Author Archives: Dan Brekke

Eclipse Road Trip Day 4-6: Somewhere to Sidney

A driver’s seat view of the road from Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge up to Lakeside, on Highway 2, in western Nebraska.

Meant to publish this Saturday morning. But here it is at the tail end of Saturday night — we did make it to Valentine after an amazing drive through the Sand Hills (above) — instead:

Don’t have time to say much,
because we’re late getting on the road, but: We spent the night in Jackson on Wednesday; Thursday morning, we had breakfast with the parents of our son Thom’s roommate at Oregon, Barb and Tom Dillon, who live just south of town. They invited us to stay Thursday night, so we did — using the daylight hours for a leisurely drive up past the Tetons to Yellowstone and back.

Friday, we drove across Wyoming to Sidney, Nebraska, a town where our family has roots, sort of, that go back to the 1860s. Less than 10 miles outside town, the a tire-pressure indicator light went on in the car. We pulled over and discovered we had picked up a nail and had a leak big enough I could hear it. Since the tire wasn’t too bad yet, we jumped in and made it the rest of the way to our motel, just off Interstate 80, where the tire quickly went flat. I changed it (a chore in a vehicle as large as the 4Runner, but do-able thanks to the aid of a passer-by, a Seattle-ite named Michael). In any case, we got it done.

This morning I drove into Sidney to have the punctured tire fixed. It took a while, so I strolled through town, where a parade was forming up as part of the town’s contribution to Nebraska’s sesquicentennial. Chatted up some of the participants, went back and got the car, and now we’re getting ready to head out with a tentative destination of Valentine, which is a good piece up the road (we’re not far from the Colorado border, and Valentine is close to South Dakota).

The eclipse weather forecast in western Nebraska is not great right now. So we’ll see where we wind up Monday morning.

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Eclipse Road Trip Day 3: Twin Falls to Jackson

Once upon a time — at least 20 pounds and a decent quantity of decent muscle mass ago — I used to do long, long bike rides. The kind where you’d be out all day, sometimes all weekend, sometimes longer. A natural obsession attached to these rides: Would it be raining? Would it be hot? Would there be unfriendly winds. None of those factors would typically dictate whether you’d do a ride or not, but it was an important factor in planning and indulging your worst bad-weather anxiety.

So now, we’re driving across the western United States with the idea that we’ll see the August 21 eclipse in the general area of Nebraska Sand Hills. We’re about halfway there now, and we’re starting to take the weather forecasts seriously. And while I normally wouldn’t care about the weather in a place I’m visiting — It’s cloudy? Is that a problem? — the forecast for Greater Western Nebraska isn’t so sunny right now.

In fact, if you read the forecast discussions for the four National Weather Service offices handling forecast for the area from the Idaho Rockies to the west-central Nebraska, the word “pessimism” has crept into the several-times-daily notes. Three examples (and about the jargon: GFS, ECM and European are all forecaster shorthand for supercomputer-driven numerical weather models; 12Z (or other numbers) refers to the time the most recent model run was completed in UTC (universal) time (Z stands for Zulu, and apparently comes from military usage):

Pocatello, Idaho: GFS and European continue to offer up different
solutions. GFS is more pessimistic for us. It monsoonal moisture into the region Sunday. This could produce viewing issues for the eclipse in terms of scattered areas of clouds and showers. The European on the other hand keeps the monsoonal moisture south of us for Sunday and Monday and provides much better viewing for the eclipse. The forecast favors the pessimistic solution and includes partly cloudy skies with slight chances of showers and thunderstorms. At this point, we do think the eclipse will be viewable, but there may be a few clouds in some areas. However the consensus models are leaning more towards the European solution so hopefully the GFS will move into that direction as well within the next couple of runs. Forecast for Tuesday and beyond continues to look unsettled. Even the European draws monsoonal moisture into our region for midweek.

Riverton, Wyoming: For Monday, Eclipse Day, the 12z model runs still indicate that a weak surface cold front is progged to move into the northwest portion of Wyoming and will bring with it some mid to high clouds into the region during the morning. The models seem to indicate that the frontal boundary should weaken and become diffuse during the day as it attempts to move southeast into the state. The low level southwest flow ahead of the boundary should also result in more low/mid level moisture and partly to mostly cloudy conditions expected across the forecast area from the morning into the afternoon. It is expected that there should be some isolated showers/storms over the western mountains due to expected slight instability.

Cheyenne, Wyoming: It continues to be a tricky cloud forecast for Eclipse Day (Monday) with west-southwest flow aloft and decent H7-H3 [upper atmospheric] moisture. There are still considerable differences though in the RH [relative humidity] fields, so opted to maintain a partly cloudy forecast for most areas.

North Platte, Nebraska: The cloud forecast Monday continues to evaluate the potential for high cloudiness which could partially obscure the eclipse.

The ECM and GFS shows subtropical moisture aloft moving across the Rockies which could produce scattered or broken high cloudiness around noon Monday. The GFS also indicates substantial low level moisture and stratus across Wrn/Ncntl Neb leftover from heavy thunderstorms across Ern Neb Sunday night. The ECM produces the thunderstorms across SD but shows the same moisture in place like the GFS. Thus, it is possible significant cloudiness will occur Monday.

As a result, the sky forecast for noon Monday has been increased from 35-40 percent yesterday, to 40 to 60 percent with the forecast today.

Important to remember: While the forecast models are sometimes shockingly good, they also miss. We’re more than 100 hours out from the eclipse right now, and there’s plenty of time for things to evolve. Right now, though, I’m rooting for monsoonal moisture to keep its ass parked well clear of the eclipse zone; the same for stray moisture and frontal boundaries and all other atmospheric interference with OUR EVENT OF A LIFETIME. You listening, cloudmakers?

***

Anyway. Isn’t this supposed to be a road trip?

We started out in Twin Falls, Idaho, today, walking through a mall to the Petco with, guaranteed, the most scenic view in all of Petco World. Or, it would be the most scenic view if the entrance was at the back of the store, because that’s where you can look down into the Snake River Canyon of Evel Knievel fame.

Alas, Evel is pulling his cheap stunts in the afterlife now (and maybe still getting upstaged by Richard Nixon). But there were base jumpers leaping, one after another, from the big beautiful steel arch bridge that carries U.S. 93 across the canyon. Here’s a video — watch it full screen — that sort of conveys what that was about:

Twin Falls Base Jumpers from Dan Brekke on Vimeo.

At the visitors center, near the Petco and overlooking the bridge, I had a talk with a guy who arrived with a daypack and a longboard-style skateboard who confided early on, “I’m a bum. I live down in the canyon.” But what he really wanted was to talk about losing a camera over the side of the canyon rim earlier in the week. He also confided he was an old time base jumper who had gone off the high bridge outside Auburn many times (OK — he said 1,000 times).

After that, we headed up 93 and saw lots:

An aqueduct that a bunch of kids — wearing personal flotation devices, all of them — were getting ready to jump into for a 20-minute trip downstream.

Untitled from Dan Brekke on Vimeo.

A memorial to a guy who crashed in February off U.S. 26 on the edge of Craters of the Moon National Monument; the debris field from the crash was still present, as was a memorial to “The Highwayman.”

A roadside memorial alongside U.S. 26 near Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Lava. Lots of lava.

Arco, Idaho, which advertises itself as the first place in the world to use electricity generated by atomic power (circa 1955). The proprietor of the Lost River Valley espresso shack served us a latte and a cappuccino. We talked eclipse, since Arco is in the path. Was she bringing on extra help? Her sons would be there, she said. “I started this business for them — they’re both autistic. They’re home today. … They’re anxious about all the people who’ll be showing up. …”

Idaho Falls. Bought gas there. By the way, the mileage on a Toyota 4Runner — the only car Hertz had to give us after I asked for a small SUV — sucks.

The towns of Shoshone, Richfield, Carey …

The Snake River. Swan Valley. The Grand Tetons. Jackson Hole. And that’s where we are tonight.

Tomorrow? We have a reservation in Casper, Wyoming. We’ll be looking at the weather.

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Eclipse Road Trip Day 2: Tahoe City to Twin Falls

U.S. 93, north of Wells, Nevada.

A quick entry, since I’ve waited until after midnight to sit down and get something down.

As planned — I have never made so many reservations in advance in my life — Tuesday is supposed to be our longest day driving on the way to western Nebraska. We got started from Tahoe City, on the northwest shore of Lake Tahoe, at 9:35 a.m. PDT and pulled in here, about 510 miles later, at about 8:45 MDT — a drive of a little over nine hours. Things got slow in the last couple hundred miles because I wanted to stop and take pictures at several spots along the way. Like the shot above, looking north on U.S. 93 about 30 miles north of Wells, Nevada, and 85 miles or so south of Twin Falls, Idaho.

A word about the weather: We are now inside the window where the National Weather Service is offering a forecast that includes Monday, Eclipse Day. And what do you know? The outlook is iffy for most of western Nebraska. Of course, there’s not forecast in the world that can make a call for a two and a half minute period that’s still six days out. But now we’ve got something to obsess about other than where exactly we’ll be standing when the celestial machinery does its thing.

Tomorrow’s destination: Jackson, Wyoming.

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Eclipse Road Trip Day 1: Berkeley to Tahoe City

Last Aug. 20, in a rare example of doing well ahead of a long-contemplated event, I mused about possible destinations to view the Great Solar Eclipse of 2017. One location I pondered — where we’re headed now — is western Nebraska.

(But why western Nebraska? I hear the question even before the final schwa sound of the Cornhusker State’s strangely compelling name fades away. Answer: Decent chances for good viewing weather and good odds of avoiding eclipse country gridlock. On both counts, we’ll see).

I didn’t do a whole lot in the way of eclipse preparation last year beside write that post, order an eclipse atlas, and spend hours poring over pages of Airbnb and VRBO listings. Like most of West Coast humanity, I searched out places to stay in Oregon east of the Cascades. The now-famous municipality of Madras was already booked up (I’m not counting offers to sleep for only $150 a night in prickly pear patches or cow pastures), and other promising places that would have required a drive of some length did not pan out. (I did not consider Bend, a city of some size and reputation, because I could all too easily imagine Eclipse Morning gridlock, or rangelock or whatever you call it when you don’t have a grid, with traffic heading up the road toward the totality zone.)

Thus thoughts turned again to Nebraska. (Why? See above.) I will unfold our ultimate destination, which is currently semi-unknown, as we travel this week. I can, however, share the first leg of the journey.

Our destination was Lake Tahoe, the northwest side, where an old friend is spending a couple weeks and invited us to spend our first night on the road. So We left Berkeley early in the afternoon and drove up Interstate 80. There was sporadic heavy traffic in the usual places — in Fairfield, through Davis — but we sailed for the most part and got to our spot on the lakeshore by 6:30, in time to watch the evening light descend.

Since the this is a travelogue of sorts, there ought to be a picture. Here’s one of our first and only stop today, at Nyack, about 15 miles west of Donner Summit at an elevation of maybe 5,500 feet above sea level. It’s an unprepossessing image — Shell gas, a convenience store, a tiny Burger King, and a huge expanse of asphalt.

Back in the days when a two-lane road, U.S. 40, ran across the Sierra here, there was a resort called Nyack Lodge. In January 1952, in the middle of a very stormy winter, a westbound passenger train, the City of San Francisco, was halted by snowslides a few miles east of Nyack. Passengers were stranded for three days. When rescuers finally reached the scene, the passengers — cold, hungry, some ill from an episode of carbon monoxide poisoning — were driven to Nyack Lodge. There, they got a nice feed and were put on a rescue train that had come up from Roseville for the trip to Oakland.

Nyack, California, on Interstate 80 west of Donner Summit.

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A Plaque Story: ‘They Sacrificed Their Lives’

San Luis Reservoir, just west of the San Joaquin Valley town of Los Banos, is one of California’s key water facilities. Pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ship water down two massive canals — the state-owned California Aqueduct and the federal Delta-Mendota Canal — to a holding basin, or forebay, adjacent to the reservoir. From there, another set of pumps lifts water into the reservoir, where it’s stored before being pumped again for delivery to farm and city customers farther south. All reservoirs are artificial creations, but there’s an extra dimension of artificiality here: There’s virtually no natural inflow to the reservoir; it exists only to receive the water pouring down two huge manufactured rivers.

Memorial plaque at San Luis Reservoir to two Department of Water Resources divers who died in a 2007 incident at a nearby pumping plant.

The plaque above is at the Romero Visitors Center, just off Highway 152. There’s something tragically artificial and sterile and less than truthful about the memorial to two divers killed at the pumping plant about 10 miles from the dam. But read the plaque first:

The plaque text:

“Dedicated in memory of Tim Crawford and Martin Alvarado, who lost their lives on Feb. 7, 2007, while performing underwater inspections at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant. They sacrificed their lives to keep the state’s water supply safe and secure for the people of the state of California.”

The wording is curious. These two men “sacrificed their lives to keep the state’s water supply safe and secure.”

It sounds heroic. But what actually happened?

I had no idea. But armed with the two names, it’s easy to find out.

The two divers went into the water to inspect “trash racks” just upstream of the pumps at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant, apparently looking for invasive mussels. Five of the six pumps at the facility were shut down, and one was running full bore. Somehow the divers wound up near the operating pump. The powerful current there pulled them in and pinned them against the trash rack, a huge steel grate designed to stop large debris from going through the pump.

The untrained fellow Department of Water Resources employee who had been given the job of “tending” the dive soon lost sight of the divers’ bubbles, his only means of tracking the men, but had no idea what to do. By the time he thought to alert anyone in the pumping plant, the divers were probably out of air, if they were indeed still alive. It took more than an hour after trouble was detected to shut down the operating pump, and another 35 minutes after that before a recovery diver was in the water. Both divers were found at the bottom of the aqueduct, drowned.

I get the human reason for why a note of heroism is injected into the language used on the plaque. We want to find a redeeming purpose in such awful deaths.

But it might have been more to the point, and a more fitting memorial, to say something like: “Dedicated in hopes that their deaths might serve to prevent future tragedies.” A message like that might serve as a living reminder to those responsible for preventing such an incident from happening again.

To read more: Here’s the Department of Water Resources report on the incident.

And here: a later investigative piece by San Francisco’s ABC7 on the episode. Key quote:

Dive tender: How long these guys stay down? You know?
Control room: Uh-uh.

And finally: a DWR memorial publication to the two divers.

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Berkeley Heat, With Bonus Mockingbird

We had some heat today. We’ll call the high here in the refined northern reaches of Berkeley 91. The official Berkeley record for June 18 is 90, set in 1895. Because one must turn cartwheels to get the data from the official station, which is on the UC Berkeley campus and overseen by a Department of Geography employee who has heretofore ignored my queries about getting data from the station, I don’t know whether that 122-year-old record was broken or not. I’ll try to remember to look for the number when it becomes available in a month or so.

But other high-temperature records were broken in the Bay Area today. To wit (data by way of the National Weather Service):

The quality of Bay Area heat is different from what I remember of Chicagoland heat: It can be scorchng if you’re out in the sun, but it’s not so bad if you can find some shade (and stay there). My recollection of hot days growing up was that there was no getting away from it; the humidity just draped the heat around you. Great if you’re looking to get a good sweat on, though.

Anyway. When the heat broke early this evening, I took The Dog out for a walk. We went to his favorite pet food store — his favorite because he gets treats every time he walks in the door. The place was closed — I knew it would be, but it was a nice walk with the evening started to cool down.

On the way home, a mockingbird was putting on a show; enough so that several passers-by, including The Dog and I, stopped. That’s the little audio clip above. In addition to the bird, there’s a siren and the sound of the dog panting. Real street sound.

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One of Those Nights

It’s 11 p.m., and the temperature is 71 here in Berkeley.

That late-night warmth in mid-June would not be news in Chicagoland, where I grew up (the current temperature at Midway Airport, recorded at midnight CDT, is 78) or most of the rest of the country outside of the Pacific Northwest.

But here, 71 degrees as we move toward midnight is unusual; and reminiscent, though we don’t have midwestern humidity, of growing up in Chicago’s south suburbs.

Somehow, my parents grew up without air conditioning. We didn’t have it, either, in our house on the edge of Park Forest. It seemed impossible to sleep on really warm, humid nights, though I’m probably forgetting that fans helped.

Our dad would go to bed early; our mom was a night owl and would have some late-night TV on. Johnny Carson, maybe, or “The Late Show” movie. She’d let us stay up if it was too hot to sleep. If the night was oppressive and sticky, she’d have us take a cold shower to cool off.

Thinking back, Mom didn’t get her driver’s license until after our last summer in Park Forest. The next June — 1966, when I was 12 — we moved out to a new house built on an acre lot in the middle of the woods we had lived across the street from. It was like a jungle out there in the summer — green and moist and full of mosquitoes and lots of other wildlife.

Things changed once we moved out there. We had air conditioning. One unit upstairs, one downstairs. Outside, it might be dripping. Inside, it was miraculously cool and dry — a different world. I imagine the electric bills were staggering compared to what they had been at our old place.

Then, too, Mom had her license. Every once in a while, she’d invite us out on a late-evening jaunt — to the grocery store, or just to drive.

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Memorial Day Meandering

Poring over some doleful but absorbing statistics on U.S. military casualties in our wars going back to the American Revolution, I’m led astray from whatever purpose I had for early Memorial Day morning.

First distraction: It doesn’t seem right that most statistical roundups of American service personnel killed in our wars — like the one linked to above — exclude those who died in our many inter-war military operations. Here’s a separate Pentagon accounting of soldiers, sailors and Marines killed during operations between 1980 and 1996. The list includes:


Second distraction:
I reflect, as many have before me, that there’s hardly been a year in my lifetime — I go back to Eisenhower’s first term — that U.S. troops haven’t been active somewhere in the world. Here’s someone who’s come up with a politically loaded list of U.S. military-related actions, at home and abroad, going back to Wounded Knee.

Third Distraction: In exploring various sets of statistics on U.S. military casualties, I came across the Department of Defense accounting of fatalities among active-duty personnel from 1980 through 2010. (Unfortunately, I can’t find more recent definitive numbers.) In those 31 years, which span “peacetime” (there was just one death attributed to hostile action or terrorist attacks in 1980-81) through the height of the Iraq War (2007), the Pentagon says 48,834 active-duty personnel died. Here’s a breakdown of how they died:
Accident: 25,073 (51.3 percent of total).
Illness: 8,579 (17.6 percent).
Suicide: 6,911 (14.2 percent).
Hostile action: 4,814 (9.9 percent)
Homicide: 2,329 (4.8 percent)
Terrorist attack: 420 (.9 percent)
Cause undetermined or pending: 708 (1.4 percent)

The numbers look a little different if you isolate fatalities from ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent Congressional Research Service report broke down the causes of death for those two conflicts (including all phases of the Iraq War to date). Some 5,362 (78.5 percent) of the 6,830 deaths were sustained in hostile action; 1,041 (15.2 percent) were attributed to accidents or illness; 350 (5.1 percent) to suicide, and 52 (.8 percent) to homicide (about 25 deaths are listed as “undetermined”).

I find the “self-inflicted” death count most stunning, especially the fact it appears to be so much larger than fatalities suffered in combat. If you follow this issue, you know the number of veterans who take their own lives each year dwarfs the number of service members who kill themselves while on active duty. A Department of Veterans Affairs study published last year found 7,400 veterans committed suicide in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available.

Fourth Distraction: While embarking on my military casualty StatsQuest, hours and hours ago, I came across one particularly startling number in a VA document titled America’s Wars. Page 2 of said document includes a table of veterans and veterans’ dependents currently on VA benefits rolls (“currently” as of April 2017), listed by the war(s) in which veterans served.

The table shows there’s one person out there still getting monthly benefits related to service in the Civil War. Really? Is that possible?

Yes — it turns out it is. The recipient is Irene Triplett, daughter of a man who fought on both sides in the war. She reportedly gets a monthly VA check for $73.13 that goes toward paying for care in a North Carolina nursing home. The Wall Street Journal did a long feature on her and her family a few years ago. Irene Triplett had a very tough life; the piece is well worth reading.

National Geographic followed with its own story on the “fewer than 35” surviving children of Civil War veterans and details a couple of their life stories.

Conclusion of the foregoing.

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Key Biographical Date, With Consequent Thoughts

April 11, 1953: My parents, Steve Brekke and Mary Hogan, are married at St. Kilian’s Roman Catholic Church, at 87th and May streets on Chicago’s South Side.

There are many pictures of the day, though I don’t have immediate access to them. One I remember is my two grandmothers, Otilia Brekke and Anne Hogan, posing together.

They were both widows. My dad’s father died in April 1932 (age 55, Parkinson’s disease), my mom’s in 1941 (age 53, lung cancer). They had brought up their children (my dad was an only child, my mom one of six) largely by themselves.

What else did they have in common? They were both Chicago natives, both the first children born in the United States to immigrant families. Their fathers were both laboring men, their mothers both with large families (huge, by today’s standards) to see to.

But there were crucial points of divergence.

Mrs. Brekke was Norwegian through and through, her Sieverson clan coming from farming country south of Kristiania (now Oslo) and becoming founding members of a Lutheran parish on the near Northwest Side. Her late husband, Sjur Brekke, had been a minister in the Norwegian-American Hauge Synod. Judging from their early correspondence and what I remember of her, her entire life was bound up with the church.

Mrs. Hogan was Irish through and through, her family arriving from a little island off the west coast of County Mayo. Needless to say, they were Roman Catholics, and by the time my parents met, she was well on her way to having sent all four of her surviving sons into the priesthood.

In other words, my soon-to-be grandmothers were staring a mixed marriage in the face.

In order for the proposed union to receive the sanction of Rome, the parties involved needed to agree to a Catholic wedding and to baptize and raise their children as Catholics. I never heard her say a word to us kids about it in later years, but I’m sure this arrangement didn’t sit well with Mrs. Brekke.

So there they are, at the old Windermere Hotel on the Hyde Park lakefront, posing for their portrait together on my parents’ big day. They are smiling, but you can almost feel the chill: Grandma Brekke, who turned 69 that year, with the slightly unnatural stare that came from her glass eye, and Mrs. Hogan, three days shy of her 55th birthday, with a cordial look that’s betrayed by what my sister Ann has pointed out were her characteristically cold eyes.

But by then, the wedding was done and Mary and Steve had embarked on the saga that would lead to me and my siblings and all the attendant joy, grief, celebration and misadventure. Whether my grandmothers smiled or not, life was going to go on.

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Road Blog, Iowa Edition: ‘Our Liberties We Prize’

The Great Seal of Iowa, as rendered in a bas relief tablet by Alexander Doyle at the Iowa state capitol.

In 1847, the Iowa Legislature passed a law creating a state seal. More on the wording of the law, which has caused a stir in the state Capitol in recent times, in a moment.

The straightforward part of the seal is the motto: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” I like that: Straightforward. A little militant. No Latin.

However, the Legislature offered only a description of what the seal should look like. Here it is (and as you read it, see if there’s a phrase that kind of sticks out as a little awkward):

“The secretary of state … is … hereby authorized to procure a seal which shall be the great seal of the state of Iowa, two inches in diameter, upon which shall be engraved the following device, surrounded by the words, ‘The Great Seal of the State of Iowa’ – a sheaf and field of standing wheat, with a sickle and other farming utensils, on the left side near the bottom; a lead furnace and pile of pig lead on the right side; the citizen soldier, with a plow in his rear, supporting the American flag and liberty cap with his right hand, and his gun with his left, in the center and near the bottom; the Mississippi River in the rear of the whole, with the steamer Iowa under way; an eagle near the upper edge, holding in his beak a scroll, with the following inscription upon it: ‘Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.'”

(Yes — the Legislature wrote “with a plow in his rear.” That phrase prompted an Iowa state legislator in 2010 to offer a bill to amend the wording. Lawmakers did not act on the suggestion.)

That 1847 description left a lot to artists’ imaginations and produced a series of rather passive and homely images. Search for “Great Seal of Iowa” in Google images if you’re curious about what I mean.

I didn’t know any of that history when I visited the state capitol grounds in Des Moines last fall (2016). What struck me about the tablet or relief — OK, technically not a plaque — was what I take to be its direct reference to the Civil War. The soldier depicted is dressed as a Union infantryman. The musket he holds on his left side has bayonet fixed. The Stars and Stripes he supports with his right arm is partially draped around him. He is taking a step toward the viewer. His look is resolute and unafraid.

“Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain”? The bas relief makes the statement come alive. The soldier embodies the sentiment. Is there a Civil War message here — a reference, perhaps, to how seriously the state took its duty to preserve the Union?

About 75,000 Iowans — more than one in five adult men — served during the war. Some 13,000 of them died and another 8,500 were wounded and survived. Iowa’s experience largely reflected the experience of every state, North and South. In a way that’s hard to imagine today, when so few serve in our armed forces, the war touched everyone.

An entry on an Iowa state government site that describes the monuments on the capitol grounds notes that the Iowa seal tablet was commissioned in the mid-1880s and completed in the early 1890s. The war was still an enduring, dominant memory for a whole generation of Americans then, just as World War II was in the 1960s — when war stories were common prime-time TV fare and a frequent Hollywood subject.

The Iowa state site also mentions the name of the sculptor, Alexander Doyle, who had a national reputation by the time he got the commission for the tablet and a nearby drinking fountain featuring the cast bronze head of a bison.

Doyle’s reputation rested in part on his Civil War sculptures. But he was not a Yankee nationalist. His commissions came from both the North and from the defeated Confederacy — and he was especially active in New Orleans, where he created a series of statues commemorating Southern heroes.

I think if there’s a message in the Iowa Great Seal tablet, it’s that Doyle was an artist who understood the time he was depicting and the emotional expectations of his audience and knew how to translate that understanding into bronze. His was not a common talent.

Note: A version of this post also appears on Read the Plaque.

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