Mid-February Natterings

Remarkably foggy day Thursday.
Above freezing, too, reducing the snow cover and making random puddles.

Reading a book about Lincoln’s assassination puts me in a counterfactural frame of mind. Not so much What If Lincoln Lived — a lot of consideration has been given to that — but what would have happened to Booth had he capped his murderous impulse that day, and not gone through with it? What would have happened to him?

I picture him living into the early 20th century, since he was only in his mid-20s in 1865, a star of the American and European stage in the pre-movie years, so he was mostly forgotten by later generations. He did have a small part as an elderly wise man at the court of Cyrus the Great in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (but nothing in The Birth of a Nation, which was never made). Also, one of Booth’s sons founded Booth Studios in the early 1900s, which was later acquired by MGM.

In his memoir, published in 1899, Booth confessed that he had a strong impulse to murder Lincoln right at the end of the war, and was glad he never acted on it.

Got a form letter from the chancellor of the University of Illinois the other day. Let’s call it a worrywart letter. It seems that the public houses in old Champaign-Urbana are encouraging students, perhaps tacitly, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in a blotto state of mind. The university frowns on such goings-on and wants me to know it will do what it can to educate the students about the perils of demon rum. Or more likely in this context, whisky.

Not that alcohol isn’t a form of poison, with risks. I expect that a handful of students manage to off themselves across the years under its influence, mostly via reckless driving. But do I need a form letter about this?

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

On Friday morning, I noticed that I could have watched the opening ceremony to the Winter Olympics via live streaming if I’d gotten up at 5 a.m. Ha, ha. I was busy about then enjoying a dream about something or other. Then I forgot to watch any of the replay on regular TV, maybe because NBC’s treatment is always tiresome.

Considering that today is Lincoln’s birthday, it’s fitting that I picked up a book about him — partly about him — on Saturday at a resale shop, and started reading it as soon as I got home. But I wasn’t thinking about that coincidence when I bought the book. It didn’t occur to me until this morning.

The book is Manhunt, subtitled “The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” by James L. Swanson (2006). I liked it from the beginning, namely “A Note to the Reader,” on page viii.

“This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic. Indeed, all text appearing within quotation marks comes from original sources: letters, manuscripts, affidavits, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books, memoirs, and other documents. What happened in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1865, and in the swamps and rivers, and the forests and fields, of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have ever been made up.”

In a case like this, I’d guess a surfeit of information and sources would be the writer’s challenge, rather than missing puzzle pieces. Among 19th-century crimes, Lincoln’s murder might well be the best documented.

So far Swanson seems up to the challenge. Even though I know a fair amount of the story, and have read other books about the assassination (e.g., The Day Lincoln Was Shot by James Bishop), Manhunt is a page-turner. I spent a fair amount of Saturday night and Sunday morning turning those pages.

Though the book hews close to the facts, that doesn’t keep Swanson from occasional interesting counterfactual musings. Such as a paragraph about what might have happened had Booth’s shot missed — his derringer had only one shot, after all.

“Had Booth missed, Lincoln could have risen from his chair to confront the assassin. At that moment, the president, cornered, with not only his own life in danger but also Mary’s, would almost certainly have fought back. If he did, Booth would have found himself outmatched, facing not kindly Father Abraham, but the aroused fury of the Mississippi River flatboatman who fought off a gang of murderous river pirates in the dead of night, the champion wrestler who, years before, humbled the Clary’s Grove boys in New Salem in a still legendary match, or even the fifty-six-year-old president who could still pick up a long, splitting-axe by his fingertips, raise it, extend his arm out parallel with the ground, and suspend the axe in midair. Lincoln could have choked the life out of the five-foot-eight-inch, 150-pound thespian, or wrestled him over the side of the box, launching Booth on a crippling dive to the stage almost twelve feet below.”

Also intriguing are the walk-on characters. Walk-on from the point of view of the main story, since no one is a walk-on in his or her own life. Such as “John Peanut,” the man — or teen — who worked as a menial at Ford’s Theatre and who held John Wilkes Booth’s horse in the alley behind the theater while the actor went off to become an assassin. Booth had asked Ford’s Theatre carpenter Ned Spangler to do so, but he fobbed the job off on “John Peanut,” who might have been named John or Joseph Burroughs or Burrows.

A little more information about this person is here, for what it’s worth. A Lincoln assassination buff named Roger Norton says, “I believe the best Lincoln assassination researchers in the world tried to find out what became of him, but nobody could succeed. The trail ends with his appearance at the trial. Mike Kauffman has suggested that his name was actually Borrows (sp?). Nobody knows his exact age in 1865 as far as I know, but ‘teens’ is a logical assumption.”

So there’s plenty in Manhunt to keep me interested. It’s become an express train blowing by the other books I’m reading at the moment: Trotsky: Fate of a Revolutionary, The Crossing (Cormac McCarthy) and a collection of Orwell’s essays, which is a re-read after a few decades.

What Happens When I Look for a Book

Somewhere in this house I have a copy of The Religions of Man by Huston Smith. An older edition, because later it was retitled The World’s Religions. I read it in a comparative religion class once upon a time. A lot of people can say that.

I looked for it today but didn’t find it. Ann has started comparative religion in her Human Geography class, and I thought I’d at least make the book available to her. She’d get something out of it.

Curious, I looked up Huston Smith. He died only toward the end of 2016, well into his 90s. I’ll look for the book again tomorrow. It’s on one of my shelves.

I did happen across a few other books I’d forgotten I owned. One in particular caught my eye, considering my recent short bit of Bolshevik-themed tourism: Trotsky: Fate of a Revolutionary by Robert Wistrich (1979).

I bought it at a Davis-Kidd Booksellers remainder table. I know that because it still has the price tag on it, which tells me I paid $2.98. Davis-Kidd was a Nashville bookstore I visited often in the mid-80s. It’s gone. Of course it’s gone, though it limped on until 2010.

As for Robert Wistrich, he too is gone. Died 2015. Though he wrote other things, like the book about Trotsky, he’s known as a scholar of the history of antisemitism.

Finally, the publisher of Trotsky: Fate of a Revolutionary was Stein and Day. I’d like to report that it’s a going concern, but no. Closed in 1989. The company published a lot of titles in its time, and it lists a few on the back of Trotsky, which seem to have a theme.

Such as Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence, by none other than Trotsky, Khruschev by Mark Frankland, Che Guevara, by Daniel James, The Complete Bolivian Diaries of Che Guevara, edited by Daniel James.

Also four books by Communist turned anti-Communist Bertram D. Wolfe, including The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera and the amusingly titled Strange Communists I Have Known.

I never did get around to reading Trotsky. Maybe I should. Might be a slog. Leafing through it, the book seems heavy on the development of Trotsky’s ideas, light on the fun stuff, like his dalliance with Frida and his messy end.

Finding George Orwell in Burma

Heavy rain early this morning. I woke at 3 or so and cracked the window slightly so I could hear it as I fell back asleep, like I might do in the spring. Later, I was up to make sure the outside drain and inside sump pump were working, as I might do in the spring. They were.

Seems that we got an warm edge of what ought to have been a blizzard — snow that in fact hit Michigan and Wisconsin and Iowa, essentially an arc around the Chicago area. A storm that the Weather Channel, in its annual silliness on the subject of winter storms, insists on calling by a name, “Jaxson.”

The book I took to Mexico was Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (revised edition, 2011). Nothing like reading about a different country when you’re in different country, and the more different, the better. Burma certainly qualifies as very different from Mexico and, sadly for the Burmese, mostly in bad ways. Previously I’d only had a sketchy idea of how repressive the Burmese government has been for a long time (from what I’ve read, things are somewhat better now. Maybe). Though not writing a polemic per se, Larkin describes the totalitarian aspects of Burma very clearly.

“Burma’s surveillance machine is frighteningly thorough and efficient,” she says at one point. “It consists of a number of departments that come under of the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence, known informally in Burmese as MI, for ‘Military Intelligence.’ MI’s mandate is vast: to monitor the entire Burmese population. It concentrates on obvious threats to the regime, which includes the armed forces themselves, and targets anyone who has ever criticized the government openly, NLD members, and foreigners both in the country and out. In short, everyone is being watched… in some towns the surveillance mechanism operates at the neighbourhood level, with MI minions filing daily reports to central bureaux… This method of control is highly effective: Big Brother really is everywhere.”

The mention of Big Brother is fitting, because the book is as much about Orwell and his works as Burma. Larkin structured the book as a bit of travel writing, in the sense that she visited places in Burma where Orwell lived as an imperial policeman, and writes about these places and her visits, but it’s much deeper that most travel pieces. She’s been visiting Burma for years and knows it well. She also knows Orwell and his works well, including Burmese Days, which naturally is discussed at length.

I didn’t realize, for instance, that the original publisher made Orwell change certain details, the better to hide the identities of people he’d based his Burmese Days characters on. Later, after the British had bugged out of Burma and all the colonials Orwell knew were dead, the details were changed back in more recent editions.

Sometimes, like standard travel writing, Larkin describes what she sees, and is pretty good at it: “I walked up Limouzin Street,” she writes of the town of Moulmein, where Orwell’s mother was born into the Limouzin family, who were important enough to have a street named after them. “It was a tidy street with a smooth tarmac surface and tin-roofed houses tucked away behind low white walls. Here and there unruly fronts of orange bougainvillea spiked over the fences and on to the pavement. A row of manicured bushes ran along the base of a pagoda wall. As I strolled up the slight incline I heard the faint sounds of radio music seeping out from some of the houses, but I didn’t meet a single person.”

Using the travel structure, Larkin was able to write thoughtfully about both Orwell and Burma, and how living there might have affected his thinking and writing. She also recounts meetings with various Burmese, and what they have to say about how wrong things have gone under military rule, presumably changing their names and all important details, so they don’t end up in some torture cell. In fact, I’ve read that “Larkin” itself is a pseudonym, presumably so she can not be kicked out of Burma when she goes there, or simply not allowed in.

On the whole, it was a good book to read when traveling. A good book might not be as important on the road as your passport or money, but I’d say it’s up there with clean underwear or broken-in walking shoes.

We Don’t Care, We’re the Phone Company (Or, I Ain’t Afraid of No Phone Cops)

There’s a fair amount of clutter in my mother’s house, which is characteristic of my family, but not at the level of hording. For instance, no one saved all of the phone books that have come to the house over the years. But there was one tucked away in a cabinet that I came across last week.

This one.

The Southwestern Bell Telephone Directory for San Antonio, published in September 1967. With a model of the Tower of the Americas prominent on the cover, rising above a model of HemisFair, which would run during in 1968. When the directory was published, the tower was still under construction.

Why was the directory saved? Maybe as a kind of souvenir of that world’s fair. Or because it was the first phone book we got when we moved to San Antonio, which was in the summer of ’68. Since phone books used to be published annually, we would have gotten a ’67 edition.

The back cover advertises the Bell System Exhibit at the fair with a painting that looks as 1967 as can be.

Those skyride cars are the artist’s fancy. The actual skyride cars, which I remember because they lingered at the site of the fair for years afterward, looked more like these.

Naturally, I had to spend some time looking between the covers. Just turning to any random part of the white pages — people named Green, in this case — you see the following.
Name, address and an alphanumeric for a phone number, though a few of them are all numeric. So I’m not imagining things when I remember being taught as a seven-year-old, after we moved to San Antonio, that our new number began with TA4. At some unremembered moment in the ’70s, that became 824.

I looked up the parents of a few people I knew in high school. Interestingly, none of them yet lived in the houses I would remember them being in, which would be about 10 years later. Also, per custom of the time, only the man of the house was listed.

Something else that’s gone: this is the white page listing for all of the Handy-Andy grocery stores in San Antonio in 1967.
Twenty-eight all together, and there were probably more in smaller towns in South Texas. My grandmother traded — interesting old-fashioned choice of verbs — at the one on 5930 Broadway. The store gave away coffee and little doughnuts. She’d drink some coffee, I’d eat some doughnuts. After moving to town, my family frequented the one at 1955 Nacoghoches all through the ’70s and ’80s.

These days, there are zero Handy-Andy supermarkets. In the struggle for regional grocery dominance, HEB won. The 1955 Nacoghoches location is now an HEB, and probably some of the others are as well. This article tells about the last gasp of Handy-Andy.

On to the yellow pages. Actually, all of the pages are fairly yellow, considering that the book is now more than 50 years old. Anyway, here’s an industry that isn’t what it used to be.
This industry is flourishing as ever. But the terminology has changed.
And there were house ads in the phone book. Direct dialing was a relatively new thing in 1967, I understand. Definitely cheaper than paying human operators, but DDD as a shorthand for it never caught on.
Here’s something for those of us who remember the difference between person-to-person calls and station-to-station calls, which was relevant into the ’70s. I see that the Phone Company (always caps, always) was encouraging station-to-station.
I can only speculate why. Person-to-person calls were more expensive, so you’d think the Phone Company would want people doing that.

But there was a way to game the system, if you only wanted (say) your family to know that you’d arrived somewhere safety. You’d call person-to-person and ask for someone that didn’t exist, or maybe yourself. The person who answered would know it’s you, but say that person you asked for wasn’t there. In that case, there was no charge for the person-to-person call.

I don’t ever remember doing that, but I know people did (and who probably weren’t afraid of the Phone Cops). By contrast, station-to-station was guaranteed revenue for the Phone Company.

His Final Battle

One thing I forgot to link to yesterday: Famous Balloon Movies, Chapter 2, a scene from CasaBalloona.

Watching Casablanca must have put me in a mood to read about the ’40s, because at the library today I saw a copy of His Final Battle, subtitled “The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt,” by Joseph Lelyveld (2016). I picked it up at once and checked it out. About time I read some more presidential books anyway.

The cover features the well-known photo of FDR hoisting his hat over a clutch of radio microphones. That’s from a 1944 campaign appearance in Chicago, at Soldier Field. The image is fuzzy, but the president looks worn out indeed.

He was born much too early to benefit from the polio vaccine, but only a little too early to benefit from blood pressure medication. Turning at random to a page (p. 91), I found the following:

“The conclusion [about FDR’s death] that comes closest to known facts was propounded in lectures and articles by Marvin Moser, a retired Columbia University medical professor: ‘Roosevelt represents a textbook case of untreated hypertension progressing to [likely] organ failure and death from stroke.’ In the medical literature, such hypertension is sometimes called ‘malignant hypertension.’

“…Safe and effective drugs to lower high blood pressure and prevent clots didn’t begin to become available for more than ten years after Roosevelt’s death. In the 1940s, only commonplace aspirin was widely recommended for purpose.”

Upon Saint Crispin’s Day

I’ve posted this before, but it was nine years ago, and besides, you can’t watch the St. Crispin’s Day speech often enough.

Laurence Olivier’s version is, of course, very accomplished, but somehow it doesn’t resonate with me like Kenneth Branagh’s.

As it happens, I’ve been reading about Agincourt in The Face of Battle by John Keegan (1976) these last few days. I’ve had the book a long time, though not 41 years, and only recently decided to get around to it. In Keegan’s capable hands, the historical Agincourt is every bit as interesting as Shakespeare’s.

What Kind of Dog Days Are These?

Time to knock off for a little while. Back to posting around August 22. Got stories to file, things to plan, maybe a marvel or two to see.

These ought to be the dog days, when Sirius returns and dogs lie around. Of course dogs lie around all the time. The swelter ought to be enough to make us all want to lie around. Hasn’t happened this summer, at least here in northern Illinois. We haven’t been oppressed by much heat this August, even by local standards (anything around 90 F. or more).

It’s also supposed to be the silly season. You know, when there isn’t much serious news. Maybe that’s an old-fashioned concept in our time, when information of all kinds and quality oozes from every medium. Even so, lately there’s been entirely too much serious news, too much for any time, much less August.

Got reading to do, too. Always that. Four or five books at a time. Always that, who would do it any differently?

Lately read the following passage by Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums, one that runs on yet holds together, as he had a talent for. The woods don’t quite have this effect on me. Too bad.

“I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”

Mighty Stonehenge

Notes from a day’s drive in southern England. My friend Rich and I were young and doing what people — tourists — do in that part of the world, seeing very old places.
Wish we’d known about Glastonbury Tor (about 50 miles to the west of Stonehenge; nothing is really very far away in England, not to a Texan). Even so, I’m not sure we could have seen Stonehenge and Bath and Glastonbury Tor in the same day, but we could have given it the old post-college try.

August 11, 1983

Mrs. Dow drove us to Gatwick Airport, and we paid our pounds [wish I’d recorded how much] and rented a blue Ford Fiesta. The plan is to drive various places until we need to return the car at the airport on the 14th, to catch our flight home.

Driving on the left side, with the steering wheel on the right, took some getting used to. Soon we were lost on the small roads south of Gatwick, very narrow ones with a surprising amount of traffic, and confusing roundabouts (traffic circles) appearing suddenly and often.

So we were edgy for a while. Fortunately, you get used to the roads. We even got unlost. Rich drove and I navigated, and we each took to those roles before long. We listened to BBC1 as miles of English countryside rolled by. Entertaining, no commercials.

At about 1, we arrived at Stonehenge. [Ah, mighty Stonehenge.] We saw it from some distance at first, driving along the A303. Looked almost luminous from a distance. The road runs remarkably close to the ruins. Maybe an ancient road did likewise.

We parked (no charge!) and visited the ruins. You can’t get too close to the stones. Close enough, though. Impressive, and puzzling, that ancient people dragged these some distance across England, long before it was ever called that, for the purpose of building a stone circle. I won’t speculate on their motives. The center uprights and lintels were especially impressive: big and white and somber. [Not quite this crowded that day, I’m glad to remember.]

Drove on to Bath. No problems until we got snarled in traffic in Bath, a town not built for cars. We eventually parked in a garage that featured the following emphatic signs: Thieves are active in this car park. Remove your valuables or they will be stolen.

We went to the tourist-i, booked a room, and drove there: a place called Toad Hall. Very nice, £7 each. We walked into the center of town from there, visited a number of bookstores there, then the Roman baths. [No detail about that, but I remember such scenes such as this.] Ate. Wandered back to Toad Hall. Just after sunset, a beautiful scene just outside our window: a church steeple with a nearby crescent moon.

I used to have a business card I picked up at Toad Hall, but I can’t find it. I remember it featured a gentleman Toad, whom I guess would be Toad of Toad Hall. Though a children’s book, I never got around to reading The Wind in the Willows as a child, so the name didn’t resonate with me when I stayed there. Only later I appreciated the whimsy of naming a B&B that.

I checked, and it’s still there. I also checked the rates: a double in August is (gasp) £95. (We paid the current equivalent of £42 between the two of us.)

Thursday Whatnots

Yesterday I picked up my copy of the Federalist Papers and read No. 1 (Hamilton). It’s a beat-up paperback, a somewhat yellowing Mentor Book, published in 1961. Somehow fitting in its republican simplicity. Seems like I got it used in the summer of ’81 at the University Coop in Austin, probably for the Government class I took that summer at UT.

I read some of them at the time, and a scattering more later in the ’80s, but little since. Time to take it up again. Its 18th-century educated dialect — call it Enlightenmentese — was a little hard to unpack as a callow lad. Not as much now, though now and then I need to re-read a sentence to make sure I understand it.

Each paper is conveniently short: pamphlet sized, you might say. So I’m reading one a day. I ought to have time enough for that. Today was No. 2 (Jay).

Hamilton’s wisdom shines through from the get-go. From Federalist No. 1: “So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.”

And a notion that foretold Internet comment sections, among many other things: “To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts, by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.”

I also recently acquired The Shipping News and The Dharma Bums, and plan to read them soon. Reading should involve variety.

Besides this vanity map of the states, a while ago I made a map color coded according to my visits to the state and provincial capitols. It’s a minor hobby of mine.

CapitolsGreen represents the state capitols and provincial parliament buildings that I’ve seen inside and out. The orange-pink means that I’ve seen the capitol, but for one reason or another I didn’t go inside. White is for capitols I’ve never seen at all.

As for the two gold-orange states, Hawaii and Utah, I can’t remember whether I’ve seen or been in the capitols. You’d think I’d remember something like that, but the visits in question were in 1979 and ’80, respectively, years that are otherwise known as a long damn time ago. I was in Honolulu and Salt Lake City. I could have gone. A few years later, I would have made a point of going. But I’m not sure I did then.

Ice Cream Truck, August 2017

How did “Turkey in the Straw” become the universal song for American ice cream trucks? This article suggests a lineage for the association. This YouTube video plays another song to the same tune, one I wasn’t familiar with.