Russians while simultaneously giving the British an American presence on two sides of British Columbia.

And so, in March of 1867, the negotiations began.  They concluded when the treaty was signed at 4am on March 30, 1867.  The final price was $7,200,000…a tidy sum in those days of Reconstruction.  The territory would be officially passed to the U.S. in October.  And still the criticism would be heard about “Seward’s Icebox”, but over time, one could say that it was an investment well-made.

Within 25 years, gold had been discovered and the Klondike Gold Rush was on.  During World War II (when Russia was an ally and a Lend-Lease partner), supplies were flown in to Alaska from the States, and then flown from there by Russian pilots to aid in their war against Germany.  And after the War (when Russia was no longer an ally), Alaska stood as a barrier of defense to Russian aggression.

And of course, there was that little place called Prudhoe Bay where, in 1968 (just 100 years after The Alaska Purchase), a massive oil reserve was discovered.

William Seward was chided for suggesting the U.S. purchase the no-man’s land of snow and ice from Russia.  And he was berated for actually carrying through with it.  But if those same folks were alive today, their silence would be deafening.

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One of the things I remember about growing up were the times that Dad would read to us.  Sometimes it would be on one of our beds, with us kids sitting around him.  Other times, it would be in the morning before the van came to take him to work.  We’d sit in the bean-bag chairs in the living room and listen for 15 or 20 minutes.

The reading material varied…the enjoyment remained constant.  We had this big book of Uncle Remus stories from which he’d read.  It was written in an old southern style, with sentences like, “Now Brer Fox wud der cleverest creetur in dee fores…”.  It was stuff us kids couldn’t read, no matter how hard we tried.  But Dad could.  So we’d sit there and listen and laugh as we heard about the De Tar Baby, and De Briar Patch, and Why De Cricket Fambly Lives in Chimbleys, and how Brer Rabbit outsmarted the lion that was hogging all the water at the water hole by pretending there was a big storm coming so the lion let Brer Rabbit tie him up to the tree.

And then there were the times that Dad would read to us…and he’d be the one laughing.  Like when he read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to us.  This book, the work that probably brought author Mark Twain his greatest fame, was actually first published in the United States on February 18, 1885…that’s today (well, not the 1885 part).

I’ve never read the book myself, and it’s been more than 30 years since Dad read it to us, but what I do remember is that he’d be reading and he’d get to laughing so hard that he’d have to stop.  I seem to remember a church picnic, and Huck and Tom Sawyer floating down the Mississippi River.  And Jim being captured and this elaborate plan that Huck and Tom hatched to free him.  And Jim getting shot in the leg during the escape.

I’m not sure why those snatches come to mind, except that maybe they’re the times when Dad was laughing the hardest.  There has been a lot of proverbial “water under the bridge”, but these are some of the many cherished memories I have.  Being a kid…hearing a story about a kid like Huck Finn or another about Brer Rabbit…laughing like a kid…and having Dad laugh like a kid.  He still does that, and I’m glad for it.

I can’t think of a time in the last 30 years when I haven’t been reading a book, and I’d like to think that it’s due to Mom’s appetite for reading that she passed on to all of us kids, Uncle Remus, Tom Sawyer…and Dad.

Recommended Activity:  If you’ve got children, read to them.  In 30 years, your grown-up kids may be writing about those memories on a this-day-in-history website of their own.

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