Moon Lake Legacies

Moon Lake Casino Pier ~ Featured in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, a few miles north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena, Arkansas bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.

Far from a typical bed-and-breakfast, Uncle Henry’s Inn and Restaurant provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view over the lake, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude. Not every lodging encourages sitting and thinking, but, whether by accident or intention, Uncle Henry’s did.

Established as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926, the place was purchased in 1933 by a local named William Wilkerson. Known as the Moon Lake Club, it became a Prohibition landmark famous for good food, high living, and assorted illegalities: primarily forms of gambling. Connections to the Chicago mob led to a loss of respectability, but locals eventually cut those ties, and the Club prospered as a family destination for dancing, dining, and swimming. 

In 1946, it was purchased by Henry Trevino, the foster father of Sarah Bates Wright, and became Uncle Henry’s Place. In time, the Club seems to have passed out of the family’s control, but in 1986 Sarah entered into litigation that led to her reacquisition of the property.  After extensive renovations, she and her son, George Jr., re-opened the restaurant and inn, maintaining Uncle Henry’s name in honor of her step-father.

By the time I arrived, the place had become a little shabby and quite a bit quirky, imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. A combination of dust, torn draperies, and the occasional skeletal mouse quietly fading away behind a sofa made it easy to imagine Uncle Henry’s as a prototypical Southern Lady: temporarily down on her luck, but genteel and dignified nonetheless.

Obviously, Uncle Henry’s was a treasured part of local lore and legend, not to mention local life. As guests gathered for dinner, the room filled with regular customers who’d been coming for so many years the waitress knew every answer before asking, politely: “Will you be having the usual this evening?”

Somewhat later, when I mentioned Moon Lake to a pair of fishermen eating breakfast in the Cleveland, Mississippi Huddle House, they stopped eating and grinned. “Did you stop by Uncle Henry’s?” one asked. When I allowed as how I’d not only stopped but had lingered for a few days, the other man said, “Well, it’s not the Holiday Inn, that’s for sure. But it’s a whole lot more interesting.”

It certainly wasn’t the Holiday Inn. George hinted at that himself when I called for a reservation after a late, impulsive decision to attend Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival. Every motel had been booked for weeks, and most had waiting lists, but when  I called the humorously-named but perfectly respectable Shack Up Inn, the proprietor said, “You better call up to Uncle Henry’s. I believe I heard they had a cancellation, and they might be able to put you up. Of course, they might not, but you call George. He’ll tell you how things are.”

As it turned out, Uncle Henry could put me up and George did tell me how things were. “Now, you know this isn’t the Hilton,” he said on the phone. “We’re old and comfortable, but you’re not going to have that wi-fi business or a jacuzzi in your room.”

After my arrival, he added another caveat or two. “There aren’t any keys to the rooms,” he said, “so be sure you’ve got the right one. And don’t take a shower except before five and after ten at night, because sometimes water leaks from your shower down through the ceiling into the dining room.”

Despite the less than perfect accomodations, I was willing to adapt, since Uncle Henry’s had a couple of things going for it no Hilton or Holiday Inn could dream of matching — it had played host to William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, another pair of Mississippi boys who’d done really, really well for themselves.

I hadn’t intended to land in the lap of Faulkner and Williams when I decided to head to the blues festival, but that’s exactly what happened.

Faulkner frequented the Moon Lake Club as an adult — sometimes sharing time there with Williams — but Tennessee Williams’s connections were forged in childhood. His early impressions and memories, combined with the extraordinarily colorful history of the place, helped him transform the Club into the Moon Lake Casino in dramas such as Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Sitting in the gallery one afternoon, re-reading Williams’s plays and pondering what it must have required for him to transform this sleepy Mississippi world into works of dramatic art, I happened upon quite a different piece: an essay titled, The Catastrophe of Success.

An addendum to a copy of The Glass Menagerie I’d tucked into my bag, the essay originally was published in a 1947 edition of The New York Times, three years after the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie and during a time when Williams finally was receiving recognition as a serious playwright.

In the languor of those Mississippi afternoons, I found the essay particularly resonant — not only because I was in the playwright’s own country, but also because his words resonated with all the clarity and force of a plantation bell.

Most of us hope to succeed in one way or another, but Williams did succeed, and did so marvelously well. As he reflected on the circumstances of his life and career in the essay, the authority implicit in Williams’ words is undeniable, and worth considering.

Plantation bell ~ Uncle Henry’s Place, Moon Lake, Mississippi
The sort of life that I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before. But it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last…
You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.
Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, [once you understand] that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to – with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies…
Then what is good? An obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive – that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims.
William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life – live!” says Saroyan. That time is short, and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

Re-reading Williams’s essay today, I imagine the scent of dogwood and azalea, the dark, moody flow of the great river, and low murmur of mist-shrouded voices.

Across the Helena Bridge, juke joints glisten in the rain, and from the shores along the river a plaintive, tremulous cry falls and rises like riffs of breeze across the Delta.

Rocking in the early evening gloom, I hear the clatter of a small boy’s feet running headlong across the gallery toward an unimaginable future, surefooted as any child still certain of his world. “Time is short,” he shouts back across the decades, his words twining like unstoppable vines through sweetgum and magnolia.

Hearing his voice, I stop my rocking. Planting my feet on boards that creak and complain like the bones of time itself I rise, my thoughts turning toward creation, while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and life begins anew.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Today, George, his mother Sarah, and many of the locals who contributed so much color to Uncle Henry’s have passed away, and the Moon Lake landmark no longer is in operation. Needless to say, the memories remain.

I Hear That Train A-Comin’

I’ve never before posted a public service announcement, but that’s precisely what this is.  UP4014, the Union Pacific “Big Boy” locomotive that recently re-entered service in tandem with UP844, is back on the rails, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion with a last run through several states, called The Great Race Across the Southwest.

After a tour through the midwest, the engine returned to the Union Pacific Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming for maintenance. Currently located in Los Angeles, it will move on tomorrow to Beaumont, Indio, and Niland, California. For the next month and a half, it will make stops in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado before returning to Cheyenne at the end of November.

The complete schedule can be seen here. My own plans are to see it arrive in Hondo, Texas with friends, catch it on the move between Flatonia and Eagle Lake, and then make a stop at Houston’s Washington Avenue Station for an up-close-and-personal look at a bit of living history.

Many of you will have read my previous post about UP4014 and UP844 titled “Double-heading to Cheyenne.”  This fine video, showing a portion of the current tour, is only one of many produced by people who already have had the privilege of seeing the locomotive at work. I wish all of you could see it in person, but for those who live anywhere near the route, I suspect even the briefest glimpse will be worthwhile.

Comments always are welcome.
To follow the progress of UP4014 both graphically and by Twitter posts, please visit the convenient Union Pacific tracking page.

 

Updating a Classic

When it comes to American icons, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I love the Statue of Liberty, the Corn Palace, bluegrass, and blue jeans. I love cheeseburgers, in Paradise or otherwise, and I’ve always appreciated Norman Rockwell’s illustrations: particularly his portrayal of Rosie the Riveter.

When Rosie appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, my parents were living in the Quad Cities. Dad worked at John Deere; my mother spent her days helping the war effort by riveting aircraft. She enjoyed the work, trusted her partner, and regaled us for years with her stories of Hellcats, nose cones, and turrets.

When she was feeling especially nostalgic, she’d pull out her recording of “Rosie the Riveter,” a song composed by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb and released in 1943 by Paramount Music Corporation of New York.

Even after my parents moved back to Iowa, Mom kept a cherished copy of Rockwell’s Post cover in her cedar chest, and a torn-out image of his Rosie tucked between some books in the den. When Hillary Clinton adapted the better-known “We can Do It” poster for her Presidential campaign, Mom wasn’t happy. “That’s not right, for them to call her Rosie,” she’d say. “That’s not the real Rosie. I’ve got Rosie’s picture in my closet.”

As it happened, Mom was both wrong and right. The “We Can Do It!” poster, produced a year earlier than Rockwell’s cover, did become the most iconic of the Rosie images. On the other hand, as Westinghouse historian Ed Reis noted in 2003:

For the past 60 years, the popular image of the World War II-era female worker in the “We Can Do It” poster has evoked strength and empowerment. The American public identified the image as “Rosie the Riveter,” named for the women who were popping rivets on the West Coast, making bombers and fighters for aeronautical companies like Boeing.
But history tells a different story. In 1942, the Westinghouse Corporation, in conjunction with the War Production Coordinating Committee, commissioned J. Howard Miller, a Pittsburgh artist, to create a series of posters for the war effort. He based his “We Can Do It!” poster on a United Press photograph taken of Michigan factory worker Geraldine Hoff Doyle.
It was to be displayed for only two weeks in Westinghouse factories in the Midwest where women were making helmet liners. They made 13 million plastic helmet liners out of a material called Mycarta, the predecessor to Formica (which means “formerly Mycarta”). So, more aptly named, this woman is Molly the Mycarta Molder, or Helen the Helmet Liner Maker.

Historical complexities aside, Rockwell’s Rosie — modeled after Mary Doyle Keefe of Arlington, Vermont — always has been my favorite. Today, I admire her air of insoucience, her obvious competence and strength. As a child, astonished by her brilliant red hair, I envied her freedom to roll up her sleeves and eat with a dirty face, and I hardly could believe that no one made her cut the sandwich she was clutching into lady-like halves.

In my child’s mind, that sandwich became our point of connection. Accustomed to grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly, one of my greatest treats was a “Spamwich” — SPAM® sliced thin and fried crisp, served on white bread with a little mayo. I couldn’t imagine anyone refusing a Spamwich, and and I imagined that Rosie would have preferred a Spamwich, too, even though the role of SPAM® in World War II left many veterans distinctly ambivalent about the product, and I don’t remember anyone saying, “Hey! C’mon over and we’ll fry up some SPAM®!”

Over the years, SPAM® became a bit of a joke — shorthand for all that was low-brow, low-cost, and low-quality. Thanks to its extended shelf life, it continued to be tucked into hurricane supplies, stowed in the galleys of cruising boats, or stacked on the shelves of deer lease cabins, but it rarely was eaten. For all practical purposes, SPAM® disappeared from my life.

Then, I traveled to Minnesota.


In Minnesota, food and folklore mesh. The Jolly Green Giant lives in Blue Earth, a community surrounded by rich farmland and canneries devoted to beans, corn, and peas that bear the Giant’s likeness on their labels.

Just up the road in Bemidji, the Great Blue Ox named Babe still is hanging out with his friend, Paul Bunyan. I first met the pair when I was about ten years old and barely came up to Paul’s knee. The next morning, when I begged my parents to let me order the “Lumberjack Breakfast” at a local diner, a knowing waitress suggested one breakfast might do for us all. It did, although I suspect she added some extra bacon.

After a hearty breakfast, there’s no reason for today’s travelers not to head over to Austin, Minnesota and visit the SPAM® Museum. As their website puts it,

“Few experiences in life are as meaningful and meaty-filled as those you’ll have at the magnificent SPAM® Museum. Referred to by meat historians as The Guggenham, Porkopolis, or M.O.M.A. (Museum Of Meat-Themed Awesomeness), the SPAM® Museum is home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of spiced pork artifacts.”

“Spiced pork artifacts” may be one of the most terrifying phrases in the English language, but they have a lovely building, and a nice sculpture out front pays tribute to those who gave their lives for the sake of potted meat.

Inside the museum, galleries of early photographs show the earliest days of the George Hormel “Provision Market.” Hormel entered the business world as a traveling wool and hide buyer. Eggs, wool, poultry, and hides helped to keep his company in business while their trade in meat products was being developed.

As the business grew, product lines expanded and the Hormel name was imprinted on far more than slabs of bacon and salt-cured hams.

Technological advances meant that new forms of processing and packaging soon were being sold along with the food itself.

As the business continued to grow, advertising campaigns became more sophisticated; Hormel was one of the first to seek out celebrities willing to endorse their products.

Over the years, SPAM® permeated Minnesota culture so deeply that even traditional handcrafts were adapted to help promote the product. What could be better than a quilt or wall hanging to remind you of the virtues of SPAM®?

After roaming the museum for an hour, I found myself wishing there had been a little café devoted to all things SPAM®. A sliced and fried spamwich is fine as far as it goes, but what about Chicken-fried SPAM®? SPAM® Flautas? Scalloped SPAM®? or the mysterious but strangely appealing SPAM®-alama-Ding-Dongs?

All these dishes and more were served at SPAMARAMA, a years-long tradition in Austin, Texas. Even The Smithsonian loved SPAMARAMA, sending videographers to catch the action for their series, America: Wild and Wacky.

After a twelve-year hiatus, SPAMARAMA returned to Austin last month as news swirled about the introduction of a new version of the canned meat: Pumpkin Spice SPAM®. Once publicized by Hormel as a joke, it’s no joke today; the product will be introduced on September 23 and, if the rumors are true, the advertising slogan will be, “Pumpkin Spice: If it’s good enough for STARBUCKS®, it’s good enough for SPAM®.”

Since my visit to the Museum, I haven’t begun serving up SPAM® on a regular basis. Still, since 1937 this quintessentially American food has continued to feed soldiers and kids, college students, cruisers and struggling families. I still keep it in my hurricane supplies, and one of these nights I might just fry up some slices, nice and crisp. I’ll use whatever bread I have, and add a dollop of mayo. In honor of Rosie, I might even forego slicing my spamwich in half.

I’m still not sure whether I’ll try Pumpkin Spice SPAM®, but I might. The company’s already given us jalapeno, garlic, chorizo, turkey, teriyaki, and Portuguese sausage varieties; this latest update might be as good as the classic.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For those who don’t know how SPAM® became ‘spam’, the bane of internet users, this video from Business Insider will help. In 1998, the New Oxford Dictionary of English, which previously defined “spam” only in relation to the trademarked food product, added a second definition to its entry for ‘spam’:  “Irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the internet to a large number of newsgroups or users.”

Darkness, Light, and the City

A historical note from the Museum of the City of New York  ~ July 13, 2019
Photo ~ Ariella Axelbank
Saturday’s blackout in New York City was neither so extensive nor so dramatic as the one that occurred forty-two years ago, but it evoked memories nonetheless. Given the remarkably coincidental blackouts, my 2014 reflections on the experience seem timely; New York’s power is back on, but the memories linger.

On July 13, 1977, at 8:37 p.m., a lightning strike at the Buchanan South electrical substation on New York’s Hudson River tripped two circuit breakers. At the time, Buchanan South should have been converting 345,000 volts of electricity from the Indian Point nuclear plant to lower voltage, but a loose locking nut, combined with a faulty upgrade cycle, meant that the breaker wasn’t able to reclose in order to allow power to resume flowing.

When a second lightning strike caused two more 345,000 volt transmission lines to fail, only one reclosed properly. Given the loss of power from Indian Point and the over-loading of two more major transmission lines, Con Edison tried to initiate fast-start generation at 8:45 p.m., but no one was overseeing the station, and the remote start failed.

That’s when the lights went out at 123rd and Broadway, in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. Newly returned from my time in Liberia, I was visiting friends who also had worked there. While we enjoyed the twin pleasures of after-dinner conversation and the view from their eighth floor apartment, all of New York seemed to disappear.

It’s common enough for storms to cause lights to flicker and dim, and power can go out in a neighborhood even without a storm. Transformers explode; winds bring down power lines; squirrels play tag; and through it all people sigh and complain, wondering how long it will be until they can make coffee, turn on the computer, or watch tv in air-conditioned comfort.

But that night in Manhattan, in the moments between Con Ed’s failed re-start and the lighting of the first arson fires in the street, we knew something was different. Looking down from our perch, we watched traffic come to a halt as astounded drivers tried to get their bearings and control their anxiety. Scanning the horizon, we found no horizon: only a black, impenetrable abyss stretched before us.

The night seemed endless. A vibrato of sirens, the delicate horror of shattering glass, the ebb and flow of crowds around piles of goods looted from bodegas and coffee shops were utterly surreal. Lit by the glow of flames and surrounded by smoke from burning tires, the scene resembled an etching by Albrecht Dürer.

Eventually, as the fires began to be extinguished and the thinning crowds gradually lost their appetite for mayhem, we rested: three sleeping as one kept watch, and all of us wondering what would be next.

As the first tendrils of light began to climb around buildings and into the streets, the sense of relief was palpable. Civilization’s veneer had worn a bit thin over the night, not only because of the arson and looting which erupted in the darkness, but also because of the darkness itself. As we plunged into that inexplicable abyss, candles and flashlights did nothing to allay fears so primitive only the rising of the sun could bring release.

In the morning brilliance, the entire city seemed to stretch, heaving a vast sigh of relief. On the street, someone opened a fire hydrant, allowing a faucet’s worth of water to stream down, gentle and benign. Filled with sudden good humor and ready to trade stories, New Yorkers lined up with soap and towels, toothbrushes, plastic wash basins, and razors, ready to become human again.

Thinking back to that night, I remember my response with absolute clarity. I wanted to go back to Liberia. Today, I might not be so inclined. But at the time, looking down into those chaos-filled streets, the West African bush seemed preferable to civilization in any number of ways: not the least of which was the quality of its darkness.

I had learned to experience darkness as a blessing during childhood. Dressed for midwestern safari, I’d clamber into the car beside my dad and off we’d go, traveling graveled country roads that led far from the lights of our little town. In summer, we’d pull out quilts and lay on the ground, amazed by the bright river of stars streaming across the sky. If it was cold and snowy, we’d wrap in blankets for extra warmth, drink hot chocolate, and admire Orion, with his belt and his sword.

I learned the constellations — Orion, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Scorpio — and I began to learn those exotically-named stars: Aldebaran, Antares, Polaris, Betelgeuse, Sirius. Little verses helped me find them in the sky. “Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica,” was a favorite, and arc to Arcturus I did, gazing with passionate curiosity into sky-borne mysteries seemingly close enough to touch.

With passing years, trips into the country became less frequent, and adventures with my friends were measured in lumens. The bright lights of Broadway, the ambiance of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore — even Paris, the City of Light — drew us out of our midwestern darkness like a cloud of great, fluttering moths.

If circumstances forced us to settle for the lesser lights of Des Moines, Paducah, or Evansville, no matter. Our lives were arcing in new directions, and Arcturus was forgotten.

Forgotten, that is, until years in the African bush and a newly-acquired taste for offshore sailing pulled me back into darkness, teaching me its pleasures anew.

With no moon to obscure them, starlit paths cross land and sea. Night creatures scurry ahead of nearly invisible shadows, their paths lit by the flickering of uncounted distant stars. Ribbons of phosphorescent spume stream across the waves, scarcely distinguishable from the milky river flowing through the sky.

When unexpected and unwanted darkness falls — as it has in New York City, and Louisiana, and California, and Venezuela — the experience can be unnerving at best. At worst, it can make life seem unbearable, even as it gives free reign to the worst of human impulses.

But that other darkness, that more comfortable darkness, still enfolds the world like a favorite childhood blanket. Wrapped in nature’s darkness, safe and secure, we’re free to lift our eyes until our gaze arcs to Arcturus and beyond: toward galaxies beyond our sight, and a universe beyond our understanding.

The poet reminds us: Arcturus already is there, steadfast at our vision’s edge. We need only lift our eyes.

Edvard Munch ~ Summer Night on the Beach
I live near the sea. On these summer nights
Arcturus is already there, steadfast
in the southwest. Standing at the edge of the grass,
I am beginning to connect them as once they were connected,
the fixity of stars and unruly salt water,
by sailors with an avarice for landfall.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.
The stars are put out by our street lamp. Light
and water are well separated. And yet
the surviving of the sea-captain in his granddaughter
is increasingly apparent. (More than life was lost
when he drowned in the Bay of Biscay. I never saw him.)
As I turn to go in, the hills grow indistinct as his memory.
The coast is near and darkening. The stars are clearer,
but shadows of the grass and house are lapping at my feet
when I see the briar rose, no longer blooming,
but rigged in the twilight as sails used to be –
lacy and stiff together, a frigate of ivory.
~ Eavan Boland

Comments are welcome. For more information about poet Eavan Boland, please click here.

Cherishing Betsy’s Legacy

She hangs in my kitchen, this nameless woman holding a chicken in her lap. She watches me move between stove and sink, and I return the favor, attentive to her placid presence.

Over time, I’ve come to know a thing or two about her. The directness of her gaze tells me she isn’t afraid of being seen. She’s as busy as any modern woman: her apron tells me that, and her distinctly practical hair. She didn’t mean to turn away from her chores to pose for the camera on that morning, but when asked, she cooperated: perhaps happy for a moment’s rest.

Surprised, made wary by her inexplicable behavior, the dog presses close, protective and alert. Still, they’ve spent his lifetime together, and her hand calms his fears.

Around her portrait, scraps of ephemera provide clues to the nature of her world. An invoice from A.E. Want & Company, one of Ft. Worth’s premiere wholesale grocers at the turn of the last century, is dated September 14, 1921, nine years after the company gained a certain notoriety by suing the Missouri, Kansas & Texas railroad over a carload of frostbitten Minnesota potatoes. The potatoes, valued at $155.87, were judged defective, and the railroad was ordered to pay.

At her feet, a decorated business card announces Mr. A.D. Perry, a “reliable seedsman” from Syracuse, New York. And in the background, covered with penciled notations suggesting the quick, calculating mind of a business-like woman, are the music and lyrics to a nearly-forgotten American standard: Sweet Betsy from Pike, a song still able to convey all the humor, grit and tenacity of American pioneer women across the decades.

“Sweet Betsy From Pike” ~ 2nd South Carolina String Band

I call my kitchen companion Betsy, because of the song. Debbie Little-Wilson, the Texas artist who created the collage, titled it She Made Her Own Groceries, and indeed Betsy did. Flour, sugar, and salt may have made their way to her through Mr. Want’s wholesale company, but vegetables and fruits came from the seeds she ordered from Mr. Perry, received in trade or saved from her own crop. Milk cows were common, and game was plentiful. As for eggs, the chicken in her lap suggests their source.

In Texas, the abundance described by John Milton Hadley in 1855 also would have surrounded her:

The supply of wild fruits exceed that of any country I ever knew. Straw- rasp- goose- blackberries grow plentifully. Plums — persimmons — crab apples — wild cherries and grapes also abound. There is an unlimited extent of hazel nut thickets, and hickory trees are found and walnut — besides most other mast-bearing timber — All which are apt as I’m told to be very productive. Hence, thee can have “nuts” to crack. Now, I have not been over the territory and can not tell from my own sight what the afect [sic] of it presents, but there is variety in everything I learn as everywhere else.

Challenging as Betsy’s life may have been, it was a life marked by freedom as well as by hardship: a life constructed through choice and shaped by circumstance. Looking at her, I think of Mrs. Crooks, whose beautifully penned letters to my great-great-grandmother Annie are among my own treasures. One, dated May 19, 1881 and written in Poplar Hill, Kansas, found its way to Annie’s new home in Chariton, Iowa:

Crops are usually good and vegetables of all kinds in abundance. We have had lettuce, onions and radishes from the garden and soon will have peas. There will not be much fruit this year, the severity of the weather killed the peaches [and] the apple orchards are not many in bearing yet.
Elmer is farming — 300 acres in wheat, 75 in corn, about 5 in potatoes, early corn and vegetables. How are you and Mr. Crowley? Does he sigh for Texas when the cold north winds blow and the snow and ice is plentiful? Is it hard to wean him from the land of sunshine and flowers?
Elmer sends his best wishes to you all and we both hold you in grateful remembrance for your kindness to us while on our way to Kansas.

Today, Poplar Hill has disappeared. The post office where Mrs. Crooks would have mailed her letter closed in 1889. As for Chariton, the Lucas County town where Annie’s husband David helped organize the 34th Iowa Infantry at the beginning of the Civil War, and in which they settled after their post-war years in Texas and Missouri, it remains home today for David and Annie; for their children and grandchildren; for their great-grandchildren and more, resting in the heart of the land that sustained them.

They weren’t perfect, these forebears of ours who made a country. They had their own share of strange ones and lazy ones, and for many families the liars, cheats, and thieves became the stuff of legend. But they knew how to break a prairie and plant a crop, how to build shanties of sod and lay rails of steel. They mined the coal and laid the roads, built the schools and educated their children, birthed their babies and buried their dead, and against all odds made it work by virtue of their resilience and stubborn determination.

Were mistakes made? Of course. Were they always successful? Of course not. But even in the face of failure they loved their country and cherished their independence. Remembering grandparents and great-grandparents who fought and died to ensure their freedom, they lived out their days counting the cost of self-evident truths and and inalienable rights. They preserved and planted the seed of liberty with as much deliberation as they planted their corn and peas, and brought in its harvest with equal delight.

As surely as Betsy made her own groceries, they made their own country, tending to the responsibilities and hard work of citizenship with diligence and care.

My mother and her baby sister, gaining independence on their grandparents’ farm

Reflecting on the founding of this nation and the responsibility we bear for its continuation, I find myself uneasy, sensing a change of focus, a societal shift, a seeming determination to institutionalize dependence at every turn.

Increasingly, we are told we cannot be trusted with our own lives: with our health, our children, or our economic decisions. We are told we do not have the strength, the tenacity, or the wisdom to weather the storms of life or deal with its catastrophes.

We are assumed to be too frail to accept the realities of life, too ignorant or uneducated to understand them. We are assured that only the self-appointed experts among us have the knowledge or skill to set the parameters of our lives, while those who know nothing about us demand that our youngest, our most frail, and our aged have the conditions of their lives determined by governmental fiat rather than by the loving decisions of supportive families. When curiosity, conviction or the quest for a better life leads us to strike out in new directions, far too often our progress is impeded by barriers put in place by those convinced we have no right to chart our own course.

No doubt each of us has taken risks that ended in great reward and engaged in risky behavior that brought unhappy consequences. We have been wrong about individuals and supported bad policies, but we also have been right about people and causes and benefited greatly because of it.

Some of us live financially comfortable lives while others constantly are scrounging for a few more dollars. Some of us have achieved our goals, while others continue to press on. But through it all and however imperfectly, we sense that growth and maturation is the point of life. The independence of adulthood is meant to replace the natural dependence of a child, and, in the end, it is the willingness to accept both risk and responsibility that brings life’s greatest rewards: to nations as well as to individuals.

Today, questions abound. Are we willing to exchange the rewards of risk for the poor substitute of comfort? Will we choose passivity over active participation in our life and governance? Will we forego excellence in favor of mediocrity? Will we fall victim to those who play on false or unreasonable fears, or will we be courageous? Will we allow ourselves to be made dependent, or will we look for strength to those who understood the power of self-determination; who had a vision of true independence; and who preserved a nation for us through their effort and their will?

Time will tell. But Betsy, straightforward and serene, stands as a reminder. Her legacy can be ours, should we choose to accept it.

Some of my own family’s nation-builders

 

Comments always are welcome.

Double-Heading to Cheyenne

Union Pacific Steam Engines 4014 and 844 exit Weber Canyon, headed to Ogden, Utah (Bob Kise)

For three years, Union Pacific’s Engine No. 844 cooled its wheels in Cheyenne, Wyoming, undergoing a major overhaul in the company’s steam shop. The last of the company’s steam engines, produced in 1944 by the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, New York, the so-called ‘Living Legend’ never had been formally out of service, but age takes its toll, and the need for maintenance was obvious.

The locomotive began rolling again in 2016, traveling first to Cheyenne Frontier Days, and then to the opening of the Big River Crossing in Memphis. The Boise Turn Special, an eleven-day run to help celebrate the 92nd anniversary of Boise’s historic depot, took UP 844 over 1,600 miles of Union Pacific track through Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho.

Eventually, she traveled to the midwest, then on to Texas. Stops along each route allowed both dedicated railfans and the casually curious to see, touch, and hear an important part of American history.

Recently, UP 844 has been ‘double-heading’ — traveling in tandem with Union Pacific’s Engine No. 4014, affectionately known as ‘Big Boy.’ The pair made their way westward to Ogden, Utah to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, and soon will be back in Cheyenne. In the coming months, Big Boy 4014 will travel other parts of the Union Pacific system, allowing even more people to experience a piece of living history. That such a thing is possible — Big Boy back on the rails and able to tour the country– is something of a miracle.

UP No. 4014 leaving Evanston, Wyoming, headed to Ogden, Utah (Greg Brubaker)

During World War II, Union Pacific operated some of the largest and most powerful steam locomotives ever built. Known collectively as the ‘Big Boys,’ they were designed to solve a particular problem.

Seventy years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the mountains of Wyoming and Utah continued to confound Union Pacific. Moving heavy freight over the mountains often required multiple locomotives, which meant a need for more workers and more fuel. The climb over the Wasatch mountains between Ogden, Utah and Green River, Wyoming was particularly difficult. According to William Pearce:

The 176-mile stretch of track started out at 4,300 ft (1,310 m) above sea level in Ogden, climbed the Wasatch Range to 7,300 ft (2,225 m) at the Aspen Tunnel, and then dropped to 6,100 ft (1,859 m) at Green River. Occasionally, up to three helper engines were used to assist heavily loaded trains over the Wasatch mountains.

In 1940, the railroad’s mechanical engineers sought to solve the problem by designing a new class of engines which came to be known as “Big Boys.” Twenty-five were built, each measuring 132 feet long and weighing 1.2 million pounds. Because of their length, their frames were articulated, or hinged, allowing them to negotiate curves. Their wheel arrangement (known as a 4-8-8-4) included a leading set of four pilot wheels to guide the engine, two sets of eight drive wheels, and four smaller following wheels to support the rear of the locomotive.

After delivery to Union Pacific in 1941, UP 4014 joined the other Big Boys in helping to move millions of tons of war supplies. According to steam historian John E. Bush, “Without the Big Boys, the Union Pacific never could have moved all that material for the war effort.”

UP Big Boy 4012 hauling freight through Green River, Wyoming, November 1941
(Otto Perry image via Denver Public Library)

Union Pacific used the Big Boys until 1959, then replaced them with diesel-electric locomotives. Most were scrapped, but some were put on display: in St. Louis; Dallas; Omaha; Denver; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

In 2013, Union Pacific announced that it had re-acquired a Big Boy from the RailGiants Train Museum in Pomona, California, and hoped to restore it for the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many expressed scepticism; even the machinery needed to create replacement parts would have to be redesigned and reconstructed. But in the end, the goal was accomplished, and UP Big Boy 4014 is rolling again.

During my childhood, I found the poetry and romance of steam enticing. In the classroom, teachers told stories of strong, indestructible iron horses, or taught songs about winsome little creatures called “pufferbellies.”

In my naiveté, I believed that pufferbellies were roaming our neighborhood, and thought I ought to be able to catch one — like a firefly, or grasshopper. One Sunday afternoon, I headed off toward the schoolyard, determined to find one of the creatures. Before long, my dad caught up with me and asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”  “To find the pufferbellies,” I said. Silence billowed between us like steam. “The what?” ”The pufferbellies. We learned a song about them in school. I want to see them.”

He asked if I could sing the song for him, and I could. I remembered every word, and sang the first verse twice.

By the time I finished, he was laughing. “Sweetie, I know where the pufferbellies live. Why don’t we go see them?”

Later that afternoon, we bundled into the car and drove to a place he called the depot. At the depot, while people boarded trains for such exotic destinations as Des Moines and Omaha, we sat on a bench, waiting for a train to arrive. Hearing the low moan of the arriving train’s whistle, feeling the vibrations in the ground, and covering my ears against the sharp, steam-shrouded screech of the brakes, I came to a conclusion: real trains were far more exciting than pufferbellies.

Rock Island Depot ~ Newton, Iowa

I began riding my bike to the depot to watch the trains come in, and began reading the names on freight cars at crossings: Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; Burlington; Great Northern; Illinois Central; Cottonbelt.

I learned new songs, sung by men with names like Boxcar Willie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The Wabash Cannonball, The Wreck of Old 97, and Paddy Works on the Erie weren’t pleasant fantasies; they were grounded in railroading as a way of life, celebrating the engineers, boomers and brakemen, switchmen, conductors, and engineers who worked the yards.


In time, I began walking the trestles with friends, shivering with anticipation and fear as we tempted the afternoon freight. Once, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, where the engines and their turntable delighted me. On road trips I begged my dad to race the Streamliners highballing along their glistening tracks, and in the rich summer nights I lodged myself between crickets and stars to hear  mournful whistles dissolving away into the dark.

Decades later, photographer and friend Tom Parker captured UP 844 rolling through Frankfort, Kansas on her journey south from Cheyenne to Harlingen, Texas. The Valley Eagle Heritage Tour, named for a popular Missouri Pacific passenger train which operated between Houston and Brownsville from 1948 to 1962, was a railfan’s dream.

Like a giant pufferbelly escaped from bonds of inattention and neglect, UP 844 was riding the rails of imagination as surely as her rails of steel. From the moment I learned she’d roll through Houston before heading southwest, there was no question I’d be at the stations, whistlestops, and country crossings to witness the historic journey.

UP 844 steaming through Kansas ~ Tom Parker

At a crossing southwest of Houston, waiting for one more glimpse of the great locomotive, I found myself pondering the world represented by an outdated but still compelling technology.

In that older world, the metaphor of the well-oiled machine still had force. In most occupations, skill and perseverance were more important than connections. Deals were sealed with handshakes, and a man’s word was his bond, rather than a contemptuous and cynical attempt to manipulate others.

In a world marked by divisions, it’s worth remembering that, for many railroaders, the only divide that counted was the Continental Divide: an obstacle eventually overcome by a Golden Spike of vision, foresight and ingenuity. Certainly manipulation and not a little greed were part of overcoming that divide. Nevertheless, five days after the spike was driven in 1869, passenger train service was instituted. Pulled by the astounding iron horses, people journeyed from Omaha to Sacramento in four days rather than four months, and they fell in love with their trains.

Today we travel faster, but I’m not sure we travel better. When those engines from an earlier time begin to move, people gather. They stand at crossings and linger at whistlestops, traveling miles beyond good sense to see a highballing steamer race across the prairie or idle at a switch.

Beyond the charms of retro technology, there’s a palpable sense of people wanting to meet people, to hear the whistle and feel the vibration: to reach across the years that divide us from our past in order to touch the steam, steel, and grit that made this country work and to witness the proof of a challenge well met.

As long as UP 844 and UP 4014 keep rolling; as long as the people who love and sustain them survive; as long as the whistles sound and the firebox glows, there’s railroading to be done. There are prairies to cross, and foothills to climb. There are mountainsides where the great, vertiginous sky reaches off to infinity; high plateaus where the winds blow free and a person can breathe in the air of acomplishment and history.

Children will love their pufferbellies, but railroading’s for grownups: for people willing to pick up and roam; to work beyond exhaustion; to trade security for freedom, and speak with integrity.

Of course there will be difficulties. No one wants to face the broken tie, the washed-out bridge, the screaming downgrade acceleration, or the jumped tracks. But ask any old-timer from Old Cheyenne — or anywhere else for that matter — and he’ll tell you it’s worth the ride. Today’s railroaders would agree.

Comments always are welcome.
Thanks to Tom Parker, Aaron B. Hockley, and Daniel Lipinski for images used in my video. Thanks also to Hal Cannon, the Deseret String Band, and Okehdokee Records for permission to use the group’s version of “Railroading on the Great Divide.” This previously published post was re-written and expanded to include some history of the Big Boys, and acknowledge the introduction of UP 4014 back into service.
 

Making a Run For Mardi Gras

Le Capitaine and his Chicken

In 2012, not long after I’d written a thing or two about chickens, a friend from Louisiana emailed a suggestion: “Cher, you want a complete chicken experience, come to Cajun country for Mardi Gras. They dance for chickens over here.”

As proof, he sent along the trailer for Pat Mire’s documentary, Dance for a Chicken. After watching with a certain degree of astonishment, I tucked the link into my bookmarks and resolved to make my own run to the Louisiana prairie to witness the celebrations.

For two years, I remembered the email only after it was too late to make plans, but in 2015 I remembered, and made some inquiries. A few phone calls later, I had the name and address of a Church Point family willing to host a visitor from Texas. I called another friend who lives down on the bayou and said, “Pack your bags. We’ve got chickens waiting for us.” Continue reading