Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

July 26, 2009

The Royals and the King

Filed under: Missouri,Pasley Brothers,Sports — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:32 am

We were in Kansas City much of this past week celebrating my son Isaac’s 16th birthday. (Someday I will have to share our tragic tale of having to become parents in the 6th grade — so young we were — as soon as I make it up.)

The trip included our first visit to the renovated Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals seemed as though they might break their latest losing streak … but then managed to blow a 6-2 lead in the 8th inning. (That game was Wednesday. The streak finally ended tonight, Saturday.) For me, the Royals are the living face of economic decline in the Kansas City region. Only Wal-Mart seems to thrive around here. The Royals are owned by a man who made his money at Wal-Mart and now runs the team like Wal-Mart: a shiny setting in which to sell the cheapest, flimsiest products undemanding consumers will buy. How cheap and flimsy? The Royals’ putative “power”-”hitting” outfielder, Jose Guillen, the best free agent the owner would shell out for, sustained a season-ending leg injury putting on his shin guard the night we were there. Guillen was announced in the starting line-up, then pinch-hit for in the first inning. Baseball fan Isaac focused on Mark Buehrle’s perfect game and the Cardinals’ much-needed trade for Matt Holliday to stay in his birthday happy place.

During our visit, my Mom had on hand the official photographic record of the Missouri School of Mines 50-year reunion Isaac and I attended with my Dad in June, chronicled in my controversial post on Rolla a while back. Readers may recall that this event featured a personal appearance by the King, in the form of Elvis Tribute Artist Rich Vickers, who was in no way an impersonator like those other guys. Accidentally, I assure you, it seems that the official photographic record included a shot of a certain historian studiusly avoiding eye contact with E.T.A. Vickers or his merch-selling Queen:

One more Show-Me travel note. It seems to be a bad idea to label any post as “part 1” or to promise continuations, as I did in the Rolla post mentioned above. I wrote most of “part 2” on our swing through the Lead Belt back then, but only finally finished and posted it yesterday. Exercising my control over space and time on this blog, I backdated the post so the internal references would make sense, but you can read it here. And it involves some actual history.
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Now playing: The Who – Substitute
via FoxyTunes

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June 10, 2009

Our Summer Vacation So Far, part 2: There Will Be Lead

Filed under: Business History,Labor history,Missouri,Pasley Brothers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:19 am

After seeing my Dad receive his Golden Alumni regalia last Wednesday morning, Isaac and I set out for the serious driving part of the trip, a couple of hundred miles back and forth across the Ozarks. Isaac just likes roads he has never been on before, but I was on mission to take in some lead mines.

I have long been fascinated by the Lead Rush that took place in the mid-Mississippi Valley in the early 19th century. I gather there were actually several of these, and what interested me about them (besides the fact that such a thing could exist) was their total lack of Gold Rush-style romance. The early lead mines, which were worked by the French and Indians before the Usonians (U.S. Americans) came along, were known as “diggings” because they involved scraping around the surface for chunks of promising earth and then heating them to melt and extract the lead. Lead was valued for ammunition-making and various other industrial purposes, but it does not seem to have been valued all that much. Lead mines were more a case of scratching out some moderate prosperity than striking it rich.

The Lead Rushes brought out a rather eclectic set of hard-up entrepreneurs. Alexander Hamilton’s son William ended up out in Wisconsin Territory; they called him “Uncle Billy” in the squalid encampment where he and his rather dodgy crew of workers lived. Somehow I don’t think anyone who worked for William Hamilton’s father was in the habit of calling him “Cousin Al,” but I guess you never know. [See Juliette Kinzie's memoir of life as an Indian agent's wife on the Wisconsin frontier for a sad vignette of the downwardly mobile life of the upwardly mobile Founder's son.]

Moses Austin statue not found anywhere in MissouriThe Missouri lead belt attracted a Connecticut Yankee named Moses Austin whose previous bid for moderate success had been roofing the state capitol and mining the lead for it in Virginia. When the Virginia venture faltered, Moses initiated a family tradition of entrepreneurial expatriation, gaining the lead-mining concession in Spanish Louisiana and heading out for foreign territory where relatively few Anglo-Americans had yet ventured, at least with anything other than hunting or the Indian trade in mind. Austin did well enough to build himself a short-lived lead-mining empire, including a mansion called Durham Hall and the ambitiously named town of Potosi, after the silver mines that funded the Spanish Empire. Henry R. Schoolcraft’s View of the Lead Mines of Missouri will fill you in on the all the opportunities Austin was trying to seize.

While it’s not clear that Moses Austin was ever truly secure in Missouri, U.S. control of the area brought trouble for him. The Missouri lead business was ironically devastated by the coming of the War of 1812, and Austin’s control of his little empire, and his manhood, were challenged by the vicious competition and just plain bullying of heavily armed migrants from the U.S. South led by one John Smith T (for Tennessee, from which he hailed). Smith T was believed to have killed some 15 men on the field of “honor” and otherwise.  Though intimidation, legal chicanery, and some outright theft and violence, Smith T tried to take Austin’s land titles, frighten off his workers, and seize the Austin holdings for himself. Austin was not precisely defeated by Smith T, but by the end of his life he had largely given up the Missouri venture and turned his attention toward a new expatriation scheme in Mexico’s northernmost provinces, which his son Stephen would be the one to carry out. Moses Austin’s whole Missouri story reads kind of like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance if the John Wayne and Lee Marvin characters had joined forces to wipe out Jimmy Stewart and take the town for themselves, civilization be damned. To put it another way, Moses Austin needed John Wayne for a neighbor and got Lee Marvin instead.

Since Potosi was sadly devoid of overt Moses Austin shrines, we continued east to Missouri Mines State Historic Site in Park Hills, MO. The museum is located in an impressively nasty-looking old lead mill sitting on a top of a mine and amidst some hills that appeared to be giant piles of mine waste.  After a lifetime of consciousness raising on the dangers of lead paint, Isaac handled the omnipresence of the feared substance pretty well, with a lot of discussion on my part about how spending a few hours in an old lead mine as a 15-year-old (on a rainy day) was not the same thing as ingesting refined lead over a long period of time as a toddler. Nevertheless, at one point during our tour, Ike blurted out, “I think can feel the effects [of lead poisoning] already.” Ah, the safety-conscious youth of today.

Unfortunately, Missouri Mines State Historic Site did not really address my lead belt western scenario. I did learn that I did not know much about “modern” lead mining. The diggings of Moses Austin’s day stopped at the bedrock. Around the time of the Civil War, the lead industry turned to deep rock mining, punching thousands of miles of tunnels as much as 400 feet deep into the Earth. By World War II, the main method of getting men in and ore out was an electric railroad system — the main line was 300 miles along at just this one site. Before that, the ore cars were pulled by good-old fashioned Missouri mules. I must say that the only thing worse than eating lead dust all day would be mixing it with the aroma of mule crap, but apparently the work paid well by Ozark standards. The long distances that the miners had to travel underground to reach the ore seems to have led the St. Joseph Lead Co. to create a task-based wage system I had not heard of. Every miner had to dig out a quota or “score” of a certain number of tons of ore each day to earn their pay, after which they could go home or stay and earn extra.

The museum displays and our docent were quite insistent that lead poisoning or other health effects had not been a problem in the area, though they did admit that smelting plants could cause problems. You hope they are right for the sake of the Lead Belt’s population, because lead was and possibly still is literally a part of growing up there.  Check out “Chat Dumps of St. Francois County” for pictures of children playing, Boy Scouts hiking, and town Christmas trees standing on the gigantic piles of mine waste (chat) that once loomed larger over the towns of the Lead Belt than the surrounding Ozark hills.

Finally, coming home from the Lead Belt on U.S. 50, we went through one of Missouri’s many strangely named burgs. The state has a quite a line in misspelled and/or mispronounced foreign capitals, but perhaps more distinctively, there are several towns named after qualities that their founders presumably prized or thought their settlements embodied. Economy and Peculiar are two we had noticed before, but Useful, MO, was new to us. I started laughing and immediately made the comment that I hoped there was a Useful Cemetery. Lo and behold, it immediately appeared. I was driving too fast to stop without needing to use the cemetery ourselves, but I also knew that someone must have put such a sight on the Internet already. I was not wrong. (Click the picture for an even artier one.)

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Now playing: Whiskeytown – Mining Town
via FoxyTunes

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June 4, 2008

A Trip of Two Game-Show Hosts

Filed under: Conservatives,GOP,Historic sites,Pasley Brothers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:41 pm

Back to history (mostly), and back to blogging a little more regularly as I try to stay in the writing habit. Unfortunately, most of my bloggable thoughts are still back on the GeoBee trip.

Game-show hosts turned out to be one of the surprise sub-themes of the trip. We knew about Alex Trebek of Jeopardy! hosting the finals of the National Geographic Bee, but we were not expecting Isaac to get that far, nor that the finals would actually be a sort of game show, with a giant two-tiered set, desks with lights on the front, and the whole nine yards. From the looks of the set, I was worried that there might be buzzers and wrong answer sound effects, too, but luckily National Geographic did not take things quite that far. Alex Trebek seemed exactly like what you see on Jeopardy!, and very good with the kids. I haven’t watched his show since sometime in the 90s, but as TV personalities go Alex seems like a credit to the culture. Canadian culture, perhaps, but a credit, a figure who honors knowledge and intelligence and a modest pride in one’s accomplishments rather than exhibitionism, ruthlessness, and stupidity like 90% of the rest of TV.

The other game-show host came as more of a surprise. Karen and the boys had never been out to Presidential Shrine #1, a.k.a. Mount Vernon, so we spent the afternoon there on the way out to Karen’s uncle’s house out in suburbs. I had not been to Washington’s pad in quite a while, and the place was much changed. The house was the same, but there is now a glitzy complex of ancillary museums (The Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center) that seem to be the result of a massive infusion of right-wing money, or at least money from rich people and corporations with quite conservative notions about patriotism and history.

In the new orientation center, visitors are ushered into a giant movie theater for a double-feature. First up, a cheery overview of the grounds featuring . . . Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak, in colonial costume! I must admit I did not see this coming. It is hard to imagine a less 18th-century or Washingtonian figure than Pat Sajak, especially when he takes off the tri-corner hat to reveal his trademark, blow-dried 1970s ‘do. Even some of the other tourists chuckled a bit at the incongruousness of starting off their visit to a national shrine with a few words from the the guy on Wheel of Fortune. Pat’s major qualification for the job would seem to be status as a token Hollywood conservative, as noted on this roster of “Patriotic Actors” from a conservative web site. Apparently Pat has contributed more than his hairdo and cheerful demeanor to the right-wing cause; on another conservative site, he enlightens us at some length on “The Disconnect Between Hollywood and America.”

Pat’s participation in conservative Hollywood-bashing is interesting considering that his Mount Vernon intro is followed by a very Hollywood-esque “action-adventure movie” on Washington called We Fight To Be Free. Written by token conservative screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd (author of the celebratory George W. Bush docudrama DC 9/11: Time of Crisis), the film turns Washington’s life into a collection of near-cover versions of scenes from recent popular historical dramas.  I suspect many non-historian visitors must get a little confused by the way preparations for the Battle of Trenton (complete with Washington giving a Bush-ian patriotic speech) are intercut with scenes from Braddock’s Defeat that seem to exist so that a Last of the Mohicans-style battle scene could be included, complete with scalpings and dramatic rescues. It was George Washington, King of the Wild Frontier.

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May 27, 2008

Are You Smarter Than an Eighth Grader? No, you’re not.

Filed under: Pasley Brothers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:13 pm

Here are the questions Isaac had to answer to get to the National Geographic Bee finals, or paraphrases of them. See how you do, without Wikipedia or Google. Answers will be given in a later post.

PRELIMINARY ROUND, 21 May 2008 — individual questions

  1. Practice question: Which African city has been a capital for a longer time, Yamoussoukro or Tripoli?
  2. Physical geography: What is the name of the shallow part of a stream caused by sedimentary deposition, riffle or oxbow?
  3. Literary landmarks: Franz Kafka was born in this city, located on the Vltava River, that was the former capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bohemia? [This question, and the whole category, are way harder when you are in 5th-8th grade and have never heard of the author in question. Isaac is not exactly a heavy Kafka reader.]
  4. Landlocked countries: Ciudad del Este is located on the Itaipu Reservoir, near where Brazil, Argentina, and which other country meet?
  5. Historical geography: With the support of India, what country did Bangladesh split from in 1971?
  6. World geography: Pinar del Rio is located near Cabo de San Antonio on the western tip of which Caribbean island?
  7. International disputes: Guatemala claims part of the bordering region of which neighboring country that was formerly colonized by both Great Britain and Spain?
  8. Economic profile, using a cartogram projected on the screen: The second highest per capita GDP in Africa is enjoyed by a country in what ocean?
  9. Ports: Peru’s most important port is located in what city, west of Lima? [This is the one Isaac missed in the preliminary round.]
  10. Analogies: Mt. Cook is to New Zealand as Punchak Jaya is to ______?

TIEBREAKER ROUND (among 12 students who missed only one question in the preliminary round) — all students were asked the same question, wrote their answer on a card, and held it up

  1. What present-day Russian city, formerly known as Stalingrad, was renamed during Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign? [Isaac missed this one.]
  2. What country borders Colombia to the south along the Putumayo River? [All the other students held up one answer, and Isaac another. He was right and got into the finals.]
  3. The Musicians Seamounts, including Brahms, Wagner, and Chopin, are located in what ocean? [Isaac did not have to do this one, which was good since quite a few people in the room though the moderator said Musician's Sea Mouse, which made it really confusing.]
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May 23, 2008

Isaac Goes to Washington

Filed under: Pasley Brothers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:12 am

Readers here (and people who have emailed me over the past week) may have been wondering where I was. The short version would be, in a place with expensive Internet connections and a 9-year-old and his grandparents to occupy, amidst unparalleled family excitement. I am going to write up some of the saga here, but it will have to be in chunks, as we make our way back home.

As reported earlier, my older son Isaac won the Missouri State Geography Bee a few weeks back. The reward for that was this week’s trip to the National Geographic Bee in Washington, D.C., hosted by the National Geographic Society itself. (At the state level, I had not quite twigged to the fact that the venerable educational publisher was the ultimate organizer of the event.) The National Bee turned out to be a nearly week long series of events based at a rather strange old downtown D.C. hotel, where we all had to stay, at no little expense. The contestants themselves were paid for, but also required to room with other contestants, and we could not see not being the building while Isaac was having the first experience anything remotely like that. Karen signed on as the parental representative at the various banquets and picnics, whilst I was deputed to entertain our younger son Owen (and visiting grandparents) in the many hours when geographic competition was not occurring. So we hit the tourism, and the pavement, hard. (I will have some thoughts on the History Channelization of history in the various D.C.-area museums, based on what Owen and I saw, a bit later.)

The trip was not a small thing before, but it got a bit bigger when we arrived here Monday and saw the auditorium/television studio and giant three-level game show-style set that would host the finals. As if that was not daunting enough, reading through the ready-for-Harvard biographies of the other 54 state and territory winners made it even more so. Poor Isaac has not yet written any novels or mastered any musical instruments or weapons, and his travel experience has largely been limited to family visits and car trips built around his father attending history conferences. We had his birthday party in a hotel bar in Philadelphia one year. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

The foregoing is just a way of saying that it was quite unexpected when Isaac actually made it into finals, in last-minute, walk-off fashion, I might add. I will have to explain that tomorrow when Isaac is awake to help me remember the exact question.

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April 8, 2008

The Curious Incident of Isaac and the Geography Bee

Filed under: Pasley Brothers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:30 pm

Isaac Pasley at Ft. Ticonderoga, July 2007

We had a busy weekend that did not leave much time for blogging. So, as an explanation and substitute, please accept a bit of family news. Last Friday, our older son, Isaac, won the state geography bee and qualified for the National Geographic Bee (brought to you by National Geographic, of course) next month in Washington. It was the last of many different bees (& c.) in which he has competed, and the self-described happiest moment of his life, topping even the 2006 World Series.

Yes, there are lot of these kid academic competitions around these days, but this was Isaac, so we cried. (Also, I will say that compared to some of the things he has done, like the spelling bee, this one actually revolves around useful information such as the location of Tuscany.)

Isaac’s life has not been without challenges. It has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, in fact. He was a remarkably “good” baby who amazed everyone by sitting quietly for hours in restaurants and then by spontaneously learning to read around age 2. We patted ourselves on the back about what a little prodigy we had on our hands until he started preschool a year or so later. Then it slowly dawned on us how far behind the other kids he was in most other social and language areas. When Isaac spoke at all in his early pre-school years, he did it in the second person, in fact, and could not answer basic questions like where he hurt or whether he was hungry or what his name was. (Long story about the second person speech pattern, kind of like Faulkner for kids, without the death and run-on sentences. Isaac was our oldest, what did we know?) He went through a scary period where his language actually deteriorated back into baby noises, or actually less patterned than that. Eventually this was all diagnosed as a form of autism, more recently as the trendy Asperger’s Syndrome, or, as I prefer to call it, Jeffersonianism. [Just kidding -- trust me when I tell you that dinner-table conversation skills like Jefferson's are not one of the usual Asperger's benefits. This guy seems to have the Famous People with Asperger's canard about right, though he is a little meaner about it than I would be.]

Many years of arduous and expensive therapy later, and having missed out on a lot of the normal kid activities that his younger brother loves, Isaac is doing very well, with only a little support, in regular public school. Nevertheless, it has been a huge milestone for us to have something go as well for Isaac as this has. It is a little bit of vindication for all of his struggles in the past, and it has been hard to focus on much else these past few days.

And yes, Isaac is a big fan of the novel Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and sees a lot of himself in the main character.

Just to make this post slightly more historical, I am going to include one of the champ’s better recent pictures, trying out a musket like all other guys at Ft. Ticonderoga last summer.

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