Archive for the ‘Ancient History’ Category
There are two essays in Saturday’s papers that each, in their own way, demonstrate the surreality of modern day Alaska government.
Former Attorney General John Havelock is one of WC’s heroes. In his essay in the Anchorage Daily News, he writes of the looming fiscal cliff facing Alaska, and the utter unwillingness of the Legislature to either curtail capital spending or impose additional sources of revenue, to make Alaskans, as opposed to their nonrenewable resources, pay their own way.
Alaska remains the only state in the United States that has no statewide citizen tax. No income tax, no statewide property or sales tax; we live on coupons clipped from the limited nonrenewable petroleum extracted from the ground. Like the proverbial drunken sailor on shore leave, we’ve been spending that resource as if there is no tomorrow. Havelock estimates that “tomorrow” – the day when the resource revenue and the painfully generated cash reserves are gone – is probably seven to twelve years away. As you reflect on that fact, consider that the voters approved a half-billion dollar general obligation bond for a serious of dubious projects in the last general election. The bond will require annual payments of $37-38 million a year for the next 20 years.
Claus-M Naske, emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has an equally interesting essay in the News-Miner. He addresses the kerfuffle over Rep. Scott Kawasaki (D., Fairbanks) making faces during the sham debates over the oil tax give away. Naske, as a historian, points out that the Alaska Legislature has a long history of allowing itself to be bought by the resource-extracting industry. Only the price has varied.
Bill Allen was able to create the Corrupt Old Bastards Club, trading in legislator’s votes like pork futures, for a few tens of thousands of dollars. Prof. Naske reminds us that lobbyists for the salmon-packing industry were able to lobby for minimal taxes on their resource-extraction industry by – wait for it – threatening to leave Alaska, taking their jobs with them. Or the legendary “Big Jim” Fozzard, who obtained an exemption from the Territory’s already minimal mining tax in return for a few cases of liquor. The late Ernest Gruening’s excellent history of Alaska, The State of Alaska, is especially enlightening about the same Alaska House that Rep. Pete Higgins (R., Jim Holm) called “sacred.”
WC doesn’t want to offend the Second Oldest Profession, but the Alaska Legislature, for a hundred years, has sold itself like cheap whores. It’s an indisputable historic fact. And Rep. Higgins, the guy with that stupid fur thing on his face, during a debate in which the Alaska House is whoring itself again, criticizes Rep. Kawasaki for sticking out his tongue?
If you think that “surreal” is too strong a word, consider that the Captain Zero’s oil tax giveaway passed the state senate because two employees of Big Oil thought it was okay to vote in favor of the biggest tax break to their employers in Alaska history. They insist it is “legal.”
WC has always thought that “legal” was the minimum standard. WC has always thought public servants should be held to a higher standard. Obviously, WC was wrong. Obviously, matters of decorum are far more important than whoring to the resource extraction industry.
WC declines to apologize for his confusion.
There are bands that are just fun. There are music genres that are just fun. In BeauSoleil’s Cajun music, you get the perfect combination of the two: a delightful group of talented musicians and irresistible music. Friday night, Fairbanks Concert Association hosted Beausoleil at Hering Auditorium and they did not disappoint.
Flash back to the winter of 1995-96. BeauSoleil, which WC had never heard before, was first at Hering Auditorium. And it was a terrific show. The next morning, WC and Mrs. WC were at the airport for a flight to some place warm. The band members were on the flight, and we had a chance to talk with them. Nice guys, passionate about their music and, as you might expect from folks from the south edge of Louisiana, excited to see snow and the northern lights and to experience sub-zero temperatures.
Flash forward to March 22, 2013. There are a half dozen BeauSoleil CDs on WC’s shelf. Everyone has less hair, and what’s left is grey. Michael Doucet (fiddle, accordion, vocals), in particular, has an impressively large, brown dome that seems to have emerged from an explosion of white hair. But the music is better than ever. Smoother, more polished and tighter. Michael’s voice is less a Cajun caller and more of a rich baritone. A very good band is even better. Jimmy Breaux and his terrific accordion were missing. He and his wife were having baby, which is a pretty good excuse. Michael played accordion – he’s very good – on a couple of songs, but WC missed Michael’s fiddle dancing around Jimmy’s accordion work. Still, the band has added Mitchell Read (bass, mandolin, banjo) on mandolin, and Mitchell’s playing was a treat. His bass solo on the Haitian-flavored “The Sweetness” was terrific. David Doucet’s guitar work was solid as ever, and his lead singing on a couple of songs was quite good. WC doesn’t remember David singing lead at the earlier show.
And the music was as delightful as ever. What’s striking about Cajun music is that it is so infectiously upbeat. Even a sad Cajun song has a backbeat, and you can dance to it. That’s remarkable, because the Cajun story is a sad one, a displaced people, exiled from Acadia (the present day Canadian Maritimes) to the swamps of Louisiana, and betrayed again when Napoleon sold the Louisiana territory to the U.S. The Cajuns might have invented the Blues; instead they created music that, when played well, makes it almost impossible to sit still. And BeauSoleil played it very, very well.
Michael Doucet gets credit for pretty much saving Cajun music at a time when it was dying. He travelled to the remote parts of the Cajun bayou country and encouraged the old singers to perform. He created BeauSoleil to popularize that music, adding elements of zydeco, creole, pop, jazz and world music to the rich gumbo of Cajun folk music. And over the course of 37 years of touring and recording, BeauSoleil has made itself, as Garrison Keillor has said, “The Best Cajun band in the world.”
It was pleasure and delight to hear and see them again. A most excellent show.
This year is the 500th anniversary of Vasco Nunez de Balboa‘s sighting of the Pacific Ocean. Balboa was hardly the first white man, let alone the first human, to see the Pacific Ocean. But he was the first white man, the first Spaniard, to see the Pacific from the eastern shore.
Balboa was a common soldier and would-be conquistador who was made interim governor of a Spanish colony is present-day Panama. On September 1, 1513, Balboa left the settlement with about 190 Spaniards and a thousand Indians in search of a great body of water that had been described to him by a native friend. As they crossed the isthmus of Panama, they encountered dense jungles, swamps, fierce natives, and rough mountain terrain. He succeeded in slaughtering his way through many tribes of natives without losing any men. On September 25th or 27th (the date is uncertain) Balboa climbed to the peak of a mountain, and for the first time saw the “South Sea” or what is now the Pacific Ocean.
John Keats, one of WC’s favorite poets, writing about his excitement and delight at a translation of Homer, included a wonderful reference to the event in his Petrarchan sonnet:
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Okay, so Keats, up all night reading Chapman’s translation of Homer, got the conquistador wrong (or substituted Cortez because Balboa didn’t scan properly). And Balboa called it the Sea of the South. It was Magellan who later named it Pacific. But WC has always loved the lines, “He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men/Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —/Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”
Four days later, he and his men reached the ocean and claimed it and the lands that it touched for Spain. He also found a fortune in gold, pearls, and slaves and proudly returned to Antigua. The Spanish king, before hearing of Balboa’s achievements, appointed a new governor named Avila. When Avila arrived he suspended Balboa’s authority because of a previous charge of usurpation, but on the initial inquiry Balboa was acquitted. Balboa gained much popularity and became betrothed to Avila’s daughter in 1516. Avila disliked and envied Balboa and framed him for disobedience and treason. He was found guilty of treason and decapitated in 1519. No one knows where he was buried, or even if he was buried. So much for Balboa.
Still, he cut a bloody path across Panama and world history 500 years ago this year.
WC was lucky enough to study British and American Rhetoric under the late Professor Bower Aly. Although WC didn’t think it was good luck at the time.
For Professor Aly, context was everything, and a quotation out of context invariably resulted in an assignment to describe, with suitable footnotes and a bibliography, the full context of that gratuitous quote. And with weekly written and oral presentations already in the course syllabus, the additional burden was not trivial. And your oral presentation was followed by ten minutes of question and answer with your fellow students and Prof. Aly. Heaven help you if you were unprepared. And the additional context essays were imposed on both students asking questions and the poor saps trying to answer them.
Bear in mind this class was being taught at a time of revolutionary fervor. Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia; the shootings in Kent State; the Earth Day Riots. WC doesn’t remember the subject of his oral presentation, but WC does remember, in response to a question, quoting the fourth panel in the Jefferson Memorial:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
Good stuff, eh? Heady enough to a child of the 1960s. And Thomas Jefferson is pretty authoritative, you’d think. So when Prof. Aly asked WC for the context of the quotation, WC thought he’d been handed an easy one. WC should have known better. But the resulting research and paper make WC a bit more informed when this old chestnut gets pulled out and waved around by whoever currently wants to blow up the current government. Because that’s been happening lately, WC will share that long-ago research.
First, it’s a misquote. Jefferson’s actual words were,
I am certainly not an advocate for for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
(Emphasis in original) Interesting that it was edited for the Memorial, eh? Editors; what can you say. But the actual source is a letter from Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval dated July 12, 1816. (We live in an amazing age where you can actually see a copy of the handwritten letter for yourself. WC had to write to the National Archives. )
You can read the balance of the letter here. Kercheval, writing under the alias of H. Tompkinson, was soliciting Jefferson’s views on a constitutional convention to amend the Commonwealth of Virginia’s constitution. Not the federal constitution; Virginia’s. Which, by the by, Jefferson had helped to write.
Jefferson answered at length, with specifics. As you can see, the handwriting isn’t easy to read, but it is worth the effort. Amusingly, Jefferson asked Kercheval to keep the letter confidential. And WC only wishes he could be so articulate in his “effusions of withered age and useless time.”
Prof. Aly taught WC the importance of primary sources and the overwhelming importance of context in any quotation. Those who think Jefferson’s comments, misquoted at this Memorial, go to the federal constitution simply illustrate Prof. Aly’s point.
One note: please don’t think WC is criticizing Thomas Jefferson. WC shares the late President Kennedy’s view of Thomas Jefferson. At an April 1962 dinner at the White House for all living Nobel Prize winners from the Western Hemisphere, Kennedy said:
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
Not without flaws. But utterly brilliant.
Every once in a while in the history of mankind, a book has appeared which has substantially altered the course of history.
- Senator Ernest Gruening (D. AK) to Rachel Carson, June 4, 1963
September 27 will be the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book would be on any historian’s short list of the most influential books in American history. Like Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, it provoked a very strong public reaction and helped change laws. It certainly had a profound impact on WC. But what, you ask, does it have to do with the U.S. government’s show trial of the Chicago 7 (or Chicago 8, if you count Bobby Seale)?
In the autumn of 1968, WC enrolled at the University of Oregon. Among his fall classes was Physical Chemistry, and his instructor was Ass’t Professor John Froines. Froines was a good teacher, with a dry wit and an engaging speaking style. He had assembled a group of lab assistants who were very good at helping students through the arcane processes of physical chemistry.
But on Thursday, March 20, 1969, Prof. Froines announced to WC’s class that he had been placed on leave without pay by the University. (The University later said he had asked for and received administrative leave.) He had been indicted as a co-conspirator in the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago that led to the police riots there. He was innocent, he said, but the University didn’t want him around. He gave all of us a recommended reading list as a going away present. And on that list was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
(Oregon seemed to make an effort to expurgate any trace of John Froines from its records; WC’s transcript shows his P-Chem classes were taught by Dr. Don Swineheart, the department head. Never mind that the first two quarters were taught by Froines.)
So on Prof. Froines’ recommendation, WC read Silent Spring over spring break, and more than any single factor, it made WC an environmentalist. It’s still a terrific read. Sure, Carson got some of the science wrong, but not much. And the impact on birds is indisputable.
Froines was acquitted by the jury – eventually, all of the defendants were acquitted of the crimes for which they were indicted. The trial itself was a circus, and marks a low point in the history of the U.S. criminal justice system in the modern era. The trial judge, U.S. Dstrict Judge Julius Hoffman, was blatantly biased in favor of the prosecution. He had no idea how to cope with defendants who were more interested in acting out than being acquitted. The courtroom artist’s drawing of Bobby Seale, bound and gagged in the courtroom, depicted a watershed moment in American law.
Judge Hoffman held all of the defendants, including Froines, in criminal contempt after trial, but all of the convictions against Froines (and most of the other defendants) were eventually thrown out. The feds never really had a case.
WC has two, quite different, conclusions to this post. First, in May 1970, WC attended an off-campus lecture by a vindicated John Froines, recounting the trial and surrounding media circus from his point of view. WC chatted briefly with Froines afterwards, and snagged a photo for the Oregon Daily Emerald. WC asked Froines if the incident had affected his activism. Froines said it had not, but that it had taught him that the consequences of activism could be far greater than he had known before. WC then had Froines sign his copy of Silent Spring.
Second, when WC wandered off to law school at Northwestern University in the fall of 1972, WC was appalled to discover his first class was in a classroom memorialized by a grateful alum of NU Law: Julius Hoffman. Yep. A bronze sculpture of Judge Julius Hoffman frowning down from the wall. And the professor in the second lecture WC attended there was the late Jon R. Waltz, co-counsel for John Froines in the Chicago 7 trial.
If there’s any significance to either of those conclusions, WC will leave it to you to sort them out.
WC alluded to this minor event earlier. The story may not be suitable for every reader. You’ve been warned.
In the summer of 1967, it was WC’s great privilege to work as a deck technician on the Institute of Marine Science’s R/V Acona. The Acona was the University of Alaska’s first real research ship, and 1967 was probably her third year of operation for UA. WC worked six hours on/six hours off for a variety of scientists on a variety of cruises over the course of three months. After getting over seasickness, it was truly a lot of fun.
A deck technician on a research ship is the junior most person aboard. They are the ones who get the water and mud samples – not running the winches, strictly a crew responsibility – but attaching the gear to the cables, managing the water-sampling Nansen bottles and mud samples, running the bathothermographic runs and between stations doing the wet lab work. In rough water, and we saw 25-foot waves that summer, it was a cold, wet business. The sampling station – the “Hero’s platform” – stuck nearly three feet off the starboard rail, so when the ship rolled, you got dunked.
The Acona in those days was 80 feet long, 40 feet wide and an enthusiastic roller. In really rough water, you got dunked chest deep. Or waves simply came over the top of you. But mostly it involved careful, fairly meticulous clamping and unclamping of sample bottles and bear trap bottom samplers to a 3/8ths inch cable. A fair amount of dexterity was involved; you couldn’t really wear gloves.
Whatever was in the water would come up draped over the cable and the samplers. There were dense blooms of jellyfish at some stations, but your hands got toughened by all that cold saltwater, so that most of the jellyfish stings were more like mild itches. After a few days, you forgot about them entirely.
After a couple of weeks, WC was actually getting pretty good at his duties, and didn’t mind saying so. WC might have even been annoying.
The Acona had saltwater heads. No point in wasting freshwater. The Crew Chief, WC’s boss, mentioned that it you used the urinal with the lights off, you could see the dying plankton fluoresce when you did your business. WC had been drinking a lot of tea on the graveyard shift. The Crew Chief mentioned that morning, towards the end of the shift, that the plankton were unusually dense so, between stations, WC flipped off the lights in the men’s head and checked out the fluorescence.
There wasn’t any, of course. What there was were hands covered in live jellyfish tentacles, richly equipped with stinging nematocysts, handling a very, very sensitive part of a guy’s anatomy. It was excruciating.
So there was WC, stumbling around in the pitch dark head, trying to find the light switch, making some distinctly unmanly noises, desperate to rinse off what was hurting. And at exactly that moment, the door to the head was opened and there was the entire ship’s crew, solemnly applauding my performance. For a seventeen year old high school student, it was about as bad as it gets.
Happily, the cook had a rag soaked in vinegar, which solved the immediate problem. It really does work quickly. But the lesson went a lot further than dealing with jellyfish slime. Somewhere about that time, WC got over the worst of his teenage smart aleck behavior. WC would also like to think he was a better shipmate from that point forward.
WC’s readers are much smarter than WC. So you don’t need WC to warn you about the perils of arrogance, Or the importance of washing your hands. . .
WC’s two alma maters – the University of Oregon and Northwestern University – played each other in 1974. Oregon went on to have a 2-9 season; Northwestern went 3-8. This battle of the titans in Evanston, IL stands as the only Northwestern football game WC ever attended.
The game featured an Oregon run from scrimmage of 90 yards, but no touchdown. Two safeties. 22 penalties. 6 turnovers. A undergraduate frat brother copiously vomiting two rows above WC. A dead duck thrown onto the field. A fist fight in the stands. A fist fight on the field. And an El breakdown going back downtown. Ah, the joys of college football.
In recent years, after decades of futility, the Oregon Ducks have achieved a modicum of respectability, colored somewhat by a tendency to choke in the post season. The Northwestern Wildcats are less dreadful than they were in the post-Ara Parseghian era, but they are still pretty bad.
WC did go to a few Duck games while attending Oregon; well, three.WC spent far more weekends fishing, hiking, camping and climbing in the Pacific Northwest. WC was at the Water Bowl at Autzen when the O. J. Simpson-led Trojans came to town and played a game in six inches of standing water, a game that might have been designed to discourage footballs fans. In his junior year, WC acted as dorm resident advisor for one of the jock dorms, a group that included Dan Fouts, Tom Blanchard, Lee Glass, Stan Love and Mac Wilkins. WC is sure it is all very different today, but back then the antics of his dorm charges made utterly certain the last thing WC wanted to do was see more of his nominal charges.
Yet Oregon managed to win the Rose Bowl this week, against the Wisconsin Badgers. Apparently, neither team bothered to bring their defensive units to Pasadena, CA. Oregon scored slightly more of the 83-points scored. A Rose Bowl record. And the first Rose Bowl win for the Ducks since WC’s grandfather married.
The NCAA is investigating possible recruiting violations by Oregon. Sigh.
That’s why college football gives WC a rash.