‘I Bequeath Myself to the Dirt …’

Whitman tomb, Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, New Jersey, November 2012.

“Forum,” KQED’s daily discussion show, is doing reruns this holiday week. And today one of the topics covered was titled “Would You Consider Becoming Compost?” The subject was a new California law that allows people to choose to compost their remains instead of embalming and burying or cremating them. One of the guests was from Recompose, a Seattle company that does “ecological death care,” aka human composting. One of the facts she shared is that the company’s process renders a body into about one cubic yard of soil — enough to comfortably fit in the bed of a pickup truck. That sounds like a lot of “material”; she explained that the volume is due to soil used in the composting process.

Composting sounds all right to me. And the show topic reminded me of one of my favorite pieces of poetry, a section from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It comes from the famous “I sound my barbaric yawp” passage:

I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

Ah — what an optimistic vision of how we might persist on this Earth we love and link ourselves to the future and future-kind. I am not looking for an epitaph just yet, but those last three lines certainly ring in my mind.

Whitman touched more than once on the process that would allow him to “bequeath myself to the dirt.” In “This Compost,” he mused on how the earth disposes of “those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations? Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?” He marvels at the “chemistry” that purifies these leavings and turns them into new growth and life so that “when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease, though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.”

Given his declared enthusiasm for the soil and leaving himself to future generations, it’s kind of ironic that Whitman wound up building a tomb in a Camden, New Jersey, cemetery for his final resting place (his brother George, a Union officer in the Civil War, and other family members are also interred there).

If you want to visit, the Harleigh Cemetery in Camden is pretty easy to find. Failing to fetch him at first, check your map apps. He’s stopped right there, waiting for you.

Road Blog: Never Rip

Driving in search of an aspen grove I had read about — more accurately described as a “clone,” a stand of trees generated from a single seed and growing from a single root system — that is alleged to be the world’s most massive organism, I happened across the above, painted on the side of the general store in Koosharem, Utah. That’s about 150 miles south of Salt Lake City and not too awfully far from Interstate 70 (to the north) and Interstate 15 (to the west). Here’s a 2012 image of the same sign, which suggests strongly the piece has been “renewed “over the years.

John Scowcroft and Sons, the Ogden, Utah, firm that made Never Rip Overalls through about 1940, was founded by an English convert to Mormonism who emigrated to Utah in 1880. His commercial endeavors in his new home are reported to have started in the confectionery and bakery business and later expanded into clothing and dry goods.

It’s not clear exactly when Scowcroft and Sons began making “Never Rip Overalls.” ZCMI — Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, the Utah firm formed in the late 1860s to promote Mormon enterprises and entrepreneurs — marketed “never rip” overalls around the turn of the 20th century, as did a New York-based firm that made Keystone Never Rip Overalls. (And “never rip” was a popular sales claim in this era, as evidenced by the slogan for Ypsilanti Health Underwear: “Never rip and never tear — Ypsilanti Underwear.”)

But based on what you find in the newspaper archives it appears that Scowcroft probably started turning out overalls and started a big advertising push for Never Rip Overalls in 1913. The company’s ads touted the clothes’ durability, of course, but put more emphasis on the fact that its products were made in Ogden and that its workers’ salaries supported other local businesses. It claimed a weekly payroll of $1,200 to $1,500 for 150 “boys and girls” (the latter sometimes described as “Utah maids”) who made the goods. Scowcroft also advertised that it was a union shop — apparently organized by the United Garment Workers Union.

Ogden Standard, June 9, 1913.
Ogden Standard, July 9, 1913.

Based on those payroll numbers, workers were making an average of $8 to $10 a week. If you figure a 50-hour work week, that would put pay at 16 to 20 cents an hour. Since workers at the plant were paid a piece rate, getting compensated for each item they produced rather than for each hour worked, pay probably varied widely. Scowcroft said in a recruitment ad late in the decade that “girls” were started out at $7.50 a week during training but could earn much more — even $27 a week — once they picked up speed. (One government report from this era suggests a typical work week in the garment industry was more like 55 to 60 hours a week. Average wages ranged from 14 to 40 cents an hour depending on the skill involved in the position and workers’ gender — then as now, female workers were paid less than men working in the same positions.)

‘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.”

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.

Mini-Exhibit: Water, Dams, Mulholland, L.A.

Like everyone else who’s walking around with one of these “phones” equipped with a high-quality camera (or are they really decent cameras with mediocre-quality phones?), I take lots of pictures. Sometimes I try to discover a theme in what attracts my attention, but aside from “landscapes” or “birds” or “infrastructure” or “stuff on the street,” I would struggle to name any real thread that ties any of my images together.

But a couple of days ago I was looking a few pictures — just three — I had taken on three separate trips to other parts of California over the last few years and was surprised to see something of a story there.

Here are the images:

That first shot is the Los Angeles Aqueduct, in the Owens Valley just across the highway from Manzanar, the site of the internment camp where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Kate and I camped nearby, just outside the town of Independence, in 2018. After spending a beautiful September afternoon touring Manzanar, we wandered down to the aqueduct as the sun was setting.

The second shot is the Hollywood Reservoir and Mulholland Dam in Los Angeles. I had wanted to see this place for years, and we made it up on a Sunday afternoon last June while visiting our son Thom.

The third shot shows part of the wreckage of the St. Francis Dam, in San Francisquito Canyon, in northwestern Los Angeles County. The dam collapsed in March 1928, killing about 450 people downstream. You have to hunt a little for the site of the dam, which Kate and I did on the same 2018 trip that took us to Manzanar.

I like the fact all three images were shot on film using relatively antique (1970s-era) Japanese rangefinder cameras. But what ties them together, perhaps obviously, is the connection to Los Angeles, water, and L.A. Department of Water and Power chief William Mulholland.

Mulholland was the principal architect of the Los Angeles water system: He played a leading role in helping secure (or steal, depending on your perspective) the Owens Valley water rights for the city. He engineered the aqueduct that brought the water to Los Angeles. Although he was initially reluctant to build dams and reservoirs to store that water, he designed and supervised the construction of Mulholland Dam, which took all of 16 months to complete in 1923-24. He used that structure as a sort of template for the St. Francis Dam, which was completed in 1926. Mulholland visited St. Francis Dam just hours before it disintegrated and pronounced it sound; the catastrophe ended his career. Although he apparently believed Owens Valley saboteurs were responsible, as they had been for the destruction of some of the aqueduct facilities in the eastern Sierra, he took public responsibility for the tragedy. “Don’t blame anybody else,” he told a coroner’s inquest. “You just fasten it on me. If there is an error of human judgment, I was the human.”

As I say, I just happened to look at the three photographs together the other day and see a story. If I ever have a show, I thought, I’d want to present them as a group. For some reason, I thought a presentation like that would be more complete with a fourth image. I remembered a 2017 visit to Los Angeles during which we stopped at the Department of Water and Power building (a.k.a. the John Ferraro Building), at the corner of First and Hope streets, and just across the way from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the former home of the Oscars.

I took some pictures when we were at the DWP building — all with a digital SLR, not film. Looking back, I found one that I thought I could add to the group — post-processed from color to black and white. It’s looking up from a corner of the building up toward the roof, with the sun just obscured:

What kind of statement is that making? I haven’t come up with words yet, though I like the image. And as I say, if there ever is a show, this one’s going in.

Fifty, But Not -30-

Chicago Today, 5-Star Final (in other words, the afternoon paper’s first edition of the day), May 1, 1972.

Fifty years ago today, I started my first newsroom job.

But wait a second. Let me set the stage first.

I had graduated from high school a semester early. I was inspired in part by a friend whose desperation to get out of school drove him to take a bunch of classes early and graduate a full year ahead of us in the Crete-Monee Class of 1972.

Getting out four months ahead of my remaining classmates seemed as close as I was going to get to any kind of high school accomplishment. I was as average as average could be gradewise, the result of doing occasionally brilliantly in English and history classes and barely achieving passing grades in math and science. I believe I ranked 158th among the 314 students who graduated in ’72, which I joked made me the valedictorian of the bottom half of the class.

And I did get what I considered a valedictory moment: My final semester at Crete, I took a drama class with a teacher named Tommy Thompson. He told me a few weeks into the class that he had a part for me in the school play, which would be put on in January, just before I was done with school. The part turned out to be Nick Bottom, the bombastic fool who’s transformed into an ass in “A Midsummer NIght’s Dream.”

A future newsman holds forth ...
... and then dies a piteous stage death.

So this was January 1972. I didn’t have a plan laid out beyond a position I had staked out a couple years earlier that I didn’t want to go right from high school to college. It wasn’t clear what this non-college period would look like beyond getting together with friends and smoking whatever it was popular to smoke, but I eventually had one idea about that.

We lived in a sort of rural, informal, woodsy subdivision — this was about 35 miles south of downtown Chicago — and among our neighbors out there were the McCrohons — Max, an Australian immigrant, his wife Nancy, an immigrant from Westchester County, New York, and their kids Sean, Craig and Regan.

Max was a newspaperman. He’d first come to the United States in the early 1950s as a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald. By the time our families met, in the mid-1960s, he was an editor at the Chicago American (a former Hearst paper that the Chicago Tribune had bought and rechristened “Chicago’s American.” But I digress.) In 1969, Max was one of the editors who led the redesign and relaunch of the paper as Chicago Today.

My family was always engaged with the news. For most of my time growing up, I think we got two papers a day — the Tribune, and later the Sun-Times, in the morning, and the Daily News, and later Chicago Today, in the afternoon. We watched the early evening news, national and local, and then the late news. There was no NPR back then, but we would have been listening to that all the time, too, probably.

And “news” just wasn’t whatever happened to be in the papers or on the national and local TV news. For me, the stories that at least in my memory were woven into our daily lives all grew out of the the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War.

As I wrote a while back, Max and Nancy McCrohon were always welcoming to my brothers, my sister and me. They indulged my presence for hours at a time on weekday nights, where often we’d talk about what was in the papers that day. They’d invite me to stay for dinner, and though it was less than half a mile back home, Max would insist on driving me at the end of the evening.

By the time I was done with high school, Max had been appointed the Tribune’s managing editor, the same position he held at Today. One night when I was over and we were watching the 10 o’clock news, we were talking about what I was going to do now that I had graduated. I don’t remember the particulars, really — the only thing I feel reasonably sure about is that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do — but I think I asked him what it would take to work at one of the papers. And that’s how the idea of applying for a job as a copy boy at Chicago Today came about. It was a sort of prized entry-level position, and he said he could get my name “shuffled to the top of the list” of candidates.

That was in February ’72, maybe. A couple of months later, probably, I got a call asking if I could start May 1. Yes. I could and I would.

I wish I had a picture of 18-year-old me on that first day. I don’t remember a lot of details. I got to take the Illinois Central — the I.C. — from Richton Park, our station at the southern end of the commuter line, up to the last stop downtown, Randolph Street. The best exit was the one out onto East South Water Street. From there, it was about a five-minute walk to Tribune Tower, where Chicago Today shared space with its parent paper. There were two entrances — the grand one at 435 N. Michigan Avenue, and the more modest one next door at 445 N. Michigan that Today employees used. The newsroom was on the fourth or fifth floor.

Former copy boy at Nathan Hale Court, 445 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago.

I had the same long hair that I had sported in my “Midsummer Night’s Dream” performance, but for some reason, I thought it would be more dressy or neat or something to wear it in a pony tail, which I could just barely get my unruly mop into. I also wore a pair of corduroys held up by some braided leather suspenders my girlfriend had made. I must have cut quite a figure as I walked into the city room for the first time. I don’t remember whether someone said something or I just saw a couple of smirks, but I reconsidered my style, and the pony tail and the suspenders were retired after the first day.

What did that first newsroom job involve? Well, the term “copy boy” has been retired, too, but basically, you were there to run any kind of errand the reporters or editors or front office secretaries needed. Heading down to the mailroom to get the edition that was just coming off the press. Getting coffee and making sure you remembered just how every editor on the news and copy and city desks liked theirs. Getting lunch for said editors — the most memorable purveyor of which was a basement dive about a block from the paper called The St. Louis Browns Fan Club, whose specialty was a really greasy cheeseburger. I’d be painting less than a complete picture if I left out the shouting and swearing and other indecorous behavior that you’d encounter on at least a daily basis.

None of that sounds like it has much to do with news. Here’s the part that did.

On deadline, our job was to run the typed copy from reporters to the city, copy and news desks. Depending on the shift, there would be somewhere between three and six rewrite men — and they were all men — taking dictation from reporters somewhere out there in the city. They’d write their stories one paragraph at a time on a tissue-thin sheet of paper backed by four carbon copies (also tissue thin). When a paragraph was finished, the rewrite guy would pull it out of his typewriter and call (usually shout): “Boy! Copy!” Or “Copy!” Or “Copy boy!”

Whereupon you’d hurry to the grab the copy and separate the top sheet from the carbons as you walked to the city, news and copy desks, which were clustered at the center of the city room. You’d give the top sheet to the city desk, and the other desk would each get one of the carbons. On edition, that routine could keep you busy.

One of the other jobs we did was watching the wire room, the semi-sound-proofed space where all the wire service teletype machines were spitting out stories from all over the world. If you were assigned to the wire room, you’d separate each new story as it came off the machine, then run it to the desk editor who needed to see it. You also had to make sure the teletypes didn’t run out of paper — the big rolls (which also included carbons) that ran through the machines hour after hour all day and all night long.

Of course, that’s all stuff I had yet to discover on that first day, which was spent “learning the ropes” — how to get down to the mail room and the composing room, say — and filling out paperwork, and maybe hearing about which reporters and editors you had to watch out for.

Fifty years later, and I’m still working in a newsroom — or at least for a newsroom, given pandemic realities. I have thought a lot about what it means to have been lucky enough to get to do this work for so long — not all of the last 50 years have been spent in news, but nearly all of that time was what people might now call “news adjacent.”

I’ve thought a lot about that half century as this day approached. About the technological changes. About all the changes in perception of what news is and what facts are. About the shortcomings of journalism and its triumphs. About the changes in who gets to do the work — it’s very clear in my memory that the Chicago Today newsroom I walked into was all white; there were just two women working in the department as I recall it — and about how much further those changes have yet to go. About all the people I’ve worked alongside. About how we treat each other in the news business. About my own failings. And even about my successes, such as they are.

I’ve thought a lot about all of that, and yet, you know, it takes me a while to gather myself for the challenge of writing about some of it. But yeah, maybe, sometime during this 50th anniversary year that will happen.

For now, I’ll sign off with something I didn’t remember from that first day at work.

You can see our early edition headline at the top of the column here. I have to say, without having read the story in question, that it must have been a really slow news day for a “doctor shortage” to become the lead story in a big-city tabloid.

What I’d forgotten before I spent an afternoon last summer spooling through microfilm at the Chicago Public Library was how the front page evolved that day.

The lead in the next edition was “Lift wage, price curbs for millions,” which is another yawner.

Then something happened less than a mile away in downtown Chicago. Our next-to-last edition, the Green Streak, bannered: “Car rams crowd in Loop, 6 injured!” Yes, there was an exclamation point — it appears to have been a Chicago Today specialty.

The story detailed an incident where a car jumped a curb at State and Washington streets and crashed through one of the display windows at Marshall Fields. It was clear people were hurt.

The story evolved rapidly. The last edition, the Final Streak, is below.

Chicago Today Final Streak, May 1, 1972.

No, They Don’t Write Ledes Like This Anymore

The Berkeley Gazette, February 17, 1896.

Doing impromptu research on railroad mayhem of yore — unwary yard workers and pedestrian getting their feet caught in frogs and then run over by trains and the like — I found myself looking through old, old numbers of the long dead but still remembered Berkeley Gazette.

For a town that had maybe 10,000 people in the mid-1890s, Berkeley seems to have more than its share of dreadful rail episodes. The Gazette did not hold back on details, though it sometimes illustrated an odd sense of priority (no, not propriety) in how it ordered its facts.

An example from the front page of February 17, 1896.

An Awful Death.

Little May Quill Decapitated by the Local.

Only One Eye Witness to the Tragedy, and She Can Give But Very Little Information. 

One of the saddest yet most terrible accidents that has ever taken place in the history of Berkeley occurred last evening at Dwight way, by which May Quill, the thirteen year old daughter of Anthony Quill, a grocery man at the corner of Twenty-sixth and Alabama streets, San Francisco, lost her life by having her head cut off.

I know the style of the day was to provide layers of detail in the descending series of headlines and subheads above the story, but I can’t help but admire the writers and editors who managed to work in the employment details of the victim’s father in the lede without touching on how the victim suffered her gruesome injuries.

Here’s how the San Francisco Call of the same date, on page 11 under the heading “Interesting Report of Up-to-Date News Items From Alameda County”:

Awful Death at Berkeley.

Young Girl Crushed Under the Wheels of a Local Train. 

Was Killed Instantly.

The Wheels Passed Over Her Neck and Severed the Head from the Body. 

There Was But One Witness. 

Little May Quill the Victim—The Train Went on to the Next Station—Who Is to Blame?

Berkeley, Cal., Feb. 16.—May Quill, a girl of 13 years, who lives with Mrs. Michael J. Powell at the corner of Magee [sic] and Allston way, Berkeley, was instantly killed by the 7 o’clock south bound local train this evening while attempting to alight from it near Dwight way station. The wheels passed over her head, completely severing it from her body and crushing it beyond description. No other injuries to her body were sustained save a few bruises. Her clothing was not even tattered. 

(Brutally explicit descriptions of streetcar victims seems to have been a specialty for the Call. Here’s how it described a 1906 incident in which a teenage girl was struck by a car at Mission and Third streets in San Francisco: “Mowed down by the thirty-ton juggernaut, her body was churned round the forward wheels and mangled so frightfully that it became almost welded to the [car] and could not be removed for more than an hour. When it was finally recovered the appearance it presented unnerved the great gathering that had watched employees of the United Railroads working round the car with primitive wrecking apparatus, and heads were turned away as it was borne to the Morgue wagon.”)

I see regular reports about rail deaths in the Bay Area today — mostly involving BART and Caltrain. The prevailing presumption is that most of these cases involve people taking their own lives. BART generally describes these incidents only as “major medical emergencies.” Perhaps the next day, BART police will refer to the incident by saying that they responded to “a report of a person under a train” and adding that the local coroner was called to the scene.

I often feel like those reports are overly sanitized and we ought to know more about the circumstances. How much more? Well, enough to have some insight into whatever the authorities know about the circumstances. The further gruesome details so frequently printed at the turn of the 20th century — no, I don’t need those. But those old accounts do make me wonder about the public appetite for that kind of reporting back then and about how sensitivities appear to have changed so much, at least in some respects, today.

Executive Order 9066

Manzanar Cemetery Monument.

The original version of this post was published February 19, 2005

The Writer’s Almanac notes today is the anniversary of the date in 1942 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering more than 120,000 Japanese Americans into remote internment camps. It’s an event we all know in the sense we’ve heard of it. Having heard about it, most of us have an opinion about it; the prevailing view, embraced eventually even by a president as conservative and all-American as Ronald Reagan, is that it was a tragic mistake.

In another way, it’s a history we know little about. Especially in a place like Berkeley where more than 1,000 residents (the official number, published in the Berkeley Gazette in April 1942, was 1,319) were forced to leave. Several older Japanese-American couples lived in our neighborhood when we moved here in the late 1980s. They were of a certain age — my parents’ age — that made me wonder not whether their families had been sent to the camps but what their experience of incarceration had been. I never talked to them to find out. But you realize that on this street, or the next one over, and all over town, families were sent packing. To the California deserts, Utah, Wyoming, Arkansas, wherever the camps could be set up quickly.

In San Francisco, the Chronicle ran a story marking the departure of the last “Japanese” from the city.

“For the first time in 81 years, not a single Japanese is walking the streets of San Francisco. The last group, 274 of them, were moved yesterday to the Tanforan assembly center. Only a scant half dozen are left, all seriously ill in San Francisco hospitals. “

At the University of California’s commencement, campus president Robert Gordon Sproul announced that the senior class’s top student “cannot be here today because his country has called him elsewhere.” Three weeks earlier, the student, Harvey Akio Itano, had been sent to the Tule Lake camp in northeastern California. (While his family remained incarcerated, he was released soon afterward and allowed to begin his medical studies in St. Louis. As a researcher after the war, Itano played a key role in discovering the molecular basis for sickle-cell disease and is recognized today as a pioneer in the study of blood diseases.)

Among the other UC seniors forced out of school before graduation was Yoshiko Uchida, who lived with her family on Stuart Street near Shattuck Avenue and kept a scrapbook (online through the University of California) of her new life (and later wrote many books about it).

You can go looking for scraps of the internment history, and sometimes they find you instead.

In October 2004, I was driving back to the Bay Area from Mojave and decided to take the long way, up U.S. 395, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada’s eastern flank. Late in the afternoon, speeding north up the dry floor of the Owens Valley, I passed a sign saying Manzanar was just ahead. I knew the name, that it was one of the camps, that it was out in the middle of the desert someplace, but not much more than that. Suddenly, here it was. So I turned off and spent a while driving around what is now a national historic site.

Sagebrush has claimed most of the camp, though you can see come of its streets leading off into the desert, and several barracks buildings have been rebuilt. The most-frequented place at Manzanar — not counting the visitor center — is the cemetery. The bordering fence is heavily festooned with origami cranes, and lots of impromptu memorial offerings have been left behind. The gleaming white cemetery monument is carved with the kanji “I rei to,” or “soul-consoling tower.”

Reservoir was originally built to serve a nearby agricultural community in the Owens Valley. It was improved and enlarged during World War II by internees. See: Manzanar Reservoir.

Wife and Baby, Names TBD

I insist I don’t spend a lot of time in cemeteries. But when I do, I’m always conscious of the capsule histories that many grave markers contain. I tend to notice children’s graves a lot, maybe because my brother Mark died at age 2, an event that I remember vividly. Occasionally, you come across what looks like a family story — like the grave we once spotted that is marked as the final resting place of three people named Mary Dahl — a mother and two of her daughters who all shared the name.

During a visit to Chicago several years ago, I went over to Mount Olive Cemetery, where my dad’s parents and many members of his extended family are buried. It’s a beautiful green place in the summer, and you can see that nature will have no problem taking back the property once someone skips mowing the grass for a few years. The older, heavily Scandinavian sections of the cemetery have lots of markers that have shifted askew or fallen, and I always wonder whether there’s any family left to visit these long departed forebears.

On this particular visit, I was stuck by how many graves declared a relationship: father, mother, husband, wife, daughter, son, sister, brother. One of the markers I spotted was unique: “Wife and Baby,” it says. Not “Wife and Daughter” of “Mother and Daughter.” Both had died in 1906, and the child was just five months old. I snapped a picture and later, having taken note of the names and dates, tried to find out what had happened.

“Carrie A. Dunham,” listed in the Chicago Tribune’s Feb. 28, 1906, “Official Death Record” column (p. 9).
“Ebba C. Dunholm,” listed in the Chicago Tribune’s May 22, 1906, “Official Death Record” column (p. 10).

I can’t say I found out much beyond the fact that no two people, including the person put in charge of engraving a substantial and expensive headstone, agreed on the spelling of the family name.

The stone itself says “Dunhom,” as you can see — but that surname doesn’t appear anywhere in genealogical records or in Chicago phone books from this period (though losts of people didn’t have phones in this era). The name used in the “Official Death List” published in the Chicago Tribune several days after Carrie A. “Dunhom” died in February 1906 is “Dunham.” That agrees with a Cook County death index record that lists her full name as Carrie Anderson Dunham and adds that she had been born in Norway in 1883.

As to Carrie’s daughter, she is listed in the Tribune’s death list as Ebba C. Dunholm. Again, there are no Dunholms or Dunhoms in other records. Again, there’s a Cook County death record that uses the surname Dunham — but lists her given name as Effa. One guesses that there were serial transcription errors that led to all these different renditions of the name. It’s impossible to figure it out without disappearing down some rabbit hole, and I’m not sure you’d be able to sort it out even then.

But I do wonder about the “husband and father” who presumably had this headstone placed. Presumably he had some idea of how he wanted the name spelled. I can’t find any record of him though — no marriage record, no birth record for the daughter. I hope whoever carved the stone rendered it just the way it was handed to him. That, at least, would have been some comfort to the mourner.

‘Battle Mountain’ and ‘The Tule River War’

Battle Mountain historical marker, Tulare County, California (see text below).

Kate and I encountered the marker above a few years back while driving on a back road in the southern Sierra Nevada foothills. The text is hard to read, but it’s transcribed in full below.

Battle Mountain
 A long period of unrest between the settlers and Indians of Tulare County erupted in war during the spring of 1856. Untrue reports that five hundred head of cattle had been stolen in Frazier Valley and the burning of Orson K. Smith's sawmill aroused the local settlers. A group of volunteers under the command of Foster DeMasters located a party of over seven hundred Indians in fortified positions on the cone-shaped mountain in the valley below. Unable to breach the Indian defenses on their own, the volunteers sent for help. A second company of Tulare County volunteers under Sheriff W.G. Poindexter, miners from Keysville on the Kern River, settlers from as far north as Merced and Mariposa, and Army detachments from Fort Tejon and Fort Miller responded. Captain Livingston of Fort Miller assumed overall command of a combined force estimated at three to four hundred men. Unable to withstand assault by this combined force and their Army howitzer, the Indians disappeared into the pine forest above you. Reports indicated three settlers were wounded and several Indians killed. 
 Dedicated October 20, 1990 
Dr. Samuel Gregg George Chapter 1855 of E Clampus Vitus

When it comes to roadside markers, the easiest thing in the world to do is pick apart their abbreviated rendition of past events. There is no way that even a relatively prolix text, such as the one on this marker, can convey much in the way of detail or nuance. Too bad they don’t contain hyperlinks, though now that I’ve had that thought: QR codes. You know: “To read more about the Chicago Fire, or the Haymarket Square affair, or the assassination of Mayor Carter Harrison, scan this code.” (Yes, I know there is history outside my native city.)

So perhaps the highest and best functions of these markers is to awaken someone’s interest to past events and send them looking for more. I know that’s what happened five years ago when I was driving around Oroville, a town that had been evacuated because of fears that part of a dam would give way, and happened across a marker commemorating Ishi.

As I wrote at the time, “Ishi is an instantly recognizable name for those who have spent any time in California. Ishi is the legendary last member of his native tribe, the Yahi. In 1911, he was ‘discovered.’ Meaning: starved and alone, he gave up his home country in the foothills on the northeastern side of the Sacramento Valley and entered “civilized” California.”

Here’s what Ishi’s plaque says:

The Last Yahi Indian
For thousands of years, the Yahi Indians roamed the foothills between Mt. Lassen and the Sacramento Valley. Settlement of this region by the white man brought death to the Yahi by gun, by disease, and by hunger. By the turn of the century only a few remained. Ishi, the last known survivor of these people, was discovered at this site in 1911. His death in 1916 brought an end to Stone Age California. 

“His death brought an end to Stone Age California.” An entire people, an entire world, dispatched in one succinct sentence. But stumbling upon the plaque prompted me to finally read a well-known and unwittingly tragic account of Ishi’s life and final years, “Ishi in Two Worlds.” It’s a story I think of often as a reminder of how complex the history around us is and how little I know.

But back to Battle Mountain. What to make of this marker, erected in 1990 by a society dedicated to the lore, if not always the true history, of old California? There are some details in the account that don’t smell right. One I wondered about was the notion that a force of white volunteers encountered “over seven hundred Indians in fortified positions.” The concluding line about casualties — three white settlers wounded “and several Indians killed” also sounds vague and sanitized.

What do other sources say?

Wild West magazine recounts the battle as part of “The Tule River War.” That account suggests a much higher casualty count among the Native Americans — members of the Yokuts group of tribes who also faced some ugly post-battle repercussions. 

Searching the excellent California Digital Newspaper Collection, here’s contemporary comment from the May 31, 1856, edition of the Sacramento Union:

The Last “End of the Tulare War.’— We have frequently had occasion to remark that the accounts of Indian hostilities, not only in the north, but in the south, are almost invariably exaggerated. A small affair is soon magnified into a battle, and the origin is not unfrequently attributed to Indian outrages, when the account should read “white man’s oppression.” The following extract from a private letter written to a gentleman in San Francisco, from a friend at Fort Miller, and bearing date the 25th of May, is the latest, and it may be one of the most truthful accounts from that quarter:

“The Indian war is defunct. The volunteers from this place have returned, swearing most roundly at the [white] Four Creeks people, whom they term Petticoat Rangers, from a kind of armor made with canvas padded with cotton, which they wear in shape of a frock or blouse around their persons for protection. The whole matter has been a cowardly farce, the threatening legions of Indians turning out to be but about one hundred, seeking refuge in a brush from the rowdies, who, on the least occasion, delight in the sport of shooting them.

“As in all cases of the kind, the fault has been with the whites. The herds of cattle said to have been stampeded, have turned out to be a single calf taken to supply the deficiency of meat during an Indian feast. Retaliation, of a brutal character, for this trifling offense, created all the disturbance.”

There are plenty of other newspaper accounts of the “war” published around the same time. Some content the tribe’s “depredations” warranted a violent response, but most seem to have held to the view that the initial provocation — the “theft” of a small number of cattle during a time of starvation — served as a pretext for wanton killing of indigenous people wherever they were to be found in the area. It is not a unique story. But it’s disappointing that such a credulous mid-19th century narrative made its way onto a marker placed at the end of the 20th century.