AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Friday, May 08, 2015

A LIFE IN SERVICE

I would say the late 1870's were a very hard time for the women of Fort Abraham Lincoln. First there was the Saturday of June 25, 1876, when over two hundred and twenty of their husbands and lovers were left dead and mutilated on the windswept hills overlooking the Little Big Horn River. They called that Custer's Last Stand, and it killed several members of the Custer family. But the horror of that day was simple to deal with compared with the trauma that followed in 1878, when the fort's women gathered to bury one their own, a resident of "Suds' Row", where the wives of enlisted men lived.  On that horrible day those poor women saw something they had never expected to see where they found it.
Picture America as she was approaching her centennial year - a nation of about 45 million people. And even though they had no Internet,  no electricity,  no antibiotics and no gummy bears, these people were no  different from the 310 million who reside in America today. 
In 1875 the moralizing "Our Boys" opened on Broadway.  It followed the adventures of an Englishman and his butler and their pair of disappointing sons. A century and a quarter later the sitcom "Two and a Half Men" mined this same comedic vein.. And like a latter day series "Lost",  Jules Vernes' 1875 novel, "The Survivors of the Chancellor" told an episodic science fiction adventure story of a British passenger ship, lost at sea. And ala "Who Let the Dogs Out", the most popular song of the day consisted of the repeated lyrics, "Carve dat possum, carve dat possum, children."  It's title was "Carve dat possum"  
Oh, the future was coming. Just the year before, in far off Germany, Dr. Ernst von Brucke had suggested that all living organisms obeyed the laws of thermodynamics. He was wrong, course, since very few humans, other than politicians, behave like big clouds of hot gas. But Doctor von Brucke had a student who would make sense out of  Burke's thinking - that student was Sigmund Freud.
But Freud's discovery of the subconscious mind and repressed psychosomatic phobias and dreams about locks and keys and milk maids and bows and arrows was still a decade in the future in 1878 - which was a shame because a little Freud sure would have helped those poor ladies at Fort Abraham Lincoln. Or maybe not.
The fort was on the west bank of the Missouri River, across from Bismark, North Dakota. In that  town the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the telegraph lines ended,  making the army post the very edge of the frontier. The Army post was home to about 650 men and some 300 women attached to the U.S. Seventh Cavalry regiment. Robert Marlin tried to describe what kind of desperate people would sign up for a year's service in such a place. “Immigrants, especially those from Ireland and German, filled the ranks," he wrote. "Others came from England, France and Italy. While most of the American recruits did not read or write, the immigrants who did not speak English compounded this problem…."
A trooper started off at the pay of $13 per month. Should he be such a glutton for punishment as to re-enlist, this was raised to $15. The trooper was now a “50-cent-a-day professional” soldier.  And it was a very long day, starting "...at 5:30 a.m.,” wrote Marlin, “with the dreaded call of Reveille, and ended at 10:00 p.m. with the bugle sounding Taps.” 
The average recruit in the Seventh was in his mid-twenties, and stood about five feet eight inches tall. He suffered from bad teeth, a bad back, and about 10% had suffered from some form of healed head trauma even before they enlisted.  Twenty-two percent of the privates had been in the service for less than a year.  And few of them would re-enlist. Lord knows, the diet did not encourage them.
Each day every soldier received 12 ounces of pork or bacon, 22 ounces of flour or bread and less than an once of ground coffee. Every month they received a pound of beans or peas, a pound of rice or hominy, 3 pounds of potatoes, a cup of molasses, 1/2 cup of salt, 1 ounce of pepper and a little vinegar.   This was not a diet, it was a ration, and had as little more flavor variation than "Spam,". 
As the army needed soldiers, it also needed laundresses. They were as much in  the service of their country as the soldiers they served. And in a culture without a social safety net, the reasons a young man might join the cavalry were similar to the reasons a young woman might become a laundress; a roof over her head, and food in her belly. But even tho it needed them, the army did not encourage these women to stay a single day longer than necessary for the army.
Linda Grant De Pauw lays out the vulnerability of such women in “Battle Cries and Lullabys". She described, “…a laundress wrote to Major L.H. Marshall at Fort Boise, Idaho, describing how she had been arrested, charged as an attempted  murderess, and confined in a guardhouse for hitting her husband with a tin cup that he claimed was an ax…(she was) sentenced to be drummed off that post at fixed bayonets …she and her three children then had to live in a cold house, without the food ration they depended upon." 
But the scramble to hold onto the fragile level of security which a blue uniform provided only partly explains the woman known to history only as "Mrs. Nash". Shortly after the Seventh Cavalry regiment was formed in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1866, Mrs. Nash took up residence along “Suds Row”-  as the laundresses’ quarters were commonly called. She always wore a veil or a shawl, and it was assumed this was because of scaring from smallpox or one of the many other skin diseases common at the time. Besides earning a small income as a washer woman, Mrs. Nash showed talent as a seamstress and tailored officer's uniforms for extra money. She was a noted baker and her pies were much sought after. After she built a reputation as a dependable mid-wife “few births occurred (on the post) without her expert help”. 
But there is no record Mrs. Nash ever served as a prostitute. This additional earning occupation was not uncommon for those laundresses who could neither bake nor sew, and who showed more talent for the other half of the midwife equation. And as a practical matter, prostitution by laundresses was not actively discouraged by the officers. This was the frontier and the only other option for amorous release by a trooper was with either his fellow troopers or the horses. Homophobic troopers tended to shoot first, and just say no afterward. And although the horses never complained, they were kind of important to survival on the plains and so that form of animal husbandry was also discouraged. So the practice of prostitution by the laundresses was tolerated as long as the woman did not become really good at it or "notorious".
Quickly Mrs. Nash was a valuable member of the unit, and had even amassed a tidy little nest egg. In 1868 she married a Quartermasters Clerk named Clifton. But a few days later he deserted with her money and was never seen again. Still it was expected that Mrs. Nash followed the regiment when it moved to Fort Abraham Lincoln, in Dakota Territory, in 1872.  That was also the year she married Sergeant James Nash, the “striker”, or personal servant, to Captain Tom Custer, younger brother of the regimental commander George Armstrong Custer. Although James and Mrs. Nash were seen to argue a great deal, still they seemed happy enough for a year or so.  During that year Libbie Custer, wife of the General, noted “…a company ball...(was) organized...Officers and ladies attended....Mrs. Nash wore a pink Tarleton (which she sewed herself) and false curls, and she had “constant (dancing) partners”.
Then, unexpectedly, Sergeant Nash stole his wife’s savings and deserted her and the service. Libbie wrote that Tom Custer was very “put out” by this desertion. Presumably, so was Mrs. Nash.  But she did not remain so for long. In 1873, the lady, now called “Old Mrs. Nash”, married Corporal John Noonan. She kept a bright and tidy home for John, planting and maintaining flowers in front of their modest quarters. And she restored her nest egg. And for five years they were a contended and happy couple, the center of the social circle of Suds Row east of the Fort Lincoln parade grounds, and they were both a significant part of the post’s social life.
Then, in the fall of 1878, while Corporal Noonan was out on patrol, Mrs. Nash fell ill. As her condition  quickly worsened she called for a priest, and after seeing him she told the ladies caring for her that she wanted to be buried as she was, without the usual washing and re-dressing. The ladies reluctantly agreed. Who would dare to argue with a dying woman. But after “Mrs. Nash" died on November 4th,  the women decided they could not show her such disrespect.
Two of her closest friends began to strip her, in preparation to washing and re-dressing her body. And that was when they made a most unexpected discovery. Underneath the veil and the dress and the petticoats Mrs. Nash was a man. The Bismarck Tribune was blunter:  “Mrs. Nash Has Balls As Big As a Bull!”
Although the story was based on hearsay and unqualified medical opinion, the eastern papers picked it up, and soon every yahoo with access to a printing press felt obligated to pontificate. The less they knew of the facts the more opinions they had. Public morality, it seems to me, is an excuse for being ignorant, loudly. And in this case the volume was a thunderclap in a drought.
When poor Corporal Noonan returned from patrol all his protestations of ignorance fell upon deaf ears. Quickly his grief, and the ridicule, stated and unstated, became too much to bear. Two days after returning from patrol to find his" wife” dead, John Noonan deserted his post and on November 30, 1878, shot himself to death with his carbine -  not an easy thing to do.
John Noonan now lies buried in the National Cemetery adjacent to the Little Big Horn Battlefield, his tombstone identical to all the others who died in the service of their country on the Western Frontier.  And rightly so.
But there is no headstone (and no public grave) for Mrs. Nash. There is no memorial of her years of service to the unit, for the babies she delivered, for the hardships she endured. And there is no recognition today that without a "liberal" media to encourage her, at least one human being found it preferable to live in constant fear of being revealed, in exchanged for the chance of living as God made her, internally as well as  externally, perfectly and imperfectly. She was living proof that with all our technology and insights and with it all smothered under blankets of public morality, we are today just as screwed up as our ancestors were, not more and not less. And always will be. God bless us, every one.
 
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Wednesday, May 06, 2015

AIR HEADS Part Seven

I am impressed with the level of cupidity among the participants in this amazing air race. (It means they were avaricious.) Certainly the pilots, Bob Fowler and Cal Rodgers, were risking their lives day after day and deserved some reward for that risk. And now that the prize which had inspired it all had been withdrawn, they had to work for it. At Dallas, where Cal stopped on the night of  17 October, and at Fort Worth, where Cal put in two days of flights before 75,000 at the state fair, he sold photo’s and autographs, as Bob Fowler did at his stops - just as musicians do today at personal appearances. And there were always the “Vin Fiz” coupons Cal was still dropping over unsuspecting soda drinkers in cities where he did not land. The Waco Texas Young Men’s Business League offered Cal an impressive fee, so on 20 October,  he took a long detour south and did several loops (below) around the cities’ sky single sky scrapper.
Even Mable Rodgers had gotten into the act. Dear, sweet, shy, retiring and innocent Mable Rodgers had tried to convince the United States Post Office that the historical nature of the race warranted creating her a special “Post Mistress”, so that she could stamp “Postmarked Vin Fiz Special” on cards and letters bought from her while en route -  for a small fee, of course.
But when that money making idea failed to inspire Congress to act, and after W.R. Hearst had abandoned the race (and her husband) in Missouri, Mable sent Cal’s brother Robert out ahead to Kansas City to order unofficial over sized “Vin Fiz Flyer” and “Rodgers Aerial Post” stamps, to be sold at a quarter apiece once the Flyer had crossed into Texas.
Buyers would still have to affix official U.S. postage stamps to have anything delivered, and the stamps had been ordered with no glue backing, but Mable was at least trying squeeze every penny out of the insanity she was caught up in. It’s difficult to know if enough stamps were actually sold to cover the cost of printing them, but we do know that only thirteen “Vin Fiz” stamps still survive, eight on postcards, one on a letter and four “off cover”, meaning individually. One of the “off cover” stamps sold in 2006, when the world was still drunk, for $70,000. That amount could have financed the entire flight back in 1911. I guess Mable had the right idea, just bad timing. And I’m certain that Cal's mother, Maria (ne Rodgers) Sweitzer, was certain to reminded poor Mable of her financial gaff, at every opportunity.
Tension was also building in the hothouse of the 66 foot long by 8 ½ foot wide pressure cooker of the “Vin Fiz Special” Pullman sleeping car, with wife and mother-in-law cooped up for endless days together on the endless stretches of track between the way stations of civilization across the American West. The air must have been thick with slights (real and imagined), invective (real and imagined), criticism and denunciations (real and perceived). The two ladies endured each other for Cal’s sake from New York to Chicago. Then mother Maria found an excuse to leave the train for a few days. But at Kansas City she rejoined the caravan, only to disembark yet again at San Antonio.  The lady was up to something.
Perhaps the expense of printing up the stamps that would not stick came up once too often in the conversations. But whatever the cause, when Maria rejoined the train outside of El Paso, Texas she brought reinforcements – 22 year old Lucy Belvedere, a reputed heiress, and at least in Maria’s mind, an improvement over Mable.  I'll bet that dear Lucy could swim. It would appear that Cal was somewhat distracted by the drama building in the Pullman car. In what can only be seen as an sign of that increasing drama , as he approached El Paso, Cal had a near-miss in mid-air with an eagle, or maybe it was a vulture. In any case, on the 24th of October, at Spofford, Texas, Cal’s attention slipped enough to allow his right propeller to strike the ground, sending him into a ground loop that broke the wing and “splintered” both props (above). Through yet another Herculean effort Chief mechanic Charlie Taylor and his first assistant, Charlie “Wiggie” Wiggin, were able to get Cal back into the air the next morning.
Then, just before noon on Friday, October 29th, the object of this maternal verses matrimonial completion, landed at the corner of Duval and 45th street in Austin, Texas (above). Three thousand came out to cheer the hero. And Mable was quoted by a local reporter as saying, “Sometimes I suspect that Calbraith thinks showing affection to a woman would be unfaithful to his machine.” Yes, that was Mable’s concern right then, trapped aboard the sleeping car with her mother-in-law and a woman her mother-in-law clearly saw as her replacement.  I wonder if Mable noted ironically to herself that one of the things still holding Cal in the air was her corset, strapped into an upper wing as a repair.
In Deming, New Mexico (above), on Halloween, Cal’s ignition system went on the fritz. Can it be any wonder? Still he persevered.  He refueled at Wilcox, Arizona on November 1st, and took the short hop from there to Tucson, where he paused just long enough to travel the six blocks by car to the ball park where Bob Fowler’s "Cole Flyer" had landed. They shook hands, but Cal was so rushed the photographers had no time to snap a picture. Being in the air, seated directly in front of a pounding engine hour after hour, must have been the only peace the boy had. But help was at hand. This time Mable would finally showed a nerve equal to her Cal’s. This time she wasn’t waiting to be rescued.
After the refueling stop at Wilcox, Arizona, Lucy Belvedere discovered that her entire trousseau was missing from her compartment. As Mother Maria and Lucy digested this horrifying disaster, and pondered who could have absconded with her frillies and lace, shy little Mable quietly informed them that the luggage was not really missing. It was perfectly safe, she said, aboard the baggage car of the east bound train they had just passed back in Wilcox. The trousseau had been placed there by "Wiggie" on shy little Mables' instructions. It was a display of verve and determination that mother Maria had not expected out of her husband's shy little wife.  And while Cal struggled for fame and fortune above the unforgiving desert of Arizona, Lucy Belvedere gathered her few remaining belongings and retreated from the “Vin Fiz Special” via the next east bound passenger train, chasing her corsets and her frillies back into Texas, and out of the pages of history.  It seems that at some point in this desert crossing, little Mable had taught herself how to swim.
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