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.

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)

The founders and the 501(c)(4)s

We honor fifty-six men today who were unafraid of being known although they knew their lives were at risk and an enemy was nearby. We should ask ourselves today how poorly we are keeping faith with them.

Your observer is intrigued by the idea advanced by some that people giving large sums of money to organizations that influence political decisions should be protected while the people on my quiet street who might give twenty dollars to a campaign cannot hide.

The issue came up late in the regular legislative session when some senators defending a colleague who was personally attacked by a dark money political action committee tried to pass a bill requiring such committees to disclose their donors.  Regular campaign committees have to list their donors in filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission.  But the Super PACs, as they’re called, are formed for people who don’t want anybody to know who they are or how much they give. And these organizations appear to attract big-money donations that can finance anonymous personal attacks on other individuals in the political system or influence leaders to see things their ways.

Defenders of the dark money organizations say the secret organizations are necessary to protect donors from political retaliation.  It’s a freedom of speech matter, they say; these people would not be free to express their political positions if they had to do so publicly.

That’s kind of hard for the twenty-dollar donor who lives next door to understand.  How is it that somebody who lives in a big mansion can afford MORE freedom of speech than the people who live on my street in nice but modest homes can afford?  Are not we all equal under the First Amendment?

Apparently not in today’s political climate.  Twenty dollars donated to a candidate or a cause requires your name be on a list that your neighbors of differing political beliefs can see.  And if the candidate you support makes irresponsible claims, you can be held partly responsible.  On the other hand, if your candidate shows inspirational leadership, you can take some of the credit.

It takes courage to donate twenty dollars in the sunshine.  Cowardice lurks in the dark where much bigger donations flow. Our nation was not born in such cowardice.

Let us ponder how different our nation would be today if fifty-six men in 1776 anonymously issued a broadside accusing King George III of all kinds of awful things. Suppose the accusations carried the tag line, “Paid for by Citizens for Free Colonies,” an eighteenth century Super PAC that was not required to file any reports showing who was behind the attack.

But they didn’t do it.  Various sources estimating the wealth of those 56 signers show Oliver Wolcott, John Witherspoon, George Walton, Robert Treat Paine, and Samuel Adams were estimated to be worth 100 British Pounds in 1776.  University of Wyoming professor Eric Nye, on his Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency website, calculates those five men would be worth $16,358 today.  On the other end, Charles Carroll III of Carrollton, Maryland and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania were worth 110,000 British Pounds in 1776 (http://www.raken.com/american_wealth/encyclopedia/1776.asp), which Nye calculates would be just short of $18 million today.  John Hancock of Massachusetts, whose signature is the boldest, was the third wealthiest at about $12.8 million in today’s money.

Five men who were well below today’s poverty level were joined by men who could buy my entire neighborhood in speaking freely to absolute power.  And they knew full well what “political retaliation” could await them.

Fifty-six men who knew they were risking the noose or the firing squad were unafraid to let it be known what they were supporting politically. They were unafraid to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Our founders had the courage to proclaim their positions in the most public manner of their times. We became a nation because rich men and poor men, those living in privilege and those living in poverty, alike shared the personal courage to speak freely and openly.

What kind of people have we become that some of us are so afraid of “political retaliation” that is so mild compared to what our founders risked? What kind of people have we become that we will tolerate the argument that freedom of speech, the freedom to criticize those we elect, as well as the freedom to support those we select, should place those who can afford to attack from the darkness into a protected status?

Dare we continue to tolerate the noise from unknown voices in that darkness, and their defenders, and allow them to overcome the quiet sound of quill pens writing signatures on our founding document if we are to consider ourselves true descendants of those fifty-six men who had the courage to stand in the light?

no one cares

An extraordinary writer has written an extraordinary book you should read, especially if you are in a public policy position, particularly if that position involves holding public purse strings.

He begins his book bluntly: “This is the book I promised myself I would never write. And promised my wife as well.”

Why?

“I have kept that promise for a decade—since our younger son, Kevin, hanged himself in our basement, a week before his twenty-first birthday in July 2005, after struggling for three years with schizophrenia.”

Then, three years later, his eldest son, Dean, developed symptoms of schizophrenia, too.

Several weeks ago, while driving to Columbia to do some research at the State Historical Society, I heard Ron Powers being interviewed on National Public Radio about this book. I knew instantly I had to read it:  no one cares about crazy people, which draws its title from a “ghastly” remark made in 2010 by a campaign aide to Scott Walker, who was running for Governor of Wisconsin.  Even the lower-case print used on the cover and title page is a message.  Crazy people are lower-case people, ones we prefer to ignore, ones easy to lose.

It should be explained that Ron and I have been friends most of our lives although that friendship became strained for reasons that are now clear from reading his book, a circumstance that might not be unusual when friends do not realize the cumulative effects of life circumstances upon other friends.  If you’re not familiar with him, Google him.  He’s a Hannibal native. Look at the long list of his books. Read about his Pulitzer Prize and his career with Charles Kuralt on the CBS Sunday Morning show.

Early in his book, Ron writes of an experience he had in a Vermont legislative committee hearing (He lives in Vermont) that equals one of the most vivid memories I have of covering thousands of hours of committee meetings in four decades as a statehouse reporter.  I recall a father testifying in one of the committee rooms on the first floor of the Missouri Capitol about this state’s inadequate services for the mentally ill.   He recited the struggles of his son whose deteriorating mental health eventually led the son into crime and then to state prison.  The point the father made that day should have been disturbing to anyone facing him from the committee table: the only place his son could receive treatment for his mental disease was in a prison.

Ron and his wife, Honoree, had gone to the lovely, small, Vermont Capitol in Montpelier in January, 2014 to testify about whether mental patients should be institutionalized against their will when their conditions reach certain levels of desperation and danger, or whether such action violates the individual’s civil liberties and exposes them to questionable drug therapies perceived by some as being prescribed by doctors who receive financial rewards from “Big Pharma” for prescribing those drugs.  We’ve heard the same arguments here. He heard people such as the father I had listened to here in Missouri.

Just three weeks after the Powerses attended that hearing came the revelation of the callous pronouncement from the Walker aide.  And that’s when Ron began to re-think his vow about not writing the book, reconsidering his desire to protect the privacy of his sons, and reconsidering his feelings that he did not want to exploit them.  I am glad that he made the difficult decision to write it after that hearing jolted him out of his introspection and into what he realized is “a simple and self-evident and morally insupportable truth: Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.”

The book is not just a recounting of his family’s personal journey.  It also is an excellent journalistic recounting of the way societies have treated the mentally ill for centuries. Early in his book, Ron writes, “For centuries those who have been struck by madness have always had their own cruel nomenclature to bear, names intended to separate them out, divide us from them: lunatics, imbeciles, loonies, dips, weirdos, wackos, schizos, psychos, freaks, morons, nutcases, nutjobs, wingnuts, cranks.  The mad one, then, is something between a clown and a demon.  Unless that mad one is a gift of God made flesh.”

Such as a child.

Ron mixes the deeply-personal narrative of his family’s eventual shift from one of being normal, proud parents of gifted sons to a deepening search for hoped normality in the face of increasing and inescapable reality, with perceptive accounts of the years of society’s shifting thought on mental illness and the coining of the phrase “schizophrenia” by Eugen Bleuler in 1908.  Ron demonstrates his extensive journalistic story-telling skills to track the attitudes toward mental illness from the days of  demons and shamans; from Hippocrates to today’s researchers; from Bedlam, the first madhouse dating to 1247, to today’s asylums; from Sigmund Freud, Dorothea Dix, and Charles Darwin, to the disciples of Eugenics, and to Julian Jaynes’ Twentieth Century thoughts on the origins of madness—and research and policies in the forty-years since then, including mental illness deniers such as L. Ron Hubbard and Thomas Szasz..  It was mortifying to read that one Albert Priddy, the superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, was a strong advocate of eugenics and a leader of the effort to defend the Virginia Sterilization Act.  It is only slightly comforting that his name does not show up on our particular branch of the family tree.

His writing on the deinstitutionalization movement started in a Ronald Reagan-signed law while Governor of California, the effects of which remain obvious to those will but see, is damning.  Ron calls the Lanterman-Petris-Short act “the national gold standard for clueless, destructive government interference in the interest of mentally ill people.” And he offers studies showing that our prisons have become the largest treatment facilities for those with mental illness since the national adoption of the act’s philosophy.

Ron doesn’t want you to “enjoy” the book—and you won’t.  But read it anyway. FEEL his book.  Have the courage and the empathy to read it from beginning to end including the preface, especially if you deal with public policy—particularly health and mental health issues and budget issues.

Too rarely, I asked legislative committee chairmen and women how they could listen to real people plead for the kind of help that only government can provide and then ignore the humanity behind those pleas.  The answers always were basically, “Well, we only have so much money.”  In recent years, their successors have moved to assure the state will have even less.

It is sad that so much of the process of government—at all levels—and citizen participation in a society that is greater than the one behind our front doors seems to look only at dollars and not at the real people next door or across the street. National and international health studies indicate one in four of us experience, or will experience, some kind of mental illness. All of us know someone who is one of those. But it’s okay to see the face of only one person—George Washington, whose benign gaze greets us on the front of the dollar bill.

This is a book of humanity that every health and mental health committee member in every state legislature should read.  It’s a book ALL of us should read.  We should be uncomfortable throughout it, and after it.

Thank you, Ron and Honoree, for your courage and your strength with this book.  We hope others can draw courage and strength of their own to see people, not just dollars.

Story-tellin’

One of the great things about being a journalist is the stories people tell you, often stories that aren’t exactly “news,” but are interesting enough that you file them away to tell to others later. In my case, I used to have in the newsroom several boxes carrying the ghoulish label, “Prospective Death Box.”  Through the years my staff and I put recordings of interviews, speeches, and events into that box so we would dig them out and play parts of them back in our coverage of the death of a prominent person or the anniversary of an important event.

Some of those recordings are, as far as I know, the only preserved telling of a story, the only known recording of an event, the only sample of someone’s now-stilled voice.

One of those recordings is of the only man ever to serve three terms as State Treasurer.  He did it in the days when the Treasurer could not succeed himself, which makes his service even more remarkable.

M. E. Morris was a Dadeville native—southwest Missouri’s Dade County—who founded in 1928 the People’s Bank in Miller. He was elected to the Missouri House for the first of his two terms in 1932, after which he became the CEO of the Trenton National Bank. He left the bank in 1945 to become Commissioner of the state Division of Finance.

When the 1945 Constitution created a new agency for collecting taxes, the Department of Revenue, Morris became the first Director of Revenue for Missouri, serving under Governor Phil Donnelly.  This was in the days when Governors could not succeed themselves and therefore keep patronage-appointed department heads so when Donnelly left office, Morris ran for and was elected State Treasurer for the first time.  He could not succeed himself but fortunately Donnelly decided he wanted to be Governor again, so when Donnelly became Governor a second time, Morris became Revenue Director again.  When  Donnelly’s second term ended, Morris ran for Treasurer and won a second term.  The Revenue Director while Morris was in his second term was Milton Carpenter who became the state Treasurer in 1961, at which point, Morris replaced Carpenter as Revenue Director under Governor John Dalton.  When Carpenter’s term ran out, Morris ran again, and won a third term as state treasurer.

He retired from state government after almost 25 years as either revenue director or state treasurer, a pretty remarkable career that few people recognize.

Name recognition is important in politics and M. E. Morris felt he had a leg up on any candidate.   Although known as M. E. to the press, and “Monty” to friends, his real name, you see, was MOUNT ETNA Morris.

On March 23, 1984, a little more than four years before he died, I went to his home in Jefferson City to interview him for my book about Thomas Hart Benton.  The interview was pretty frustrating because Morris had little information to offer and furthermore spoke in a slow, low, halting voice and provided no useful details.  At the end, however, I asked him to explain how he got the name “Mount Etna.”  I listened back and transcribed it. And here, from his lips to my ears, from my keyboard to your eyes, is what he told me:

“Seems there was a Welsh captain on a ship, sailing ship, of course, back in the Mediterranean back in the old days, and he was off the coast of Sicily.  A storm came up and he was about to lose his ship, did lose his bearings.  Mount Etna was in eruption at that time, there on the coast of Sicily there.  So he got his bearings from the stream of lava flying up over there.  Got his bearings and saved his ship.  So when he got back home, his first boy baby, he named him Mount Etna.  That name has been in our family for many years.

“And I know about four or five Mount Etna Morrises are buried in south Missouri there.  That’s where they finally hung up.  In fact I sent a check this morning to the old Morris Cemetery down in the county just this morning.  They’re getting ready for Decoration Day down there. 

“My grandmother’s name was Mount Etna Morris.  That’s where the name originated.  It’s a good story.  And as far as I know it’s a true story because there’s been some Mount Etna Morrises in the past.  I know where four of them are buried. 

“I told that story many times in campaign speeches just so they would remember it.”  

Let’s face it, if you’re a voter and you go into the booth aren’t you more likely to remember a man named for a volcano than somebody named Smith, Or Jones, or whatever?

Mr. Morris died in 1988, at the age of 87.  I doubt there are many recordings of his voice, let along many, or any other, recordings of the story of his name.

I intend to donate these recordings to the audio history collection of the State Historical Society.

———————–

As I was writing the book about the art of the Capitol, it dawned on me late in the process that I had not written about the three paintings in the Senate Lounge of Senators A. Clifford Jones, Richard Webster, and Michael Kinney.  In writing the story of Kinney, I recalled that I had on tape a fascinating story about him that Webster had told me.

Michael Kinney served 56 years in the state senate, longer than any legislator in the nation served in one chamber of any state legislature.  He was a Democrat from the rough and tumble “Kerry Patch” Irish neighborhood of St. Louis once dominated by two Irish gangs, the Hogans and Egan’s Rats, a group that’s been described as “the first full-time gangsters to make regular headlines.”   He succeeded his brother, Thomas, an Irish tavern-keeper known as “Snake,” who handled the political issues for the gang before he died in 1912 during his second term in the Senate.

Michael served until he lost a primary bid for re-election in 1968.  He seldom spoke in the Senate and when he did his voice was so soft that many of his colleagues could not hear him in those days before there was a public address system. But his seniority and his knowledge of Senate procedure gave him great power throughout his career.

He sponsored many bills that became laws in his career, the one that is his most visible legacy being the one that created the state cancer hospital in Columbia.  For most of three decades he was part of a Senate triumvirate that exerted enormous influence.  He, Senators Michael E. Casey of Kansas City, who served from 1909-1944 after serving six years in the House, and Senator Joseph Brogan of St. Louis, who was in the Senate from 1909 until his death in 1940, were Presidents pro Tem four times among them and chaired powerful committees throughout their careers.  The St. Louis Globe-Democrat said Casey “was the spellbinder of the group…Brogan..was the witty, nimble floor fighter, while Senator Kinney was the subtle, behind-the-scenes diplomat, string-puller and compromiser.”

Senator Webster, who was from Carthage, was in the House before moving across the rotunda to the other chamber.  He remembered when he and Kinney were on a conference committee of House and Senate members working on a compromise of a bill that had passed both chambers in different form and Webster—then in the House—was complaining about Governor Forrest Smith.  Kinney told him, “I’ve told every House member and every Senate member that’s arrived on the scene and got mad at whoever the Governor was, ‘He’s just a Governor.  Those fellows come and go.’”

Webster remembered that Kinney sat on a high stool in his office at 7 a.m. each day of the legislative session, stripped to his waist with a table cloth wrapped around his neck while his grandson-in-law, State Auditor Haskell Holman, shave him.  Kinney sat with his back to the open door.

“If you looked, you’d see a bullet hole in his back, “Webster told me.  It was a scar that Webster said remained from an assassination attempt during an Irish gang war.  Kinney was shot four times—in the chest, both arms, and in the jaw—in 1924.  He later identified a police photograph of a recaptured escaped mental patient as the man who shot him.  But there was considerable doubt even then that Kinney told the truth.  Although suspicions lingered for decades that his near-assassination was part of the heated rivalry between the Rats, of which Kinney remained a part, and the rival Hogans, Kinney never commented about the issue publicly.” 

Privately, though, according to Webster, he did talk about it.  And Webster told me about one of those conversations in the privacy of Kinney’s office.

“Someone would say, ‘Senator, do you remember a fellow named Jimmy O’Brien?’  And he would say, ‘Jimmy O’Brien.  He was a nice fellow.  Whatever happened to him?’”

“Well, what had happened to him was that Mike Kinney could never identify his assailant although his assailant was about three or four feet from him when he fired the shot.  But a month later, Jimmy O’Brien did rise to the surface of the Mississippi River.”   

There is, as far as I know, no other telling of that story except for the version Richard Webster related on tape to me that day.

Another case of the journalist collecting the first draft of history.

——————

I have in my tape library several hours of Senate floor debate in which one of the greatest Ozark story tellers ever to serve in the legislature embarked on some of his long, windy expositions on some subject that might or might not be related to the issue at hand.  There is no doubt that many of the stories Danny Staples told were pure fabrications or old jokes recycled for the moment.  But many of his stories came straight from his early life as the son of a grocery-store owner in rural southeast Missouri.

In March, 2002, the Senate was working on an election reform bill triggered by some of the big problems at the polls in St. Louis in 2000.  Staples launched into a story that was not particularly original except in the telling.

“I’m not going to say what country it was because I don’t think the statute of limitations have run out yet. But I can remember full well an old boy that was a sheriff down in one of the southeast counties.  And this young, handsome, debonair, good-lookin’ candidate was running against the incumbent state senator down there.  And the old retired official down there had named his successor and they came in and they both liked this young, handsome, debonair good-lookin’ fellow that was running the incumbent.

“One night it was raining, two days before the election, and the old man and the boy, his protégé, were out in one of those famous Civil War cemeteries down there in southeast Missouri.  One of them had a flashlight; the other one had a legal pad and a pen. And they were taking names off the Civil War cemetery headstones, been there since 1865.

“They were voting absentee ballots for this young, handsome, debonair challenger of this old retiring state senator. 

“And…the old official that was retiring had the flashlight and he was looking at a headstone there in the middle of the night and it was weather-beaten; it was worn from the hail, from the wind, from freezing rain, and the atmosphere.  And the young official that replaced the old official looked at him and said, ‘Hey. Pop, we can’t get the name off this headstone.  It’s been worn out. It’s no longer legible.  Let’s move over to the next one.’  The old man looked at the boy, and he says, ‘Cubby, this man has got just as much right to vote as this man.’’   

“That’s the way you run an honest election.”

Staples told the Senate after that, “You don’t need laws on the books to protect the innocent.  We only need laws on the books to protect those that would be corrupt and greedy and grafty in the greatest society in the world, and that’s the electoral process.”  I have read the transcript of that remark time and again and I’ll be darned if I can figure out the logic in it.

Staples usually tipped off his storytelling by asking a Senator who was handling a bill, ‘Would be interested to know, Senator….” Even if the Senator was NOT interested, Staples would proceed to inform him—and everybody else.

He decided to tell another story during this particular debate but the other senator—Doyle Childers who later became director of the Department of Natural Resources under Matt Blunt—answered “No, Senator, at this moment I’m not interested to know that, but thank you Senator.” At which point Staples stopped trying to debate and just asked to speak on the bill.

“Mr. President, it comes to my remembrance and my recollection now that they had another election in southeast Missouri…One day down in southeast Missouri, the day after the election, this man about fifty years old was sitting on the courthouse steps.  He was crying.  Tears rolling down his face.  A business partner of his walked by and he said, ‘What’s wrong?  Has there been a tragedy?’  He said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Yesterday was election day.’  He said, ‘My daddy’s been dead for nine years.  He come home and voted yesterday, didn’t even stop to see momma and I.’” 

(The Senate dissolved into laughter for several seconds on both sides of the aisle.)..

Staples went on:  “Now, I’ve won ten elections and lost one.  There was never voter fraud in the 20th Senatorial District.  Oh, sometimes we Democrats voted on Tuesday, sent out a press release, the Republicans would vote on Wednesday.  But the polls weren’t open on Wednesday as you well know. So the Democrats always won.”

Term limits finally got Danny Staples—one of the many egregious shortcomings of that misguided concept that relies on public apathy and civic irresponsibility for its support—after twenty years in the Senate preceded by six years in the House.  Not long after he was forced out of office, Danny Staples and his wife were getting ready for a trip.  He had taken the family motor home to town to get it all cleaned up and fueled up.  He drove it home and dropped dead of a heart attack on July 22, 2002. The legislature has been far too serious since he left.

We journalists not only get to witness events as they unfold and capture the stories that people tell in that process, the journalist also comes across long-forgotten stories in the course of our curiosity. I don’t remember how I stumbled on this last story but I filed it away, knowing I’d have a chance to tell it to somebody sometime. And son-of-a-gun, here is that opportunity.

Missouri history has LOT of wonderful animal stories.  Here’s one.

Many years ago I knew the first three-time Speaker of the House.  He served in the 1930s, was the Speaker for three of his four terms, and one night my longtime friend Clyde Lear and I sat down with him after dinner and recorded him telling some stories.   He told us about a day that the House and the Senate met together to see a special guest who was multi-lingual, including Morse Code, and apparently was clairvoyant to boot.

His name was Jim. Jim the Wonder Dog.  Folklorist and folk song-teller Bob Dyer wrote a song about “Jim, Jim, Wonderful Jim.  Never was a dog smarter than him.” At least not according to Bob Dyer.

Former House Speaker John G. Christy, who later was Mayor of Jefferson City for twelve years, recalled that there was no way Jim’s owner, Sam VanArsdale, could have given the dog any signals that day in the House of Representatives when—during an informal joint session—he was told in Morse Code to find the man known as the “Beau Brummel of the House.”   Jim trotted down the main aisle, paused, then turned in and wound his way through a row of desks and put his paw on the leg of a state representative who WAS known as the Beau Brummel of the House.  He was also told to find the sponsor of the horse racing bill, and he picked that man out from the crowd in the House Chamber.  That’s another story I recorded more than 35 years ago.

I love the way Bob Dyer concluded his song about Jim:

“So the next time you hear about man’s best friend,

            Think about that wonderful dog named Jim.

            And remember,

            Dogs can be just as smart as some humans are….dumb.”  

God gave people one mouth and two ears for a reason. Journalists are blessed by working in a profession that relies on that statement and having the tools to capture the stories that prove its truth.

 

A t-shirt, a tweet, and history

Seen at a truck stop in Effingham, Illinois:

A grey T-shirt with the pictures of former Illinois Governors Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan and the words, “Illinois, Where our Governors Make Our License Plates.”

For historical accuracy, future t-shirts might include Governors Otto Kerner, Jr. (mail fraud), and Dan Walker (bank fraud) among those whose careers took them from having license plate number one to a place where they wore a number stitched onto their clothes.  Walker capitalized on his name by walking the state during his 1971 gubernatorial campaign, inspiring Jackson County, Missouri, prosecutor Joseph P. Teasdale to become known as “Walking Joe Teasdale” during an unsuccessfully 1972 primary campaign for governor.  Teasdale didn’t walk as much during his successful 1976 campaign, but supporters wore lapel pins showing a shoe with a hole in the sole, an idea borrowed from a pin used by Adlai Stevenson in his 1952 Presidential campaign.  Stevenson was a Governor of Illinois who did NOT go to prison. Instead, he went to the United Nations as United States Ambassador during the Kennedy/Johnson administrations.  He is remembered for the dramatic moment when he unveiled aerial photographs of Russian missile installations in Cuba and directly asked Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin if the country was installing nuclear missiles there and proclaimed he would be waiting “until hell freezes over” to get an answer.

It was Stevenson who proposed the agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis—our removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey (they were obsolete anyway) if the Soviets took their missiles out of Cuba, a deal that did not become public for many years.  He knew that some of President Kennedy’s advisors would consider him a coward for making such a suggestion, but he commented, “Perhaps we need a coward in the room when we’re talking nuclear war.”

Wonder how many people who see those t-shirts ever think about all the real history behind the sardonic message on them and the resonance some of that history might have in today’s world.

We stopped for fuel in Effingham on our way back from watching the first Japanese driver win the Indianapolis 500.  By then, a Denver sportswriter had taken to Twitter to say he was uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the race on Memorial Day weekend because of the death of one of his father’s Army Air Corps colleagues in the Battle of Okinawa.  He later issued a public apology and noted his father had flown many missions including unarmed reconnaissance missions over Japan during World War II.  But the Denver Post has fired him.

We resist today writing of Twitter’s capacity to bring out the worst in us—and the best although your observer considers it generally to be “The Theatre of the Inane”—and others have written about the decency of Takuma Sato (who is celebrating at the “Kissing the Bricks” post-race ceremony at the start-finish line) who has spoken of his concern about a quarter-million people in his homeland who are still suffering from the earthquake and tsunami a few years ago.  Instead we refer you to an entry in the old Missourinet blog that we posted three years ago about a place 225 miles or so southeast of Denver that tells a different story from the unfortunate Denver tweets.

http://blog.missourinet.com/2014/09/30/summits-sewers-and-students/

History has many parts.  As we see in this year’s story of the Denver sportswriter and in the 2014 stories of high school students and a high plains historical site, there often are shadows over it.

There is danger lurking whenever any of us try to distill the past or the present into 140 characters.