Road Trip Postscript: People Along the Way

Michael Hasch, a seasonal National Park Service ranger and battlefield interpreter at the Little Bighorn National Monument, during a talk on September 4, 2021.

I wish I could say that in a trip that covered something like 6,000 miles over 23 days that we met lots of people and had deep conversations that led to profound personal discovery. We didn’t. And maybe the stats mentioned in that first sentence explain part of the reason. We were actually actively traveling for just 15 or 16 days, which means we were covering 400 miles a day on average. That’s nothing for The Great American Road Warrior, for whom 500 or 600 or even 1,000 miles a day is routine (I once took a trip back to Chicago from Berkeley with my son Eamon that covered 2,100 miles in all of 40 hours, even with an overnight stop in Cheyenne, Wyoming). The point being: Even at 400 miles a day, the modern traveler isn’t going to spend a lot of time in intimate conversation with random acquaintances on the road. Even if you’re the kind of person who easily strikes up a conversation with a total stranger, which mostly I am not.

On the other hand, the conversations that do happen tend to stand out.

When John and I stopped at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, one of the main destinations on our trip, we encountered a group at the top of what has long been known as Last Stand Hill, the place where Lt. Col. George A. Custer and the remnants of his command died together on June 25, 1876. People were listening to a ranger named Michael Hasch recount the progress of the battle. I was impressed by Hasch’s command of the lore surrounding the battle, including the many first-person accounts from Native American participants. One moment I remember in particular from his talk: The moment when a Cheyenne named Lame White Man rallied fellow warriors to the attack by shouting, “Come! We can kill them all!” Hasch has a deep voice, and it carries. He spoke slowly, deliberately, and when he intoned those words, it was like the moment was coming alive again. After his presentation, I talked to Hasch and discovered he is a former Pittsburgh newspaper reporter who began volunteering at the battlefield a decade ago. One of the people listening to that conversation was a woman who used to be a local news anchor in San Francisco, and that led to yet another conversation with a stranger. But that’s another story.

So, that’s one encounter during our trip across the country. Here are a couple of others:

Laura and Jamie at the top of Teton Pass, Wyoming.

We met Laura and Jamie at the top of Teton Pass, Wyoming (elevation 8,432 feet above sea level). We had driven up the west side on our way from Idaho to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. They arrived pushing a heavily-laden tandem bike up the east side.

Jamie and Laura’s custom-built tandem, complete with trailer. I believe they said the total weight of their outfit was about 200 pounds — no joke when climbing steep mountain roads.

What was their story? They said they had both quit their jobs, sold their home and most of their belongings and had a custom tandem built. Their plan was (presumably still is) to spend five years cycling around, mostly in Europe. They had ridden from Connecticut by way of Louisiana to get to this spot on Wyoming Highway 22, and planned to cycle up the west flank of the Tetons before heading east into Yellowstone. After that, they’d make their way east and south to Florida, where they planned to spend the winter before heading to Europe. The biggest impression they made on me was how cheerful they were after pushing their machine up the last two miles of busy roadway up to the pass. I, too, have pushed my bike up steep mountain roads, and I’m not sure I was smiling all the way.

What more can I say about these two? Godspeed, Laura and Jamie.

The motive for our road trip (or excuse, maybe) was to commemorate what would have been our dad’s 100th birthday in early September by visiting his birthplace and first hometown in northwestern Minnesota. We got to Marshall County a few days after the actual centennial, and spent much of the day taking pictures at a rural Lutheran church where our grandfather, Sjur Brekke, was pastor a century ago. The we headed to Alvarado, population 300, where Sjur, our grandmother, Otilia, and dad lived (and where Sjur saw to another Lutheran congregation). After that, we drove the five or six miles east on Minnesota Highway 1 to Warren, the county seat, where Dad was actually born. One thing I had discovered about Warren during a 2018 trip through the area (and somehow had missed during a couple of much earlier visits) is that the town’s drive-in theater, the Sky-Vu, is still in business.

John and I pulled in to the Sky-Vu to take a look. Like everyplace else where we stopped for more than a couple of minutes, we brought out cameras and started strolling around taking pictures. Next door, a man on a riding mower was cutting the grass on a sprawling lawn in front of a big ranch-style house painted the same pink color as the concession stand/projection booth at the theater. After about five minutes, he drove the mower over to see what we were up to.

“Your place?” I said. Or something like that. And it was. His name: Leonard Novak, and he said he’d bought the Sky-Vu in the early 1970s and that he and his family have been running it since; a grandson is doing most of the work now. As it happens, KFAI in Minneapolis did a nice radio documentary about 10 years ago featuring the Novaks and the Sky-Vu in which Leonard says he doesn’t foresee the theater closing, ever: “We’re the only one (drive-in) between Winnipeg and Minneapolis.” And judging from the fact it’s still open, and still showing first-run movies, maybe he’s right.

Leonard Novak. Owner, Sky-Vu Theater, Warren, Minnesota.

Road Trip Postscript: Once It Held Laughter, Once It Held Dreams

Near Rushville, Sheridan County, Nebraska.
"You can find all kinds of ruins on the Great Plains; in dry regions, things last a long time. When an enterprise fails on the plains, people usually just walk away and leave it. With empty land all around, there is not much reason to tear down and rebuild on the same site. ..." — Ian Frazier, "Great Plains"
"For every surviving ranch, I passed a dozen ruined houses. The prairie was dotted about with wrecks. Their windows, empty of glass, were full of sky. Strips of ice-blue showed between the rafters. Some had lost their footing and tumbled into their cellars. ... Skewed and splayed, the derelicts made up a distinctive local architecture." — Jonathan Raban, "Bad Land"

In mid-September, my brother John and I drove west from Chicago on our return trip to California. We didn’t follow anything like a standard route. From western Illinois across the prairies and into the plains of eastern Wyoming we stuck almost exclusively to two-lane roads, or at least non-interstates: U.S. 30 and 20 across Iowa; Nebraska Highway 12 and U.S. 20 again (after veering briefly into South Dakota along the Missouri River) across the Cornhusker State; and U.S. 20 once more until it merged with Interstate 25 near Casper, Wyoming. (Here’s a collection of pictures from both the east- and westbound legs of the trip.)

One morning along the way, we backtracked from Chadron, Nebraska, to Rushville, then headed north toward the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Reservation just across the South Dakota border. The site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre is on the reservation; it’s a spot I’ve long wanted to visit, and it was sort of an obvious bookend for our eastbound stop at the Little Big Horn battlefield.

A few miles up the road toward Pine Ridge we passed the house above. Both John and I, who had brought film cameras to record our travels, said we needed to remember to stop at the place on the way back from Wounded Knee. Three or four hours later, I was speeding back south when John said, “There it is.” “Really? Are you sure? I don’t think so. That doesn’t look like the same place to me.” “No — that’s the place.”

I hit the brakes hard, and we turned onto a dirt road adjacent to the house. I took note of a man on a tractor about a quarter-mile away and wondered whether he had some connection to the house. But I didn’t think about that for long. We broke out our cameras, including John’s 5-by-7 pinhole camera, a couple of older Nikons, and one of several rangefinder models I had brought along.

After about 15 minutes, I saw that the man on the tractor had stopped his plowing, climbed down, and was walking toward the house. I more than half-expected he would ask what the heck we were doing on his land. Instead, he said something like, “Picture day, huh, fellas?” Yes, the house was on his family’s land, but he was pretty genial and really just curious about what we were doing. It turned out that this was far from the first time he’d encountered passers-by who had stopped to photograph the house.

And about the house: The farmer/rancher, who told us his family name was Viher and that he’d been born here just after World War II , said it had been owned by a family named Rush (maybe the Rushes of Rushville?) and was last occupied in the 1940s. Mr. Viher said there was a problem with occasional vandalism on the property — at some point, someone had come along and burned down a barn adjacent to the house; a half-burned shed still stood.

On the Viher Ranch, Sheridan County, Nebraska.

There’s probably an essay waiting to be written here about why ruins like this attract our attention, but given the fact it’s taken me four months to sit down and write even a bare description of the visit, this is not it.

I did think to ask Mr. Viher if I could take his picture before he went back to plowing. He was agreeable.

Mr. Viher, September 2021.

Afterward, I did something I’d never done before: I had the picture printed, figured out the Vihers’ address on their ranch, and sent it to him. I didn’t hear back for a while and wouldn’t have been too surprised to get no response. But on New Year’s Eve, I got an email thanking me for the picture and respondng with a collection of snapshots of the house and other ranch scenes.

And those shots, if nothing else, show me that that picturesque wreck of a house out there on the plains speaks just as much to at least some of the folks living out there as it does to the random traveler with a camera.

Road Blog: The 100th Meridian

Nebraska Highway 12, the “Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway,” in Keya Paha County. Everyone we encountered seemed law-abiding. Someone stopped while we were taking pictures of the sign to make sure we were OK.

We left Chicago on Wednesday morning and made it to Sioux City, Iowa, following what’s become a typical late-ish start (10:30, say, due to how slow I am to get ready) and quitting just at dark. It means we’re on the road for 10 or 11 hours each day.

Thursday we left Sioux City at about the usual time and spent the day zig-zagging back and forth across the Nebraska and South Dakota border as we headed west on two-lane roads, mostly on Nebraska’s Highway 12 and, further west, on U.S. 20. Four hundred miles or so later, we wound up in Chadron, Nebraska.

Someone — one would guess tourism-minded state and local officials and hopeful Chamber of Commerce folks — has styled Highway 12 “the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway.” I can attest that the route is scenic, with sweeping vistas of the rolling country along the Missouri River on the road’s eastern end that transition slowly into the high plains and beginning of the Sand Hills on the west. My only complaint, and you knew there had to be one, is that there’s no ready explanation along the road or on the Outlaw Trail websites about why, precisely, it’s called that.

One of the sites advertises an “adventure of friendly people, scenic sights and the history of Native American Tribes, outlaws, cowboys and pioneers. … Communities have museums waiting to be explored and murals waiting to be viewed. This region offers seasonal opportunities to hunt fauna or flora with arms or camera.  Please check on the current Covid situation.”

Highway 12 crosses the 100th Meridian west of Greenwich in Keya Paha County (‘keya paha is “turtle hill” in the Dakota language, per what I see online). I have an app on my phone that gives a very precise reading (to four decimal places) of latitude and longitude. When we got to the approximate locale, we parked at a crossroad and I walked about 1,000 feet back to the spot the app indicated was very nearly precisely the exact location of the meridian (“very nearly precisely” because the app would jump between 99.9996 and 100.0005 degrees with a single stride east or west).

John and I both took pictures to commemorate the spot. I wish I’d taken a shot of the little mark I gouged out on the road’s shoulder to mark the location.

See that fencepost? It’s just about exactly on the 100th Meridian.
Nebraska Highway 12, looking east into the humid eastern lowlands from the 100th Meridian.
My brother John lining up a pinhole camera 100th Meridian shot on sparsely traveled Nebraska Highway 12.

Why bother with the 100th Meridian? In the late 19th century, John Wesley Powell, the early explorer of the Grand Canyon and first head of the U.S. Geological Survey, proposed that line of longitude as marking the boundary between the wetter more humid areas of the eastern United States and the more arid regime of the West. Subsequent research found Powell’s observation to be spot on — though his other important ideas about the implications for development of the western United States have been largely ignored. More recently, scientists have been assessing how the dry transition that occurs along the 100th Meridian appears to be moving east due to the influence of climate change. You can read more here: “Whither the 100th Meridian? The Once and Future Physical and Human Geography of America’s Arid–Humid Divide. Part I: The Story So Far.

I’ll also note before posting that we have not one but two 100th Meridian museums on the Plains: one in Cozad, Nebraska, one in Erick, Oklahoma. Next time I’m roaming around out here. …

A Moment Amid the Turmoil

I came across the photograph below in the excellent slideshow the Los Angeles Times posted summarizing two days of protests and associated unrest in the city. (The slideshow is part of the Times’ running story on the George Floyd protests. The large version of the image is here.)

To my eye — and I’ve got one good one — this is a thrillingly beautiful image. The combination of the deserted freeway (with the completely jammed adjacent lanes visible), the skateboarder in perfect focus, the police vehicles out of focus down the slope, the spectators on the overpass in the background recording the scene: such subtly balanced elements.

And it’s just a moment. It passed in the smallest fraction of a second. The skateboarder was in motion, no doubt, and everything else, including the photographer (the Times’ Wally Skalij), likely shifted slightly, too, before the next frame fired.

The skateboarder’s relaxed body language belies the urgency and strangeness of his situation. There’s more assessment than defiance in his stance. I have no idea what he was headed for, what he was thinking, whether he was looking for an escape route, or whether there was any way off the freeway without getting arrested. The whole scene kind of reminds me of Steve McQueen trying to outrun the Germans in the motorcycle sequence in “The Great Escape.”

Last, reality has been suspended here. A man engages a photographer in a space that neither would ever inhabit together except in the midst of a catastrophe. The tragedy that brought both of them to this spot is dimly visible here in the flashing emergency lights in the distance. But the pain and rage sweeping over the city and hanging over the world beyond, the police officer throttling the life out of a man on the pavement, the terrible indifference to the dying man’s pleas, have been pushed nearly out of sight. For just this moment.

Memorial Days

‘Group of soldiers sitting on truck with boy,’ African American Museum & Library at Oakland Photograph Collection.

There is something I love about this picture. Something about pride and camaraderie and self-awareness, maybe, in what must have been a hell of a difficult situation. And then there’s the kid posing with this group of GIs.

But before I get into that, where did this picture come from? Someone posted it on Facebook, in the Oakland history group, as a Memorial Day tribute, I think. The picture was captioned there “A 1945 picture of Soldiers in Oakland, CA.” As commenters quickly pointed out, the background in the shot suggests someplace in Europe — France, or Italy maybe — but not Oakland. And then there’s the kid posing with the group. Maybe these troops were among those who had just liberated his town from the Germans.

Is there some way of nailing down who and where these men are? I’d love to see whether anything is written on the back of the photo. It’s a holiday, though, and I have no idea whether the library that holds this photograph has been open at all during our lockdown the last couple of months. Maybe I’ll find that out tomorrow.

There is one potentially helpful detail in the picture: The numbers on the right side (left side in the picture) of the truck’s bumper: 3A-444Q.

My guess was that “3A” stands for “3rd Army,” the force that Gen. George Patton commanded and which is renowned for, among other things, its rapid push across France in the summer and early fall of 1944, after D-Day. Then maybe the 444Q stood for — what? A regimental unit?

I found a post — because you can find a post about just about anything when you go looking — that helped sort out the truck number. It includes a picture of vehicles attached to the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, originally part of the 3rd Army. The markings on those vehicles read “3A-442-I.” From there, I just looked for names of units numbered “444.” I came across a mention of a 444th Quartermaster Truck Company, described as a segregated, all-black unit.

Where were they deployed during the war? It appears they were attached to the 3rd Army’s 4th Armored Division in France and Germany in 1944 and ’45. They’re cited as having played a role in several major actions: Arracourt, the Battle of the Bulge and the final Allied offensive into Germany in March and April 1945. They were likely part of the legendary “Red Ball Express,” responsible for supplying the 3rd Army during its race toward Germany.

The Bulge Bugle, the official publication of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Inc., mentioned the 444th in its May 2005 edition:

“… Many an unsung deed of heroism, endurance and devotion to duty were quietly chalked up by the Third’s QM truckers. They rolled on unceasingly through German strafing, bullets, artillery fire, ice and snow, fatigue, hunger, blackouts and every other imaginable obstacle.

Trucks of the 444th QM Truck Company moved the 4th Armored Division from the Saar to Belgium in 17 hours. In their usual fashion the 4th Armored Division fought their way through to relieve the heroic bastion of Bastogne and the tide began to turn in our favor. …”

I can’t find a lot more on the 444th. A couple of records concern company members who died during their service and are buried in cemeteries in France and England. One document concerns a soldier who was convicted of murdering a German civilian during the last month of the war. Somewhere out there, there’s an Army publication called “How the 444 Rolled,” but I can’t find any evidence of it online or in libraries.

Looking at that picture, though, makes me want to know about the men there: what they had come through to get to that street, wherever it was; what they went on to; what was waiting for them in the United States when they got back from a brutal tour of duty. On the off chance anyone who knows more about the 444th comes across this, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can track down the original of the picture to see if there’s anything on the back.

Mariposas

A monarch butterfly, emerged May 2020.

This has been the month of butterflies. We had a stand of milkweed in the front yard, Asclepias curassavica, or what I’ve heard called tropical milkweed. According to this source, it’s native to many islands across the Caribbean and parts of South America and introduced here in California. Monarch butterflies are partial to this plant, as well as other varieties of milkweed. This particular species is believed to pose a problem for the butterflies, though. It doesn’t get cold enough here in the winter to kill the plant. So the leaves and anything living on them survive from one butterfly season to the next.

One of the things that might live on the leaves is a parasitic protozoan called Ophryocystic elektroskirrha. Called OE in the world of monarch studies, the parasite can be debilitating, causing deformed wings in some monarchs and weakening others. The biological consensus seems to be that OE is everywhere. Adult monarchs carry it and deposit it on plants where they feed or lay their eggs. Eggs can be infected. More commonly, monarch caterpillars become infected when they eat infected vegetation, and infected caterpillars metamorphose in their chrysalides to infected adults that continue the cycle.

We didn’t know from OE when I picked up those plants a couple years ago. And we didn’t know about it when I grew a bunch of new plants from seed last year and planted them in the front yard. (We also didn’t know about a lot of the other surprisingly commonplace organisms that can come along and kill monarchs, either, but that’s another story.) By last fall, we had read about OE. But we left the tropical milkweed standing because, well, it was there and no monarchs were around.

But late in the winter, there was some monarch mating activity we didn’t witness. By late March, monarch caterpillars had appeared in the milkweed. I only saw a few at first, but over the coming weeks, we counted about 40 of them in our small milkweed patch, all seemingly at a similar stage of development. They systematically devoured the leaves on one plant after another until they had stripped all the milkweed bare.

Asclepias curassavica, meet Danaus plexippus.

Then the caterpillars migrated to various spots around the front entrance of the house. Kate counted 30 chrysalides by the time the great pupation was finished. The stumpy remains of a pomegranate bush was the most popular chrysalis site. But we also found them on our mailbox, on one of the pillars of our front porch, on the porch stairs, on a stalk of fennel, on random pieces of wood, and next door on a neighbor’s bicycle lock cable, dog leash, fence and gate.

Chrysalis on bike cable; pupated April 19.

A couple weeks ago, they started emerging. Twenty-five so far, we think. (Kate, the science teacher, has mapped and charted the location of each. She’s also interested all the neighborhood kids in what’s going on, so we sometimes have a sort of free-form, socially distanced classroom in the front yard.)

Since we knew about OE and its effects, we were a little concerned about the condition of the butterflies that would emerge from all the chrysalides. All but about five have appeared to be healthy, emerging with no problems, all parts intact, and flying off very quickly after their wings dried.

The bike-cable chrysalis; eclosed on May 7.

What about the rest, the ones that have not appeared healthy or died before they emerged? Well, there’s another story there. Complete with actual butterfly names. To be continued.

***

A couple of days ago, the phrase Rancho Mariposa came into my head while I was describing the parade of monarch’s appearing on the estate here.

“Mariposa” is Spanish for “butterfly,” and it’s a street name here in Berkeley and over in San Francisco and I’m betting in many, many other towns. The name has been stuck on a Sierra foothills county, on that county’s biggest town, and on a creek that runs through both. “Mariposa” was apparently first used as a California place name there.

It’s easy enough to imagine how the name came to be. Someone saw a bunch of butterflies somewhere and was inspired to name the place for the insects. You hope for a more particular story, and there is one in which butterflies aren’t lovely, fragile ephemera but a memorable nuisance.

An 1806 Spanish expedition struggling through an unattractive stretch on the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley encountered an unattractive-looking stream. A priest with the party, Pedro Muñoz, recorded what they found there.

September 27: In the morning we crossed the river and, taking a northerly direction, we pushed through about a league of very high, thick tules, in the midst of which could be seen a few clearings well covered with grass. After traveling about three leagues, more or less, we stopped at a stream which runs from east to west. It has no running water, only a few pools, where we were forced to pitch camp. From the point where we left the tule swamps to this place the land is really miserable. Salt flats and alkali patches, with innumerable ground-squirrel burrows are all that one can see. There are at this spot about sixty oak trees and a few willows in the bed of the stream. The forage was extremely scanty, and that the country appeared to have been burned over by the Indians did not conceal the fact that the land is very poor. Consequently there is little pasturage.

This place is called the Mariposas, “the butterflies,” because of their great number, especially at night. In the morning they become extremely troublesome, for their aggressiveness reaches the point where they obscure the light of the sun. They came at us so hard that one of them flew into the ear of a corporal of the expedition. It caused him much discomfort and no little effort to get it out.

Road Blog: Lone Star

Destination Dallas.

I landed at Love Field.

I drove by Parkland Hospital.

I scanned the skyline for the book depository building. Didn’t see it, though.

I drove (quickly) through Waco. I wondered if smoke had been visible in the city.

I saw the turnoff for Killeen and thought about Luby’s.

I got to Austin, and the first building I recognized was Charles Whitman’s tower.

City Planning

I have spent part of the evening trying to find some statistics on the East Bay’s old Key System — our local streetcar system that once upon a time ran through Berkeley and Oakland and neighboring cities and crossed the Bay Bridge to the late and mostly unlamented Transbay Terminal.

I didn’t find, yet, the stats I was looking for — what the peak average transbay ridership was — but I did stumble across a 1915 report that laid out city plans for Oakland and Berkeley and talks about the role of the Key System. I find old studies and reports like this fascinating when contemplating the current landscape and wondering where it all went wrong.

I’ve hardly looked at the report, partly because I was stopped by this declaration on the page facing the preface:

CITY PLANNING IS INSURANCE AGAINST WASTE OF PUBLIC AND PRIVATE FUNDS.

City planning means co-ordination of the activities that make for the growth of the city, especially the activities of railroad and harbor engineers, landscape architects, street-building and civil engineers, builders of factories, of offices, of public buildings and dwelling houses. Without this pre-planning co-ordination, clashes between these different activities, unsatisfactory results and most expensive rearrangements, become unavoidable. City planning therefore does not mean additional expenditure of money, but it means an INSURANCE AGAINST INEFFICIENT EXPENDITURE of the enormous sums that go — in the regular course of events — into the development of a progressive city.

Sounds straightforward.

‘A Tremendous Job of Public Conditioning’

I’ve been reading some of Mari Sandoz‘s works: “Old Jules,” her biography of her father; “Crazy Horse, the Strange Man of the Oglalas”; and “Cheyenne Autumn,” the story of the tribe’s 1878-79 exodus from Oklahoma to Montana.

All of the books were researched and/or written in the 1930s and ’40s, but they’ve aged well, maybe because they are unique in their perspective: a native daughter’s inquiry into her settler father’s brutal and brutalizing past; a white woman who spent so much time with both tribal people that she produced that somehow channel their experience (that’s not just me saying that; Vine Deloria Jr., who chronicled his Sioux people and was fiercely critical of white culture’s misunderstanding of Native Americans, wrote an introduction to “Crazy Horse” and called it “a work of real genius”).

Here’s just one passage, from Sandoz’s preface to “Cheyenne Autumn,” that I find strikingly modern in its perspective — especially in its observation of how, and how rapidly, the white American invasion overwhelmed the Plains tribes:

The Sioux and Cheyenne, Sandoz writes:

… had their “first real encounter with the United States Army in the Grattan fight of 1854. At that time the white men in the region were only a few little islands in a great sea of Indians and buffaloes. Twenty-three years later, in 1877, the buffaloes were about gone and the last of the Indians driven to the reservations—only a few little islands of Indians in a great sea of whites. 

This exploit of modern man is unrivaled in history: the destruction of a whole way of life and the expropriation of a race from a region of 350,000,000 acres in so short a time. It entailed first of all a tremendous job of public conditioning. In the 1830s and 1840s the buffalo Indians were considered the most romantic of peoples, drawing visitors from everywhere. Such men as Prince Paul of Würtemberg, Prince Maximilian, Sir William Drummond Stewart, Catlin, Parkman, and hundreds of others came to ride in the surrounds, to eat roast hump ribs, to study and become one with this great Red Hunter. 

But that was before the white man wanted these Indian lands. The discovery of gold and the rise of economic and political unrest over much of the civilized world, with millions of men hungry for a new start, changed that, and suddenly the romantic Red Hunter was a dirty, treacherous, bloodthirsty savage standing in the way of progress, in the path of manifest destiny. By 1864, with the nation at war ostensibly to free the black man from slavery, the public had been prepared to accept a policy of extermination for the red. …

… After this period of twenty-three years that turned a free hunting people into sullen agency sitters, there was a short series of rebellions. With the buffalo gone, the starving Indians, dismounted and disarmed, were easily shuffled off to land on which no white man could conceivably make a living. Congress now felt free to initiate more cuts in the appropriations for their helpless wards, dropping them far below the treaty stipulations, often to actual starvation levels. By midsummer, 1877, the quiet and peaceful Nez Perce were making their desperate break for survival. The next year the Sioux, Bannocks, Arapahos, Poncas, and others rebelled too, hoping to return to their old homes where the children were healthy and the cooking pots once held meat.”

— Mari Sandoz, “Cheyenne Autumn”

By the way, this week is the 140th anniversary of the Cheyennes’ attempt to break out of Fort Robinson, the northwestern Nebraska outpost where part of the band that escaped from Oklahoma in September 1878 was being held. The breakout, in which more than 60 of the roughly 140 Cheyennes held inside an empty, unheated barracks died, followed the Army’s attempt to starve the imprisoned group into returning to Oklahoma.

Hamburg and Paradise

The other day, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — Cal Fire, for short — caused a little bit of a ripple when it issued a report that likened the conflagration that recently consumed most of the town of Paradise with the World War II Allied bombing of the German city of Hamburg.

The comparison was included in a Cal Fire green sheet — a preliminary report the agency does to review the circumstances surrounding firefighter deaths and injuries. I’ve become a regular reader of the reports mostly because I’ve been editing stories by a colleague in the KQED newsroom who started getting them several years ago.

The green sheet on the Camp Fire — the blaze that killed 86 people, by the current count, and destroyed 14,000 residences in Paradise and two nearby communities in Butte County — came out late last week. The bulk of the report recounted how five firefighters suffered burns during the first 24 hours of the blaze. But in setting the scene for how the injuries, sustained in two separate incidents, occurred, the report also sets the scene: the drought, the high winds, the low humidity that helped the fire become so monstrously destructive so rapidly.

The green sheet drops this remark about the fire’s character:

“When the fire reached the town of Paradise, an urban firestorm began to spread from building to building, independent of the vegetation, similar to the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany, in 1943. … It is evident in many areas occupied by high densities of residential and commercial structures that the heat from the fire was transferred horizontally to other structures and ground vegetation by strong winds. “

I like a striking historical reference as much as the next human. But the Cal Fire offers no further context or detail about “the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany, in 1943.” Maybe it was a super-bad wildfire.

Of course, the year “1943” suggests a connection to a major historical event that’s known even to most ahistorically minded Americans: World War II. Even if you’re not a historian, you may be familiar with the heavy bombing that took place throughout the war and several noted incendiary bombing attacks, mostly by U.S. and British air forces against targets in Germany and Japan.

Thanks to Google, a couple of pretty good accounts of what happened in Hamburg pop up when you search the name of the city along with the word “firestorm.” One of them comes from the BBC, which describes the relentless British and American bombing that touched off the inferno, the winds that accompanied it, the appalling casualty count, and the harrowing stories of survivors.

“I struggled to run against the wind in the middle of the street. … We couldn’t go on across [the road] because the asphalt had melted,” one witness is quoted as saying. “There were people on the roadway, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt. They must have rushed on to the roadway without thinking.”

Several months after Germany’s May 1945 surrender, the U.S. War Department published an exhaustive review of the air war in Europe. “The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Over-all Report.”

The survey’s purpose was, in part, to measure the effectiveness of the Allied bombing strategy, which had aimed to achieve “the destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

In a passage cited in “The Oxford English Dictionary” as an early use of the word “firestorm” to describe the effects of aerial bombing, the survey mentions in brief, clinical detail what happened in Hamburg and the tactics behind such attacks.

For residential areas … fire was the chief cause of the damage that resulted from bombing. … The principal weapon for setting fires was the incendiary bomb. This weapon was most effective in causing destruction in city residence areas. …

Many German cities presented partial areas of vast devastation. Perhaps the outstanding example was Hamburg, where a series of attacks in July and August of 1943 destroyed 55 to 60 percent of the city, did damage in an area of 30 square miles, completely burned out 12.5 square miles, wiped out 300,000 dwelling units, and made 750,000 people homeless. German estimates range from 60,000 to 100,000 persons killed, many of them in shelters where they were reached by carbon-monoxide poisoning. The attacks used both high explosive and incendiary bombs as it was thought by the Air Forces and later confirmed that the former created road blocks, broke water mains, disrupted communications, opened buildings, broke windows, and displaced roofing. Most important, they kept the fire fighters in shelters until the incendiaries became effective. But, of the total destruction, 75 to 80 percent was due to fires, particularly to those in which the so-called fire-storm phenomenon was observed.

Fire-storms occurred in Hamburg, Kassel, Darmstadt, and Dresden. Differing from an ordinary peacetime conflagration which begins at a center and then spreads, these storms occurred when incendiaries started many fires within a relatively short time over an extensively built-up area. It was estimated that, in Hamburg, within 20 minutes, two out of three buildings were afire within a 4.5-square-mile area as the result of incendiary bomb strikes. The intensity of the bomb fall was so great that fire-fighting efforts were fruitless. As the many fires broke through the roofs of buildings, there rose a column of heated air more than 2 1/2 miles high and 1 1/2 miles in diameter, as measured by aircraft flying over Hamburg. This column was turbulent and was fed at its base by inrushing cooler ground-surface air. One and one-half miles from the fire this draft increased the wind velocity from 11 to 33 miles per hour. At the edge of the area the velocities must have been appreciably greater, as trees 3 feet in diameter were uprooted. In a short time the temperature reached the ignition point for all combustibles and the entire area was ablaze. In such fires complete burn-out occurred; that is, no trace of combustible materials remained and only after 2 days were the areas cool enough to approach.

The evidence is that the bombing served not only to destroy much of Germany’s second-largest city, but also, as intended, to shock and demoralize the population.

In one sense — the scale and meaning of the events — the parallel between Paradise and Hamburg is all wrong. But in others — the physical characteristics of the fires, the way they consumed whole communities and left survivors with little or nothing of their prior lives — maybe the comparison is fitting.