A great nation

As we’ve watched, read, and listened to the verbal bombasts after a couple of recent U. S. Supreme Court decisions and hearing some inflammatory rhetoric from a fairly-recent presidential candidate, we are left with some unfortunate questions.

Does a great nation always have to have some citizens it can consider inferior, someone less qualified to seek the same life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that most of us feel we automatically inherit as American citizens?

Does a great nation always have to have some citizens to disparage because they are different—in color, in gender attitude, in origin, in occupation, in intellectual or physical ability?

Does a great nation need to have so many people assuming God’s authority to decide which of us will be saved and which of us will be damned?

Does a great nation have to have some people profiting by peddling fear?

Does a great nation always have to be looking out the corners of its eyes at others, asking if they can be trusted?

Does a great nation need to curry a climate of suspicion within its populace?

Does a great nation need to portray entire segments of its population as unworthy because of the actions of a few?

Be careful how you answer these questions. Each of us is one of or descended from one of or knows one of those we asked about. And sometimes that makes it harder to proclaim greatness.

Overgrown is good

We see that the Mayor of Florissant has asked Governor Nixon to call a special legislative session to increase the gas tax by two pennies so the state will not miss out on hundreds of millions of federal-collected matching-fund tax dollars coming back to Missouri for road and bridge work.

The legislature muffed the chance to do that in the recent session. Some lawmakers, to be frank, will oppose any tax increase for any purpose and will exert efforts to block approval of one. Based on his past record, Governor Nixon is unlikely to call a special session unless legislative leaders guarantee the bill will pass.   Once burned, twice shy, and Nixon got burned a few years ago.

The Missouri Department of Transportation needs some strongly visual reminders of how bad things are in our road system. The public and the legislators need to be reminded of how tight things are and what their continued wandering in the world of smaller government is costing.

We were driving along one of our highways a few days ago when we saw a department crew mowing the roadside and the median. We thought, “Why is MODOT spending money on mowing when it needs every penny it can get to keep more of our roads from turning back to gravel and more of our bridges from turning to rust?” We have noticed several medians and roadsides have not been mowed and on our recent trip across Kansas and into Colorado we saw a lot of tall grass in miles of rights of way.

MODOT needs to cut the cutting.

Let the grass and the weed and the flowers and the brush grow. Let the roadsides and the medians get absurdly shaggy. Let those areas represent the financial shabbiness of our state transportation program. And when the public complains, be truthful. “We can’t afford to mow our rights of way because we need that money to fix potholes and a few bridge decks. The legislature could ease that problem but it won’t. If you’ll give me the name of your senator or representative, I’ll look up his/her phone number. I’m sure they’d be glad to hear your concerns.”

A good friend, “Cutter” Short, who once was in the road-building and repair business, has cautioned against such a practice. He points to Federal Highway Administration guidelines for “vegetation control” that say the reasons to mow are:

  • Keeping signs visible to drivers.  (Hey! We’re talking about grass in this discussion, not tomato plants, grape vines, kudzu, etc.)
  • Keeping road users–vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians–visible to drivers. (We are not suggestion that the grass be allowed to grow tall ON the roads, just beside them or in the medians).
  • Improving visibility of livestock and wildlife near the road. (It’s nice of the FHWA to want cows and deer to be able to watch cars and trucks go by.)
  • Helping pedestrians and bicyclists see motor vehicles. (Yes, they’re at least as important as the cows. See also point 2 above)
  • Keeping sidewalks and pedestrian paths clear and free from overhanging vegetation. (Grass doesn’t “overhang.”
  • Removing trees close to the roadway which could result in a severe crash if hit. (Again, we’re talking grass here.  It’s okay to remove some dangerous trees. We don’t know what to suggest about the rocky bluffs, though)
  • Improving winter road maintenance in snow and ice areas. (Never can tell when one of those big salt trucks with dozer blades on the front might get entangled in the roadside or median grass, you know.)
  • Helping drainage systems function as designed. (They’re designed to handle grass clippings when rain moves in right after a mowing?)
  • Preserving pavements through daylighting and root system control. (A little extra height on the grass isn’t going to keep daylight from arriving when the sun does.  But we will concede that grass roots can be dangerous for our highways.  Not as dangerous as a lack of funding to pay for pothole repair, though)
  • Controlling noxious weeds in accordance with local laws and ordinances. (Let’s call on our courts to sentence people convicted of DWI to a week of Musk Thistle-pulling.)

We can add another couple of plusses to letting the grass grow.  It will hide those unsightly but necessary cables in the median that are designed to stop crossover crashes.  In fact, if the grass is thick enough it might help retard the momentum of the wayward vehicle.  And, for those who look for reasons to punish the Department of Conservation, there is the argument that taller grass will give deer, opossums, armadillos, and turtles more places to hide until they can jump out and attack unsuspecting motorists.

But it’s worth the risk to let the grass grow to emphasize the need for the legislature to overcome its horrible fear that Missourians might have to fork over a few pennies to pay for something like roads and bridges. The danger, of course, is that our lawmakers might not do anything to increase funding for mowing and for concrete and steel work. Instead they might declare roadway grass is a new official state symbol. They’re pretty good at that sort of thing.   Essentials, sometimes, not so much.

Time in a capsule

An email arrived at the Missourinet from Arcola, Illinois a few weeks ago.

I wanted to get a message to Robert A. Priddy and tracked him down to this website. Today I found a message Bob left in a 1916 issue of the archived Arcola Record Herald newspaper. The message was written in 1961 when Bob was working there over the summer. The note said he was home for summer from University of Missouri. The message said, “The last person to gaze upon this page was I, on this day, July 13, 1961.” Just wanted to let him know I found it and left it there but added my own message for the next person to find.

Thanks, Nancy Rairden, Arcola, IL

Nancy Rairden on April 17 had opened a little time capsule I didn’t realize that I had created a long time ago. The Arcola Record-Herald is a weekly newspaper in a small town south of Champaign and about half an hour from my small home town of Sullivan.  An graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Harry Stonecipher, was the owner of the paper then and as a member of the fabled “Missouri Mafia” had hired the college kid who walked into the office one day hoping to get some experience in a newspaper office before starting his journalism classes that fall at the University of Missouri.  One of my jobs was to compile the weekly historical column—you know, the 10, 25, 50 years ago thing.  I don’t recall why I was looking at only 45 years.  Maybe we didn’t do 50.

The note left in the 1916 bound volume had been long forgotten.  But since getting Nancy’s message, I seem to recall putting the note there and wondering when the next time would be that somebody would be reading the newspaper from so long ago.  Now I know. Fifty-four years.

All I had said was that I had been there.  Time capsules are kind of like that.  “We were here,” they say to the unknown figures who will open them decades later.  That’s the basic message in all of them.


The big copper box installed in the state capitol cornerstone was removed the other day and will be opened before the centennial observance on July 3 of the cornerstone laying a century ago.

Organizers of the centennial event think they’ll draw a better crowd and the event will be better-staged if it’s held in conjunction with Independence Day activities in Jefferson City. The old things won’t be put into the new time capsule that will be placed somewhere in the Capitol, probably, not back in the cornerstone.

New stuff will be put in the new capsule and the old materials will be cared for by the state archives after being displayed for a while.  As this is written, we don’t know specifically what’s in that box. We do know there were some newspapers and a book of Missouri history and a copy of the bill authorizing the bonds for the new Capitol.  But the folks who lifted the box out of the cornerstone thought it weighed about sixty pounds, indicating there’s a lot more than those things in there.  It will be opened in a sterile state health lab in case any dangerous mold has grown inside it.

The actual cornerstone laying date was June 24, 1915, a huge event in Jefferson City. The centennial of the event is unlikely to attract the kind of crowd that gathered a century ago although it would be nice to see a good-sized gathering.

The state is asking Missourians to suggest what should go into the new time capsule, which gives rise to a discussion about why we have them. If you could put something into the new Capitol time capsule, to be found 100 years from now, what would you put in it?  If you could leave a message for your Missourian descendants to read in 2115, what would you tell them?

In one form or another, you would say to them, “I was here.  I was as alive as you are now.”  Even if it is only a note that says I was the last person to look at this page of this bound volume of old newspapers until you came along, that’s the basis for what we would put into a time capsule.

Sometimes families create their own.  A friend many years ago bought a couple of trunks, one for each of their children, and put things in them from the family’s past and the then-present future.  The trunks are to be opened in fifty or a hundred years by descendants these folks will not live to see.

Sometimes the time capsule is nothing more than a shoe box given by one generation to another to just hang onto because it has some things in it that the giver considered important to them.

Some people in Georgia in 1940 created the Crypt of Civilization.  If the wishes of the creators are carried out, it won’t be opened until 8113.  By someone.  Or some thing.  Pessimists and Optimists alike might wonder if it ever will be opened because by then mankind, or whatever mankind has become, will have fled the dead, contaminated, resource-depleted earth for a habitable planet light years away.  At the same time, the mere presence of the Crypt of Civilization makes one want to be there when it’s opened just to see what life is or what life is like in 5998 years.

What’s in it?  Microfilm.  About 800 books including several novels show everything from the way we amused ourselves to humankind’s historical record to descriptions of our industries, our medical procedures, patent documents, sound movies of great men and women, recordings (on record) of important speeches made on the radio (radio did a lot of that then—speeches, not just talk)—even what one source calls “an apparatus for teaching the English language.”  Who knows what people will be speaking in 8113?  Seeds of flowers and trees and vegetables and other plants are in there. All of this is in a room ten feet high, ten feet wide, and twenty feet long under Phoebe Hearst Hall at Ogelthorpe University in Brookhaven, Georgia.  (Phoebe Apperson Hearst was a Missouri girl who married a California miner and became one of the world’s wealthiest women.  She was a great philanthropist and the mother of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.)

Organizers of the crypt hope it survives six millennia.  It is lined with porcelain enamel plates embedded in pitch, is sitting on bedrock and has two feet of stone above it.  A big stainless steel door has been welded shut.

Amazing.   But will the beings that open the crypt in 8113 have the technology to play the records. Will they have 35 mm sound film projectors?  Will the microfilm survive or will it have turned to jelly?  We know from the ancient Egyptian tombs that seeds can survive thousands of years.  But will Hearst Hall?  Or Ogelthorpe University?  Or Georgia?   Or the earth?

Time capsules are best if not boastful of the generation they seek to preserve. Instead, it is best that they reach out to those who will come after, leaving a record of a moment in time and a presence.  We may be proud of what we are today but we know that what we consider modern will be antiquated by the year the capsule is opened and that’s okay. We have left a record that says, “We got this far in 2015.”

In 8113, someone or some thing might discover the Crypt of Civilization and will know that Twentieth Century Homo Sapiens reached out to them and tried to leave something more substantial behind (perhaps) than Mount Rushmore’s by-then weathered faces that said, “We were here.  And in our time we were thinking, creative creatures.”

And, oh, how we wish we could see your world in 8113 when the capsule is found. .

The Missouri Capitol time capsule will be a message from 2015 to the great-great-grandchildren of this generation.  It’s a lot easier to be confident there will be people here in 2115 than it is to imagine how the Crypt of Civilization will be opened or by whom. And what should we say to those to open our time capsule?  Maybe something like—

We who think we are advanced today nonetheless recognize that we live in an imperfect world, one that is too much divided, too often ridden with greed, fear, hate, and quests for power, We recognize that we as Americans and Missourians have retreated from an era in which nothing seemed impossible, even walking on and exploring the Moon, to an era where we look inward, guarding ourselves against the perceived evils of those who are different—as mankind has done for eons.  We live in a world where we have friends on the other side of the earth but do not know the names of our next-door neighbors.  But beneath it all, we have hope and in clinging to hope we make painfully slow progress in resolving the issues that divide and therefore limit us.   We hope that a century from now that wisdom and peace are more certain parts of life, that bigotry toward some is no longer masked as the protection of rights for others, that rediscovered and vigorously exercised voter responsibility has long ago replaced the deleterious effects of term limits on our political system, that you still value and protect the outdoors as a breathing place for the public lungs, a place  where the different species that give beauty and perspective to our own existence still flourish, and where the sights and sounds of running streams still calm a stressed spirit.  We hope that a century of medical and scientific developments have destroyed diseases that lessen and shorten life, and that society has found a way to make longer lives valuable and beneficial to those who live them. We hope children and families are no longer uncertain about their next meal, their opportunity for education, their chances for meaningful work and loving families, the safety of their streets and homes. We hope this great building remains the Temple of Democracy that its designers and builders intended for it to be, the symbol of the best that we can be to one another, a structure symbolizing the hope that all may share for fruitful lives.  Our generation has sometimes let the building fall into a disrepair that regretfully represents our state as a place of sometimes unmet needs, unfulfilled responsibilities, ignored conditions, and reduced hopes. We hope your generation honors and strives for the good that this building represents. We hope that you have learned the virtue of looking outside yourselves, and that Americans have again discovered the spirit that nothing seems impossible.

There would have to be a theme of optimism in our message, wouldn’t there?   If there isn’t, why would we want to send a message to the future?    And if we do send one, why can’t we begin to live it now?


Thoughts from the road about the road

We left our quiet street for a few days in January and February to travel in a dozen states.  We went to southern Florida during a January Missouri cold snap and drove out of a snowstorm in February to spend most of two weeks in Arizona and New Mexico.  Gloating about being someplace where the daytime temperature is in the 70s and 80s and dolphins sometimes play in the surf or in places where every day is golf day in the winter Arizona desert is unseemly so we’re not going to do it. In fact there were some days when the temperature in Florida was only in the 60s and it was almost that nice here at home, at least in January.  It’s not like we were full-blown snowbirds who have abandoned our neighbors to escape all of winter.   They were nice times but we’re not going to force anybody to look out our pictures of the sunsets on the Gulf of Mexico and palm trees and people in bathing suits strolling on a white beach or a Greek Orthodox monastery where they grow oranges and lemons in Arizona.  Unless our friends force us to show them.

We have learned that some people in Georgia talk like people from Georgia. But not all of them. Same with people from Mississippi and Alabama. People from Minnesota sound like Minnesotans in Arizona.  Arizonans sound a lot like us.

We have learned that some state capitols are not open to visitors on weekends.  Ours is.  But the Missouri Capitol has something for people to see. The Florida Capitol is a 22-story office building.  The Louisiana Capitol is a 34-story office building.  The North Dakota Capitol is a 19-story building.  The Nebraska Capitol is a 15-story office building. (Louisiana, North Dakota, and Nebraska were not on this trip but we’ve been there on other voyages.) . We are never too excited about seeing an office building-capitol anyway. Florida’s Capitol was closed for the weekend when we went through Tallahassee.  Arizona’s capitol is a museum with an executive office attached to the rear and separate buildings for the House and the Senate.  The New Mexico Capitol is round, lovely, captures the culture and is known as “The Roundhouse” because of its shape

We learned that people who drive I-75 in Florida must consider the highway’s name some kind of minimum speed.  But it’s a terrific road.  We were told in Oklahoma during a winter storm that if we want clear roads we should go to Missouri “because they shovel the roads there.”

We drove on some beautiful interstate highways.  In fact, we thought that just about every state we were in has prettier—and generally, smoother and often at least two lanes wider– interstate highways than Missouri has. Driving on them was comfortable, especially in those areas of three or four lanes each way where trucks were restricted to the far-right lane except when passing and there were ample lanes for travelers going at different speeds.

There pretty clearly are several reasons for states having more beautiful interstates than Missouri has.  The most obvious reason is fuel taxes.  Missouri piddles along at 17 cents for gasoline, more for diesel.  The states we visited on our warm-weather break, collect two to nineteen cents a gallon more.   Of course they have better, prettier roads.  Missouri, on the other hand, has political leadership that has spent years cultivating the idea that things will be oh, so much better, if taxes are considered some kind of disfiguring disease and the best solution is legislative inoculation against it.

But the big reason other states have more beautiful highways is billboards.

We have decided in our long drives down those attractive roads in other states that the absolutely ugliest interstate highway in America has to be Interstate 70 between our two largest cities.  It is a disgrace.  In a time when law enforcement authorities bemoan the number of traffic crashes and fatalities caused by distracted drivers, we have an interstate that is crammed with distractions.  Billboards.   It was bad enough until Missourians voted on limits to billboards a few years ago and the billboard—pardon me, the outdoor advertising industry—rushed to throw up dozens more of the things before the limits were enacted.   Sadly, the proposal failed and we are left with Interstate 70 roadsides with the worst case of advertising acne that can be imagined.

Many of our other major roads are relatively free of these visual insults but the busiest road in the state, linking our biggest cities, should be renamed.  Isore70.

Sadly,  the situation with a highway that at times seems nose-to-tail trucks–with cars as the meat in the truck sandwich–between Kansas City and St. Louis appears unlikely to be better anytime soon.  Missourians don’t want higher gas taxes. Missourians have rejected a special sales tax for transportation. The political tide is running against making I-70 a toll road. Heaven only knows how the situation will turn around. The legislature remains idling on the shoulder.