Folk lore

Several good stories about the Missouri Capitol were dispatched to the cutting-room floor when the original 727-page typescript of the next Capitol book was pared down to a size the publisher can handle and this is one of them. Well, actually, two.

This particular segment is only sixteen lines long.  The story behind it is much longer, as you will see if you endure the telling of it all the way to the end, and a forerunner to the today’s highways and transportation issues.

(“The cutting-room floor” is a movie industry term that refers to the footage that is cut out of the final version of the film during the editing process.  But you probably already knew that).

One of the stories began with an old postcard. Old postcards can be fascinating reading. Many are pretty mundane but sometimes the brief messages on the back are flash views into someone’s life and there have been times when I’ve gone to the internet to see if I can track down the person who received the card all those years ago or the person who sent it to learn the story to which the brief message refers. Sometimes the reader of the back of an old postcard can mentally create a scenario around that message.  Robert Olen Butler did that several years ago in his book, Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards. It’s a fun read.

But the postcard that led to the following story that has wound up on the new Capitol book’s editorial cutting-room floor had nothing on the back.  The front did have a short message, mentioning that Governor Joseph Folk was standing on the front steps of the capitol, the one that burned a few years later.  He’s the one on about the fifth step who appears to be talking to a bearded man named Ezra Meeker.

One of the stories here  is of the image and the other is the sixteen lines about Folk that have been excised from the new book.

This postcard shows Meeker’s covered wagon next to one of the first automobiles in Jefferson City.  Old Ezra was a heckuva guy.  His legacy is the Oregon Trail.  And Joe Folk has legacy in Missouri transportation history.

Ezra Meeker, his wife of one year, Eliza, their newborn son, Marion, and his older brother, Oliver, went west from Iowa to Oregon with an ox team in 1852. The trip took six months.   Ezra became the first postmaster and the first mayor of Puyallup, Washington and he and Eliza raised five children.  A sixth died in infancy.

When Ezra was seventy-five years old, he became convinced that the Oregon Trail and its stories were being forgotten as plains farmers plowed up its ruts and communities were built over sections of it.  He decided the way to bring that part of our history back to public attention was travel it backwards.  He got a couple of oxen named Dave and Twist, a collie dog named Jim, and a covered wagon and retraced his path of a half-century earlier.  He encouraged the communities he visited to put up monuments marking the trail.

Twist died in Nebraska, perhaps having eaten something poisonous, and Meeker replaced him with another ox named Dandy.  By late November, 1907, Meeker was in Washington, D. C., where he showed his wagon to President Roosevelt and spent more than a month urging Congress to mark the Oregon Trail.

He left D. C. in January, 1908 and went into winter quarters in Pittsburg until early March.  By then, Congress was considering a bill to spend $50,000 to mark the trail. Other legislation called for a federal-state partnership to build a national highway along the Oregon Trail as a memorial road.  He got a frosty reception from the Mayor of St. Louis and left after staying a few days, “greatly disappointed.”

“I had anticipated a warm reception. St. Louis, properly speaking, had been the head center of the movement that finally established the Oregon Trail. Here was where Weythe, Bonneville, Whitman and others of the earlier movements…had outfitted, but there is now a commercial generation, many of whom that care but little about the subject.”

He did, however, find some ‘zealous advocates’ of the effort to mark the Trail, including the automobile club and the Daughters of the American Revolution.” His drive from St. Louis to Jefferson City “was tedious and without results.”  But, “Governor Folks came out on the state house steps to have his photograph taken and otherwise signified his approval of the work, and I was accorded a cordial hearing by the citizens of that city,” he wrote in his 1916 book.

And that’s what we see on that postcard.  Dave and Dandy, the wagon, a car, and Governor Folk talking to Meeker, who made it back to Seattle, Washington on July 18, 1908.  He travelled the Trail again by oxcart, 1910-1912, and by 1916 he was writing, “A great change has come over the minds of the American people in this brief period of eight years.  Numerous organizations have sprung into existence for the betterment of Good Roads, for the perpetuation of ‘The Old Trails’ and the memory of those who wore them wide and deep.”

Ezra traveled the Oregon Trail for the last time in 1924—by airplane, when he was 93.  He died in December, 1928, about three weeks short of his 98th birthday.

Now we switch focus a little.

The Good Roads movement traces its beginnings to a 1902 proposal to build a memorial road from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville.  By the time Ezra Meeker started his second trip on the Oregon Trail, numerous local efforts to establish a good roads program were underway, leading to the national good roads movement.  Richard Weingroff of the Federal Highway Administration wrote that one of the pioneering efforts was the National Old Trails road, “an outgrowth of two movements in Missouri.”  The first of those efforts was promotion of a road linking St. Louis and Kansas City.  The second of those movements was spearheaded by the DAR to mark the Santa Fe Trail.  “In the summer of 1907, Governor Folk…expressed an interest in a cross-State macadam highway,” he wrote.

But, actually, Folk had spoken on the subject earlier when he announced in August, 1906, a plan to finance road development in Missouri, first linking Kansas City and St. Louis and a second road from the Arkansas border to the Iowa border.  He said he would ask the 1907 legislature to require Missouri dramshops to pay a state license fee of $200 a year.  The Automobile magazine commented in its August 23 issue, “As there are 650 saloons in Kansas City alone, it may be easily seen that the revenue derived would be large.”  Folk told a group in Kansas City, “It is my view that the highway department of the state should be organized after the same manner as the public school system, to the end that there may be good roads in every portion of the commonwealth.”

And this is where we finally get to the sixteen lines that won’t be in the book—and the story of Folk’s misadventures behind the wheel of an automobile, as reported by The Cole County Democrat on June 20, 1907.

Folk, who had called in his 1905 inaugural speech for a constitutional amendment setting a tax to finance a road building system in Missouri, was the first Missouri Governor to call for a cross-state highway which led the State Board of Agriculture’s Highway Department to suggest three routes.  His interest in roads might have motivated him to become the first sitting Governor to drive a car, secretly negotiating an outing with Ed Austin, the commissions clerk in the Secretary of state’s office.  Austin drove about four miles from the capitol on a road known as “Ten Mile Run,” then switched seats with Folk, who “proceeded to violate the speed limit going down the very first hill,” as newspaper reporter Charles B. Oldham reported.  Folk estimated they had been traveling at least thirty miles an hour. But by the time the car reached the top of the next hill “it was not traveling at the rate of a mile a week.”

He also observed that no court of justice would fine him for the speed he made going down hill, because the machine was not obeying his will.

While this conversation as going on the automobile stopped to listen.  The Governor could not make it start.  Mr. Austin commanded it to go, but it refused to budge.  When he had worked an hour on the intestines of the vehicle, the Governor inquired the distance from town. 

Mr. Austin thought that as the bee would fly, it was about four miles.  Just then the vehicle commenced throbbing and sputtering.  The Governor yanked the lever about and they went straight into a deep ditch.  The occupants did not take the usual time to alight.  As the ground was soft, neither was injured.

Meanwhile, some parties in town had learned of the departure of the two gentlemen, and a relief party was fitted out in charge of Col. Wm. Irwin.  When they reached the Governor and Mr. Austin the latter were still working to get the vehicle out of the ditch.

The relief party came to their assistance and presently got it back on the highway.  The Governor consented to ride back to town in the automobile, providing the relief party would follow immediately in the rear with a buggy.  In this way the party reached home safely.

The three-road idea also went into the ditch during Folk’s term but was pulled out by his successor, Herbert Hadley.

 We don’t know if the car next to Meeker’s wagon in that April 1908 postcard is Austin’s car.  But it might be. Pictures of REOs from 1907-08 show cars looking like that one and steered with a lever, not a wheel.  The REO was built by Ransom E. Olds, whose cars later became, of course, Oldsmobiles.

It’s a little hard to pinpoint where Folk’s great adventure happened.  Jefferson City developed a North and a South Ten Mile Drive as it spread west. North Ten Mile Drive became Truman Boulevard in the Capital Mall area.  But the area in 1907 was ‘way out in the country, so far out that the state’s chief executive would be away from the public eye when he tried out Ed Austin’s contraption.

Old postcards.  Love the stories they tell.

Notes from the road: Solving a great musical mystery

(Boston)—The locals warn out-of-towners to forget about trying to drive in historic downtown Boston.  Traffic is terrible. Roundabouts are hopelessly confusing.  The old streets are narrow and leave strangers bewildered.  Better, they say, to stay in the suburbs and ride the subway into the heart of the city or catch a Gray-Line Tours bus if you want to see the many historic sites in one day.

Those who choose to ride the subway buy fare cards that are inserted into slots that open the gates to the platforms.  The fare cards are known as “Charlie Cards” (which you might want to remember for a trivia contest sometime).  They’re called Charlie Cards in memory of the hapless, trapped, subway rider named Charlie who became world-famous, thanks to a 1949 campaign song for a progressive mayoral candidate who campaigned against the city’s complicated subway fares which included an “exit fare,” a way to increase the taxes without changing the fare collection system at the start of the trip.  The Kingston Trio made it a hit song in 1959.

It tells the story of Charlie, who paid his dime at the Kendall Square Station then changed lines so he could reach Jamaica Plain, a place founded three centuries earlier by Puritans looking for land to farm and eventually became one of America’s first streetcar suburbs. But when he got to “JP,” as local folks call it, he did not have the extra nickel to pay his exit fare, dooming him to roam beneath the streets of Boston forever because “he couldn’t get off of that train.” His devoted wife went each day at the Scollay Square Station (pronounced “Scully” by the natives) and waited for the train to slow down enough that she could pass him a sandwich through an open window. At least, that’s how the song tells the story.

One of America’s great mysteries is why she never gave him a nickel when she gave him the sandwich.

We have done some historical research on that issue because it has bothered us, too, for decades.  We think we have uncovered the entire story in the microfilm room of the Beacon Hill Metropolitan Library, which is a short distance from the former Bull & Finch Pub that is now called “Cheers” because it was the prototype for Sam Malone’s tavern in the television show; its entrance was featured in the show’s opening.  The story found in the records of the Beacon Hill Democrat-Challenger, a long-dead newspaper, turns out to be a rather sordid matter.  But it does have a happy ending because Charlie, in real life, did get off of that train.

Charles J. Faneuil was a descendant of Peter Faneuil, the merchant who in 1740 built a market house that became the centerpiece of the early Boston independence movement.  Despite his historic family name, Charles was a middle-class bookkeeper for a suburban department store.  He was a solid and dutiful husband who left each morning and came home each night from his apparently dead-end office job that paid him enough to keep food on the table and a two-year old car in the driveway.

Mrs. Charles J. Faneuil, born Ann Revere Adams, was a descendant of two early Boston families whose “old money” was spent several generations previous to her marriage to Charles.  They had three children, Samuel Adams Faneuil, Betsy Ross Faneuil, and James Otis Faneuil.  Ann was a housewife but longed to be part of Boston’s upper social strata made up of descendants whose “old money” still existed and had multiplied because it was not squandered by previous generations. She yearned to be part of the kind of organizations that would refer to her as “Mrs. Charles Faneuil” instead of “Ann Faneuil,” as her friends did in the Tuesday Evening Mahjong Society.  In time she came to see her husband as an adequate provider but someone who would never give her a chance to live her dream.

The first public indication that the domestic life of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Faneuil was not all peaches and cream (and sandwiches handed through subway car windows) is the notice that Mrs. Faneuil had filed for divorce, charging desertion and abandonment of family.  She claimed Charlie had willfully absented himself from the family home by intentionally taking only a dime with him when he left for work that morning, knowing that he would need another nickel not only to get to work but would need another dime and a nickel to ride the subway back home that evening.  She suggested in her filing that Charlie did so because he had become enamored of one Theodora Williams, whose friends called her “Teddy,” a fellow rider on the subway. And she claimed that Teddy did not loan her husband a nickel, either, because she didn’t want him to leave the train so she could make sure he would be there for her.

The case was filed for Mrs. Faneuil by Quincy Kennedy Kerry, the Faneuil family attorney, whose main reason for representing the family was his attraction to Ann Revere Adams Faneuil. When he had heard of Charlie’s predicament, he had visited Ann to express his sympathy and found her surprisingly willing to accept it, not knowing that she—weary of being a simple housewife and child-raiser—had fantasized about what life would have been like if she had married a lawyer many years ago, instead of good old steady Charlie, and how nice it would be to dine at the club, wear elegant clothes, and travel to beautiful places that lawyers like to visit.

Charlie learned of the action when he read about it in a discarded copy of the Democrat- Challenger that he found on a seat in his subway car after the morning rush hour.  The news stunned him.  He did not know Teddy although he thought she was a fellow passenger during baseball season when she rode the train to Fenway Park. Teddy worked at the will-call window of the ticket booth.  They had hardly spoken other than an occasional “good morning” when she took a seat across from him. In fact, she had shown no interest in having a conversation.

That’s when it also dawned on him that divorce was a reason why Ann never put a nickel in the sandwich bag and, further, never put an additional fifteen cents in it so he could get home.  He had many times regretted not grabbing some extra change from the dish on the table by his front door as he left that fateful morning and had been grateful that he found the dime that he had left in the pocket the last time he wore those pants. Not until he got aboard the train did he discover there was not a nickel in that pocket, too. He would have said something to Ann during the sandwich deliveries, but she always timed her delivery so it happened as the train began to move again, leaving no time for discussion.

Teddy learned about the divorce filing when she heard some of the other girls in the ticket office chattering among themselves that same morning.  “Charlie who?” she wondered.  She also wondered if it might be the strange guy she sometimes saw in the subway who always wore the same increasingly rumpled suit and, in fact, seemed to smell bad in the few times she had been forced to sit across from him.  His hair was much too long and his scraggly beard had not filled out well in the weeks—or was it months?—since she had first noticed him.

Charlie also worried that he had lost his job because of his growing list of absences. His mood darkened in the next few days, likely driven by increasing hunger and his deepening concern about his job, to the point that he was thinking of leaving the train without benefit of nickel by throwing himself onto the tracks from the rear car and lying there until the next train ended his misery.

But that was when conductor H. W. Longfellow (his friends called him “Hank”) noticed Charlie’s state and took the steps that saved his life.  Charlie and Hank had formed something of a bond on the long low-passenger hours during the day shift when Longfellow worked. Longfellow, feeling some responsibility for Charlie’s situation because he was the conductor who told him “one more nickel” arranged for Evangeline’s Pizza to deliver one of its specialties to Charlie each day at the Scollay Square Station, a savvy move for Evangeline’s because the story of Charlie was starting to gain some public attention and Evangeline’s got some great public promotional value out of being Charlie’s food supplier. Longfellow also brought a pillow and some blankets from home for Charlie to use at night to sleep with at least a little comfort. Longfellow has come in for some criticism because in all the time Charlie was trapped on the train, Longfellow did not loan him a nickel.  But it was strictly against MTA policy for conductors to give nickels to passengers who claimed to have “forgotten” to bring one from home. The authority knew that it soon would be dealing with hundreds of “forgetful” passengers if it let its conductors loan nickels or even to let a passenger promise repayment on the next trip.  Employees who showed such kindness had been known to be kindly excused from their jobs, a circumstance Longfellow could not risk because he had a wife and family, too.

But Hank had something else that became important in the long run.  Hank knew a lawyer.

Hugh Louis Dewey was an ambulance-chasing attorney whose grandson, Hugh III, became nationally famous as the busy attorney for two Italian brothers who ran a car-repair shop in suburban Cambridge where they purportedly “fixed” cars they had never seen after diagnosing the problems during a telephone call without consulting maintenance manuals. When Huey Louie Dewey, as he was known in the office on Harvard Square, got involved, the case really got juicy.

Dewey could have paid Charlie’s exit fare to get his client off the train but he advised Charlie to continue to ride while Dewey called the local press and arranged for some sympathetic news coverage. Charlie’s story took up two full pages of the Sunday feature section of The Democrat-Challenger, including pictures of Charlie with his now-long hair and beard and later, clean shaven, trimmed, and wearing a new suit—all of this provided by Dewey to show the man Charlie had become since his wife took up with the family lawyer and stopped providing nickel-free daily sandwiches and then showing him as the man he once was and could be again.

Dewey hit Mrs. Faneuil AND lawyer Kerry with an alienation of affection suit and, since Mrs. Faneuil didn’t have any money, asked for substantial damages from Kerry, whose law firm was one of the upper-crust firms in the city.  If it had been in Memphis, and if John Grisham had been writing novels when all of this was going on, Kerry’s law firm would have been the prototype for a best-selling novel.

And Charlie DID get off of that train. He did not, in fact, “ride forever beneath the streets of Boston,” nor was he “the man who never returned.”  Folk song stories, one must remember, are just stories, not history.

Dewey eventually provided the nickel for Charlie to pay the exit fee a week after the big newspaper article. He was put up in a motel while he waited for the lawsuits to work their way through the courts and while he looked for a new job.  His friend, Longfellow, convinced his MTA bosses to hire Charles J. Faneuil temporarily as the company’s first passenger-relations agent. The move garnered some positive publicity for Charlie and the as well as a modest income so he didn’t have to live on Evangeline’s pizza anymore. It also scored some public relations points for the MTA, which had been pilloried by the Democrat-Challenger, and avoided a lawsuit threatened by Dewey alleging Charlie’s continued presence in the subway constituted a form of kidnapping and the exit tax was a form of ransom.

Dewey also rushed to Fenway Park to meet with Teddy Williams and sign her up for a separate lawsuit accusing Ann and lawyer Kerry of libel.  She also wanted damages for pain and suffering caused by extensive office gossip.

It took about eighteen months for all of this to work itself out.  Charlie did not contest the divorce although he did fight Ann’s efforts to get alimony and child custody.  The judge ruled that Charlie had not abandoned Ann. In fact, the judge said, Ann—by ending the sandwich supply runs—had abandoned Charlie and in doing so had endangered his health. Therefore, said the judge, she was an unfit parent and the children were given to Charlie.  She was allowed to keep their house into which Quincy Kennedy Kerry moved after a respectful interval.  He, however, turned out to be only a member of his law firm and not one of the top partners whose memberships at exclusive clubs were picked up by the firm.

Teddy Williams settled out of court for ten-thousand dollars and a public apology from Ann and Quincy.  She and her partner, Dorothea “Dix” Hancock, used the money to open what became a successful wedding cake business in the Back Bay area.

By the time H. W. Longfellow retired from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the MTA of folk song fame, had become the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

And Charlie?  He left his job at the MTA when the suburban department store gladly rehired him as an assistant manager, thinking it could capitalize on his notoriety.  He was the store manager when he retired.  The three children grew up to be good citizens and showed no scars of the split-up of the family. By then Charlie had married a widowed high school social studies teacher, had slipped from public view, and was living quietly in a middle-class Boston neighborhood. He refused to take part in the changes at the MTA. “I’m so tired of hearing that damned song,” he once confided to his wife.

On December 4, 2006, the MBTA ended its exit fares and began using “Charlie Cards.”

That afternoon, two elderly men got their cards from a machine and used them to go through the gate to the platform. Charlie Faneuil and Hank Longfellow took a ride to the Harvard Square Station.  Nobody noticed them.   No newspaper photographers were there.  Nobody wrote about them in the next day’s newspaper.  When they got off the train, they caught a cab for a short ride to 73 Hamilton Street, a place known as the Good News Garage, where a couple if Italian guys claimed to have fixed Charlie’s car, a 1960s Dodge Dart. It had 21,294 miles on the odometer, not many miles for a car so old.

That’s because, of course, Charlie rode the MTA.

(photo credits: MBTA, etsy.com)

Their World

One of our favorite events each year is the beginning of college careers.  There is so much those young students know that their parents and grandparents don’t know.  And there is so much they DON’T know that we do.

We who watch them set sail on this new adventure are reminded of that each year by the Mindset List compiled at Beloit College in Wisconsin.  This year is the twentieth anniversary of the list which provides “a look at the cultural touchstones and experiences that have shaped the worldview of students” that take their first steps on our college campuses each year.  We suppose it also could be something of a gauge of what society, media, schools, and parents have taught them in their first eighteen years.

Ron Nief, now the publicist emeritus for the college, who started circulating the list widely in 1998, was joined by humanities professor Tom McBride and, in 2016, Charles Westerberg, who received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in sociology from the University of Missouri. (They’re McBride, Westerberg,and Nief, L-R, in the picture)

This year’s Mindset List tells us that these new students, during their early kindergarten careers, saw—again and again—the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  They are more likely to think of Harry Potter than John Lennon when they see wire-rimmed glasses. “Selfies” with celebrities are more important than autographs.  Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” has always been “the only news program that really ‘gets it right.’”  Saturday morning cartoons shows are something they know nothing about but they’re big fans of the Sunday night “Animation Domination” on FOX.  Hong Kong has always been part of China. Joe Camel never encouraged them to smoke. Nicotine has always been an addictive drug.  If the students are at Baylor, there has been student dancing throughout their lifetimes. Cloning has always been fact. There has always been a WNBA. “Chicago” has always been a Broadway hit. Netscape probably has never been their web browser.

And there’s more of the list at https://www.beloit.edu/mindset/previouslists/2018/.

We thought it might be interesting to look at the first list, from 1998 because some of the students going to college this fall are children of the students who were part of that first list.  The 1998 list said, for instance:

Students did not know Ronald Reagan had ever been shot. They didn’t remember the Cold War. There had only been one Pope. They had never been afraid of a nuclear war and “Day After” was a pill rather than a post-apocalyptic movie. They didn’t remember the Challenger explosion. The expression, “You sound like a broken record” had no meaning to them (perhaps because they had never owned a record player). The special effects of “Star Wars” were pathetic. They had always had cable; there had always been VCRs, and they had never played Pac-Man. They had always known where the Titanic was.

That’s for starters.

The list has its critics, the strongest—perhaps—being the counter “Beloit Mindlessness” which charges the annual list is “a poorly written compendium of trivia, stereotypes and lazy generalizations, insulting to both students and their professors…” To each his own, we suppose.

In its own way, whether you consider them merely entertaining or useless or useful in knowing what to talk about with your children or your students, these lists provide us with annual markers of our changing world.

For those of us with some years on us, they also remind us of things we couldn’t have imagined when WE moved from high school into young adulthood, things we were yet to hear and learn, and how much we have become history.

For instance—

When my generation entered college we had a high-tech machine into which we inserted a piece of paper.  And when we hit a key on our keyboard, a letter immediately appeared on the piece of paper in front of us.  We didn’t need to hit “print (two or three times),” and then go to another machine to get what we’d written.  And if the power went out, the machine kept working.

I’ve run into some of the people who are the topics of this year’s Mindset List whose eyes widen a little bit when I describe that wondrous machine. They’ve never heard of it.  Or seen one.

Long before there was Apple, you see, there was Royal.  I keep it within arm’s reach.

(Photo taken in the old Missourinet newsroom by Steve Mays a long time ago)

 

2017: A legislative anniversary that isn’t

This is the seventieth anniversary of the first meeting of Missouri’s Unicameral General Assembly.

Not.

We’ve lost track of the number of years somebody proposed reducing the size of our legislature, usually by doing something mathematical with the number of Senators.   For instance, having three House districts for each Senate district. Using current numbers, that system would cut the size of the House from 163 to 102.  There have been proposals to increase the membership of the Senate to 35, presumably to avoid tie votes, with three or four Representatives per Senate district, for a total House count of 105 to 140.

The proposals might have gotten through the Senate but not surprisingly have had zero chance to finding favor in the House.

There was a time, however, when Missouri came close to eliminating the entire Senate.  All 34 members.   AND cutting the size of the House by one-half to two-thirds!

Imagine Missouri joining Nebraska as the only states with unicameral, or one-house legislatures.

Nebraska’s capitol actually has two legislative chambers.  The Senate, which has a Speaker, meets in the George W. Norris Chamber. The other chamber, used for ceremonial purposes, is called the Warner Memorial Chamber and was used by the Nebraska Senate for a short time before the change to the one-house general assembly beginning in 1937.

Missouri was not among the twenty-some states that immediately started considering switching to one-house legislatures but we weren’t far behind.  The issue was being widely discussed by the spring of 1941.  But opponents feared putting the issue on the 1942 ballot would deflect interest away from another important amendment that would give legislators their first pay increase since the adoption of the Missouri Constitution of 1875.  Lawmakers were paid five dollars a day for the first seventy days of a legislative session and then only a dollar a day for each day afterward.  Supporters of the pay raise believed higher pay would attract better men for the legislature (few women had served by then). But one newspaper suggested the opposite, remarking, “The people might look upon this pay increase with favor if at the same time they had the opportunity to reduce the number of lawmakers by half.”

An organization of businessmen announced in the spring of ’42 that they would circulate petitions calling for a unicameral vote in November.  The constitutional amendment would hike salaries to as much as $150 a month with six dollars a day for each day on legislative business.

A petition drive led by former state Superintendent of Schools Charles A. Lee submitted about 85,000 signatures to the Secretary of State on July 1, calling for a one-house legislature of fifty to seventy-five members as of the 1945 session.

But the whole campaign blew up a few days later when Springfield Justice of the Peace Tom Burns, known as a “marryin’ justice,” and a colleague, Erwin A. Greenhaw, were charged with arranging to have thousands of signatures forged in a “signature mill” in Burns’ basement, paying women and girls three-dollars a day to fake signatures.  Lee’s committee had paid them more than $2,500 to gather signatures on the unicameral petitions. His group withdrew the petitions, which killed the drive for the vote in 1942.  Burns and Greenhaw were later convicted on petition forgery charges. Burns spent two years in the pen. Greenhaw was fined $500.

The incident led State Representative Edgar Keating of Kansas City to introduce a bill in the 1943 legislature  “In recent years the initiative petition has gone to the point of being a racket,” he said, a statement buttressed by the admission of Notary Public Lee Weaver, who said he notarized many of the petitions without ever seeing the person who supposedly circulated them, admitting he had done the same thing for Burns and Greenhaw in the 1936 petition campaign that took the state’s conservation department out of politics.

The House passed the bill on February 25, by a vote of 112-0 with 38 members absent.  The strong vote made no difference to the Senate, which sent the bill to the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee where it was never heard from again.

The issue returned in the long session of 1943-44 but was killed in a House committee when five rural members outvoted the two representatives from St. Louis city.  The amendment was similar to an amendment being circulated in a petition backed by a group called “Crusaders for Missouri.”

By now, a constitutional convention was underway, too.  A convention committee endorsed keeping the bicameral system, forcing delegate Stanford Lee Morton of Clayton to withdraw his unicameral proposal and plan to offer it in resolution form to the entire convention later. He wanted voters to have a choice when they voted on the proposed constitution but that idea was opposed by Con-Con President Robert E. Blake, an anti-New Deal Democrat from Webster Groves, and other delegates who wanted to send the proposed document to the vote as a single piece.  Morton had wanted an 81-member unicameral legislature with one Republican and one Democrat from each of the thirty-four senatorial districts and thirteen at-large members elected in partisan elections each of the state’s then-thirteen congressional districts.

When the Crusaders of Missouri submitted their petitions, Secretary of State Gregory Stockard ruled they were one day too late.  But the State Supreme Court said Stockard was mistaken and had to accept them.  This time there was no skullduggery and the petitions were found to have enough signatures to make the November ballot. The Crusaders plan called for a legislature of fifty to seventy-five members with a total payroll of $90,000 a year, the lawmakers elected in standard partisan elections to serve two-year terms. The 1945 legislature would decide the size of the new General Assembly, which would meet for the first time in 1947.

But the proposed state constitution got in the way.

The Missouri Supreme Court on September 27, 1944 guaranteed Missourians would get to vote on a unicameral legislature when it refused to review a Cole County Circuit Court ordering the issue to the November 7 ballot.

However, the convention voted the next day to send the proposed constitution to voters with a two-house general assembly retained.  And just before the convention adjourned with delegates singing one verse of “America” and a prayer that was the second verse of the song, the delegates set February 27, 1945 for voters to decide if Missouri would have its first new constitution in seventy years, a document 11,000 words shorter than the 1875 document that had been amended sixty times.

The Crusaders of Missouri decided to give up their campaign a week after that. The group said it feared its proposal would interfere with the adoption of the constitution.  Plus, adoption of a unicameral legislature in November would become meaningless if voters adopted the constitution with a two-house legislature in February.  The Crusaders asked Stockard to withdraw their plan from the November ballot.  But Stockard couldn’t do it.  Once on the ballot, it stays on the ballot, he said.

The Crusaders decided they would quit campaigning at that point.

On November 7, almost 365,000 Missourians voted for a unicameral legislature, only about 13-hundred fewer than approved calling the constitutional convention.  But 402,000 “no” votes were cast.  The unicameral proposition failed by just 37-thousand votes even though supporters had not campaigned for the last four weeks before the election. The plan carried St. Louis city and county and almost carried Jackson County. Outstate Missouri defeated it by 118,000 votes.

Missourians approved the new constitution in February, 312,032-185,658.  More than fifty-thousand fewer Missourians voted “yes” for the entire constitution than voted for the unicameral general assembly proposal.

A unicameral bill was introduced in the 1945 session but it was killed in a House committee with Miller County Representative Lucien Mace commenting, “It would take some of the power from the country and give it to the cities.”

The Sikeston Herald commented in its May 19th edition, “While the two-house system of government in Missouri may be cumbersome at times, it is believed in the capitol to be the best system yet devised to keep any section of the state from being the balance of power.”

Sikeston, of course, is part of rural Missouri.

And that is why 34 Senators and 163 Representatives still meet each year in Jefferson City.  And why we are not celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the Missouri Unicameral this year.

The friend who could have launched the missile

History sat down next to me one day not long ago and told me how it almost started World War III.

History, in this case, is named Ron LeVene.  We grew up together, hung out together, and got into occasional trouble together in the small town of Sullivan, deep in the heart of the corn and beans country, the flat land of central Illinois.  We were the children of the Cold War, the kids who saw the “Duck and Cover” movies when they weren’t funny.

When we were four years old, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico (on my birthday) and a month later, two more detonations destroyed cities and ended a war. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called “father of the Atomic Bomb,” recalled, “We knew the world would not be the same.”  Oppenheimer said he thought of the Hindu Scripture from the Bhagavad-Gita, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one…I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

When we were in the second grade, the Soviet Union set off its first A-bomb.  In the fifth grade, the United States touched off the first hydrogen bomb. We were freshmen in high school when the Soviets exploded their first H-bomb.

We moved through our high school years with Hollywood giving our world post-atomic apocalypse films such as Godzilla, the story of a prehistoric beast awakened by atomic testing in the Pacific, and Them!, about giant ants created by atomic testing in the western desert, or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a giant dinosaur frozen in arctic hibernation released and revived by an atomic bomb above the Arctic Circle, and The Fiend Without a Face, an invisible creature that fed on nuclear radiation and ate human brains and spinal cords to help it reproduce.

They’re laughable today for their dialogue and animations but they scared the Hell out of a generation living in the post-Hiroshima decade, especially kids.

The year Ron and I graduated from high school, the movie based on Nevil Shute’s novel, On the Beach, hit the screens with a still-haunting message from its last scene, “There is still time..brother.” The year we reached voting age, we watched tensely as Soviet ships moved toward Cuba in the face of warnings by President Kennedy that they would be attacked if they did not turn around. And as our generation was finishing college or serving as young soldiers while Vietnam became a life-sucking quagmire, we watched Fail Safe, about American planes mistakenly sent to bomb Moscow and the awful decision a President makes to atone for that mistake, and Doctor Strangelove, the classic satire that was all too serious.

We did not know that our friend Ron was becoming part of the real world of atomic warfare.

And one day he would be caught in circumstances that almost made film fiction become cataclysmic fact.   Stay with us; you’ll see him tell his story in a little bit.

What few people realized during these years was that Presidents and the Pentagon were dealing with end-of-the-world-as-we-knew-it scenarios. Today, with inflammatory actions on the Korean Peninsula and instability in the White House, the military successors of Ron LeVene might be asking themselves what they might be called to do.

Eric Schlosser wrote in New Yorker magazine on the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Strangelove that President Eisenhower struggled with who should control our country’s nuclear weapons. Ultimate control rested with the President.  But if there was an emergency and the President could not be contacted, he decided, the Air Force could use nuclear rockets fired from jet interceptors to down Russian bombers on their way to attack this country—and a few commanders could use bigger nukes for direct attacks if time and circumstance did not allow for specific Presidential clearance.

Eisenhower feared there might be a real General Jack D. Ripper (of Dr. Srangelove fame) who could go rogue, but he knew a worse alternative would be to fail to respond to a Soviet attack on this country or an all-out Soviet invasion of Europe. So he delegated authority to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to act under extreme circumstances when the President was not available to make the ultimate decision.

A stunned John F. Kennedy learned of the arrangement shortly after taking office. He and his advisors decided to put coded electric locking devices on NATO’s nuclear weapons. The weapons could not be fired without the proper code used only with permission of the White House. But here at home, the Navy and the Air Force refused to put those switches on the weapons they controlled. “The Joint Chiefs thought that strict military discipline was the best safeguard against an unauthorized nuclear strike,” wrote Schlosser. “A two-man rule was instituted to make it more difficult for someone to use a nuclear weapon without permission.”  In those days, two people had to unlock the weapon. Each would have half of the code.

That was the situation on that day about forty years ago when Ron and his deputy, Lt. Bruce Olson, suddenly were faced with their greatest responsibility—and their greatest fear..

Ron retired from the Air Force a year or so later.  He lives in Florida now but came back to Illinois a few days ago for an interim mini-class reunion and we had him record the story of a guy from a small Illinois town who faced being part of an event that would have ended life as we knew it then and know it today.

We are old men now. And we pray that the young men and women of today, wherever they are in the world, who have the power at their fingertips that Ron and his deputy had live to become old people telling stories, too.

Journalism I

It’s not as if we haven’t been called names before. It’s not the first time that those in power wish reporters weren’t telling people what they’re really up to.  Or thinking about.

Criticisms or attacks from those who wish we weren’t so bothersome to them are not new nor will they ever go away. And what they say about us is sometimes not nearly so scathing as some of the things we say about ourselves.

We have accumulated through the years some of the noble things said about our profession and some of the criticisms leveled at it, internally and externally.  From time to time we will share them with you because we know that journalists have responsibilities and obligations of which they need at times to be reminded. We live in a world of kicks in the butt and occasional pats on the head and we are glad to toil in a nation that allows, if not encourages, both.  Here is a sample of the things said about those of us who do a job that is essential, regardless of whether you agree with what we say and write.

“Controversy? You can’t be any kind of reporter worthy of the name and avoid controversy completely. You can’t be a good reporter and not be fairly regularly involved in some kind of controversy. And I don’t think you can be a great reporter and avoid controversy very often, because one of the roles a good journalist plays is to tell the tough truths as well as the easy truths. And the tough truths will lead you to controversy, and even a search for the tough truths will cost you something. Please don’t make this play or read as any complaint, it’s trying to explain this goes with the territory if you’re a journalist of integrity. That if you start out a journalist or if you reach a point in journalism where you say, ‘Listen, I’m just not going not touch anything that could possibly be controversial,’ then you ought to get out.”

—Dan Rather, Staff, May 5, 2001

“If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.”

—Norman Mailer, The Snark Handbook

“I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust. I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism. I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.”

—Walter Williams, founder of the nation’s first School of Journalism at the University of Missouri (1908), The Journalist’s Creed (partial)

“Journalism is unlike any other craft. It most closely resembles show business. There’s an undeniable element of ego in journalism, and an equally undeniable element of self-sacrifice. Performers know the show must go on. Journalists know the paper has to come out on time.”

—Donald L. Ferguson, Opportunities in Journalism Careers

“It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles.”

—G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

“There is a line I would often share when I was a newspaper reporter talking to people who complained that we only reported ‘bad news.’ I would tell them: ‘It’s not news when a plane lands safely.’ And it’s not. ‘Everybody lived happily ever after’ is a great ending, but if they lived happily the whole time you wouldn’t bother reading.”

—Rick Polito, newhope360, January 20, 2016

 

“There is much to be said in favor of modern journalism.  By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”

—Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, 1891.

Citizens do not think through the meaning of a free press.  Too many regard it merely as a profitable privilege of publishers, instead of the right of all the people and the chief institution of representative government.  A free press is that privilege of citizenship which makes governmental dictatorship impossible.  When editors fight for the liberty to speak and write, they fight for the greatest of all human rights under government.  He is not thoughtful who cannot see that democracy cannot exist except through the maintenance of a channel through which information can flow freely from the center of government to all the people and through which praise and criticism can flow freely from the people to the center.

—American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1938

So the journalist, the reporter, flourishes in this climate of scorn and principle. And your correspondent cannot think of anything he would rather be doing with his life than living in that climate.

We’ll let you inside that climate from time to time in the future.

 

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Notes from the road—August, 2017

(Anywhere, Indiana)—When we fueled up in Terre Haute a few days ago, we paid ten cents more than we would have paid on June 30.   That’s because Indiana increased its fuel tax by ten cents a gallon on July 1.

It’s nice to see that the people of Indiana, a state many of us would consider pretty conservative, have increased their gas tax for their transportation system.  By a dime.  That’s more than Missourians have considered for more than half of the lifetime of today’s youngest voters.  Missouri has another committee that is going to talk about the issue.  Again.  It’s been only a few years since a special committee spent weeks talking about state transportation funding before failing to convince voters to support its idea.  We talk.  Indiana builds.

(Wakeeney, Kansas)—This shrinking Kansas farming community is four counties east of the Colorado border, a motel stop on Interstate 70 where the Motel 6 is a decent place for travelers headed home from Denver and its environs—or wanting to rest after the long miles from Missouri.

Your chronicler of the current scene had just finished his motel breakfast, was looking at the rack of promotional brochures for the deepest hand-dug well and the biggest ball of twine and other more impressive Kansas attractions (we LIKE Kansas, by the way) when we heard someone call our name.

Somebody knew us at the Motel 6 in Wakeeney, Kansas, for crying out loud!

It was Paul Woody, a young man who was a member of Governor Bob Holden’s staff and then was a policy and communications advisor for House Democrats. He’d left Jefferson City in 2005, gone to law school, run unsuccessfully for state rep a couple of times, and now is a lawyer in St. Charles.  He and his family were headed home from a visit to the mountains.

Wakeeney, Kansas!!!!

(Somewhere, Indiana)—We bought a couple of lottery tickets in Indiana.  Buying lottery tickets isn’t something we do every week.  We only buy them when the jackpots coincide with our level of greed. We wonder how many folks think their luck will change if they change the place they buy their tickets.

Hasn’t worked for us, either.

But we figured a major change of location such as Indiana was worth the, uh, gamble.  As we were boring out way across Illinois, the thought occurred that buying a winning ticket in Indiana would mean that we would pay a bunch of taxes there, not in Missouri.  We’d help support Indiana institutions and services, not ours.   We debated whether buying the ticket in Indiana was irresponsible, that as a Missourian we owed it to our home state to support ITS institutions and services.  But Guilt had quit hitchhiking by the time we reached Effingham.

And the good news, we guess, is that we have learned we won’t be paying millions of dollars in taxes in Indiana anyway.

(Somewhere, northern Illinois)—A reminder that sports is the toy department of life, and not as serious as we want to make them sometimes, comes in the story of Steve Bartman.

The Chicago Cubs have given a World Series champion’s ring to Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan. Not one of those things like the Cardinals are handing out to the first x-thousand fans coming through the gates now and then.  This is the real thing, so big he might have to use his left hand to raise his right hand for shaking purposes in social settings.

Who is this Bartman guy?   Just the one who might have cost the Cubs a National League pennant fourteen years ago, the then-young fellow who reached for a foul ball during the 2003 playoffs, leading to umpires ruling he had interfered with the right of a Cubs fielder to make a catch.  The Cubs after that lost the lead and their chance to play in the World Series.  Cubs fans—much as Cardinals fans still turn purple at the mention of Don Denkinger’s name—have never forgotten what he did.  He got death threats.  He became the object of long-term ridicule.

Now, the owners of the Cubs say it’s past time to forgive and forget. “While no gesture can fully lift the public burden he has endured for more than a decade, we felt it was important Steve knows he has been and continues to be fully embraced by this organization,” said a team statement.

Bartman released a statement in response saying he was “deeply moved and sincerely grateful” for the recognition.  “I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over,” he said.

And then he continued with thoughts that speak beyond the playing field: “I humbly receive the ring….as an important reminder for how we should treat each other in today’s society.  My hope is that we all can learn from my experience to view sports as entertainment and prevent harsh scapegoating, and to challenge the media and opportunistic profiteers to conduct business ethically by respecting personal privacy rights and not exploit any individual to advance their own self-interest or economic gain.”

The Cubs have done something classy for Steve Bartman.  Don Denkinger is 81 now, these thirty-two years after Cardinals fans started speaking his name in derision.

In both instances—Bartman and Denkinger—their actions are not what caused the Cubs or the Cardinals to lose.  The Cubs failed to make the plays to win their game.  The Cardinals disintegrated in the next game.  The Cubs have said it’s time to quit whining about a fan who wanted to catch a foul ball.  We wonder if the Cardinals and their reputedly best fans in baseball  will ever do something to say it’s time to quit ridiculing Don Denkinger.

Dogs and a frog; life after journalism

Drew Vogel was one of the Missourinet reporters who bedeviled Governor Teasdale throughout his four years in office.  We’ve kept in touch through the years.  Drew has been a nursing home administrator in Ohio for a long, long time.  He recently told me, “When I quit doing news I didn’t miss being on the radio, or reporting; what I missed was the creative high I get from writing.”

Most of Drew’s creativity is spread among Facebook friends—your friendly correspondent doesn’t do Facebook, claiming he has a life to live.  Here’s something Drew recently wrote that will bring back some memories to most of the demographic that stumbles over these entries:

Guess what year this is.

The South Tower of the World Trade Center is topped out.  Richard Nixon announces he will become the first U.S. president to visit China. Jeff Gordon is born. Coco Chanel dies.

Army Lieutenant William Calley is sentenced to life in prison for the My Lai Massacre.  Amtrak begins. Nikita Khruschev and James Cash (JC) Penney die. Justin Trudeau is born. 

Charles Manson and his “family” are sentenced to death for the Tate-La Bianca murders. Apollo 14 and 15 make moon landings. Snoop Dog and Kid Rock are born. Duane Allman dies. 

The Attica Prison riot breaks out in New York. Evel Knievel sets a world record by jumping over 19 cars on his motorcycle. Bobby Jones and Audie Murphy die. Pete Sampras is born.

The New York Times publishes the Pentagon Papers. Walt Disney World opens in Florida. Lance Armstrong is born. Louis Armstrong dies.And “JEREMIAH WAS A BULLFROG!”

The year was 1971.

We witnessed Three Dog Night in concert at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati last night.

I’ve seen acts at the Taft over the years—Phantom of the Opera, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton when she was still with Porter Waggoner, George Carlin and a great bluegrass show featuring Jim and Jesse and the Osborn Brothers.

I introduced a number of country acts at the Taft when I was a disk jockey. But this was my first rock concert there.

Three Dog Night?

They were really pretty good.

OK, I’m from that era, but they really can still rock, even though the original members are approaching three-quarters of a century in age.

Two of the founders are still in the band. Lead guitar Michael Allsup is 70. Lead singer Danny Hutton will be 75 soon. 

Three of the original seven have gone to that big recording studio in the sky. 

…he was a good friend of mine

I never understood a single word he said

But I helped him drink his wine.

If you are a person less than a certain age, you may not be familiar with the history of Three Dog Night, but you probably have heard its music.

There’s Jeremiah—the song is actually called “Joy to the World.”  “One.”  “I’ve never been to Spain.”  “Eli’s Coming.”  “Celebrate.” “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song.”

Good stuff, even today. And they did all their hits last night. All of them.  They’ve had so many they don’t have to go outside their playbook. 

Between 1969 and 1975 the band had an amazing 21 records on the Billboard Magazine Top 40. “Joy to the World” turned gold two months after it was released and ultimately sold five million copies.

“Black and White” and “Mama Told Me” reached #1 as well.

Neither Credence Clearwater Revival, nor the Eagles, comparable groups of the era, had a #1 during that time and both had fewer appearances in the Top 40.

In fact, the Beatles only had five songs in the Top 40 from 1969 to ’75 but they had disbanded in 1970.  Elvis only had 14 Top 40 appearances and one #1 in that timeframe.

And he always had

Some mighty fine wine.

When we entered the Taft, the usher asked if we would be drinking any alcohol. Gail said no. I said I might have a glass of wine. She stamped my hand.  Didn’t ask for ID, not that I expected to be carded, but she did tamp my hand. 

Strange, very strange.

The crowd was largely people who had been teenaged-to-young adults when Three Dog Night songs were hits. In other words, 60 and 70-something folks like Gail and me.

However, they were a tech savvy bunch. Instead of “flick the Bic” on romantic songs, they used the flashlights on their Androids.

Thank goodness, no one showed up dressed in “period costume.”  No bell bottoms or Roman sandals.

I did see one guy who looked a lot like John Gotti. The Teflon Don was of that era. You don’t suppose he slipped away again, do you?

If I were the king of the world,

Tell you what I’d do.

I’d throw away the cars and the bars and the wars.

And make sweet love to you.

Oh, I did see a couple of tie-dyed T-shirts that covered bulging bellies. The Guys’ hair was mostly short—what there was of it.

One or two fellows had long-enough-to-be-ponytailed locks, but with bare skin topping off the doo, it amounted to a Friar tuck-goes-hippie kind of a look.

You know I love the ladies.

Love to have my fun

I’m a high life flyer and rainbow rider.

A straight shootin’ son-of-a-gun.

The ladies had hair issues, too. It was either white or dyed so it wouldn’t be white. More than a few were in the size 18-22 category.

Joy to the world

All the boys and girls

There actually were a few boys and girls—young people likely brought by their grandparents. 

But, not many.

If you herded all of them together I doubt there would have been enough to fill up a 1962 psychedelic-painted peace sign=embroidered VW bus.

Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea

Joy to you and me.

So, what about Jeremiah?   You’ll be happy to know that he didn’t croak.

He didn’t donate his legs to a garlic and butter-filled skillet.

In fact, he was the encore finale.

When the keyboard hit the first few notes of Joy, the crowd—those who still could—jumped to its collective, orthopedic-clad feet and loudly sang along with the boys.

Forty-six years after Jeremiah made the scene, he still brings Joy to the world.

 

Missouri’s first air mail

Email.  Snail mail.   Remember AIR mail?

At least one generation has never known a time when someone would pay extra for a letter to be stamped “Air Mail” when it had to get a long way away, fast.  Every now and then we still see a now-ancient attempt at humor—a mail box on a tall pole above the regular mailbox. The upper box is labeled “air mail.” But an increasing number of people passing by have no idea what it’s all about.

We got a snail mail letter a few days ago from Elvin Smith in Macon, who had heard our Across our Wide Missouri radio program story about the nation’s first air mail flight, suggesting we look into the story of the nation’s first air mail flight by airplane (as opposed to hot air balloon), which he said happened in December, 1912 on a biplane flight between Callao, Bevier, and Macon.

The problem with writing something was the “first” is that different people have different interpretations of “first.”

Some say the first air mail fight in this country carried one letter in 1793—from George Washington in Philadelphia to whomever owned the property where the balloon came down. That was all of thirteen miles.

The first official airmail flight is considered to have been another balloon flight that began in Lafayette Indiana in August 1859, but was terminated by weather at Crawfordsville, thirty miles away. The mail went to New York by train. The National Postal Museum put out a stamp several years ago commemorating that flight.

But we Missourians know the postal service was wrong. Six weeks before that puny little hop in Indiana, four men in St. Louis climbed into the basket hung below a balloon of varnished Chinese silk, carrying a bag of mail, and headed for New York.  They suffered from the altitude (two miles), went through a frightening storm over Lake Erie and Niagara Falls, and eventually came down into a tree near Henderson, New York, almost one-thousand miles from St. Louis. They had averaged about fifty miles an hour.

A lot of folks know that Charles Lindbergh flew the mail from St. Louis to Chicago for a while, crashing a few times along the way—which didn’t discourage him from thinking he could fly from New York to Paris.  The Postal Service says the first regularly scheduled airmail service in this country was a route linking New York City, Washington, D. C., and Philadelphia in May, 1918.

Elvin believes the three cities linked on the first REAL air mail flight were Callao, Bevier, and Macon, Missouri on December 4, 1912.

Young aviator Ralph E. McMillen (shown with his wife about 1909)  was flying a Curtiss Model D pusher plane that he had purchased from Glenn Curtis, himself, after graduating from the Curtiss Flying School, a competitor to the Wright Brothers school, when he arrived at the United Aviators field in the northern part of Macon, Missouri on November 29, 1912.  He flew from there, over Bevier, and landed at Callao, about nine miles west.

He was flying with one leg tightly strapped into an iron “trough,” the result of a crash in May while giving flights in Perry, Iowa.  His passenger that day panicked when they were up about 125 feet and grabbed the control wires. McMillen was unconscious for four days with two broken legs and busted ribs among other injuries. The passenger also survived.

The Macon newspaper praised him as “a skilled bird-man,” a man of “splendid courage and self-confidence.”  His historic airmail flight came a few days later, on December 4 when he flew from Callao with a “large package of letters” addressed to Macon residents.  He dropped a package at Bevier. He didn’t get all the way through to Macon on the first flight.  Clouds forced him to return to Callao in the morning after package-drop at Bevier.  But the afternoon turned clear and he flew straight to Macon in about half an hour, the last five minutes spent circling the town.

The accounts say he set a record by climbing to 8,000 feet although he cruised at 2,000. “By travelling at great elevation it gives the aviator better control of his craft, should the engine balk or anything happen; he could pick out his place to alight, and descend slowly, while at an altitude of 100 or 200 feet the craft would select its own place to light,” said the Macon Republican.

The next week, on December 10, he made a successful twenty-mile flight north to LaPlata.  He decided to follow a Wabash passenger train between the two towns so he couldn’t get lost, which excited the train passengers, who got off at stops in Axtell and Love Lake to watch him flying overhead.  Passengers wanted the train to pause in LaPlata so they could watch McMillen land, but the trainmaster was afraid such a stop would put the train off-schedule.

Maconians who thought they were seeing, and reporting on, the first airplane-mail flight didn’t know, however that a pilot named Fred Wiseman had carried three letters from Petaluma, California to Santa Rosa on February 17, 1911.  And the first airmail delivery under the authority of the postal Department had been made by Earl Ovington in his French Bleriot XI on September 23, 1911, when he flew from Garden City, New York to Mineola, two miles away.  He pitched the mail bag filled with 1,280 postcards and 640 letters out of the plane at an altitude of 500 feet.  It burst on impact, scattering the cargo all over the place, but at least it was delivered. One of the letters in the bag was addressed to Ovington.  It was from the Post Office Department and it christened him “Official Air Mile Pilot #1.”

In fact, it appears there were a lot of air mail flights in 1912.  A webpage (http://www.aerodacious.com/PIO1912.HTM) has photos about numerous flying exhibitions throughout the nation, almost all of them involving mail.

So Ralph E. McMillen wasn’t the first in the nation to make an airmail flight in a plane.  But he was ONE of the first, and his flights from Callao to Bevier to Macon is the first such flight IN MISSOURI—until somebody comes along with information to the contrary.

Many of the stories of those early aviators and their accomplishments that fired the imaginations of their witnesses and led to the airline industry we know today are lost to history. Elvin’s note has enabled us to bring McMillen out of the lost pages of our past and recall him as part of an important era in our country.

And we have found there’s quite a bit more to his story.

McMillen was born in Perry, Iowa. He was one of the first speeders on the early dirt roads near there before he headed to San Diego to the Curtiss School.  His Curtiss pusher arrived in Perry on a train, disassembled on May 11, 1912.  Gerald Meyer reports McMillen put it together and took it up for the first time two days later for a fund-raising promotion for the city fire department.  The crash that left him with broken legs and ribs was the very next day, May 14. He didn’t fly again until September 5 when a huge crowd at Grinnell watched him stay in the air for 24 minutes and reach 5,000 feet.

He barnstormed during the next couple of years before joining the Nebraska National Guard where he became the only pilot for the new Aviation Corps, the first such outfit in the country. (The photo dates from that time)  He practiced bombing with fake bombs on the state capitol (this was six years before Billy Mitchell proved bombs from airplanes were good tactical weapons) and once hit a moving street car.  He also made night flights, practiced early aerial photography, and developed reconnaissance and aerial delivery systems. Some took to calling him “World’s Greatest Aviator.”   Others have referred to him less grandly as the “One Man, One Airplane National Guard.”

He wanted to fly air support for Pershing’s troops on the Mexican border but the Army refused to let him go because of his 1912 injuries. He continued to make exhibition flights in the four-state area until September 2, 1916 when his plane lost power 1,200 feet above a crowd near St. Francis, Kansas.  Captain Ralph McMillen was 27 when he died that day.

The Nebraska Adjutant General’s office remembered two days later, “His service has been of most unusual value to the Guard of this state, being characterized by ready tact, unfailing courtesy, and indefatigable willingness to work.  He was universally liked and respected by his brother officers and comrades who will greatly miss his ready wit and sunny disposition.”

Meyer has written that the Nebraska Aviation Corps was disbanded soon after that.  The state didn’t have a National Guard air unit for another thirty years.

So Elvin’s tip about a piece of history didn’t turn out quite the way we thought it would. But if not for his snail mail, we wouldn’t have discovered a broader piece of our national past.

At least, we have the story about MISSOURI’S first air mail flight by plane. And we’ve remembered the courageous young man who died creating a significant part of our lives today.

Thanks, Ervin.

(photo credits: Mailbox, carmaro5.com; McMillen and wife and picture of people holding back his airplane before takeoff, earlyaviators.com; McMillen and friends in front of airplane, DOMmagazine.com; headon view from 1916, Nebraska State Historical Society)

Signs of our times

Two geezers were having lunch the other day at a local restaurant/craft beer emporium and the conversation turned to the Five Man Electrical Band.   Right away, you know these two brilliant conversationalists had to be geezers because they immediately remembered the group’s biggest hit, Signs, which reached number three on the Billboard chart in 1971.

Metrolyrics has this version of the lyrics (which we are using because it cleaned up one line):

And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply” So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do” So I took off my hat, I said “Imagine that. Huh! Me workin’ for you!” Whoa-oh-oh

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

And the sign said anybody caught trespassin’ would be shot on sight So I jumped on the fence and-a yelled at the house “Hey! What gives you the right?” “To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in” “If God was here he’d tell you to your face, man, you’re some kinda sinner”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Now, hey you, mister, can’t you read? You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat You ain’t supposed to be here The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside Ugh

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray” But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all I didn’t have a penny to pay So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine” Woo

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Five Man Electrical Band—uh—disbanded (add that to the list of old jokes such as “Old doctors never die, they just lose their patients,” and other puns about the ends of careers) in 1975, so you know that these two guys still without hearing aids but still WITH most of their teeth, quit being young in every place but their own minds a long time ago.

One geezer hauled out his pocket encyclopedia/camera, a device usually marketed as a telephone but which he seldom uses that way, and showed the other geezer a picture he took of a sign at a tourist junk shop in Limon, Colorado a few days earlier and suggested there are many venues where this sign should be posted:

Both geezers reflect that the sign is highly reminiscent of the four-way test of the civic organization, Rotary International, which is:

Is it TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

But then, Geezer one did the two-fingery thing on the encyclopedia/camera screen to widen out the image to show two other signs on either side of the “Think” sign.  The expanded image seems to capture the contradictions in our social dialogue, which too often take the shape of individual diaTRIBE.

To save you the trouble of doing your own two-fingery thing to expand the image, we’ll tell you that the sign on the left says, “If you can read this you are in range,” and shows an apparent double-barreled shotgun, and the sign on the right says “The average response time of a 911 call is 23 minutes. The response time of a .357 is 1400 feet per second.”

The other two signs might be true and helpful—somehow. We suspect they are seldom necessary. They aren’t real inspiring except in a pretty anti-social sort of a way.  And forget about kindness.  But in years to come they will provide fodder for sociologists, psychiatrists and other “ists” studying the American mind in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries.

Geezer One saw another sign a few days earlier at Dot’s Diner, a sandwich place in Nederland, Colorado—a few miles above Boulder—where the proprietors think the music of the Grateful Dead is appropriate background for a meal.  The sign wasn’t mean or threatening.  It just asked people to respect other diners who were having their sandwich with a Touch of Grey, or their omelet with Sugar Magnolia.

Maybe Geezer One was just feeling mellow during his lunch because he’d just ridden a pig on the 1909 restored carousel that is Nederland’s biggest attraction.  A fellow named Scott Harrison had rescued the carousel from the scrap heap and had spent more than twenty-five years carving all of the creatures for it.  The Carousel of Joy, it’s called.  And you are NOT too old to enjoy riding it and listening to the original Wurlitzer mechanical band organ as you go.

The discussion reminded one of the geezers of the kindly little signs that vanished from our roads about the time the interstate highway system came along.  The last Burma-Shave signs went up in 1963.  You might find a few in museums here and there today.  Some thought they were distractions to drivers and made the two-lane roads they populated less safe.  But now in these days with the pleas for drivers to ignore the distractions of Facebook, or Twitter, or the telephone itself—-at the same time that cars all have video screens in the middle of the dash loaded with all kinds of information—the concerns about Burma-Shave signs seem mild.

Some of the signs, in fact, promoted highway safety.  Frank Rowsome, Jr., put out a little book in 1965 that contained all of those messages, The Verse By the Side of the Road.  It has all of them, including the first ones in 1927. All had the company name at the end of each series and most promoted using the product when you were shaving with a blade.  But some were highway safety messages:

Don’t Lose/Your Head/To Gain a Minute/You Need Your Head/Your Brains Are In It

Or:

Dim Your Lights/Behind A Car/Let Folks See/How Bright You Are.

Then there was:

Thirty Days/Hath September/April/June And The/Speed Offender 

Would signs like those do as much good, or more good, on our highways than the electric signs telling us how many fatalities we’ve had each month, or reminding us to buckle up?   Or maybe they’d make some good light-hearted but meaningful reminders.  And monotony-breaking moments on the crowded, straight-as-a-string interstates.

Perhaps something such as:

Buckle Up/Don’t Be Silly/Don’t Be Under/A Stone With/ ACarved Lilly/MODOT.

If you have some Burma-Shave inspired signs that you think would be useful for MODOT, or that would meet the four-way test for general civil discussion, send them along in the “comments” section below.  If they meet our standards of civility (as we outline on this page) we’ll post them.  And then you can tell your friends YOU are a published poet!  A Roadside Laureate!

(Burma Shave sign image by G. D. Carrington)