County Courthouse

Going through some pictures I took on a quick drove around North Texas four years ago. This is the Foard County Courthouse — humble and lacking in the architectural fancies that characterize some of the other courthouses I’ve seen in the Lone Star State. The plainness appeals to me. It’s even more pronounced in the Google Streetview of the spot

The town of Crowell, 65 miles west of Wichita Falls, is the seat of the county, which according to the 2020 census had a population of 1,095 — a steep decline from the 1,336 reported in 2010.

I haven’t delved into the county’s history at all. It has one literary claim to fame, though. It’s home to Thalia, the name Texas novelist Larry McMurtry adopted for the setting of several novels, including “The Last Picture Show” and “Horseman, Pass By.”

Sunday Storm Report, or Emotional Rain

Rain shower, with scrub jay and stiff breeze.

Well, it’s here. Rain, I mean. Not in copious, toad-strangling, gully-washing volumes. And I just heard a National Weather Service forecaster on the radio counsel patience — more will be coming later today, overnight, tomorrow. As I said the other day, we’ll take what we can get. In drought times, and even just at the end of our long summer dry spells, water falling from the sky carries an emotional weight way out of proportion to what shows up in the rain gauge.

‘George A. Wyman, 1st Across America’

George A. Wyman waypoint, Emigrant Gap, California, August 2017.

We happened across the sign above along Interstate 80 west of Donner Summit at the beginning of a road trip to see the August 2017 solar eclipse. 

It took me nearly five years and a chance encounter with this image to actually look up George A. Wyman and what the whole “1st Across America” thing is about.

In short: Back in 1903, he made what is said to have been the first trip across the United States via motorized vehicle — in his case, a motorized bicycle produced by a company in San Francisco. The trip began at Lotta’s Fountain, on Market Street in San Francisco. The fountain became famous several years after Wyman’s departure as a meeting place in the aftermath of the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake, a bit of history that’s commemorated with a pre-dawn ceremony every April 18, the date of the catastrophe. 

Naturally, you’ll want to read more about George A. Wyman and his machine.

If I’m write, you’ll want to check out the George A. Wyman Memorial Project, which has published a day-by-day account of the adventurer’s cross-country journey. The site includes a pretty good tale, too, about how the late publisher of the Los Angeles Times found and restored a 1902-vintage motor bicycle that he believed to be the one Wyman rode.  

The day-by-day account mentioned above is drawn from Wyman’s dispatches — including pictures — to a publication called Motorcycle Magazine, which sponsored the trip. The story that unfolds in those reports shows Wyman to have been unflinching in the face of often hostile conditions along his route and the frequent breakdowns of his 90-pound, 1.25-horsepower machine. Especially in the West, he regularly found the bone-rattling ride along railroad ties — yes, he was riding on the railroad— preferable to the deep sand or intractable mud that made it miserable to travel on what passed for roads. When the trip was over, he estimated he’d ridden 1,500 miles on the cross-ties; on several occasions, he had close calls with trains that overtook him when he was on the tracks.

Occasionally, Wyman turned in truly dramatic accounts of his travels. His June 4, 1903, entry, describing his trip through a mountain downpour between Laramie and Cheyenne, Wyoming, is a must-read.

But mostly, he was matter-of-fact about most of his difficulties. Here he is a few days later, mentioning a piece of equipment had broken:

One more cyclometer was sacrificed on the ride from Ogallala to Maxwell (Nebraska), snapped off when I had a fall on the road. I do not mention falls, as a rule, as it would make the story one long monotony of falling off and getting on again. Ruts, sand, sticks, stones and mud, all threw me dozens of times. Somewhere in Emerson I remember a passage about the strenuous soul who is indomitable and ‘the more falls he gets moves faster on.’ I would like to see me try that across the Rockies. I didn’t move faster after my falls. The stones out that way are hard.”

He frequently commented on the reception he got along the way — which was mostly amazement at both the length of his journey and the technology he was using. On June 24, he stopped for the night in Ligonier, Indiana, a town about halfway between Chicago and Toledo:

“I thought that when I got east of Chicago folks would know what a motor bicycle is, but it was not so. In every place through which I passed, I left behind a gaping lot of natives, who ran out into the street to stare after me. When I reached Ligonier I rode through the main street, and by mistake went past the hotel where I wanted to stop. When I turned and rode back the streets looked as though there was a circus in town. All the shopkeepers were out on the sidewalks to see the motor bicycle, and small boys were as thick as flies in a country restaurant. When I dismounted in front of the hotel the crowd became so big and the curiosity so great that I deemed it best to take the bicycle inside. The boys manifested a desire to pull it apart to see how it was made.

Wyman’s motor bicycle was a sort of hybrid, consisting of what looked like a conventional bicycle frame fitted with a small gas tank and motor. A leather drive belt — which broke and required mending constantly — ran between the motor’s crank shaft and a pulley on the rear wheel. The motor and transmission apparatus had given out as Wyman neared the end of his journey. Luckily, he could simply pedal the bike, and pedal he did, riding the last 150 miles from Albany to New York City without stopping overnight to sleep:

I made frequent stops to rest and I attracted more than a little attention but I was too tired to care. I can smile now as I recall the sight I was with my overalls on, my face and hands black as a mulatto’s, my coat torn and dirty, a big piece of wood tied on with rope where my handlebars should be, and the belt hanging loose from the crankshaft. I was told that I was ‘picturesque’ by a country reporter named ‘Josh,’ who captured me for an interview a little way up the Hudson, and who kept me talking while the photographer worked his camera, but to my ideal, I was too dirty to be picturesque. At any rate, I was too tired then to care. All I wanted was a hot bath and a bed. 

Wyman’s arrival in New York after his 50-day epic attracted little attention, it seems. A scattering of papers across the country carried a brief Associate Press story that hailed him as “the first man to cross the American continent on a power-propelled road vehicle.” Motorcycle Magazine suggests one reason the feat may not have gained wider attention: Wyman himself didn’t boast about it.

“Now that the narrative has been completed and a review of the whole trip can be taken, it stands out in its entirety as a supreme triumph for the motor bicycle,” the magazine said. “It was not only the most notable long distance record by a motorcycle, but also it was the greatest long trip made in this country by any sort of a motor vehicle.  This is a fact to which attention was not called by Wyman in his story and it is one that should be emphasized.  In fact, Wyman’s story was altogether too modest throughout.”

Reprieve

Six-day precipitation forecast produced by the California-Nevada River Forecast Center. According to this, published Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, much of the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California will get an inch or more of rain.

So now we get to the part of the story where we’ll grasp at nearly anything as a sign of hope, or reprieve, or simple delay of the inevitable.. Last week, much of California was blasted with 110-degree temperatures, day after day after day. When you look that in the face, you ask yourself how much worse can things get and how much this corner of the world, a world where more and more people are suffering under more and more extreme conditions, will change. Then things cool down. Some areas will have high temperatures over the weekend nearly 50 degrees lower than the all-time highs registered last week. This weekend, all the weather models and their interpreters say, it’s going to rain, and rain enough that it will put a bit of a damper on (but won’t end) the fire season.

I’ll take it — just a day of rain to take the edge off the harsh, dry end of summer and our drought. I call it a reprieve, knowing that a reprieve can be just a postponement of what’s to come.

A BART Memory

Aboard BART, May 2012.

Back when San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit trains had fabric-covered uplholstery , the seating inspired a story: “On BART Trains, the Seats Are Taken (by Bacteria).” That piece was published in 2011 by The Bay Citizen, a short-lived regional news site that partnered with The New York Times, and it disclosed that the fabric seats were crawling with the nastiest-sounding of microbes. Soon thereafter, BART installed vinyl-covered upholstery— easier to clean, when you get around to cleaning it — on all trains.

Of course, the fabric seats, whose reported rampant filth I was blissfully unaware of and thus unconcerned about after 35 years riding the system, wasn’t why I took this shot back in 2012. Those origami flowers someone left behind were one of the nicest things I’ve ever seen on BART or any public transit. They also remind me of “Blade Runner.”

Today’s Top Finding: Mellifera and Mellifera

A European honey bee, Apis mellifera, harvests nectar from a blossom of black sage, Salvia mellifera.

We dug up our lawn over the last two or three years after a long period of drought-induced neglect that had turned the grass patch into a weed patch. In its place we have created what I call “Kate’s Meadow,” a semi-tidy but very colorful collection of mostly native flowering plants.

I went out the other day to take pictures of one of the plants, a black sage that’s been attracting lots of bees. I’ll occasionally post my pictures of plants and animals on Flickr, and when I do, I’ll look up the species name. I was curious when I saw that honey bees, Apis mellifera, share an epithet with black sage, Salvia mellifera (the epithet being the second word in the binomial genus/species name).

What’s the explanation for the shared epithet?

Apis is Latin for bee, and mellifera is Latin for “honey bearing.” Swedish taxonomist Linnaeus designated European honey bees as Apis mellifera, honey-bearing bee, in the 18th century. According to some sources, he quickly regarded that name a mistake and attempted to change it to Apis mellifica — honey-making bee. But under later-adopted rules of scientific nomenclature, the older, “mistaken” name takes precedence.

Black sage came by the designation Salvia mellifera thanks to U.S. botanist Edward Lee Greene, a member of the University of California faculties in the 1880s and ’90s. In a series of papers published under the title “Pittonia,” Greene set out to correct what he viewed as the misclassification of North American sages, adding them to the genus Salvia and subtracting them from Audibertia, used by the botanist George Bentham in the 1830s.

The only clue I can readily to Greene’s use of mellifera as the epithet for this species is his comment in describing the black sage as “one of the principal bee-plants.”

Black sage, Salvia mellifera, flowering in Kate’s Meadow.

Anniversaries Not in the News

The house in the woods. 2018.

This is a mini-post that would likely fit in a tweet, but: Sitting here, back at work after a week off, it occurred to me that this Friday is June 10. And June 10 is an important family date: It’s the fifty-sixth anniversary of my last day in sixth grade at Talala Elementary in Park Forest — that’s tah-LAH-lah, for those wanting a pronouncer — and of the day we moved into the new house Mom and Dad had built in the woods just outside town. And strange to say: Though I lived there for just a decade, that house and those woods felt and still feel like the place I grew up, the place I’d inhabit if somehow I traveled back in time to “home.”

Road Blog: Going South

Highway 33, Kern County.

We’re down in Los Angeles for a few days. The quickest way of getting here, obviously, is to fly. It’s a one-hour flight. But we generally drive, and that’s mostly because we like seeing the country along the way.

However.

The main route between the Bay Area and L.A. is Interstate 5. And while a lot of the territory between metropolises is interesting and picturesque, and all of it is worth seeing and contemplating, that particular highway is a real drag. The volume of traffic can be intense, for one thing. For another, many, many, many, many drivers tend to camp out in what is known unironically in much of California as “the fast lane.” That’s especially true if a driver sees a truck somewhere up ahead — “up ahead” meaning “within sight.” The appearance of truck traffic, which in California has a 55 mph maximum speed limit, causes many drivers to get over into the left (a.k.a. “passing”) lane minutes before they will actually overtake the truck. Once past a truck, many drivers will sight another truck up ahead and figure they might as well just stay over there in that left lane until they pass that one, too. The result is long strings of vehicles lined up in the left lane, even when the right lane is empty. Not only are the lines of “fast lane” traffic long, they usually feature dramatic slowdowns and speed-ups as more cautious drivers brake to maintain some sort of minimum distance between them and the vehicle they’re following; sometimes the slowdowns occur because faster traffic has come up in the right lane and merges into the long line of left-lane traffic; sometimes the trucks get into the act when a slightly faster-moving truck moves to the left to pass a slow-poke semi.

That’s pretty much the way I-5 works most of the 275 or 300 miles or so down the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, and it’s kind of a drag. Yesterday, with less than half of that part of the drive done, I commented to Kate that I wished there was an alternative. Of course there are alternatives if you’re willing to take a much less direct (more time-consuming) route. But having voiced the thought of taking another way, we acted on it. I got off I-5 at Highway 41, the main route between Fresno and Paso Robles and the coast, took it west to Highway 33, then headed south through the Kern County oilfields, and across the Coast Ranges to Ojai and Ventura. I rode the same route on my bicycle years ago, and the memory of the trip across the mountains is vivid. The road did not disappoint yesterday, either.

We finished by taking 101 from Ventura into L.A., arriving early in the evening and well after the most excruciating hours of Friday afternoon traffic. We may have spent an extra couple of hours on the way than we would have if we had stayed on I-5, in part because we could stop as often as we wanted along the way and there was nothing pushing us (me) to go fast. We got where we were going, not necessarily soul-refreshed, but maybe a little less beat up from the tension of a long drive.

Highway 33, Ventura County.

What We All Know

I’m old enough to remember when Charles Whitman hauled a footlocker full of guns and ammunition up to the top of the University of Texas tower and started shooting people. It was the summer of 1966, and part of the horror — and fascination for my 12-year-old self, to be honest — was that the mass murder Whitman carried out was unique. Nothing quite like it had happened in many years, and it would be years before we saw anything similar.

But now?

So many massacres have happened so frequently over so many years that the details now blur and each episode of death and destruction brings to mind others that aren’t so far in the past. A massacre at a Texas school? Without thinking too hard about it, several other school massacres come to mind: Newtown, Connecticut; Littleton, Colorado; Stockton, California; Parkland, Florida. To name just a few.

We’ve gotten used to that — the sudden appearance of the teenager or 20-something bent on slaughter, the death, the litany of thoughts and prayers, the outrage and vows of action. And we wait for the next killer to make his entrance. (I started trying to write this the evening of the white racist 18-year-old’s terror attack on the supermarket in Buffalo. Even though it is just a matter of time before the “next killer makes his entrance,” I’m stunned at how quickly the Texas attack followed the one in New York.)

As a people, if that’s what we can be called, we’ve surrendered to those who insist that their freedom means you accepting the minute-to-minute possibility that anyone you stumble into — on the street, at the store, at work, at school, at church, on the train — can murder you and everyone around you on a whim, for any reason or for no reason at all.

Kate, my wife, went off to spend the day as a substitute teacher this morning. I kissed her goodbye, and when I did, I thought about the possibility that she might not come home later today because someone with a gun had settled on her school as a target. I didn’t say anything, and off she went. The odds are everything will be fine. And that’s exactly what the children, the parents, the teachers and police and everyone else in Uvalde, Texas, thought when they began their routines yesterday morning.

None of this is beyond our capacity to begin changing it. It’s hard to have faith in that notion right now. But would it be so hard, for instance, to ban the sale of assault rifles to people under 21? Or to finally move on a bill to require universal background checks? Will it take a 10-million-parent march on Washington to make those things happen? I don’t know. But one way to ensure that changes like that never occur is to remain silent. And we all still have a voice.

Saturday Rabbit Hole: The $100,000 Bill

The $100,000 gold certificate, printed for only three weeks in 1934-35.
Reverse of U.S. $100,000 note.

The question came up a few mornings ago: What’s the largest denomination currency the U.S. Treasury has ever released? I had vague recall of a $100,000 bill with Woodrow Wilson’s picture on it. Or was it Salmon P. Chase? It was easy to find out.

Per the U.S. Treasure’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing:

“The largest note ever printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was the $100,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1934. These notes were printed from December 18, 1934 through January 9, 1935 and were issued by the Treasurer of the United States to Federal Reserve Banks (FRB) only against an equal amount of gold bullion held by the Treasury. These notes were used for transactions between FRBs and were not circulated among the general public.”

And Salmon P. Chase is on the no-longer-circulated $10,000 bill, if you were wondering.

In any case, I liked the images of the 100-grand note and thought: That’s a quick, easy post I can put up without spending most of an afternoon on it.

Or maybe not.

A second page on the engraving bureau’s site advises that the $100,000 note “cannot be legally held by currency note collectors.”

Is there a rabbit hole I can go down here?

There is. So let’s get to it.

A Smithsonian Institution page on the $100,000 bill also mentions the prohibition on private individuals owning these notes. The page allows public comments, and a few have been left there over the years. The most recent comment is signed by a Richard M. Sales, who said this:

I possess several of these 1934 Gold Certificate Banknotes presented to me personally by former Heads of State and Sultanates. I would like to know the specific legal statute that states I cannot own or sell them. It is my understanding that the 1974 Executive Order issued by President Gerald Ford released the restriction of owning, trading or selling of all gold certificate banknotes issued by the US Bureau of Engraving. Can I sell these publicly or must I redeem the face value from the US Treasury?

Richard M. Sales

Thu, 2021-12-09 10:05

What an intriguing possibility — someone out there in the world who actually has gotten their hands on not just one, but several of these notes.

Following standard rabbit-hole protocol, I pondered that possibility for a few seconds, then googled “Richard M. Sales.” If you do the same — use the quotation marks — you’ll find United States v. Sales, a federal criminal prosecution, near the top of the results.

The case involves a December 2017 wire fraud indictment issued by a federal grand jury in Eugene, Oregon. The indictment alleges Richard M. Sales scammed would-be investors out of $900,000 as part of a scheme that promised as much as 100 percent return on investment within as little as 60 days.

From what source was this incredible river of returns supposed to flow?

“Although Sales’ description of the details of the investment varied,” the indictment says, “generally, the investors were led to believe that Sales possessed the ability to recover hundreds of millions of dollars worth of U.S. Treasury Notes that were located in East Asia and the Pacific.”

And according to the grand jury, Sales assured investors he was well connected:

“Sales represented that he was the ‘Commissaris’ of a secret group comprised of heads of state, world-renowned economists, the Vatican, and others. He claimed the ‘doctrine of our syndicate’ carried the signatures of John F. Kennedy, Pope John Paul VI [sic], Golda Meir, Chang Kai Shek [sic}, Lee Kuan Yew, Queen Victoria and many others.”

Queen Victoria!

Federal agents arrested Sales in Indonesia and brought him back to the United States to answer the charges in early 2018. As the case proceeded, his fanciful claims about his access to heads of state and immeasurable riches raised questions about whether he could assist in his own defense. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ordered a competency evaluation, and two M.D.s and a licensed counselor met with the defendant. Aiken’s later opinion summarized their findings:

Both Dr. Truhn and Dr. Guyton diagnosed defendant with delusional disorder, grandiose type. Defendant’s alleged delusions involve his self-reported previous work and life history. In short, defendant told his examiners that over later portion of his life he was involved in high level international diplomacy and humanitarian efforts. He represents that he has met, interacted with, and advised world leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin among others. According to the reports, defendant maintained that he has access to large sums of money and assets related to the Bank of China which he used for his humanitarian efforts. At oral argument, defendant explained the history of some of these beliefs which involve thousands of years in history and assets worth trillions of dollars.

But Judge Aiken noted “the diagnosis of a mental disorder alone does not mean defendant is incompetent to proceed to trial.” She found that other evidence — Sales’ clear understanding of the proceedings and the charges against him and his ongoing consultations with his defense counsel — showed he was competent.

In the end, no jury heard the case. Sales pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and in October 2021 was sentenced to time served in jail and three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $1,028,010 in restitution to his victims.

Sales’ attorney noted in his sentencing memorandum that his 72-year-old client was recently divorced, that he was suffering from heart trouble, and that his sole source of income was a $924 monthly check from Social Security. I’ll add that the terms of his restitution agreement require him to pay at least $25 a month to help liquidate his $1 million restitution debt.

And that’s that, except to note that Judge Aiken passed final judgment on Sales on December 13, 2021. That was four days after Sales, or someone using his name, was inquiring about the legality of the “several” $100,000 notes he claimed to have in his possession.