Monday, May 30, 2011

BOMBS BURSTING IN AIR - Memorial Day Musings

On holidays like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Veterans’ Day, we often give lip service only to what these days represent. It’s easy to forget the sacrifices of those in American history, which enable us to enjoy a family cookout with no thought of those service men and women who have committed themselves to protect and defend our privileges, our rights, our freedoms to do so.

Glens Falls Civil War Monument
Every now and then, something jolts us out of our bland (and sometimes blind) acceptance of the status quo, and makes us think more deeply on the meanings of these holidays. As we recognize Memorial Day this week, I am mindful of one such epiphany.

In 1999, my husband Phillip, who gives a professional, first-person portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln, was asked to participate in the rededication of a Civil War monument in Glens Falls, NY. The monument (made from a Canadian sandstone - an unfortunate selection for this environment) had suffered deterioration from acid rain and wind erosion since 1868 when it was completed, but it had now been restored and stabilized, and a new bronze plaque had been fixed to it, naming a number of the town’s soldiers not in the original roster.

The rededication ceremony, part of a weekend of historical activities, featured a Civil War era brass band, a color guard, Civil War reenactors, and speeches by local and regional leaders and historians, culminating with the unveiling of the renewed monument and a detailed explanation of its improvements. The National Guard fired 13 rounds from two modern howitzers, to honor the thirteen soldiers whose names were added to the monument.

Phillip and I have been active reenactors since before the Bicentennial, in both American Revolution and Civil War living history events.  As a result, we are perhaps more aware than the general public of the reasons, principles, or commitments of the civilian soldiers or volunteer soldiers of those days. But no matter how we may strive to reproduce even a semblance of the lives of those we portray, most of us have not “been there, done that.” The awful realities of war remain comfortably, distantly academic to us civilians.

As a reenactor, I have become accustomed to gunfire, and rarely even blink. The howitzers, however, placed at the far end of a parking lot and pointed away from the gathering, were louder than anything even a reenactor hears. As modern guns, their report - even firing blanks - is much sharper and louder than that of 18th or 19th Century artillery. When these guns spoke, everyone jumped. Many in the audience yelped in surprise, laughing nervously afterward, and car alarms nearby began to blare.

As I sat on the dais, my back to the howitzers, I was surprised at how intensely the sound of these big guns affected the audience. As I thought of it, I realized that these people were startled because they hear such things so rarely, if at all. We Americans do not, as a rule, hear gunfire often; most of us have never heard the thunder of artillery in person.

Modern Army howitzer and gun crew
What a privilege that we do not! What a tribute to the work of our military over the past 200+ years - and today - protecting us! What peace of place and of mind they provide us! It never occurs to us to think about how our daily routines are uninterrupted, ungoverned by the drone of bombers overhead delivering their payload, by the rattle of machine guns tearing ribbons of holes into everything. Despite superficial disorder and minor disasters, our daily lives are, for the most part, organized and civilized. On most days, most of us rise, go to work or school, engage in social or civic functions in the evening, turn out the lights at night with our families around us, intact, and sleep undisturbed. We plan our futures.

That the sound of military might is alien to our ears is a luxury. How many millions elsewhere in the world do not enjoy this kind of peace? In Libya? In Israel or Syria? In Central Asia? In Yemen or Serbia? In Korea or Viet Nam? How many have become deaf to the chronic battle around them every day, blind to the damage to every household, every community, dumb to the expression of horror at the unrelenting destruction - because to acknowledge it every moment leads to insanity? How many have never known anything else?

On this Memorial Day, let us take a few moments to reflect on the miracle that is the United States of America. Think on this: how many other nations have a military force governed and guided by principles within a constitution like ours, a remarkable document unlike anything in the world before or since? How many other nations have achieved such an equilibrium? We'll always have our warts, but our pearls far outnumber them.

I hope you will remember the sacrifices of those who have willingly put themselves in harm’s way - and who continue to do so - often giving that last full measure of devotion, in order that we civilians can engage in simple, social, domestic, and cultural activities like parades and cookouts, unassailed by a cacophony of angry artillery, a rain of fire, an endless chaos of violence.

My sincere and heartfelt thanks (woefully inadequate) go to all who serve and have served, for my benefit. God bless our service men and women, wherever they are. God bless the United States of America.

Glens Falls Civil War Soldiers Monument - “Haversack Journal” Vol. 1, Issue 3 Fall 1999, 77th New York Regimental Balladeers

howitzer - Courtesy of U.S. Army

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lincoln Receives Patent #6469 - May 22, 1849

Abraham Lincoln
Mention inventions and presidents in the same breath, and Thomas Jefferson springs to mind.  Indeed, he invented more things than any other president.  Some of his inventions had a world-wide impact, such as his redesign of the plow.  Jefferson never applied for a single patent, however, believing that inventions should benefit the people, not the inventor.

Lincoln, on the other hand, does hold a patent for an invention, and he is the only president to do so.  His patent is for a system of inflatable chambers fixed to the hull of a boat which, when inflated with pump-operated bellows, will lift a grounded vessel off shoals and sandbars enough to float it again.  To support his idea, he and a local mechanic friend, Walter Davis, constructed a scale model, 27 inches long, 5 inches wide, and 10 inches high.  Lincoln did much of the carving in his law office himself, which project his law partner William Herndon observed and dismissed to himself as impracticable. (1)  The Patent Office requires qualifying models to be functional, so Lincoln demonstrated his model successfully in November 1848, in a horse trough near his office, to a group of witnesses.  Then he filled out paperwork and hired fellow lawyer Zenas C. Robbins to submit and process the patent application. (2)
Lincoln's patent sketch
Lincoln received the patent on May 22, 1849, (one hundred sixty-two years ago this week) during his single term in the U. S. House of Representatives.  Later, during his presidency, he took his little boys to the Patent Office to show them the model, which is now held by the Smithsonian Institution.

Lincoln was fascinated with everything mechanical.  He studied every machine, device, and contraption he encountered.  Although his flotation device was never manufactured (he never promoted it, and the railroad’s rapid expansion into the West made most water transport obsolete), it illustrates his hands-on practicality, an integral part of his mind which most scholars have dismissed as unrelated to his greatness.

Fellow lawyers from Lincoln’s circuit-riding days recalled how Lincoln often entertained their roving body of lawyers and judges.  According to Henry Whitney, one such colleague, "While we were traveling in ante-railway days, on the circuit, and would stop at a farm-house for dinner, Lincoln would improve the leisure in hunting up some farming implement, machine or tool, and he would carefully examine it all over, first generally and then critically; he would ‘sight’ it to determine if it was straight or warped: if he could make a practical test of it, he would do that; he would turn it over or around and stoop down, or lie down, if necessary, to look under it; he would examine it closely, then stand off and examine it at a little distance; he would shake it, lift it, roll it about, up-end it, overset it, and thus ascertain every quality and utility which inhered in it, so far as acute and patient investigation could do it.  …”  Lincoln would not let the item be until he was “completely satisfied that there was nothing more to know, or be learned about it." (3)

Lincoln's model to buoy vessels over shoals
Lincoln’s passion for and belief in the power of invention never ceased.  The freedom to invent and the protections of the patent added “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” (4) He believed that the free enterprise resulting from such encouragement would promote the development and expansion of the country, and negate the institution of slavery which he believed hindered the master as much as the slave, intellectually and commercially.

Lincoln had ideas for other inventions, although none of them ever evolved beyond the abstract stage.  He did engage in several legal patent cases, including one involving the well-known McCormick reaper.  Joshua Speed, a store-keeper from whom Lincoln first rented lodging when he came to Springfield as a young lawyer, and who became a life-long friend of Lincoln, related that Lincoln once told him that “his highest ambition was to become the Dewitt Clinton (5) of Illinois.” (6)  Nine years following receipt of his patent, Lincoln prepared a lecture about the importance of discoveries and inventions, which he gave six times, the lecture being a highly popular form of entertainment and education in the mid-1800s. 

Jason Emerson, in his recently published “Lincoln the Inventor” (2009), states, “The story of Lincoln’s invention … show[s] the mechanical genius of his mind and his way of thinking and analyzing, his penchant for expanding his learning and understanding disciplines other than politics, his fidelity to the political belief of internal improvements, his attempts at scholarly lecturing, and his admiration and fostering of invention and innovation as president.  To understand Lincoln the inventor is to better understand Lincoln the man.” (2)

(1) William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, “Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life” (1889)
(2) Jason Emerson, “Lincoln the Inventor” (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009)
(3) Henry Clay Whitney, “Life on the Circuit with Lincoln” (Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1940).
(4) Abraham Lincoln, “Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions,” Basler, editor, “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln” (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953)
(5) DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York during the 1820s among other political offices, was the man who made the Erie Canal a reality, connecting the interior of the continent to international trade centers, and opening it up to development, internal improvements, commerce, and industry.
(6) Joshua Speed, interview by William Herndon, 1865-1866, Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, “Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln” (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998)

- Smithsonian National Museum of American History
- Post-nomination photo of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Hessler of Springfield, IL, June 1860.

Monday, May 23, 2011


George A. Hormel
George A. Hormel, the founder of Hormel Foods, opened a small retail butcher shop in Austin, MN, on May 16th, 120 years ago, a mere seed of what was to germinate.  At the same time, he fertilized grand plans for an innovation which broke ground in the pork-packing business - a manufactory plant of high-quality processed-meat products.

Hormel (1860-1946) started his professional life as a paperboy, and soon graduated to 14-hour days in a meat-packing plant in Chicago, a tough school by any standards. This rigorous grind annealed his imagination and sense of enterprise. Hard work, innovation, and remarkable marketing skills resulted in success beyond even his dreams, and made his name familiar in every household.

Within twenty years, George A. Hormel and Company was known nationally.  By World War I, the company’s exports “accounted for 33% of the company's yearly volume.” (2) Hormel’s son Jay became president in 1929, and he shared his father’s business knack and daring. Although various meat products had been canned since the mid-1800s, ham in a can had not been seen until Hormel introduced it. Hormel even sponsored a women’s drum-&-bugle corps which toured the country promoting Hormel products. (1)

Hormel’s most famous product, SPAM, a luncheon meat, “was introduced in 1937 and achieved an 18 percent market share within the year.” (1)  It became a staple item in the ration kits for soldiers during World War II. According to Hormel’s website, the company sent 15 million cans of luncheon meat to troops every week. No small peanuts! World leaders showered Hormel with accolades for this contribution to the war effort. (1) Soldiers may have become jaded with the monotony of rations, but nevertheless, SPAM was a far superior option to starvation.

Since then, hundreds of Hormel products under many brand names have become popular throughout the world, by the dynamic marketing of quality goods.

SPAM Museum in Austin, MN
Hormel, still located in Austin, MN, opened the SPAM Museum in 2001, which over 20,000 SPAM lovers visit every year. It is obviously our loss that my husband and I, traveling to South Dakota in 2004 with three other family members, did not stop in as we passed by on the highway - I can only imagine that it must be as entertaining and fascinating as the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, which is worth the visit. Then again, we also failed to visit the Jell-O Museum/Gallery in Le Roy, NY, as we passed through, which probably has an equal appeal to those who revel in gustatory curiosities.

"Monty Python's Flying Circus" Spam sketch
SPAM has provided everyone with far more than nutrition over the decades. On an episode of “M*A*S*H,” in order to save Radar’s pet lamb from the dinner table, the cooks fabricated an Easter lamb with SPAM to serve to Greek soldiers. Monty Python’s Flying Circus has had more than one successful production spoofing SPAM: first they created a sketch about SPAM as the only thing on a restaurant menu; and “Spamalot,” a hit Broadway musical mash-up, is still in production in various parts of the world. I’m sure that innumerable other instances abound of SPAM spoofing, to say nothing of everyone’s personal adventures with the stuff, like the small can of SPAM which often shows up in my husband’s Christmas stocking. It’s like the Christmas fruitcake - it's the same can, year after year.

I don’t know if modern email “spam” is so-called after the exponential proliferation of SPAM products worldwide or after the popular perception that the product suffers from comestible ennui. Probably both.  But whether or not we make fun of it, you can’t argue with success. Hormel has cornered that market.

Good, bad, or indifferent: when you need a SPAM fix, there’s just nothing like a fried SPAM sandwich!

Friday, May 13, 2011


John C. Calhoun
Is South Carolina the most independent-minded of our fifty states?  The answer might be yes.  Not only was it the first to secede from the Union in 1860, fulfilling its promise on the election of Lincoln months before Lincoln was inaugurated, but it had considered and threatened secession thirty years earlier, in response to tariffs passed by Congress to protect American trade. This state has tied itself to the Union when such allegiance suits its interests, and then, only with a half-hitch.

In 1828, issues in international trade induced the federal government of the United States of America to pass a trade tariff to protect American industry, the last in a series of measures enacted in response to world-wide economic turmoil which had boiled over during and after the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars. Low-priced imports were cutting severely into the gross national product of American manufacturing.  Congress determined that a tax on imported goods was in order, thus passing the Tariff of 1828 on May 13, one hundred eighty-three years ago today. Its intent was to protect American industry, which happened to be located mostly in the Northern states.

During Congressional debate, Southerners soon renamed this measure the “Tariff of Abominations” because of the hardship they believed it would inflict upon their economy. South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun (Vice President from 1825 until 1832, under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson), leading many other Southerners, argued that the whole series of tariffs, including the Tariff of 1828, were unconstitutional “because they favored one sector of the economy over another.” (1)

Calhoun’s argument proved correct.  The tariff was harmful to the Southern states, where agriculture dominated and little manufacturing existed.  Not only did Southern states have to pay higher prices on manufactured goods that they did not produce themselves, but it also affected their trade with Great Britain, limiting the importation of British goods and elevating prices on cotton exports, thereby reducing British demand for cotton. (2)

Nullification cartoon - 1832
Ultimately this led to the Nullification Crisis.  Calhoun argued that if the federal government does not allow a state to nullify a law deemed unconstitutional (giving the state the right to refuse application of that law within the state), then that state has the right to secede from the Union. (3)

By 1832, “South Carolina … felt herself compelled to question the impartiality and impugn the authority of the Federal Government, and … asserted the right of a State to set at defiance the enactments of Congress, and, if necessary, to withdraw from the Confederation.” (4)  States’ rights had reared its head, ugly or otherwise.

Congress exacerbated the conflict by passing the Force Bill in early 1833, giving the president authority to use the military to force the states to obey all federal laws. Under this new law, President Jackson escalated tensions further by sending naval warships to Charlestown. Finally, before it came to bloodshed, Senator Henry Clay offered the Compromise Tariff of 1833, passed on March 2, which altered the Tariff of 1828 to provide the more equitable balance which Calhoun (now Senator), South Carolina, and the other Southern states sought. (5)  Secession of South Carolina was averted. The die had been cast, however; the idea and power of the secession argument were not dead, but only slumbered for the next thirty years.

4.  New York Times, December 3, 1860, “NOW AND THEN.; Nullification in 1832 and Secession in 1860. Revew of the History of the Nullification Movement in 1832...Public Sentiment at the South Then and Now.”

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May 4, 1865: Lincoln Is Buried in Springfield, IL

After funerals in a dozen or more cities between Washington and Springfield, three weeks after that madman Booth destroyed the nation’s last best hope, the Great Man rolled into town in a special railroad car, gently borne on a million spirits.  A million heads bared, a million knees bent, a million arms wrapped in black crape, a million voices mute as they tread past his bier for one last gaze at his craggy face.

After the Springfield viewing, the men carefully placed the coffin lid, set the screws, and silently secured it.  Sergeants of the Veterans Reserve Corps carried the coffin out to the hearse, an elaborate rig of gold, silver, and crystal sent all the way from Missouri by the City of St. Louis.  Six black horses, polished to a shine as bright as their leather harness, pulled the hearse out here to Oak Ridge Cemetery, followed by Old Bob, the Great Man’s horse, draped in a mourning cloak.

Lilacs cloyed the blistering air that morning, varnished the lungs of man and woman alike with heavy scent, dragged at their breath like a pall.  The steady beat of the drums - drums that had beat an endless cadence for sixteen hundred miles all the way from Washington City, drums muffled to an interminable heartbeat - drove the procession inexorably - generals, soldiers, family, government officials, friends and citizens - as if they were all to be interred as well.  Indeed, the Great Man’s son Robert, only twenty-one years old, looked ready for the grave himself.  Exhausted with the long journey, countless memorial arrangements, the dismal prospect of returning to Washington to bring home his fragile mother Mary - for the rest of his life, Robert would be eaten by a certainty of the infinite loss he had suffered in the death of his father.

Finally, after beautifully wrought speeches and ceremonies had wrung the last dregs of emotion from the survivors of this new, harsher world, it was over.  No more elaborate funerals, eloquent elegies, patriotic dirges, drudging processions.  The masses disbanded, to find their aimless ways back to town, to try to take in a lungful of life again.  All the way back to the railroad depot, the five Camp Butler regiments marched in solemn step to Handel’s doleful “Dead March in Saul.”

[Excerpted from a short story I wrote.  The details provided are all recorded facts. - SMC]
[Click here to read the entire short story “The Flag on the Great Man’s Breast.”]

[Click here to read Walt Whitman's poem: President Lincoln's Funeral Hymn  a/k/a "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloomed"]