Saturday, October 13, 2018

Dear Drew,

I was so sorry to hear about your broken arm.  From abundant experience, I know how uncomfortable wearing a cast can be.  Trust me, after a week, you will get used to it and by the time they finally take the cast off, it will feel strange not to have it on.  I am sure that next year, you will be playing football again.

It has always been surprising to me how many people have never broken a single bone in their entire lives.  It you lead an active life, participating in sports, or just trying to see what’s over the next hill—it seems impossible not to have the occasional injury.  This is the price we pay for enjoying a full life:  we were not meant to live our lives sitting on a sofa playing video games.

About half a century ago—way back when I was in high school—I was on the track team, despite being a slow runner.   I was nowhere near fast enough for most of the events, but I had fairly long legs and was pretty good at clearing the high hurdles.  It has been a long time, but I seem to remember that the hurdles were set at 39 inches height.  The real secret to making it over the hurdles was to hit the approach cleanly and not ‘stutter step’ just before you made the jump.  The object was to make clearing the hurdle part of your stride.

It took a lot of practice to learn how to hit the approach cleanly.  Using a piece of light bamboo, I made a hurdle in my backyard.  I probably hit that old fishing pole with my knee a couple of hundred times before I could work out how to pace my steps where I could clear the hurdle without having to adjust my last step.

This was probably the only event in track where I showed any talent.  However, for whatever reason, the coach also insisted that I also compete in the 440 events, but I never finished anywhere near the top.  They probably could have timed my efforts with a calendar instead of a stop watch, but as you well know, you have to do what your coach tells you to do, so I ran the 440.  Coming in last gave me a great view of the rest of the runners!

In the hurdles however, it was a different story.  Your grandfather (my brother) was two inches taller than I was, but our legs were about the same length.  Maybe that was why I found it so easy to clear those hurdles.  For whatever reason, I never broke stride and always hit the hurdles cleanly (probably because all that practice in my backyard made me confident of being able to clear them).  In about half the matches we held, I came in either first or second. 

My other great love in high school was airplanes.  I loved everything about them, and was taking flying lessons whenever I could save up enough money to pay the instructor.  When I was broke, I just hung out at the airport looking to do odd jobs so I could talk to the pilots.  I washed a lot of planes just so I could hang out with people who would talk about flying.

The people who were teaching me how to fly also repaired and restored old airplanes.  One day, they had a scaffolding erected around an old 1930's plane, a large twin engine plane, that they were working on.  I was fascinated and the mechanic, a friend of mine, said I could climb the scaffolding if I wanted a closer look.  I went up that scaffolding as fast as a stabbed rat.

And just about as fast, the scaffolding collapsed.  I found out later that someone had used a soft aluminum bolt on one of the joints instead of a steel bolt.  Bigger and heavier people had been up that scaffolding all day, but the bolt sheared when a lightweight, skinny high school kid climbed up onto the scaffolding.  Sometimes, you just can’t figure out why accidents happen.

I fell onto the concrete floor of the hangar, busting an ankle and breaking small bones in both feet.  As accidents go, this was a small one and none of the injuries were that serious.  I was young—not much older than you—and the bones mended cleanly and quickly. 

Naturally, that was the end of my track career for the year.  I was heartbroken at the time, because I missed the big district track meet a few weeks later.  I watched that track meet from the side of the field.  It would have made a great story if I could tell you that the winner of the hurdles was someone whom I had beaten earlier in the year, but the truth is that a guy from a different school flew over the hurdles like he was half gazelle.  His time that day was shorter than my best ever had been

All of that was a long time ago and, looking back on the events, I am proud that I worked so hard at learning to jump those high hurdles.  I remember how happy I was to compete in the few events held before the accident.  I don’t regret the long hours I spent practicing.

Strangely, though, I don’t regret climbing that scaffold, either.  Oh, I wish it hadn’t collapsed and I wish I hadn’t fallen and broken my ankle.  But, I still want to be the kind of guy who needs to climb a scaffold to get a closer look at an old plane.  If offered the chance today, I would still climb up a scaffold.

I’m not telling you to be foolish, but to be proud of the things you have done, even when occasionally you end up having the small injury.  You earned that cast on your arm:  it means you did something most people can’t or won’t do. 

Life is too short to be safe all the time, for it is a terrible fate to be bored to death.

Hope you’re back on the field and doing what you love, soon,
Your (occasionally) Great Uncle.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Changing American Dream

One of the more difficult history subjects to discuss with freshmen college students was the concept of an American Dream:  a national identity encompassing shared ideals such as liberty, equality, and a belief that each of us has the right and the freedom to better our lives through hard work and personal responsibility. 

Historians argue whether this ethos was born out of our Declaration of Independence (the right to a pursuit of happiness), the Constitution (secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity), or whether it was an optimistic spirit that naturally arose among pioneers as they settled a new world that was rich in resources.  However it arose, Europeans traveling in our new country noticed the spirit and frequently wrote about it in letters and journals.  

By the start of the nineteenth century, the Jeffersonian dream was that of an agrarian utopia.  While a young man might have to work and save for a few years, he could eventually move west and use the incredibly generous homesteading laws to carve a new farm out of the wilderness and begin a family.  

In Jefferson’s view, a nation of yeomen farmers was absolutely necessary to insure an honest republic, for only a truly independent man—neither indentured to nor employed by anyone—was capable of voting his own will and upholding the kind of nation that Jefferson envisioned. 

Ignoring the fact that not everyone wanted to be a farmer, this was an impractical view, even in Jefferson’s day.  While there was seemingly endless land to the West—and Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon practically doubled the land available—even the farmers depended on a nation with a diversified economy.  Still, there was a general common belief in the possibility of a fresh start, of a new chance, and of endless opportunities for anyone who tried to better himself.

Historians like Frederick Turner linked the American Dream to the concept of a frontier on which the dreamers were pioneers always pushing westward, so that the very conquest of the frontier created the American collective psyche.  To paraphrase one Virginia politician, if Americans ever arrived in Paradise, they would soon leave it to move further west.

For many, the Jeffersonian version of the American Dream would last well into the Twentieth Century (at least until the presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan, anyway).   Even before it died, it was slowly being replaced by a different version of the dream, as America slowly evolved from a rural to an urban nation.

As late as the American Civil War, the country’s largest manufacturer was the Baldwin Locomotive Works, with just barely over 600 employees.  Increasingly, Americans worked in some form of trade or manufacturing.  For many, while the American dream remained one of personal independence, the dream was to be realized by owing and running not just a farm, but an independent business.  

Many Americans achieved their version of the changing American dream by becoming tradesmen.  A man with a marketable skill could always find work, even if he chose to relocate.  By the end of the second World War, companies had become large, impersonal organizations, but a welder, a machinist, or an electrician had the security of knowing there were always jobs open at another corporation just down the road, if a 'change of scenery' was needed or desired.  

Slowly, the American dream changed again: instead of owning a farm, a store, or being a skilled craftsman,, it was now about financial security through hard work and the slow accumulation of property and wealth.  Realtors and banks advertised that the illusive dream was about owning a house, to be replaced shortly by a still bigger house with an attached garage holding a new car.  

Increasingly, somehow, the American Dream became more about acquiring the material possessions that accompanied success, and less about independence and personal freedom.  The American Dream was to become financially secure enough to be a consumer.  

A few decades ago, I began teaching large survey classes of American History at Enema U (a local agricultural college in Southern New Mexico).  Talking to a room filled with a hundred students, I was astonished to learn that the vast majority had never even heard of the notion of a shared ethos like the American Dream.  As the students and I discussed the idea, most of the students firmly equated the concept with successfully securing wealth.

Worse, when I asked how they planned to achieve the wealth they believed necessary, the answers given by the students were shocking.  Out of a hundred students, over a dozen answers were something along the lines of the following:

“I’m gonna win the lottery.”

“I want to marry someone rich.”

“I’m going to sue someone.”

Ignoring how scary the last answer is, all of the comments were alarming.  Almost none of the students gave the most obvious answer, “I’m going to graduate and get a good professional job using the degree I've earned.”

Which prompts me to wonder what the American Dream will become for a generation not likely to live as well as its parents.  Technology will improve, life expectancy will continue to lengthen, but most of the people born in the last few decades are unlikely to have as high a standard of living as their parents had, nor will they have the security and independence that come with it.

What kind of nation are we when we are no longer pioneers?

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Priceless Artifacts

1985 — A Southwestern College Classroom

The professor stood with his back to the blackboard, speaking to two dozen assembled students who were struggling to stay awake. 

“In archaeology, it is important to remember that the artifacts that we dig up are essentially worthless.  Usually, these objects were trash when the people who made them threw them away.  Take a clay pot, for example.  We usually find broken pots or just the small shards of pots for the simple reason that the pot was used until it broke.”

Pausing for emphasis, the professor pushed himself away from the blackboard and took a step towards the class.  “Archaeologists are quite literally, trash collectors,” he said.

The gathered students were obviously both skeptical and a little surprised.  The image of an archaeologist as a trash collector was not at all consistent with the Indiana Jones movies.

“Quite often,” the professor continued, “the more productive places to dig are trash middens.  When we did research at the sites of old frontier military forts, we discovered the most productive sites were the old latrines, which the soldiers also used to dispose of trash.”

“What did you find there?” asked a student.

“The most common discovery, other than the obvious, was a small whiskey bottle.  There were few places where a common soldier could secretly drink in solitude.  What the soldiers threw away, tells us a lot about life in the fort.” 

“Remember,” the professor continued.  “Once an item is recovered, where it was found and what was next to it often provide more information than the item itself.”

“Artifacts out of context have little value.  The object by itself is useless, but the information it can tell us about the culture that produced it is priceless.  An artifact becomes useless once we have extracted the data from it and we have learned everything we can from it.”

“What do we do with the artifact once we have studied it?” asked one of the student.

“After a detailed report about the dig has been written up, both the artifact and the report are carefully stored away.  Years from now, other researchers can use the data for their own study.”

2018 — A Southwestern College

The van pulled up to one of the storage facilities clustered at the end of the campus near the football field.  While the campus was huge, most of the important buildings—classrooms, libraries, and the vast collection of administration buildings—were clustered blocks away, in the center of the university grounds.  

The two men got out of the van, one opening the rear doors of the van while the other unlocked and raised the large garage door.  Inside, there were tightly packed rows of shelving, each bulging with cardboard boxes and paper bags.  One of the two men walked into the large warehouse, looking incredulously at the overflowing shelves.

“What the hell is this?” he asked.

“This is all the shit the archaeologists have been digging up out in the desert.   They have three more storage bays just like this one and they fill one up every four or five years.”

“Looks like the rats have got to a lot of these.  It’s all spilling out onto the floor and some of the shelving in the back has collapsed.  You can’t even read the labels on the boxes anymore.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the other man said while brushing away a spider web.  “No one from the department has been in any of the warehouses since I have worked here.  I doubt if they know where these warehouses are.”

“Do they even know what’s in here?  Is there an inventory?”

The other man pointed towards a large pile of moldy notebooks on one of the shelves.  “I doubt it:  that’s where all the notes and reports are kept, but after the roof leaked, we shoveled a lot of that crap out.”

The two men unloaded the van, putting new boxes and bags wherever they found room.  Finished, they closed the garage door and locked it.  It would be a year before anyone else  bothered to reopen the door to add more boxes and bags to the collection.

3018 — A Southwestern Desert

“Professor!” called one of the students kneeling in a shallow ditch.  “Can you come look at this?”

An older man walked over to the trench, one of several at the site, where his students were carefully excavating in the desert sand.

“What have you found?” he asked.

“I was using my brush to clear away the loose sand like you showed us and I found this,” she said, pointing into the bottom of the ditch where she had been working.  “There’s a whole pile of pot shards, but they are all different colors and designs.”

“That’s typical of these sacred sites.  The people who lived here placed a variety of offerings at sites like this, apparently as part of religious ceremonies.  This is one of several shrines where the people left offerings.  Over time, as the sand shifted, the remains mixed together.”

The professor stood and pointed to the large, crumbling concrete ruins at the top of the hill nearby.  “We usually find similar shrines located around such temples.  The people would drop off their offerings here, before continuing on to the temple, which could hold as many as forty-thousand people, where they would sit in a large oval around a holy rectangle we believe was occupied by their priests.”

“What was so important about the temple?”

“They probably used them for some form of ritual human sacrifices, but we’re not sure,” answered the professor.  “We know they must have been important because wherever we find such temples, they are always the largest and most expensive building in the community.  Usually, the ruins of such temples are the best-preserved buildings, so they was obviously the centers of community life.  We are still studying and researching the remains to try to figure out exactly what they were used for.”

“It’s a real shame they didn’t leave anything written down, explaining what they were used for,” answered the student.

“Yes, it is.  But, by studying these artifacts, we hope to understand their culture.  That’s why you should be sure to carefully label the paper bag for those pot shards—we wouldn’t want to lose the data.”