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Saturday, September 20, 2008

NEVER A HAPPY ENDING

I suppose everyone was expecting a happy ending. The “Holiday On Ice” skating show had started well after 8pm in front of 4,300 spectators, most of them members and guests of the Shrinners. Smoothly the cast ran through the numbers; “Holidayland”, followed by “The Sleeping Beauty”, “Egyptian Fantasy”, “Rhapsody For Strings”, and “Waltz At Maxims”. And just after 11pm the stars – including the lovely Jeanne “Jinx” Clark – were gathered just off stage for the grand finale as the chorus filled the rink and dixieland jazz swept up the audience.
In the south west corner of the building, just under box seats section thirteen, fifty-four year old Wilbur Gauthier was supervising his staff of vendors when something caught his attention. He thought it sounded like tea kettle left on the boil. As he walked toward the back of the room Gauthier was startled to see a six foot propane tank fall and begin to roll across the concrete, hissing loudly. In an instant the floor was covered in a thickening white mist. Horrified, Gauthier screamed for everyone to clear the room, and started to run toward the tank. He never made it. It was 11:06pm, Halloween night, 1963.
Walter Spangler was sitting in section 12, in the North West corner of the coliseum. He remembered, “The show was virtually over. Suddenly there was a dull thump.” Then, directly across the coliseum from his seat, “…there was a tremendous column of fire – about 15 feet in diameter, and 40 to 50 feet high. Along with it was literally a column of bodies…dozens of people flying through the air. Their arms and legs outspread. Then there was a lot of screaming.” Vivian Barkley remembered that, “The bodies looked like rag dolls." The victims began falling amidst the costumed skaters on the ice. Mrs. Manford James told a reporter later that she saw “…pieces of cement, people, arms and legs flying through the air. You could see bodies falling into the flames…” And then a second, larger explosion threw 128 seats and 700 square feet of concrete flooring of section 13 into the air and sent it plummeting onto the 240 bleacher seats at the north end of the coliseum floor. Five hundred square feet of the floor caved into the basement. In that initial 54 people were dead and almost 500 were injured. The death toll would go higher.
The State Fair Coliseum in Indianapolis had been constructed in 1939, and built to the cautious standards of the Great Depression, of stone and steel; otherwise the disaster could have been much worse. Walter Spangler forced his way through the chaos that followed the explosions, trying to reach the injured. “I saw a woman lying on top of another woman. One woman’s head had been flattened by a large piece of concrete.” Pauline O’Neal recalled, “I saw two men carrying children, begging for someone to help them, but everyone just stared.” Mrs. Marilyn Barngrover remembered, “Shriners near us helped keep people calm and we moved out very quickly.” The explosion had knocked Mrs. Robert Stoeckinger onto her back. She said, “The little girl who helped pick me up had a gash in her head, but I didn’t notice it until later.” Mrs. Myrtle Ericsson said “…I grabbed my purse and started out. I fell over a fire hose and cut my lip and was bruised…I’ve never seen so many bloody people.”The reason for all this agony was originally considered a containment by the refining industry. Because it is heavier than methane, with which it is found naturally, propane has a tendency to collect in the elbows and bends of pipes, forming blockages. So it is necessary that propane, butane and other similar containments be removed from “natural gas” before it is sent down pipelines. It was only a matter of time (1913) before an inventive chemist (Dr. Walter O. Snelling) discovered that, although propane will normally boil at anything over – 42 C, if kept under pressure it can be shipped and handled as a liquid (U.S. patent #1056845). At the point of use, a simple relief valve can convert the propane back into a gas, and allow access to its stored energy. But that makes the relief valve the weak point in the system. Today all propane tanks have a thick metal safety collar that protects the valve from being bent or broken. In 1963 they did not.
Every ambulance in Marion County was dispatched to the scene. And “…literally hundreds of nurses, doctors, first aid volunteers and firemen…” who were off duty rushed to offer assistance. Because it was Halloween night there were 200 extra Indianapolis police officers on duty and they were quickly rushed to the coliseum as well. An auto wrecker was driven into ice to pull sections of concrete “the size of pianos” off the victims. The coliseum got so crowded that Chief of Indianapolis Police Robert Reilly eventually had to bar any further traffic from the fair grounds, including ambulances and first aid workers. The injured were sent to six area hospitals.
The next morning the county coroner laid out the dead in rows on the ice, and family members had to walk along their bloody, chard and dismembered ranks to identify their loved ones. The last official victim died in February of 1964. The total death toll then stood at 74, with 386 injured, including 176 who were still hospitalized. There was a strong public outrage over the tragedy, and a conviction that somebody should be held accountable.In December a Grand Jury had indicted State Fire Marshal Ira J. Anderson and Indianapolis Fire Chief Arnold Phillips on misdemeanor charges for failing to inspect the coliseum, specifically the haphazard storage of large numbers of propane tanks in busy work areas. But neither man was convicted, destroying any hopes for civil suits brought by the victim’s families against the state, which was able to hide behind the concept of sovereign immunity. It’s an old English common law idea that “The King can do no wrong.” The concept was grafted into the constitution in 1794 in The Eleventh Amendment: “The Judicial power…shall not be construed to extend to any suit…commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state….” And in 1890, in Hans V Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court held it effective even against private citizens trying to sue their own state. In other words, you can’t force justice out of city hall. But civilians had no such protection. The President, vice President and local manager of “Discount Gas” which had supplied the propane tanks were also indicted, as was Coliseum manager Melvin Ross, and the concession manager Floyd James, all on manslaughter charges. But the only person actually convicted was Edward Franger, president of Discount Gas, who was found guilty of assault and battery. And even this conviction was overturned on appeal to the Indiana State Supreme Court.Much has changed since that horrible Halloween night. Beside the safety collar on propane tanks, the disaster is used as a teaching example of how not to organize rescue operations and how not to treat the families of victims. The Coliseum Disaster Fund raised $78,000 (over half a million in 2007 dollars) from the public. In addition lawsuits by 379 victims were awarded $4.6 million in monetary awards, or a little over $12,000 per victim. It would be 2003 before a plaque was installed in the Indiana Fair Grounds “Pepsi” Coliseum, to commemorate those who died and were disfigured physically and emotionally by the tragedy. In a tragedy, it seems, there is no such thing as justice or a happy ending.
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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

POLITICAL SPEAK


I wonder how many of you know, dear readers, that the word “Gobbledgook”, meaning a nonsensical word or phrase designed to imply importance but in fact meaning nothing, has an actual birthday? The word was born on Sunday, May 21st, 1944, in the pages of “The New York Times Magazine”. And it is just one of the many American English words born out of American politics.
Gobbledygook first appeared in an article about an internal government memo. The author of that memo, and the inventor of the word, was Texas Congressman Maury Maverick, who was one of those rare politicians who actually believed that politics was a form of public service. That fantasy made him a one term mayor of San Antonio.
He was defeated for reelection because a communist had rented a meeting room in the Civic Auditorium. Legally Mayor Maverick could not refuse to rent the room, but after he failed to "lock out" the commie his opponents were able to rabble rouse a riot, complete with tear gas shells being lobbed about in front of the auditorium. This “Typical-Texas-Hysteria”, was in responce to Maury’s defense of "Freedom of Speech", and almost got him lynched, and allowed his opponents to brand Maury himself as a communist, which led to his defeat for re-election as Mayor.
Maury Maverick later won election to Congress, where his honesty, intellect and energy convinced others to make him chairman of the "Small War Plants Committee", overseeing and coordinating the work of thousands of small factories all across the United States, seeking to avoid duplication of effort, shortages of raw materials and general waste. Being a man interested in results Maury quickly grew frustrated with the growing complexity of official language which prolonged the already almost endless committee meetings he had to attend.
He defined his new word as a type of talk which is long, vague, pompous, involved mostly with Latinised words "…when concrete nouns are replaced by abstractions and simple terms by pseudo-technical jargon…" all of which made him think of the wild turkey’s back home, as in "gobble, gobble, gobble, gook". In a later memorandum Maury ordered, in pure Texas style, "Anyone using the words “activation” or “implementation” will be shot”. Of course no one was executed. But perhaps because no one was, the continued human attraction to verbosity has since produced nonsense such as "Pentagonese", "Journalese", "circumlocution", and other such gobbledygook phrases used to describe Maury’s gobbledegook.In an interesting (I think) side note, gobbledegook was the Maverick family’s second addition to the American lexicon. The first was their family name. There was a Maverick aboard the Mayflower. And 17-year old apprenticen, Samuel Maverick, was struck down by 'lobster backs' at the Boston Massacre. But the most famous Maverick of all was another Samuel, born in Pendleton, South Carolina in 1803.
This Maverick, Samuel Augustus Maverick, graduated from Yale in 1825 and was admitted to the bar in 1829. A year later, he ran for the South Carolina Legislature, but his anti-secession and anti-nullification positions contributed to his defeat. In 1835 Samuel Maverick moved to Texas. He was one of two men from the rebels in the Alamo elected to the Texas Independence Convention, and he thus missed being butchered by Mexican troops under General Santa Ana. Because of his political obligations he also missed the victory at San Jacinto. He was elected Mayor and then Treasurer of San Antonio, and later served in the seventh and eighth Texas Congresses. He also dabbled in East Texas land speculation, and sometime in 1843 or 1844, as payment for a bad debt, Samuel Augustus took possession of a ranch around Matagorda Bay, Texas.
The only problem was that Maverick had no experience in ranching and no interest in learning. When he saw that every other rancher had branded their cattle, Augustus decided there was no need for him to bother with the expense of branding his. In 1847, when Samuel moved back to San Antonio, he left his cattle under the care of his ranch hands, who saw no reason to pay more attention to their jobs than their absentee boss. They let the animals wander the open range. Cowboys who found unbranded cattle thus identified them all as the property of "Mr. Maverick", and mavericks thus became any unbranded cow or horse.
Samuel Augustus Maverick favored Texas being annexated by the U.S., and after it was, he fought secession by Texas until he realized there was no stopping it. After the Civil War he opposed Reconstruction. When he died in 1870 he left holdings of over 300,000 acres and a reputation for independence - not being branded by any special interests. His son, Samuel Maverick jr., fought with distinction in the Civil War and was promoted to second lieutenant. After the war Maverick jr. helped preserve the Alamo, donated "Maverick Park" to the city and lived to swear in his own son, inventor of the term gobbledegook, as Mayor of San Antonio. Maverick junior died in 1936 at the age of 98.Going back to the dawn of American political history, we find that, in 1812 the Massachusetts’s legislature contrived, with the help of Governor Elbridge Gerry, to redraw the lines for the Essex County Congressional District, to better control the elections there. According to legend it was famed painter Gilbert Stuart who first examined the bends and curves of the new district and observed that, to him at least, it resembled a salamander. But whoever said it first, it was Benjamin Russell, editor of the Boston Sentinel, who renamed the proposed district a Gerrymander, after the Governor. That name now applies, as a verb, to the redrawing of congressional district boundaries (Gerrymandering) to insure the election of one particular candidate or party.Almost as old is the word “Bunko”, meaning a fraud or a fraudulent spiel used by salesmen of bad or fake products. Police departments around the nation still have squads of officers assigned to uncovering fraud and cheating scams, named “Bunko Squads”. Some linguists say this word originated with a Mexican card game, a version of three-card monty, but that is just so much "bunk". Thirty years earlier the word was used to describe a speech by Felix Walker, a congressman from North Carolina.
Walker had been born in 1753 in the mountains of western Virginia. He worked as a store clerk in Charleston, South Carolina, and tried homesteading with Daniel Boone in Boonsboro, Kentucky. He fought in the American Revolution, and served in the North Carolina House of Commons, the state legislature. In 1816 he was appointed to Congress, to represent the Blue Ridge ‘hollars’ and the French River valley of Buncombe Country.
The county was named after American Revolutionary War hero Colonel Edward Buncombe, who had been wounded and captured at the battle of Germantown, in 1777. Recovering from his wounds in occupied Philadelphia in May, Colonel Buncombe was sleepwalking, fell and bled to death when his wounds reopened. The new county named in his honor was so large it was locally referred to as “The State of Buncombe.”Facing contentious re-election in 1818 and again in 1820, Felix Walker quickly learned the value of a well publicized and well received speech. And on February 25, 1820, while the House of Representatives debated the crucial issue of the “Missouri Compromise”, deciding wether or not to take the first step that would lead to the Civil War, Congressman Walker arose and began to pontificate about the wonders of his district. The leadership were ready to put the matter of the Compromise to a vote, and after listening to Walker’s rambling speech for several minutes, they urged Walker to stop wasting the congresses’ time and sit down. But Walker explained that his speech was not intended for the benefit of the congress, but for the "simple folk of Buncombe County back home". And then Walker returned to his endless platitudes.Almost overnight Walker’s speech was transformed from being about Buncombe to being “pure Buncombe” itself. And, with a little modification in spelling, it changed from "Buncombe", to "bunkum", and then to "bunk", as in a useless, pompus and empty speech, or :bunko" a false promise intended to further a fraud:an entirely new word had added to the English political language.
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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

HERE'S MUD IN YOUR EYE!

I keep reading that the election of 1884 was one of the “dirtiest” in American history, which strikes me as saying that a sewer is dirtier than a septic tank. Still I have to admit that there was a lot of mud flung around by James Blaine and Grover Cleveland. And as usual, he who flung the most, won. Blaine got in the first shot.The Democratic convention in Buffalo, New York ended on July 11th 1884, after having nominated hometown hero, “Honest” Grover “The Good” Cleveland. Just ten days later the “Buffalo Evening Telegraph” reported “A Terrible Tale”; that in 1874 Cleveland had an affair with a young widow from New Jersey, Maria Helpin. In September Mrs. Helpin had given birth to a son she named Oscar Folsom Cleveland (Folsom was Cleveland’s law partner). According to the “Telegraph”, Maria ended up in an asylum and the poor innocent boy had ended up in an orphanage. The Republican faithful began the chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”It was a great story, and parts of it were true. But Cleveland refused to panic and instructed his followers to “Just tell the truth”, which is easy to say at those rare times when the truth actually helps you. The truth was that Mrs. Helpin had affairs with several men (something that probably happened a lot more often than anyone in 1884 was willing to publicly admit), and there were several men who might have been the father. Cleveland never admitted parentage. But he had supported the infant after Maria started drinking. Later, when it became clear Maria was not going to get sober anytime soon, Cleveland had paid her $500 to give up Oscar, and the boy was adopted by a friend of Cleveland’s, and eventually ended up graduating from medical school; so the initial Blaine attack had resulted in Cleveland sounding more honest than before. The second Blaine attack backfired even worse.There were two “third parties” in 1884; the Greenback Party and the Prohibition Party. The Greenback Party seemed likely to hurt the Democrats most, so Blaine’s supporters actually gave them money. “The Dry’s” had nominated John St. John, three time governor of Kansas. Blaine’s people were worried that St. John would siphon off Republican votes in upstate New York. They urged St. John to drop out of the race, and when he refused they spread the story that St. John had abandoned a battered wife and child in California. Again, the smear was true, sort of. After his parents had died when St. John was 15, he had joined the ‘49ers, looking for his fortune in the gold fields. He didn’t find gold but at the age of 19 he had found a wife and fathered a child. And at his wife’s request he had “granted” her, to use the old phrase, a divorce, before returning, broke, to Illinois.Like most smears this one hurt St. John the most amongst his most fervent supporters. Prohibitionists have always been a priggish bunch of humorless unforgiving bores, and they abandoned St. John as if they had just discovered the sacramental wine was actual wine. But St. John had that other trait you often find in prohibitionists; he considered revenge a matter of principle. Knowing he now stood no chance of even winning Kansas, St. John concentrated his efforts in upstate New York, just the place the Republicans were the most worried about.Meanwhile, James Blaine, the Republican candidate, had his own problems, with the “Mugwumps”. This was yet another group of holier than thou Victorian prigs, but these prigs were Republicans, and they had a hard time deciding whether or not to support Blaine because he was so…well, crooked. They took their name from a supposed Algonquin word for “big leader”, but it was "New York Sun" columnist Charles Dana who defined them as Republicans who had their “mugs” on one side of the fence and their “wumps” on the other. Republican commentators went so far as to imply that the Mugwumps were “effete”, or to use the vernacular, “Man millners”, i.e. homosexuals. Stories like this one are what make me smile when I read that in 2004 Karl Rove dragged politics to a new low, or that in 2008 Barak Obama has decided to raise the level of the debate. As a nation we gain an advantage when history books actually try to tell the unvarnished truth about the past; its called perspective.Meanwhile the Democrats were throwing everything they could think of at "James Blaine, the Continental Liar From the State of Maine", like calling him "Slippery Jim". They dragged up the old charge of “Burn this letter after reading”. And the Indianapolis Sentinel even discovered that Blaine had married his wife only after her father had threatened him with a shotgun. Blaine sued for liable but the paper then produced the certificates showing the couple had been married in March, 1851 and their first child had been born less than three months later. Blaine came up with a story about two ceremonies, one private in 1850, and a public wedding a year later, but by the time he finish the audience had turned to the comic pages.
But the final nail in Blaine’s coffin was supposedly driven in by the Reverend Samuel Burchard, who at a New York City Republican rally, with Blaine sitting at the dais, announced that the Democrats stood for “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion”. The press had a field day, implying the phrase was anti-southern and anti-Catholic, (which it was) and that by his silence Blaine had approved of it. But that last part was absurd. Blaine’s mother was a practicing Catholic. His sister was a nun. The Republicans had been hoping to attract some Catholic votes away from the Democrats. But none of that mattered to the press, or to the Democrats who publicly organized Catholic Democratic lawyers in case they had to contest the official election results from New York.In the end it is difficult to say precisely why Cleveland won and Blaine lost. The popular vote cast on Election Day, November 4, 1884, was four million eight hundred seventy-four thousand for Cleveland (48.5%) and four million eight hundred forty-eight thousand (48.2%) for Blaine. But as we all know the popular vote is meaningless. What counted was the Electoral College, and there Cleveland won two hundred nineteen votes to one hundred eighty-two for Blaine, giving Cleveland a 37 vote electoral victory. The difference was New York State’s 36 votes which Cleveland won by a mere 1,047 votes out of one million one hundred twenty-five thousand and forty-eight votes cast in that state. I think what made those 1,047 votes so powerful were the twenty-four thousand nine hundred ninety-nine votes cast for Prohibitionist Party candidate John St, John in upstate New York. It may have been the last time a prohibitionist could proudly say, “Here’s mud in your eye.”
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Monday, September 15, 2008

A POLITICAL GAMBLER

I blame the Democrats for what happened to James Gillespie Blaine. The donkeys were supposed to be doing their nominal job of keeping Republicans honest, but because the Demos backed the South in the run up to the Civil War there weren’t a lot of them around when James was first elected to congress in 1862. Nor was it James’s fault that his brother-in-law, Eben C. Stanwood, was a greedy putz. There was a lot of money floating around Washington during the war, the kind of money a brother-in-law could get his hands on, and James Blaine would have been a saint if he hadn’t been tempted by the offer on the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad. Of course Blaine didn’t have to jump in quite so enthusiastically… The Little Rock Railroad was supposed to have been completed before the war, but it went bankrupt. And that was when Boston speculator Josiah Fisher convinced a group of investors (including that putz Eben) to buy up the worthless stock. It was Eben - and another crooked “investor” named Joshua Caldwell - who dangled fat sales commission checks in front of the congressman. It had occurred to them that a Congressmen could attract a much better class of customers; i.e. richer. And from the second he heard about the idea Blaine wanted in. Blaine wrote to Fisher on the 10th of September 1867, in a letter marked “Strictly Private”, “…my position will enable me to render you services of vital importance and value,….I do not feel I shall be a dead head....Are you not willing to aid me (elsewhere) where you can do so with profit to yourself at the same time?” Fisher did not reply to this crude solicitation, so evidently Blaine paid him a visit in person. We know about the agreement they reached because Blaine was helpful enough to lay out the details in a second letter he wrote to Fisher, which he marked “Burn after Reading.”

By September of 1869 Blaine had sold over $130,000 in Little Rock railroad bonds (worth about $2 million in 2007) mostly to other railroad barons. And he had been paid very handsome commissions for those sales. By then passengers could board the train in Little Rock. However they were required to cover the last fifty miles to Fort Smith in a stagecoach, a 3 ½ hour hell of dust, mud and potholes. Not surprisingly, the railroad went bankrupt yet again. But despite this Blaine was still demanding that he be “compensated” for having done the favor for the bankrupt business venture. This was in addition to the commission checks he had cashed long ago. Fisher was reluctant to treat Blaine kindly, until one of the other robber barons reminded Fisher, “…it is important that he should be conciliated…However unreasonable in his demand he may appear to you…he should in some manner be appeased.” So Speaker Blaine was “appeased” with loans he was not expected to repay. But Banker Fisher was not likely to forget he had been made to feel like one of the suckers of his own scam.After serving three terms as Speaker, James Blaine stepped down so he could concentrate on a run for the White House. As the campaign season of 1876 approached, he was a serious possibility. However, things had changed in Washington by then. The Democrats were back, and had captured control of the House of Representatives. That gave them the power of subpoena, and they used it to subpoena a certain Mr. James Mulligan, who was a Boston bookkeeper in the employ of Banker Josiah Fisher. It seems that Mr. Fisher had never burned an incriminating letter in his life. On May 31st , 1876 under the gentle guidance of Judiciary Committee Chairman, Democrat Proctor Knott, Mr. Mulligan casually admitted that he had in his possession “certain letters written by Rep. Blaine to Mr. Fisher”. Given the high sign by Blaine, the senior Republican on the committee immediately moved to adjourn for the day.

That night Rep. Blaine appeared at Mr. Mulligan’s door at the Riggs House hotel, and proceeded to chase Mulligan all over the room, begging and whining and reminding Mulligan what disgrace would mean to his children. Finally, in the spirit of fairness and embarrassment Mulligan allowed the Congressman to read the letters. But once he had his hands on them Blaine announced that since they were “his” letters he was going to keep them, and left with the letters safely in his own pocket.On the floor of Congress the next day the Democrats demanded that Blaine hand the letters back over. Blaine responded with a letter of his own, from his attorney, which argued the letters were not related to the Committee’s investigation, and advised Rep. Blaine to keep them secret. This time the Democrats were not appeased. So on June fifth James Blaine rose to speak again, this time in front of packed House galleries. He thundered, “I have defied the power of the House to compel me to produce these letters…but, sir,…I am not afraid to show the letters. Thank God Almighty, I am not afraid to show them.” As proof he waved the letters above his head. “These are they…and with some sense of humiliation,…with a sense of outrage which I think any man in my position would feel, I invite the confidence of 44 million of my countrymen while I read those letters from this desk.” And so he did, with commentary and asides in his own defense.

The Republicans were persuaded, but the Democrats were not. Having read the letters himself Chairman Knott knew that Blaine had avoided reading certain incriminating sections, and he rose to challenge Blaine’s version. And that was when James Blaine pulled the rabbit out of his hat.He asked Knott if the committee had received a transatlantic cable from Joshua Caldwell, supporting Blaine’s version of events. In fact Caldwell had sent such a cable. But Caldwell was a well known liar, and nobody in their right mind would believe anything he said - certainly Proctor didn't. Still, that was not the question. Rep. Blaine stomped right up to Proctor’s desk and accused him, nose to nose, of suppressing the Caldwell cable. Blushing, Proctor was forced to stammer that indeed they had received such a cable. The galleries erupted in thunderous applause for Blaine. Chairman Proctor Knott himself described it as “…one of the most extraordinary exhibitions of histrionic skill, one of the most consummate pieces of acting that ever occurred upon any stage on earth.” Blaine had so completely turned the tables on the Democrats that nobody except them seemed to notice that he had not, in fact, denied the basic allegations of bribery.Still, the effort had extracted a toll on Congressman Blaine. That Sunday he collapsed on the front steps of his church, and passed out. He was bedridden for several weeks and the committee investigation eventually died quietly. But James G. Blaine’s dreams of the White House had to be put off for another time. Of course, being an egomaniac, that is what he did; just put them off. He would run again for President in 1884. Which is when the letters would resurface, yet again.

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