Category Archives: Biography

Cowboy Caveman

“Dad, I hate school. I don’t ever want to go back. Please! Please! Please! I want to do something else!”

“Well, what do you want to do?”

“I want to be a cowboy.”

And so Jim White, Sr. pulled his 10-year-old son, Jim, Jr., out of school. He drove him 400 miles from their ranch in central Texas, to a cattle ranch in southern New Mexico. And that’s where he left him, to fulfill his cowboy dreams.

Damn! Wouldn’t it be great to have a dad like that?

Five years later, Jim White, Jr. was riding his mustang through the Guadalupe Mountains, searching for stray cattle. Suddenly he encountered something that stopped him and his horse dead in their tracks. It looked like a column of black smoke pouring up into the sky.

Was it a volcano? Jim wondered. Nope, not noisy enough. How about a tornado? Couldn’t be. There was no wind, and the nearest thunderhead was miles off.

He ventured closer, finally tying his bronc and pushing and hacking his way on foot through thick chaparral. That’s when he made a discovery that would change his life, and southern New Mexico forever.

It was an enormous black hole. And belching from the mouth of this maw were thousands upon thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats. The bats were whirling frenetically in a counter-clockwise direction just above the hole, then rising into the sky and spinning off into space in a spreading dark cloud.

The cave Jim White discovered, although without the paved walkway.

Night was falling fast, but this 15-year-old’s curiosity was piqued. He just had to see more.

Jim rode back to the ranch. He didn’t stay long. He returned a few days later with a hatchet, fence wire, a homemade kerosene lantern, and some matches.

He used the hatchet to cut rungs from the surrounding brush, and wove these rungs through the fence wire to create a wire ladder. He lowered this ladder down into the darkness of the cave. He lit his homemade lantern and descended the rungs of the ladder to a ledge 50 feet below. Then he scrambled down a slope another 20 feet and began spelunking for the very first time in his life.

When Jim White looked up, after climbing down his wire ladder, this is pretty much what he saw. By the way, those aren’t bats flying at the mouth of the cave. Rather, they are swallows. Hundreds of swallows have made their home here, and work the day shift eating insects. The bats take over at night.

What the hell gets into the heads of kids, to do dangerous and foolish things like this? Some kids just think they’re immortal, and that nothing can happen to them. But tragically, some of these same kids find out, all too late, that they are not. Would Jim be one of them?

His were the first human eyes to view the grandiose elegant underground beauty that we now know as Carlsbad Caverns. He began his adventure by using his lantern to explore the bat cave. Then he about-faced and descended a dark, broken declivity into the bowels of the caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns is a petroleum product. The Guadalupe mountains are made of limestone. About 5 million years ago the groundwater level here was much higher, reaching up to near the surface of the earth. Petroleum reserves below this groundwater produced hydrogen sulfide, and this hydrogen sulfide seeped up into the groundwater, causing a chemical reaction that produced sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid dissolved the limestone, forming the caverns.

He crept like a cat, negotiating treacherous ledges, and avoiding terrible dark, deep precipices. His skin bristled in horripilation at the sound of clattering rocks dislodged by his feet, echoing and echoing as they tumbled down inky black pits. He scrambled and slid over limestone boulders, wet from condensation caused by the constant 56 degree temperature.

Finally he debouched into a huge room, thousands of feet long, and hundreds of feet wide and high. Monstrous stalactites dangled from the ceiling, and similar-sized stalagmites met them halfway up from the floor. And many other weird speleothems dazzled Jim’s eyes from the glow of his lantern.

The groundwater level dropped after the caverns were formed, leaving these massive cavities beneath the surface. Within the last million years, a hole eroded, opening up the caverns to the outside world.

He became so engrossed in this splendid strange scenery that he forgot about something very important. Kerosene. Without warning his lantern burned through the last of this light-giving juice and lost its flame. Jim was instantly enveloped in total darkness and left completely and helplessly blind.

The bravery and foolishness of this immortal explorer were about to kill him, for he needed light to find his way out of the cave.

Who knows, maybe many other caverns were formed within the Guadalupe mountains, that have not yet opened up to the surface.

But Jim had a backup plan. He grabbled about, searching for a canteen filled with kerosene that he’d brought along, just in case. Then he fumbled through his pockets for some matches. After a bit of effort he refilled and relit the lantern. The darkness pulled back.

Jim beat it out of there before the last of this spare kerosene was consumed.

But he wasn’t finished spelunking. A short time later he returned with a young Mexican friend. They exercised surprisingly good foresight by bringing along a large ball of string, which they intended to use to trace their way back to the cave’s exit.

Stalactites hang from the ceiling, whereas stalagmites grow from the floor. They were formed through a process called speleogenesis. Speleogenesis requires water, so most of the speleogenesis at Carlsbad Caverns ceased about four million years ago, as groundwater receded.

They spent about three days exploring the intricate innards of the caverns. No one knows just how much this duo discovered, but in the 1980s some splelunkers discovered the words “Jim White 1898” scratched into the rocks, far deeper and further than anyone had ever suspected they’d reached.

Of course Jim and his Mexican friend freely reported their fantastic findings to anyone they encountered above the surface. But they were just kids. Adults would laugh at them, and chalk up their tales to overactive imaginations. It took years for Jim to convince anyone to come take a look for themselves.

A paved trail currently winds through much of the same areas that Jim White and his Mexican friend explored.

But after a while a few did take Jim up on it, and got their own eyeful of this massive, wondrous cavern. They told their tales, and before long, word began spreading far and wide over the countryside, just like the bats emerging for their evening feast.

Once word got out and people started believing it, Jim White never worked as a cowboy again. The cave took over his life. He became a guano miner, hauling batshit out of the depths and sending it on to fertilize orchards in California. He also worked for a few years as a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns, when it was a National Monument.

This formation, and the formation at the middle right, are rated R. No children under the age of 17 are permitted to view them.

A book about his life was ghostwritten for him, which he sold inside the famed Underground Lunchroom of the caverns. And he earned a few bits now and then guiding tourists through the cave system.

He never got rich from this natural wonder, and in fact barely scratched out a living. And then in 1946, this cowboy turned caveman suffered a heart attack and passed away. He was 63.

Each of the 400,000 plus visitors per year unwittingly sheds a minute amount of lint from their clothing as they walk the trails. This lint adds up after a while, and can combine with condensation to damage cavern formations. But once a year a lint cleanup is conducted, where workers use special brushes charged with static electricity to pick up the lint.

We can thank Jim White for his discovery, though it’s likely someone else would eventually have found this cave, with it’s tell-tale evening bat “smoke”. But it’s unlikely anyone would have had the derring-do to discover it Jim’s way.

Who else would have dared to venture alone into such unknown depths of darkness? And who else would have been savvy enough to bring along a spare canteen of kerosene?

In my view, Carlsbad Caverns is much more interesting when Jim White’s story is included. Jim White was never rich in money or education. But he had a tale to tell that no one could match. His adventuresome spirit and temerity made him wealthy in ways that cannot be measured. Except with the help of the glow from a homemade kerosene lantern.

You can use an elevator to descend into the caverns, or you can hike in through the natural cave entrance. I recommend the natural cave entrance hike if you can handle it. You’ll see much more. And you can always take the elevator back up and out.

How a Book Killed a Poet

A Picture of Oscar Wilde

Well, it began with a book. The only novel that the poet, Oscar Wilde, ever wrote. The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890, when Oscar was 36 years old.

Until that time Wilde had been a renowned poet and playwright. But he was also controversial. He liked to party and indulge in vices, and make a show of his iniquities. This led critics to view him as immoral and hedonistic. And they accused him of doing the provocative things he did, all for publicity.

But after The Picture was published, a new “picture” of Oscar Wilde began to emerge. This novel contained many off-handed, subtle references to homosexual behavior. And while it did not overtly portray or promote anything homosexual, it averred to it strongly enough to raise the suspicion of critics and moralists throughout England.

Homosexual acts were very illegal in that Victorian era. They could earn a perpetrator prison time with hard labor.

Wilde remained popular with his reading audience, but even they couldn’t help but suspect he might be a dreaded homosexual, after reading his book. In fact, anyone and everyone in the know began to suspect it.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

In 1891 Wilde began hanging out with Lord Alfred Douglas, the 20-year-old son of the Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess was a brute of a man, who had taken credit for creating the modern rules of boxing, known as the Queensberry Rules (although the actual writer of the rules was a man named John Graham Chambers). The Marquess feared that Wilde might be seducing his young son into a homosexual relationship.

He confronted Wilde several times over the next few years, and their relationship grew more and more tense. In 1894, a sort of war was declared between them, when he apprehended Wilde in a restaurant. He declared his suspicions about Wilde’s sexual orientation, and issued an ultimatum with the following words: “I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you!”

The ever-clever Wilde riposted: “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”

In a sense, it was Lord Douglas who was seducing Wilde, and not the other way around. Alfred introduced Oscar to the underground world of male prostitution. And Oscar relished in it. It felt exciting and dangerous. Just Wilde’s wild style.

A few months later, in February, 1895, the Marquess left a calling card for the poet that read, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” It’s actually spelled “sodomite”, but brutes aren’t well known for their writing skills.

Lord Alfred Douglas had been feuding with his father, and he wanted to hurt him bad. So he persuaded Oscar to prosecute his dad for criminal libel. After all, calling someone a sodomite was an insult. And insulting someone was against the law in England. Unless, of course, the insult was true.

Wilde’s friends cautioned against it, because they knew the insult really was true. But how do you convince the love-struck? Wilde enjoyed indulging his young lover, so he granted Douglas’ wish and went ahead and filed charges.

John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, and credit usurper of boxing’s Queensberry Rules.

Soon the Queensberry Rules man found himself on the ropes and facing trial. If convicted he faced two years in prison. His only defense was to prove that what he wrote on the calling card was an accurate fact.

The Marquess of Queensberry knew how to fight. Hell, he stole the rules on fighting. And he delivered a sockdolager punch. He hired detectives to look into Oscar Wilde’s lifestyle, and they uncovered his activities in London’s gay brothels.

Two months after the calling card incident the trial began. It was a circus, with Wilde’s prosecution unraveling in the face of a mountain of evidence amassed against him. And the defense attorney cross-examined Wilde about the moral content of his works, including The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde’s witty retorts won him laughs but left him looking more and more like the true guilty party.

Then the turn came for the defense to present its case. In his opening statement, the defense attorney announced that he had located several male prostitutes who were going to testify that they had sex with Wilde. Wilde sensed great danger and knew he couldn’t win, so he quickly dropped the libel charges.

But it was too late. The court ruled that the words on the Marquesses’ calling card were “true in substance and fact”. And under the law, Queensberry’s acquittal left Wilde liable for Queensberry’s legal expenses, and the cost of his detectives. It was a lot of money, and it bankrupted the poet.

But Queensberry wasn’t finished punching, even while Oscar lay still on the mat. He immediately gave Scotland Yard the evidence his detectives had uncovered on Wilde.

The next day Wilde was arrested and charged with sodomy and gross indecency. And on May 25,1895, he was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labor.

In prison he was forced to walk a treadmill, and separate oakum fibers from old navy ropes. His bed was hard, and the food was of poor nutritional quality. Within six months his health was destroyed. He managed to stagger into the prison chapel one day, where he collapsed from illness and hunger. He hit his head when he fell, and broke his eardrum.

A prison reformer visited him and had him transferred to a new jail, where his treatment might be better. But during the transfer a crowd jeered and spat at him at a train station. This was when Wilde fully realized he had become one of the most reviled men in England, now that everyone knew for sure he was homosexual. He felt devastated.

In May, 1897, after two years of torture, he was released from prison, with his health in tatters, his finances ruined, and his fame reduced to obloquy. He immediately sailed for France and never returned to England.

He was penniless from his bankruptcy. In France he wrote a poem under a nom de plume that was an instant success and earned him a little money. But it was not enough to lift him out of poverty.

For the next three years Oscar Wilde haunted the boulevards of Paris. He continued to write a little, here and there, but finally became so depressed about his fate that he quit writing altogether. He turned to alcohol, which only worsened his health and left him more deeply impoverished.

The eardrum he broke while in prison continued to bother him. A surgeon performed a mastoidectomy, and soon after he developed meningitis. On November 30, 1900, this brilliant poet who had delighted millions, only to become the object of their homophobia and cruelty, passed away in a dingy hotel room in Paris.

He died at age 46. But it was at age 36 that he published the book that eventually killed him, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In this book, Dorian Gray remains constantly young and innocent-looking, while engaged in a pleasurable lifestyle of debauchery. However a portrait of him grows older and uglier from dissipation, with every hedonistic act indulged in by Gray. Literary scholars teach that the picture is symbolic of Dorian’s true inner self, growing increasingly evil and corrupt as he delved deeper into hedonism.

That may be, but I wonder if Wilde also intended another meaning.

Perhaps it had been a fantasy for Wilde that he could get away with coming out and subtly revealing the truth about his sexual orientation. And maybe Dorian Gray’s picture was meant to be symbolic of Wilde’s ever-deteriorating, seedy reputation.

Oscar’s career had already thrived for many years, in spite of what morality critics thought and wrote about him. So he wasn’t afraid of a bad reputation, and maybe he felt tempted to push the envelope further. Perhaps he calculated that his writing career could be like Dorian Gray, continuing to thrive successfully in spite of his reputation (the picture) looking worse and worse every day.

If so, it was a disastrous miscalculation. He could handle a besmirched reputation. But he didn’t count on the people of England destroying him.

After Dorian Gray dies, his portrait returns overnight to its original unsullied image. But such transformation wasn’t so fast for the reputation of Oscar Wilde. For a long time after his death he remained a pariah in the minds of the masses.

It has taken many years for society to accept homosexual people and embrace gay rights. And in fact there is still much more progress to be made.

But the poet’s reputation and popularity did eventually recover. Today Oscar Wilde is regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time.

And the book that killed him also recovered. Several films have been made, based upon The Picture of Dorian Gray. And it has inspired plots for quite a few other works of didactic fiction. These days, The Picture is regarded as a great literary classic.

In 2017 the British Parliament passed the Alan Turing Law, which pardoned an estimated 50,000 men who had been convicted of criminal homosexual acts.

Oscar Wilde was among those pardoned. Like Dorian Gray’s picture, his reputation was finally restored.

Dick’s Place

My wife and I took a trip to the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Or as I like to call it, Dick’s Place.

My wife has an interest in Dick. Her grandmother was a friend of his mother. They were next-door neighbors who visited over the fence and talked about their hobby. Which was, raising exotic roses. And which no doubt involved some one upsmanship. This was when the Nixons lived in Whittier, California.

Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin that he helped his father build. Similarly, President Nixon was born in this farmhouse in 1913. His father built it in 1912, with young Dick’s assistance.

Impressed? I thought not. Okay, enough with the name-dropping. But maybe I can impress you with some research. As part of our visit to this academic oasis, I did a little research on our ex-prez. Here’s the real story on the rise and fall of Dick:

Our 37th President was actually born in Yorba Linda, California, and this is where his library is located. The Nixons had a citrus ranch and raised lemons. But they were squeezed out of business when Dick was nine. His family moved to Whittier, where they bought a gas station and small grocery store. They took Dick with them.

I suppose this is how Dick learned how to turn lemons into lemonade. His beginnings were humble and hardscrabble. His family struggled. When Dick was 14 his older brother fell ill with tuberculosis, leaving him to step up to the plate and assist with the family business. He worked hard to help out, and no doubt learned a few of the dirty tricks for survival that all struggling people must learn.

While touring Dick’s Place, I turned down a shadowy hallway and got lost. Suddenly I happened upon a ghostly apparition of our former president, napping on a chaise lounge while pretending to work. He startled me, and my reaction startled him awake. He explained that as one gets older, one has a right to take naps more and more often, to make up for all the hard work they did when young. I heartily concurred and found my opinion of this man doing a complete about-face. Dick’s ghost won me over in that precious moment.

Dick was no dickhead. He was sharp as the juice of pure lemon and got good grades in school. He impressed his rich grandmother, who fortunately died and left him a bequest to attend Whittier College. That served as a stepping stone to a full scholarship to Duke University School of Law.

Dick graduated Duke in 1937 and tried to get a job with the FBI. But he couldn’t pass the fortune-telling test, which predicted he would one day get into serious trouble with the federal law. So he had to settle for a position with a legal firm, as a practicing attorney.

A full-sized replica of the Oval Office, as it appeared when Dick was lodged in it. This is the selfsame desk that Dick used during his five-and-a-half years in office. LBJ allowed Kennedy’s famous Resolute desk to go on a traveling exhibition, and then be put on display at the Smithsonian. Jimmy Carter brought it back in 1977. This irresolution about the placement of the Resolute desk left Dick with the need to scavenge a replacement from another room in the White House.

World War II found Dick bored, flaccid, and craving action. He joined the Navy as a Lieutenant Junior Grade, and was soon immersed in the South Pacific Theater, heroically preparing manifests and flight plans, and supervising the loading and unloading of cargo from aircraft. He nearly received a Purple Heart from several paper cuts incurred on an especially busy day.

In 1946 a committee of frustrated Republicans wanted someone who could defeat incumbent Democratic Congressman Jerry Voorhis. One of the committee members knew Dick. Dick rose to the occasion and thoroughly fucked Voorhis, by painting him as a communist. Red-baiting was one of the first dirty tricks up Nixon’s sleeve, and it got him elected.

In 1948 Dick pulled out another of his dirty tricks by taking advantage of a crazy California election rule. He ran for, and won the DEMOCRATIC congressional primary. Under this crazy rule he also ran, and of course won the Republican primary. This allowed this incumbent to run unopposed for reelection. “None of the above” was not on the ballot, so naturally he won the general.

In 1950 Dick ran against Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate. He again relied upon red-baiting, and described her as “pink, right down to her underwear.” She riposted by calling him “Tricky Dick.” This epithet stuck with Nixon for the rest of his political career. But sadly, she and her pink panties lost anyway, and Tricky Dick became a Senator.

In 1952 a smoke-filled room of Republican bigwigs selected Dick as the running mate for presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower. They liked him for all his hard work fighting harmless American scapegoats dangerous suspected communists, while on the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Plus they thought he could help carry California.

Soon a huge scandal blew up, where Dick was accused of accepting bribes in the form of a slush fund from his supporters. Pressure mounted for him to resign from the campaign. But on September 23rd, 1952, Dick gave his famous televised Checkers speech, and won widespread sympathy and popularity.

In this speech he proclaimed that he would not resign, because was “no quitter”. And he lamented that he was just a man of modest means, and that the only gift from his supporters that he had accepted was a pet cocker spaniel that his daughter named “Checkers”.

Why it brought the populace to tears, and everyone suddenly loved Dick and liked Ike. They beat Adlai Stevenson and easily won reelection against the same Adlai in 1956. But then Dick’s long string of victories was torpedoed by a former PT boat commander.

Dick Nixon ran for President in 1960 and lost to John F. Kennedy by 84 votes. Electoral votes, that is. I won’t tell you the popular vote margin, because that doesn’t count in America.

In 1962 Dick ran against Pat Brown (Jerry Brown’s father) for governor of California. He was trounced, and after the election he announced his retirement from politics. He quipped that we wouldn’t have his dick to kick around anymore, or something in that vein.

Turns out, Dick really was a quitter.

But not for long. Good fortune once again smiled on this lemon picker from Yorba Linda, in the form of the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. Dick rose again, and stood for election in 1968. He beat Hubert Humphrey by 110 votes and became President of the United States.

Bumper stickers from Dick’s presidential campaign of 1968. I wonder what happened to the “Honk If You Love Dick” sticker?

Dick ran under the promise of getting us out of the Vietnam War. Which he did, four years and 21,000 American lives later. He accomplished many other things also, and could have been considered one of America’s greatest Presidents–if it only hadn’t been for that other thing he did.

A short-timer’s combat helmet, in the Vietnam War. Apparently this soldier loved Vietnam so much he was counting the days until he could go home and tell his friends all about it. Photo of a photo from Picturing Nam: U.S. Military Photography of the Vietnam War, an exhibit organized by the National Archives and Records Administration, currently on display at Dick’s Place from 9/2/17 – 1/7/18.

He was the last progressive Republican president. Under today’s standards I think he’d be a screaming liberal. Here are some of the things we can thank our Dick for:

  • Reformed the Post Office Department by converting it into the modern day Postal Service. This included allowing postal unions to negotiate with the federal government for decent wages and benefits.
  • Implemented the desegregation of public schools.
  • Supported the Clean Air Act of 1970.
  • Formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • Endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
  • Presided over the first landing of human beings upon the moon.

This is the actual phone Dick used when he called Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who at the time were taking a stroll on the moon. That’s space food in the middle, and a moon rock on the right.

On the left is the actual spacesuit used by Neil Armstrong when he walked on the moon for the first time. Depicted here, Neil and Buzz are on the verge of a great discovery when suddenly their phone rang.

  • Restored diplomatic relations with China.
  • Negotiated the SALT I treaty with the Soviet Union, limiting the deployment of nuclear weapons.
  • Prevented global thermonuclear war by helping Israel avert defeat in the Yom Kippur War.

So he was a man of many accomplishments, even when beset by scandal in his office.

In 1972 he won reelection by defeating George McGovern by 503 votes. But in that same year he used one of his dirty tricks to burglarize the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. This was the dirty trick that broke Dick.

He spectacularly accomplished reelection, but spectacularly lost popular and political support. On August 8, 1974, Tricky Dick quit again, by resigning from the presidency.

Marine One. Dick flew a total of 125 times in this helicopter. This includes his final trip from the south lawn of the White House, where he famously waved goodbye from the door after resigning, while millions of Americans famously flipped birdies at their television sets.

He went from hero to zero in the last 18 months of his presidency, and transmogrified into the most reviled personage of our country. Everybody hated Dick. That was the popular thing to do.

These masks became popular on Halloween after Dick resigned. To this day they sell well every October, for reasons that confound all Halloween mask experts.

But in the 1980s and 90s Tricky Dick rehabilitated his image. He served as an ad hoc advisor and diplomat to Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. By 1986, a Gallup poll ranked Dick as one of the ten most admired men in the world. Suddenly, everybody loved Dick again.

On April 22, 1994, Dick Nixon died from a stroke. He was buried beside his wife, Patricia, at his presidential library in Yorba Linda, California. Dick’s Place.

Pat and Dick enjoyed a lifelong romance. Dick felt devastated after she passed away and he followed her, with his broken heart, ten months later. Strange presidential trivia: She was ten months older than him, so their lifespans were almost identical in length, with Dick living only five days longer.

Whatever you think of Dick now, don’t forget that we are all a basket of contradictions. There was much good in the man, in spite of the deplorable.

We can take comfort from his humble origins, in knowing that anyone in America is capable of great success. You don’t have to be the child of a millionaire tycoon.

We can also take comfort from his downfall. We see that when someone in America abuses their authority, and cheats, lies, and covers up, they can be held accountable, no matter how rich or powerful they are. (Okay, somewhat accountable. After all, he was pardoned.)

Let’s hope we continue taking comfort in knowing these things.

Death with honor.

Samuel Wilson

[Note: this is a cheap rewrite of a post from last year. If you remember it, you become eligible for a drawing to win a prize. The prize will be a chance to enter a drawing for a drawing to win the drawing of the prize that was first drawn.]

Samuel Wilson was a middle child, born the seventh of thirteen children. He came to this world near Boston, Massachusetts, on September 13th, 1766. So today is his 251st birthday. Happy birthday, Samuel Wilson!

Samuel Wilson, 1766-1854

But just who was Samuel Wilson? And why the hell would we want to give a damn about his birthday?

Well, to start off with, he was a solid American, and the descendent of one of the oldest families of Boston.

When he was a boy his family did what many American families have done. They moved, searching for greener pastures. And so they left Massachusetts and resettled in New Hampshire.

Around the same time our nation was born, and war came to the colonies. There are many things that can kill children before they reach adulthood, and war is one of them. Samuel took the risk. He joined the Revolutionary Army at age 14. But seven months later the war ended and he returned home alive, a war veteran at age 15.

Adventure has also been known to kill people at a young age. But Samuel was willing to take that risk, also. At age 22 he caught the traveling spirit, and he and his brother, Ebeneezer, headed west on foot. They settled in the pioneer town of Troy, New York.

Samuel and Ebeneezer teamed up in Troy and started a family business. At first they invested their sweat and energy into making bricks. The hard work didn’t kill them, and after this success they moved on to the laborious trade of meatpacking.

Then the brothers made a risky business decision. They leased some land along the Hudson River and built a dock. Now they were able to ship meat to buyers downriver, and throughout the country. And the risk paid off. The two men prospered. Soon their business grew so large it employed about 200 people.

Samuel Wilson got rich, living the American dream.

Many men wait until they’ve proven themselves before they start a family. At age 31, Samuel’s new fortune emboldened this rich bachelor to travel back to New Hampshire and marry Betsey Mann. She was the daughter of Captain Benjamin Mann, a Revolutionary War hero who fought at Bunker Hill. Samuel brought Betsey back to Troy, and they began adding new little Wilson citizens to the town’s population.

Prosperous family members tend to attract other family members (quite a few being leaches). And so it happened with the Wilsons and the Manns. Many of their numerous extended family members relocated, so that before long the town of Troy was abustle with brothers, sisters, cousins, in-laws, nephews, and nieces of Samuel and Ebeneezer. Samuel didn’t mind. In fact, he liked it when his little nephews and nieces saw him on the street and called out to their uncle. He was an affable man, and very family-oriented.

In fact, his avuncular ways were popular even with those who were not related to him. Samuel Wilson had become a beloved pillar of his community.

And then war broke out again. In 1812, the new United States declared hostilities against their old enemy, Great Britain. Britain was testing the muscles of our stripling nation.

Our military began recruiting, and the ranks of our army and navy swelled. And with all these new recruits came a new need. Food. The U.S. Government had to feed its growing military forces.

We often associate prosperity with peace. But it’s also quite available with war, at least for those who are strategically positioned. And Samuel and Ebeneezer were in just such a position. They subcontracted with a man named Elbert Anderson, from New York City, to provide meat from their meatpacking operation for troops in New York and New Jersey.

They stamped each barrel of meat with the initials “E.A.–U.S”. “E.A.” stood for “Elbert Anderson”. But what did the “U.S.” stand for? Nowadays it’s easy to assume it stood for the United States. But this was 1812. Our country was still very young, and so the initials “U.S.” were not quite so obvious to the average citizen.

One day a visitor to Troy asked a dockworker about the meaning of the “U.S.” initials. This dockworker was very familiar with the popular and avuncular Samuel Wilson, so he jokingly replied, “Why, Uncle Sam Wilson! It is he who is feeding the army.” Several bystanders overheard him, and they repeated the joke.

There was no internet in those days, but the phenomenon of things going viral is nothing new. It happened even back in 1812. And so it occured with the Uncle Sam joke. It went viral and spread all the way up and down the eastern seaboard. Before long, anything owned by the government and bearing the initials “U.S.” came to be called “Uncle Sam’s”.

And that is how Uncle Sam became the symbol of the United States.

Samuel Wilson died in 1854, at age 87. But Uncle Sam as a symbol continues to live on. His life is a fitting symbol of our country, because it represents the fortune that any American can achieve, with a willingness to take a risk, hard work, and some luck.

In 1961 the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as the origin of Uncle Sam. And in 1989, Samuel Wilson’s birthday, September 13th, was designated by Congress as “Uncle Sam Day”.

So happy Uncle Sam Day! And happy birthday, Uncle Sam.

The Death and Burial of Cactus Ed

Cactus Ed vomited blood, then sat at his typewriter in Fort Llatikcuf. Fort Llatikcuf (to be read backwards) was the name he gave his home in southern Arizona. Cactus Ed knew he was dying, and wished to express his wishes for his final arrangements.

As a farewell message to all the people who loved and hated him, he typed, “No comments.”

Cactus Ed had authored several bestselling books during his lifetime. These books were very influential, and helped in the passage of laws for preservation of our wilderness lands. The next time you get distracted by the scenery and step off a cliff while hiking in some heart-stopping, untouched landscape, say a silent “thank you” to Cactus Ed.

Southern Utah was Cactus Ed’s favorite spot on earth. He fought hard to protect broken-up wildlands like this, found in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Cactus Ed was a controversial figure. He wasn’t just a man of words. He believed in direct action. His books promoted civil disobedience, and he was the original standard-bearer for the radical environmental movement. His work inspired the birth of anarchist environmental organizations such as Earth First! In fact, he was revered by Earth Firsters and often spoke at early gatherings of this organization.

His failing fingers managed to type that he wanted his body transported in the bed of a pickup truck.

Did you ever take a college course in literature? If so you may have been assigned to read the book, Desert Solitaire. The literary world considers it a classic of the American West. It’s Cactus Ed’s autobiography about several summers he spent as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Monument (now a national park), in Utah.

In many ways, Cactus Ed fought a losing war, as evidenced by this overlay of civilization (high voltage power lines), against orange sandstone formations in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Continuing with his dying instructions, he requested that he be buried as soon as possible, with no undertakers, and “no embalming, for Godsake.”

Before Desert Solitaire, Cactus Ed had written a novel entitled The Brave Cowboy. In 1962 it became the movie Lonely Are the Brave, starring Kirk Douglas and Walter Matthau, with screenplay by Dalton Trumbo (who had been blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s, for being a communist). Kirk Douglas played Jack Burns, a roaming ranch hand who refused to join modern society and who rejected such things as driver’s licenses and draft cards.

Cactus Ed didn’t like draft cards. He was a World War II vet who got a college education in the late-1940s, funded by the G.I. Bill. In 1947 he publicly urged fellow students to rid themselves of their draft cards. That prompted the FBI to put him on their watch list. They kept him there the rest of his life. Many years later Cactus Ed learned about being on this watch list and commented, “I’d be insulted if they weren’t watching me.”

Capitol Reef National Park, from the mountains of Dixie National Forest. One could easily stumble off a cliff while enjoying this view. Thank you for such dangers, Cactus Ed!

He typed away. He requested that he have no coffin, just an old sleeping bag, and that all state laws should be disregarded concerning his burial. In his words, “I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree.”

In spite of Desert Solitaire, The Brave Cowboy, or the TV movie Fire On the Mountain, after his novel of the same name, he is best known by environmental activists for his novels, The Monkey Wrench Gang and Hayduke Lives!

These novels read like bibles and manuals for anarchists. They are fictional non-fictionals, because they are based upon true events. The true events were the ecotage, or ecology-motivated sabotage, surreptitiously committed by Cactus Ed and a band of his close friends.

Cactus Ed hated billboards. And he despised heavy earth-moving equipment, especially the bulldozer, that rips, tears, and levels the earth, allowing for the “progress” of “civilization” into wilderness areas.

He and his merry band of saboteurs stalked the desert night with monkey wrenches and a variety of other tools. They sawed billboards down, poured sugar into the gas tanks of bulldozers, and dismantled parts off of any and all earth-moving equipment they could find. On one occasion they discovered ignition keys foolishly left inside a huge bulldozer. They started that dozer up, put it in gear, and pointed it toward the nearest steep cliff. It crashed and burned 500 feet below.

It was a cliff like this that saw the demise of that monstrous bulldozer.

The old war veteran typed a little more with his dying fingers. He prescribed his funeral. He wanted gunfire and a little music. He stipulated, “No formal speeches desired, though the deceased will not interfere if someone feels the urge. But keep it all simple and brief.”

After that he wanted a big happy raucous wake. He wanted more music, including bagpipes, and it all should be gay and lively. He asked for “a flood of beer and booze! Lots of singing, dancing, talking, hollering, laughing, and lovemaking.” He also wanted meat, beans, chilis, and corn on the cob to be served.

He had suffered for a long time from esophageal varices, which are veins deep in the throat that can bleed easily. They are caused by cirrhosis of the liver. A few days earlier he had undergone surgery for these varices, but Cactus Ed sensed the operation was unsuccessful. He was right.

Just ten days before he left this world, on March 4, 1989, all was going well. Cactus Ed had entertained a gathering of fans by reading to them passages from the first draft of his book, Hayduke Lives!, a sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang.

About a week later he had the surgery, and on March 14, 1989, Cactus Ed bled to death from his throat.

He died at Fort Llatikcuf among family and friends. Before the rigors of mortis set in, these friends dutifully wrapped his corpse in a sleeping bag and loaded it into the back of a pickup truck. They drove him into the Cabeza Prieta desert, to one of Cactus Ed’s favorite secret spots. They buried him there, in an unmarked grave. The only hint they’ve given as to the exact location of this tomb are the words, “you’ll never find it.”

But his friends say they did carve a marker on a nearby stone that reads:

EDWARD PAUL ABBEY
January 29, 1927-March 14, 1989
NO COMMENT

Later that month about 200 of Cactus Ed’s friends gathered near Saguaro National Monument near Tucson, Arizona, and held the wake he requested. A second, much larger wake was held in May of that year, just outside his beloved Arches National Park, and several notables spoke at that wake.

Cactus Ed left behind a wife, several ex-wives, and five children from different marriages. And as for the afterlife, he left us this message from his book, Desert Solitaire:

“If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture – that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.”

The Dirty Devil river, near Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Cactus Ed hated the Glen Canyon Dam, and often railed against it. He bemoaned the loss of scenic Glen Canyon and its tributaries, such as the Dirty Devil river, which were swamped by the dam(n)’s Lake Powell. This photo was taken after a long drought that caused Lake Powell to recede and that resurrected the Dirty Devil to it’s prior magnificence.

Samuel Wilson

Samuel Wilson, 1766-1854

Samuel Wilson, 1766-1854


Samuel Wilson was a middle child, born the seventh of thirteen children. He came to this world near Boston, Massachusetts, on September 13th, 1766. And he was a solid American, the descendent of one of the oldest families of Boston.

But when he was a boy his family did what many American families have done. They moved, searching for greener pastures. And so they left Massachusetts and resettled in New Hampshire.

Around the same time, our nation was born, and war came to the colonies. There are many things that can kill children before they reach adulthood, and war is one of them. Samuel took the risk. He joined the Revolutionary Army at age 14. But seven months later the war ended and he returned home alive, a war veteran at age 15.

Adventure has also been known to kill people at a young age. But Samuel was willing to take that risk, also. At age 22 he caught the traveling spirit, and he and his brother, Ebeneezer, headed west on foot. They settled in the pioneer town of Troy, New York.

Samuel and Ebeneezer teamed up in Troy and started a family business. At first they invested their sweat and energy into making bricks. The hard work didn’t kill them, and after this success they moved on to the laborious trade of meatpacking.

Then the brothers made a risky business decision. They leased some land along the Hudson River and built a dock. Now they were able to ship meat to buyers downriver, and throughout the country. And the risk paid off. The two men prospered. Soon their business grew so large it employed about 200 people.

Samuel Wilson became rich.

Many men wait until they’ve proven themselves before they start a family. At age 31, Samuel’s new fortune emboldened this rich bachelor to travel back to New Hampshire and marry Betsey Mann. She was the daughter of Captain Benjamin Mann, a Revolutionary War hero who fought at Bunker Hill. Samuel brought Betsey back to Troy, and they began adding new little Wilson citizens to the town’s population.

Prosperous family members tend to attract other family members. And so it happened with the Wilsons and the Manns. Many of their numerous extended family members relocated, so that before long the town of Troy was abustle with brothers, sisters, in-laws, nephews, and nieces of Samuel and Ebeneezer. Samuel didn’t mind. In fact, he liked it when his little nephews and nieces saw him on the street and called out to their uncle. He was an affable man, and very family-oriented.

In fact, his avuncular ways were popular even with those who were not related to him. Samuel Wilson had become a beloved pillar of his community.

And then war broke out again. In 1812, the new United States declared hostilities against their old enemy, Great Britain. Britain was testing the muscles of our young stripling nation.

Our military began recruiting, and the ranks of our army and navy swelled. With all these new recruits came a new need. Food. The U.S. Government had to feed its growing military forces.

We often associate prosperity with peace. But it’s also quite available with war, at least for those who are strategically positioned. And Samuel and Ebeneezer were in just such a position. They subcontracted with a man named Elbert Anderson, from New York City, to provide meat from their meatpacking operation for troops in New York and New Jersey.

They stamped each barrel of meat with the initials “E.A.–U.S”. “E.A.” stood for “Elbert Anderson”. But what did the “U.S.” stand for? Nowadays it’s easy to assume it stood for the United States. But this was 1812. Our country was still very young, and so the initials “U.S.” were not quite so obvious to the average citizen.

One day a visitor to Troy asked a dockworker about the meaning of the “U.S.” initials. This dockworker was very familiar with the popular and avuncular Samuel Wilson, so he jokingly replied, “Why, Uncle Sam Wilson! It is he who is feeding the army.” Several bystanders overheard him, and they repeated the joke.

There was no internet in those days, but the phenomenon of things going viral is nothing new. It happened even back in 1812. And so it occured with the Uncle Sam joke. It went viral and spread all the way up and down the eastern seaboard. Before long, anything owned by the government and bearing the initials “U.S.” came to be called “Uncle Sam’s”.

And that is how Uncle Sam became the symbol of the United States.

Samuel Wilson died in 1854, at age 87. But Uncle Sam as a symbol continues to live on. His life is a fitting symbol of our country, because it represents the fortune that any American can achieve, with a willingness to take some risk, hard work, and a little luck.

In 1961 the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as the origin of Uncle Sam. And in 1989, Samuel Wilson’s birthday, September 13th, was designated by Congress as “Uncle Sam Day”.

Happy Veteran’s Day to all who have served and fought over the years for our beloved Uncle Sam!

Move Over, Andy

Daguerrotype of Andrew Jackson a few months before he died, in 1845, at age 78. Looks like all his hard living caught up with him.

Daguerrotype of Andrew Jackson a few months before he died, in 1845, at age 78. Looks like all his hard living caught up with him.

Andrew Jackson is getting kicked to the back of the $20 bill by a short little black lady. The Treasury department has announced that in 2020 our 20’s will grace the face of Harriet Tubman on the front, and Andy Jackson on the back.

How could this happen to ol’ Hickory? Why he’s the general who whupped the British in the Battle of New Orleans. He killed a man in a duel. And he carried that same man’s bullet embedded in his chest, near his heart, for the rest of his life. He fought Seminole Indians, and wrested Florida from Spain. And he rendered President John Quincy Adams completely feckless in a bitter political feud, that led to his own election as president.

You didn’t want to mess with Andrew Jackson. Unless maybe you were Harriet Tubman. So what did this little (5’2″) lady do that was so much tougher and greater than our seventh president?

Harriet Tubman (1922-1913) at age 73, looking tough as ever. She even kept Death scared away until the age of 91.

Harriet Tubman (1922-1913) at age 73, looking tough as ever. She even kept Death scared away until the age of 91.

Well first, she was born a slave. Just to survive that experience must require a lot of toughness in your bones. Then in 1849, at age 27, she escaped and made her way to Philadelphia. Now she had it made. She could live the rest of her life in freedom and peace. This was admirable of her, but not good enough for Harriet.

This escaped slave decided to return to her former home in Maryland and assist other slaves in traveling the “Underground Railroad” to the North. And she spent the next decade sneaking back and forth across the Mason-Dixon line, again and again, rescuing hundreds of people from slavery. She put her life at great risk doing this, because if she had been caught they surely would have hanged her.

When the Civil War broke out Harriet could have sat back and let the Union army finish the job of manumission. But instead she joined the army. She led a band of scouts in and around South Carolina, mapping unfamiliar terrain for the Union, and performing reconnoitering missions.

She was also the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. On June 2, 1863, she guided three steamboats through the Combahee River in South Carolina, and liberated over 750 slaves from plantations along the shore. Most of these slaves joined the Union army, fortifying the cause.

She spent more than two years working for the Union army, conducting raids, scouting Confederate territory, tending to liberated slaves, and nursing wounded soldiers.

After the war she became active in the women’s suffrage movement.

Our government dragged its feet in recognizing Tubman’s contribution to the war effort. But in 1899 she was finally granted a pension. Ironically it was in the amount of $20 a month.

Andrew Jackson was indeed a tough character. But he owned hundreds of slaves, so he couldn’t have had life that rough. Imagine being Harriet Tubman. Consider what she went through, wading through swamps and cold rivers, stumbling through the dark with slave hunters on her trail. Risking everything for the freedom of others, with no thought for her own personal fortune or advancement. It’s hard for me to think of any great Americans in history who did more for the cause and spirit of freedom than her.

When I weigh these two great Americans, I must agree with the Treasury department. I will feel very proud of my country when I see Harriet Tubman’s face on our currency. So move over, Andy.

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