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I can’t believe it’s already October!  This year has rocketed by.  The fall colors, which we suspected would be pretty dismal due to our super-dry summer, have exploded in an array of colors I never would have imagined.  The reds and yellows and oranges are spectacular, offset by skies as blue as azure and temperatures that have been perfect.  We still aren’t getting any precipitation, but this weather has been awesome.

So it’s a bit of a shame that I’m still laid up.  The herniated disk (disc?) continues to frustrate me some, but at this time tomorrow morning (~7:30am), I’ll be heading into surgery.  The surgeon predicts a “LensCrafters” performance (success…in about an hour).  It’s my first time under the knife (not counting wisdom teeth), so I’m a bit nervous, but if they can get things squared away, that would be great.

October 1, 1947.

It was on this day that test pilot George Welch took to the skies in a revolutionary new aircraft.  Well, it was revolutionary for the United States.  The XP-86 was North American Aviation’s first serious jet fighter, and it was the first American jet to be produced with swept wings.  But we got a little help on this one.

North American’s P-51 Mustang was, quite probably, the pinnacle of piston-engine aircraft.  Range, speed, climb, maneuverability, the Mustang had it all.  As the Second World War wound down, it dominated the skies, regardless of theater.  But by 1944, even it’s most ardent fans knew the proverbial writing was on the wall.  Jet power was the wave of the future, as it promised far better performance.  And what’s more, Germany’s Luftwaffe was already putting jet power to use.  The Me-262 and the even faster (though much less practical and less safe) Me-163 entered production before the end of the War, putting the world’s air forces on notice as to what was possible.

So it’s somewhat understandable that the Allied race to Berlin (Russia from the east, the U.S. and Britain from the west) was about more than securing territory and ending the fighting.  Each side, while warring against Germany, was in a battle to capture these German scientists before the other in order to gain a competitive advantage in what was shaping up to be a post-war “falling out of the Allies.”

Back to our story.

North American’s first attempts at jet aircraft involved basically hooking jets up to Mustang wings and airframes.  But even with piston engines, the P-51 had reached the limits of its potential.  The straight wings simply created too much resistance as it was.  There was no way jets could be used.  But the German scientists had figured out several years prior that swept wings allowed for higher performance by greatly reducing drag, and any loss of low-speed stability could be countered by the simple addition of leading-edge slats.

The engineers took these ideas, headed back to the drawing boards, and revamped their design.  The aircraft that took to the skies on this day was the beginning of yet another remarkable product from North American.  Though initially under-powered, the XP-86 would evolve into one of the finest fighters of its generation.  It flew with great distinction in the Korean War as well as dozens of conflicts around the world in the service of other air forces.  There were numerous variants produced, both here and in other countries under license, and they served for years, with the last Sabres being retired from the Bolivian air force in 1994.

The United States Air Force dropped the “P” (for “Pursuit”) designation, replacing it with “F” (for “Fighter”).  So our XP-86 became, in production, the North American F-86 Sabre, and more Sabres were produced (upwards of 10,000) than any other jet-powered U.S. fighter.

And one other thing…

There are unsubstantiated claims that Welch’s first flight also included the first trip beyond the sound barrier…achieved in a shallow dive.

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It’s been a pretty quiet month, that’s for sure!  Well, not quiet in terms of everyday life, but certainly in terms of my presence on these pages.  I’ll aim to do a bit better going forward.

Let’s check back in with Dick Proenneke, because if anyone knew about quiet and solitude, it was Dick.   As you know, he had begun building his own cabin and carving out a “retirement” existence on the shores of Twin Lakes, south and west of Anchorage, Alaska.  The summer of 1968 was super-busy, as it was spent completing his new home.

And then it was done, but there was still work to do.  Other than the few basics that Babe Alsworth brought in by plane (flour, salt, eggs, etc.), Dick had to fend for himself.  So there was hunting and hiking and chopping firewood for the chim…

Hmmm…Proenneke’s finished cabin didn’t have a chimney.  And now it was September, and the brutal cold of winter wasn’t all that far away, particularly in Alaska.  But if we’ve learned anything about our retiree, it’s that he planned ahead.  Part of his summer chores included gathering a pile of bigger rocks from the nearby stream, and ordering some bags of concrete mix that Babe flew in with the T-Craft.

And on September 6, 1968, Dick Proenneke began building his chimney.  The first step was to cut a hole in the rear of the house.  It was a bit sad, he thought, to cut up what he had so carefully laid in, but warmth in frigid temperatures (that approached -50°) was paramount.  And once the hole was cut, he was committed to finish.

As you might expect, the job was done before the cold arrived, and when it was -45° outside, the inside of the cabin, with the help of the fireplace, stayed a relatively balmy 40°.

But don’t take my word for it.  If you haven’t already, go buy the videos (I hear rumor that a 3rd video is in the works) or read the book.  You’ll get the full scoop.

Recommended Reading:  One Man’s Wilderness

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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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Well, eleven days I wrote about the Constitutional Convention.  Specifically, we were introduced to the Committee of Detail.  Their job was to take all the proceeding of the previous sixty days of work and, over eleven days, condense it into some semblance of order.  As I mentioned before, this wasn’t in any way a finished product.  It was what we call at our office a “strawman” document…a starting point from which to refine issues.

The Convention delegates took a much-needed eleven-day vacation.  They wrote letters home, caught up on the latest news in Philadelphia, took in a play, did some reading, or just relaxed.  All the delegates, that is, except the five members of the Committee, who worked really hard to put things together.

Edmund Randolph desired “a fundamental constitution.”  He wanted it kept simple and free from the kinds of language and provisions that simply bogged down the document with inflexibility with which the future couldn’t deal.  The Constitution should contain general principles and propositions, believing “the construction of a constitution of necessity differs from that of law.

The Committee of Detail did not, as far as I can tell, come up with the famous Preamble.  That would fall to the Committee of Style down the road.  But they offer up some general guidelines.  We again turn to Virginia’s Randolph, who believed such text should state “that the present foederal government is insufficient to the general happiness, that the conviction of this fact gave birth to this convention, and that the only effectual means which they can devise for curing this insufficiency is the establishment of a supreme legislative, executive and judiciary…“.

The document was divided into articles and sections and printed.  On August 6, 1787, the delegates returned and received their “strawman” copy.  Some were surprised and even shocked at what the document contained, though not because (like our recent healthcare legislation) no one knew what it contained.  Quite the contrary, there were no unknowns here.  It’s just that, after months of debate, it was still a little bit unnerving to see all laid out in plain text.  After receiving the draft, the session for the day ended, but the convention was far from over.

Each article, section, and clause was still open for debate and, if necessary, a vote.  And for the next five weeks, that debate would continue.  The delegates to the Constitutional Convention knew that much had been accomplished.  And each one knew there was a long way to go.

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WordPress has added this nifty new feature to our suite of tools.  It’s a world map, and it allows me to see the countries from where all of you come to visit.  This morning, I see there are folks from the United States, and Poland, and some other places.  It’s kind of cool to see the various countries and continents represented.

I don’t know where you are specifically, but where I am, it’s been downright hot.  We topped out at 106°F yesterday (which is a staggering number for central Iowa), and it’s been over 100° for what seems like a month.  I look outside the window, and the yards stare back with deep-fried goodness.  Fortunately, our break has arrived.  Storms rolled through last night, bringing our first real rainfall in a month, and this morning the winds had a northern component to them.  It’s still really humid, but it actually feels cool!

The summer of 1787 was pretty hot as well.  Early-American Philadelphia roasted in a hot, humid, hazy sunshine that made a good many people sick, a lot more people very short-tempered, and everyone wish someone would just invent shorts and t-shirts already.

For the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, it was time for a break as well, and not just from the temperatures, which had conveniently moderated a bit ten days prior.  Two months of debate, two months of disagreement, and two months of discussion were all beginning to wear them down.  But a tremendous amount of progress had been made in that two months.  The basic shape of the new government had been worked, including that most sticky of issues:  how a bicameral legislature would be represented.

It was time to start collecting the various parts, what the delegates called “resolves” (and twenty-three had been passed to this point), along with other proposals and amendments, into some kind of order.  George Washington, who would have rather been riding the countryside, following the rivers and thinking about a canal system, penned in his diary that they needed to “draw into method and form the several matters which had been agreed to by the Convention as a Constitution for the United States.

So on July 26, 1787, the Convention created the Committee of Detail.  The job of this committee was not to create a finished product, but simply to get things organized.  Then the delegates could look over their work, have some more debate, and make corrections and further changes.  The Committee was Detail was made up of five members, including Virginia’s Edmund Randolph (who, as we know, ultimately did not sign the finished product), James Wilson from Pennsylvania, Nathaniel Gorham from Massachusetts, Connecticut’s Oliver Ellsworth, and John Rutledge from South Carolina.  They were given eleven days (until August 6) to knock together a “Report”.

And the rest of the delegates to an eleven-day sabbatical.  The delegates themselves didn’t talk about the proceedings in “mixed” company, fearing the spread of rumor and outright falsehoods.  But many wrote letters home to family and friends, since flying or driving home was, in 1787, out of the question.  There was much “wagging of tongues” around Philly, as bystanders and newspapers speculated on what might be taking place.

General Washington went trout fishing.

Recommended Reading:  Decision in Philadelphia – Another account of the Convention I’m reading right now, and it’s pretty good.

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James Callender.  The name probably means little to you.  The name meant nothing to me until I started reading about this country’s Founding Fathers a few years back.  But you would certainly know the type of man he was if I gave you just a one-word description.  That word, first used by Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century (as I learned on Jeopardy a few days ago), is “muck-raker”.  Wait, is that two words?  One word?

Whatever, James Callender was a muck-raker.  In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow describes him as a “hack writer“, an “ugly, misshapen little man who made a career of spewing venom.”   He spent most of his life doing it and, as we’ll soon see, his life ended in muck.  That’s the kind of guy he was.

He arrived in the United States, having left Scotland, in the early 1790s.  Well, “left” is something of a euphemism…”got out of town in a hurry” is more apt, fleeing the country to escape a sedition rap from the British government.  It didn’t take him long to anger folks on this side of the pond, either.

He got in with Republican interests early on, landing a job with Benjamin Franklin Bache’s newspaper, the Aurora.  Firing darts at Federalists like Washington, Adams, and Hamilton made him really good friends with Republicans like Jefferson.  In fact, our third President called Callender “a man of genius” and “a man of science fled from persecution.”

It was all tea and crumpets when James Callender released History of 1796, a pamphlet which exposed to the public a scandal involving “the prime mover of the federal party.”  He enticed his audience by writing that “we shall presently see this great master of morality, although himself the father of a family, confessing that he had an illicit correspondence with another man’s wife.”  He then went on to publish all the papers concerning Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds.  These were the accounts Hamilton had given to James Monroe, Frederick Muhlenberg, and Abraham Venable.

As we remember, these three men approached Hamilton because they believed the Treasury Secretary was involved in some sort of financial corruption with James Reynolds.  When he buried them with the details of the affair and the extortion, the men left knowing that Hamilton, while acting immorally, was not acting illegally.  Of course, Callender paid no attention to niceties like the truth, and published the corruption stuff anyways.

But Callender was an equal-opportunity muck-raker.  In 1802, he broke another story, this one about the relationship between President Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.  It was probably at this time that Jefferson’s opinion of James Callender changed from that of a man of science to “hypochondriac, drunken, penniless, and unprincipled.

And then there was the court case in 1803.  The People vs. Croswell involved Harry Croswell, a publisher charged with libel who claimed that Thomas Jefferson had paid Callender to defame President George Washington.  Of course, that meant that James Callender would likely be called to the witness stand.  He never made it.

On July 17, 1803, his body was found in the James River.  Apparently, he was in a drunken stupor and drowned in three feet of water…or did he?  History is unclear.

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We watched a comedian some time ago on television and he joked about his fear of bears.  Before his first visit to Alaska, he discussed his concerns with a friend.  His friend told him not to worry, because “the bear is more afraid of you than you are of it.”  The comedian responded by saying, “I’m pretty sure the bear is wrong.

And based on the tale that Richard Proenneke tells, I would have to agree with the comedian.

For Proenneke, July 2, 1969 was a day of celebration.  He had lost his axe the previous day, and that was a terrible loss.  He would write in his diary, “After all the miles we had traveled together, building everything, I hated the thought of losing it.  A man could no more afford to lose his axe out here than he could his wallet full of folding money in a strange city.”  All plans for the day were scrapped and the search was on.  He scoured the cabin, he retraced his steps over the last several days, which meant walking trails and digging through the brush.  His relentless search paid dividends, as he finally found the axe on the third search of his cabin.

As you may recall, Proenneke had come to Twin Lakes, Alaska the year before and carved out his own little existence, building his own cabin in the midst of fantastic surroundings and almost complete solitude.  Over time, he had augmented his in-ground cool-box with a stilted cache, where he put things out of the reach of the local wildlife, particularly bears, which rambled around his home in search of food.

Today he would see another bear, though not at all in the manner he desired.

Proenneke decided his celebration would be spent in the high country.  He left his camera and his rifle at home, not wanting the extra weight on what promised to be a day of strenuous exercise.  He paddled across the lake with just his binoculars and his sixty-power eyepiece and tripod.

He climbed up high, past the pesky insects, and watched bighorn sheep, moose, and even a brown bear with her cubs in the distance.  As the temperatures began to drop, he headed back down.  He had just broken out of the willows when he heard a crashing the trees to his right.

Richard turned, expecting to see a moose, but instead saw a huge brown bear charging at him just fifty feet away.  When yelling and waving his hands failed to stop the bear’s charge, he turned and fled, only to trip and fall on his back.  He penned in his diary, “…I started kicking at the great broad head as it burst through the willow leaves.  And then as he loomed over me, a strange thing happened.  The air whooshed out of him as he switched ends.  Off he went up the slope, bunching his huge bulk, climbing hard, and showering stones.  Not once did he look back.

Proenneke believed the bear, at the last moment, caught the strange scent of human.  The bear probably saw Proenneke’s movement from a distance and charged, thinking it was dinner.  Just in time, the bear relented and left.  Richard continued his trip home, unable to think of anything but those few deadly seconds, and unable to stop shaking.  From now on, his rifle would be an automatic accessory for travel.

When he finally went to bed, he wrote, “I lay awake for a long time.  My mind kept returning to the bear.

Recommended Reading:  One Man’s Wilderness

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