Saturday, May 30, 2015

Private Art

It was still an hour's driving time to Cleveland when I decided to stop and get gas and something to eat.  I was less than 40 miles away, but as the day got closer to noon, the traffic on the two lane state highway got steadily worse, so I decided to stop and eat while I could.  Besides, I was hungry and would rather eat lunch in a small town restaurant than in one of the endless number of franchise restaurants that Cleveland would offer.

Years ago, I had met a retired couple who were crisscrossing the country in a motorhome.   We were on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, and they wanted directions to a McDonalds for lunch.  They said they ate lunch at the hamburger chain every day, no matter where they happened to be.  "That way," the man said, "we always know what we are going to get."

While I really couldn't argue with his logic, it did seem to kind of negate the need for travel.  Why not just park that bus in the parking lot of their hometown hamburger stand and save the gas money?  I suppose this was their way of seeing America, and could easily picture them at every national park telling each other, "It's so real, it looks just like TV."

I stopped for gas, and the attendant there suggested that I eat at a small diner just a few miles farther down the road towards Cleveland, in the village of Chagrin Falls. 

"It's called the Fresh Start Diner, right in the center of town.  You can't miss it; it borders the town plaza and is just across the street from the gazebo.  Great food, the best service you've ever had, but don't eat the chili."

"What's wrong with the chili?" I asked.  "And how do you know the service is the best I've ever had?"

"With your Texas accent, I'll bet you're not gonna like cinnamon in your chili.  As for the service, well, a few years ago, some local guy who ate there every day left one of the waitresses a half-million dollars in his will."

With such a ringing endorsement, I had to try the place, and as it turned out, it really was easy to find.  There was ample parking along the edges of the tree-lined plaza, and it wasn't hard to find the stained glass windows of the diner that was adjacent to the pharmacy.  Stepping inside, I found a cheerful little diner with maple furniture, Norman Rockwell prints on the wall, and the aroma of freshly ground coffee.

I took a table near one of the windows and looked over a menu.  Sure enough, there was something called "Cincy-Style Chili."  I ordered the Portobello sandwich on homemade bread and settled back to enjoy the coffee.  My plan was to eat healthy for lunch, so tonight, once I had reached Cleveland, I could pig out at the Great Lakes Brewery.  I wasn't going to count the calories, but I was sure a little self-control now would cancel out the beers I planned on consuming at the microbrewery. 

Most of the diners' patrons appeared to be locals: there were a lot of people in jeans and work shirts, some of whom had name tags that showed they worked at the nearby hardware store or the bank.  Evidently, I was eating where the locals did—always a good sign. 

After a while, I couldn't help noticing the man sitting next to me.  He was about my age, tall, thin, and with a salt and pepper mustache.  Eating alone, he was just finishing off what looked like a Reuben sandwich, and like me, he was finishing off what had turned out to be an excellent cup of coffee.

The man picked up his coffee cup, drained it, and then looked at the inky black coffee that was left in the bottom of his saucer.  Carefully placing his cup down next to his plate, he dipped an index finger into the cold coffee of the saucer, and began to slowly sketch a design on the maple table top. 

On the wall next to my table was a framed newspaper clipping about the waitress inheriting a half million dollars from a customer who was impressed by her pleasant nature and excellent service.  It turned out the story was true, but it was a little over twenty years old, and when it had happened, the restaurant had been named Dinks.  This had to be one of the largest tips in restaurant history.

Just as I was finishing the article, the waitress—who was pleasant, but not quite worth a tip larger than a few thousand dollars—brought my food.  I asked for Tabasco sauce for the fries, and got that look you always get when you ask for hot sauce anywhere north or east of Louisiana.  A few months earlier, when my job had taken me to Maine, I had discovered people who put vinegar on their fries, and once in New York, I had stopped in a town where they served fries with Thousand Island Dressing, and though I had never seen it myself, a friend of mine swore that in France he had been served Freedom Fries with mayonnaise.  By comparison, in my opinion, a little Cajun catsup is as normal as church on Sunday.

The next time I looked up from my food, the guy sitting next to me was fairly well along with his doodling.  He seemed lost in concentration as he repeatedly dipped his finger into the saucer, then traced and retraced his drawing.  The waitress came by to refill my coffee, and I expected her to say something to the man, but she just smiled at him, silently refilled his cup and walked off.

It was kind of a delicate problem, I wanted to see what the man was drawing, but at the same time, it would certainly be rude to stand up and stare over his shoulder.  So, I pretended to be drinking my coffee while I used my peripheral vision to watch the artwork.  I was straining my eyes so hard, they hurt, but I still couldn't quite make out what he was drawing.  I could tell there might be the outlines of two men, but I couldn't tell what they were doing. 

Suddenly, the man finished his drawing, sat back in his chair and smiled at his work.  Fishing into his pocket, he pulled out his wallet, tucked a few bills under the rim of his plate, then got up and left the diner.  As soon as he had left, I stood up and moved over to the table and looked down at what he had been drawing.

I was shocked!  I knew exactly what the drawing was—everyone knew what this drawing was, even though no one had seen a new cartoon by this man in over twenty years.  What I had thought were two men, turned out to be a small boy and his best friend, a striped tiger, dancing together.   Their simple message of joy was clear and needed no words.

I think I looked at the drawing for about a minute before I realized what this drawing was worth—big money.  I couldn't preserve it, as it was evaporating even while s I was looking at it—but, I could take a picture of it!  My cell phone was in my hand and...

I knew who that man was, and I knew that people said it was easier to see Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster than to actually meet him.  And I knew that he had never merchandized his work, not authorizing a single product based on his creations—even though this had meant he had turned his back on a fortune.  The profit on licensing just a stuffed tiger would have been worth millions—maybe tens of millions of dollars—but the artist had always refused, saying that he wanted to totally control his own work. 

I put the camera back in my pocket, without having taken a single picture.  As I stood looking at the cartoon, trying to memorize it and fix it into my mind, the waitress came and quietly stood beside me.   For what felt like a long time, but in reality was probably only a minute or so, we enjoyed our own private art show, what was for just a little while, a masterpiece owned by just the two of us.

"That was..." I started to say, but the waitress interrupted me.

"I didn't see him," she said.  "No one in this town ever sees him.  This is his home town, you know."  Then she turned back to the table, picked up the bills tucked under the plate, and began to wipe down the table with a napkin.

As I went back to my table, it dawned on me that the service in this diner really was exceptional.  After all, this was the second time that someone had left a half million dollar tip.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

What Texas Rising Won't Tell You

The History Channel will shortly air a new series about the birth of Texas and the rise of Sam Houston, which evidently starts with the Alamo.  I haven't seen the series yet, but if the teaser ads are any indication, I am sure there are a few things they will not tell you.  Or perhaps, they may omit will telling you the full story.

The Alamo Battle Was Fought, In Part, Over Slavery 

The Texans were planting coastal cotton, a crop that relatively quickly depletes the soil without the use of fertilizers, whose invention was more than a century in the future.  The easiest way for a planter to get around this problem was just to move westward and acquire more inexpensive land.  Planters needed good soil close to a river or creek to use for transporting the bulky cotton to the coast.  Almost all of the land along the Gulf Coast of Texas was perfect for growing cotton.

This type of farming was not profitable without slavery.  The settlers needed slaves and in their original agreement with Mexico encouraged them to bring in slaves as they migrated into Texas.  They also swore allegiance to the Mexican government and promised to convert to Catholicism.  But, in 1829, Mexico outlawed slavery.

The Texans appealed this, and got a short term exemption.  The slaves were converted over to indentured servants with a 10 year contract that was signed for the slaves while they were still legally slaves.  (Cute lawyering is a Texas tradition.)  When the ten-year exemption was up, the settlers didn't want to give up the roughly 5,000 slaves already in Texas (20% of the new immigrant population) and were trying to get a longer exemption, but Mexico refused.

While the battle at the Alamo was being fought, Stephen Austin was in Mexico trying to get that extension—if he had been successful, there probably would not have been a fight at the Alamo.

Slavery wasn't the only issue between the Anglo settlers and Mexico, but it was only issue that couldn't be compromised or resolved.  In many ways, this was a precursor to the American Civil War.

There were no "Thirteen Days of Glory"

When Santa Ana's army reached San Antonio in February, the defenders were shocked, believing it would take far longer for the Mexican Army to arrive.  (Santa Ana was a better general than is commonly believed.)

As soon as he arrived in Bexar, Santa Ana put a loose guard around the Alamo and waited while the rest of his forces arrived.  This would take two weeks, and while he waited, Santa Ana met and married a beautiful local girl, Melchora Barrera.  (Well, kind of married her—the priest was actually a lieutenant in his army who had faked more than one wedding for the general.  After the honeymoon, his “wife” would learn the truth and end up the mistress of one of his junior officers.  No one ever said that Santa Ana was a nice guy.)

According to most historians, during the time it took for the army to arrive—those "Thirteen Days of Glory"—not a single defender of the Alamo died until the morning of the final attack.  There was little fighting and no effective bombardment of the fort.  The largest pieces of Mexican artillery were the last of Santa Ana's units to arrive, and by the time they reached Bexar, the Alamo had fallen.

The Battle Was Not a Costly Victory for the Mexicans.

There is a general rule of thumb in military battles: the defenders have a 3:1 advantage.  If there are a thousand defenders, you need at least 3000 men to attack.  Following this rule, the 180-250 (estimates vary endlessly) defenders of the Alamo should have killed far more than the 450-600 Mexicans believed to have been killed during the battle.  A casualty ratio of 2:1 is considered fairly low for the defenders of a fort.

As Santa Ana said, “What are the lives of soldiers than so many chickens? I tell you, the Alamo must fall, and my orders must be obeyed at all hazards. If our soldiers are driven back, the next line in their rear must force those before them forward, and compel them to scale the walls, cost what it may."

Actually, the Mexican army almost reached the wall during the early morning attack without an alarm being raised.  The Mexican reports show that the Texas guards were asleep.  The first attack was successful and the battle was over in just a few hours.

The Alamo Was Not an Important Fort

Actually, Sam Houston wanted to destroy the fort, but was prevented from doing so by Governor Henry Smith.  The damn fort was not in a strategic location and was far too large for the number of men present to guard it.  This was precisely why the Texans were able to take it away in 1835 from General Cos—who went to Mexico and came back with Santa Ana and enough men to take it back. 

With the few men Travis and Bowie had under their command, they could not adequately defend the walls and still man their cannons—nor had they used their time wisely while waiting for the Mexican Army to arrive.  There were several weak points in the wall that almost could not be defended.  And no preparation for feeding the men had been made until February 23—the date the Mexican Army arrived.

If Travis had burned the fort and joined up with the men at Goliad, this would have added about 700 additional men for General Houston, an incredibly valuable addition.

Some of the Texas Heroes Are....Different!

Sam Houston resigned as Governor of Tennessee after his wife left him—shortly after the wedding.  For years, there were strange rumors of alcoholism and infidelity.  During this time, Houston met Congressman William Stanbery while walking on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Since Stanberry had recently publicly accused Houston of fraud, Houston beat the congressman to the ground with his hickory cane.  Though the congressman tried to shoot Houston with a pistol, the former governor escaped when the gun misfired.  Despite being defended by no less a lawyer than Francis Scott Key, Houston was fined $500 in damages, but left for Texas without paying.

Jim Bowie was a criminal wanted in America for illegal slave trading and in Mexico for land swindles.  If he had survived the Alamo, he would probably have spent the rest of his days in prison.

Jim Bowie was already famous for a spectacularly crazy battle called the Sandbar Duel.  He, and at least 5 other men, had variously shot, stabbed, and cut each other until the fight was over, by which time Bowie had been shot at least twice and stabbed six times.  This kind of lunacy made him, and his large knife, famous (or infamous). 

David Crockett had just been voted out of Congress, and was looking for a small pond in need of a big, albeit second-hand, frog.  Before leaving Tennessee, he wrote to friends encouraging them to move with him to Texas “if Van Buren were elected President.”  Van Buren was, and Crocket did, along with 30 friends. 

When William Barrett Travis arrived in Texas, he was running away from a failed marriage, mounting debts for which he was about to be arrested, and two children when he came to Texas.  At least one historian has put forth the theory that Travis was insane as a result of drinking mercury in a failed effort to treat his venereal disease.  Somehow, he had accomplished all of the above relatively quickly—he was only 26 years old when he died at the Alamo.

There Were No Survivors.

Well, yes and no.  None of the men who fought survived.  While there is scant evidence that a handful of men, including David Crockett, were taken prisoner during the fighting, if so, none were allowed to live long.  While General Cos did not believe in executing prisoners, and argued for mercy at both the Alamo and later at Goliad, General Santa Ana insisted that Mexican law, which labeled the defenders of the Alamo as pirates, be enforced. 

There were certainly survivors.  Nearly twenty women, children, and slaves did survive the siege of the Alamo and were allowed to return home.  The best known of these were Susanna Dickinson and Joe, the slave/indentured servant of William Barrett Travis.

The Battle Did Not Buy Time for Sam Houston

First, the battle did not delay Santa Ana any significant amount of time. 

Second, for most of the time during the actual battle, Sam Houston was on leave from the army, which existed mainly in theory, anyway.  During this time, he took care of personal business, negotiated with the Cherokee Indians, and was a delegate to the Texas Constitutional Conventions.  Houston did not return to the army until March 6, the same day the Alamo fell. 

Now in command of a small, but growing, army, Sam Houston planned to lead Santa Ana ever closer to the Louisiana border, where an American army was waiting, just across the Sabine River.  While Washington debated the wisdom of adding more slave territory to the Union, the army was waiting on the border to implement whatever policy the politicians finally agreed upon.  If Houston could somehow create a conflict between Mexico and America, Texas would gain a powerful supporter in the latter.

Sam Houston knew his army was what were at the time called irregulars, meaning an undisciplined and untrained force.  Houston knew that he could probably get, at most, one good fight out of them before they deserted and went back to their families. Knowing their true worth, he was not about to risk the future of Texas by actually using the army unless he had to.

Santa Ana had almost forced Houston to strike by dividing his army twice while pursuing the Texan army over the 45 days after the fall of the Alamo.  Then, suddenly, on April 21, 1836, Sam Houston realized his chance and attacked the sleeping army of Santa Ana at San Jacinto.  In a battle that lasted eighteen minutes, Houston had done the impossible, securing Texas Independence.

But I'm pretty sure the TV show will tell you that.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Goering’s Bison

Perhaps one of the weirdest stories about animal conservation involves the strange and twisting story about the European Bison, or Wisent.  These strange, large herbivores—distant cousins to the American Buffalo—once survived only in a few scattered zoos.  Today, they number in the thousands, with over two thousand reintroduced into the wild.

The largest wild animal left in Europe (bulls can weigh more than a ton), once had a range that stretched across the continent of Europe.  Where the American bison prefers to live on the grassy prairies, its slightly larger European cousins lived in forests, and as man converted the continents forests into farmland, its habitat shrank rapidly.  The bison disappeared from Greece by the 3rd century AD, from Gaul by the 8th century AD, and from England by the 12th century AD.  Their numbers drastically reduced, the bison survived in only a few forests in Eastern Europe.
As their habitat shrank, bison were hunted for their meat and frequently just for the sport.  Just as the American bison were brought to the edge of extinction by hunters seeking only their hides or tongues, European bison were slaughtered to make beer steins from their horns.
Eventually, the only preserve left was Bialowieza Forest in Poland, and after the 16th century, this area was "usually" a royal preserve with hunting limited only for the highest nobles.  The exact legal status changed from monarch to monarch until 1887 when Tsar Alexander II established it as his private preserve.  While the Tsars rarely exercised their royal prerogative—Nicholas II's last hunt was in 1912—they did occasionally find a use for the last remaining bison, quite a few were shipped off to various zoos across Europe.    

The First World War was tough on the bison (and Tsar Nicholas II didn't fare much better).  The preserve was invaded by the German army, who shot all of the bison, along with thousands of deer and wild boar, motivated equally by hunger and boredom.  By the time the Germans withdrew, there were only 54 bison left in Europe and none of them were in Poland.
This might be a good place to mention that these are not really what you might call "game animals."  The bison are not shy, nor are they fast or elusive.  Frankly, they would be about as hard to shoot as a city bus driving in slow, lumbering circles in an empty parking lot.  The Tsar and his wife used to shoot a few dozen in a single day with almost no effort—they sat in chairs and slaughtered the bison as they were herded past them by beaters.  A herd of one-ton animals with wide horns, stumbling through a forest, is going to be about as hard to locate as a big-haired blonde at a Texas wedding.

With 12 animals from various zoos, a breeding program was started at Bialowieza.  Slowly, the bison were reintroduced into the forest, and their numbers started to climb, until by the beginning of the 1930's, hunting was allowed, in order to stabilize the population at a manageable number.  Herman Goering, Hitler's second in command, hunted in the preserve, and quickly identified with the bison.
In some strange way, Goering thought of the bison as "Aryan".  (If this seems absurd, remember that in 1936 the Third Reich would sign a treaty with Japan that not only made the two countries allies, but identified the Japanese as ehrenarier, or "honorary Aryan.")  Just as Goering believed that racial inbreeding had diluted the true majesty of the Aryan man, he believed that domestication had diluted the nature of animals.  In the bison, Goering believed he was turning back the clock to true essence of the beast.

Goering quickly arranged to take four bison—three cows and a bull—back to Germany for the preserve he was building 40 miles north of Berlin.  The fact that his miniature herd was impossibly inbred (coming from a pool of only 12 animals from zoos), seems to have been lost on him.

At Carinhall, named for his deceased first wife, Goering created a perfect playhouse for an immature Nazi.  Huge banquet halls, an indoor pool, lakes, shooting boxes, hunting trophies, incredibly elaborate furnishings, and a blonde mistress.  Goering even built a huge model train layout with over 320 feet of track, tunnels, and bridges.  This train layout was so elaborate that on the eve of the war, it was insured for $265,000 (the equivalent of millions today).  Eventually, he planned a 960 foot wing addition to house the Herman Goering Museum featuring the art he had stolen from all of Europe.
When Goering was ready to show off his toys to the outside world, he invited a large group of ambassadors to tour the grounds with him.  As they stood around a pen containing the three cows, Goering made a long winded speech about the triumphal nature of all things Aryan before opening the gate that would allow the bull to rush into the pen and demonstrate the virility of the true Germanic animal. 
Goering, besides being Reichsmarschall of the Luftwaffe and second-in-command of the German Reich, was also the Reichsminister of Forestry and the Hunting Master of Germany.  As such, he should have known that like most wild herbivores, bison only mate in season.  So, unfortunately, at his demonstration of "German virility", the bull refused to enter the pen with the cows, and when forced to pass through the gate, took one look at the cows and scampered back to safety. 
Well, perhaps, it really was a perfect example of Nazi Virility.

The ambassadors quickly wrote up the account and sent it to their respective countries.  Sir Eric Phipps, the ambassador to Germany from Great Britain, was so derisive that his cynical dispatch is legendary; historians refer to it as the "Bison Dispatch."
Eventually, after Germany invaded Poland, the herd of bison at Bialowieza came under the control of Goering, who ordered the continuation of the preserve and the protection of the herd.  As Germany lost the war, he ordered his Luftwaffe to totally destroy Carinhall.  While almost all of the buildings—and the incredible model train layout—were destroyed, the preserve and most of the animals survived.
The preserve at Bialowieza changed hands several times.  In 1939, the Russians chased out the Polish gamekeepers and replaced them with Russian gamekeepers, who were replaced by German gamekeepers in 1941.  The Russians were back in 1944, and declared the area a park.  In 1991, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met in the park and formally signed the Belavezha Accords that formally dissolved the Soviet Union.  Today, the preserve is slightly over a hundred square miles, which straddle the border dividing Poland and Belarus.

And the bison?  Today, there are roughly 5000 of them, with about half of those in the wild and the other half living in zoos and scattered breeding programs.  And if you go to Germany, for about $2,000, you can prove shooting one.  Goering would be proud of you.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Who Are You?

I'm face blind.  There is a much longer term term for this conditionprosopagnosiabut this is just a fancy way of saying that I rarely recognize anyone, even my friends.

You know that little voice in the back of your head that tells you who a person is when you meet then on the street?  Well, I don'tthat little voice stays mainly silent.  I can usually figure out who someone is.  If I knock on Chuck's door and a large mustachioed man answers it, I know that it is Chuck.  And if I go to Beth's office, that is almost certainly Beth.  But when Beth saw me in the mall and ran in circles around me waving her arms, I just assumed some random nut needed to be shoved out of the way.  (She spoke just before I clobbered herI'm very good at recognizing voices.)

If people are out of context, I usually don't recognize them.  My own two sons, What's-His-Name and The-Other-One, have snuck into my classroom at Enema U just to hear me lecture, and I didn't catch on until the students kept laughing and looking at them.  This is also one of the reasons I never take attendance in classas far as I can tell, everyone is always there.

People with face blindness learn to cope.  I use things like gait, hair color,  makeup, and clothes to try and reason out people's identity,    Personally, I think people who aren't face blind stop looking at people as soon as they recognize them.  On a regular basis, I am told that I am the only one to notice a haircut, new makeup or glasses, or that someone is ill or has lost weight.
While scientists are still doing a lot of research, it does appear that face blind people have a little trouble linking certain facts to people.  Little facts like names or the names of spouses.  (You would not believe how often my wife, The Doc, and I have stood on the sidewalk outside of a friend's home while she reminded me of the names of people we have known 20 years.)

Face blindness is not that rare, about 2.5% of people have it.  Some prominent sufferers, besides me, include Brad Pitt, Dr. Oliver Sacks, and Jane Goodall.  In Dr. Goodall's case, her practice at analyzing faces she didn't recognize probably helped her in research on chimpanzee facial expressions.  And what all of us with prosopagnosia need, is someone to follow us around and whisper into our ears the names of the people we meet.  What we need is a nomenclator.

During the Roman Empire, a rich and powerful nobleman met far too many people to remember, so he did what a rich Roman nobleman did whenever he had a problem:  he bought a specialized slave.  A nomenclator was a slave with a remarkable memory; his job was to remind the nobleman of who he was meeting.  (Maybe a few of those noblemen were part of the 2.5% crowd.)

There is a more modern systemone that does not require slaves.  The modern version is the Farley File.

James Aloysius Farley was a consummate New York politician and political kingmaker, and his specialty was being a political advisor and campaign manager.   After successfully helping Alfred E. Smith win the governorship of New York in 1922, he managed the campaigns of a relatively unknown politicianFranklin Delano Roosevelt.

With Farley as his campaign manager, Roosevelt won the governorship of New York in 1926 and 1928, and then challenged President Hoover for the presidency in 1932.  Jim Farley was the campaign manager for FDR's first two presidential elections.  Now I can't prove that Roosevelt had a problem recognizing people and remembering certain facts about them... And I can't prove he had a bad memory in general, but he was the president who said:  "Nothing is so responsible for the good old days as a bad memory."

A bad memory is not a great asset in politics, so Jim Farley devised a clever remedy: he kept an index card of every person that Roosevelt met, and recorded the names of spouses, children, hobbies, education, place of employmentany personal information that you could reasonably expect a "good friend" to remember.  If Roosevelt returned to the same area, Farley would hand him the index cards of everyone he might meet.

The records soon became known as a Farley File, and as the years went by, Roosevelt's files became massive, and with them, FDR could remain personally close with all of his supporters.   Farley, as a reward for his efforts, was appointed Postmaster General and Chairman of the Democratic Party.

The index cards are no longer needed, today, a Farley File is an app for your iPhone.  Ironically, while every modern politician has such a Farley File, very few remember James Farley
And 2.5% of people wouldn't recognize him if they saw him again.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Other Presidential Car

Everyone knows about Air Force One, although most people believe that the title refers to a single airplane.  Actually, this call sign is given to any Air Force plane carrying the president.

Similarly, when the president is aboard the large Sea King helicopter operated by the United States Marines, the helicopter is known as Marine One.  Any Marine aircraft containing the president would be so designated, regardless of the type of aircraft.

While the presidential limousine--a General Motors Cadillac--is sometimes referred to as Cadillac One by the press, the vehicle doesn't actually have an official name.  The Secret Service, however, has given the car an unofficial name, "The Beast." 

Personally, I've always believed the car should be known as "Dracula," since it always travels with a refrigerated blood bank in the car's trunk, stocked with the president's blood type.  The vehicle is a combination armored car and bloodmobile.

Sadly, the president no longer has a yacht, (the USS Sequoia was sold by President Carter in 1977), and if President George W. Bush had a special name for his mountain bike, I have been unable to locate it.

That leaves just one last piece of presidential transportation gear: U.S. Car No. 1, the official railroad car of the Commander in Chief.  Yes, the Presidential Railroad Car.  Actually, there have been several of them through the years.

The first one belonged to Abraham Lincoln and was a passenger car that had been  refitted for the president's use during the Civil War.  The resulting car, named The United States, was so opulent that Lincoln refused to use it, believing that such an ostentatious display of luxury was unseemly while the country was at war.  This was the first private railroad car in America.

Unfortunately, in the end, Lincoln did travel in the car: it carried his coffin from the capitol to Springfield, Illinois, making stops in most of the larger Northern cities along the way.  On a trip lasting over 1600 miles, the car visited over 300 communities where untold thousands of grieving Americans met the train along the way.

Presidents certainly traveled by train after Lincoln, but simply used whichever premium Pullman car was available.  The Pullman company built rail cars in several grades, and the president usually used the highest quality available.   Since trips were relatively short (Presidents then did not conduct endless campaign trips, but left undignified campaigning to minions), there was not much use for an official car.

One of those cars used temporarily by a president--a Pullman Palace coach--still survives.  President Theodore Roosevelt rode in the car several times on trips to Texas, but today it is part of a bed & breakfast inn just outside of Fredericksburg, Texas.  If you have a desire to sleep where Teddy did, it will set you back about $225 a night.

President Taft used a Pullman Car named the Mayflower to travel to El Paso, Texas, in October 1909, to meet Mexican President Porfirio Diaz.  The two men met in El Paso, then journeyed across the Rio Grande to a magnificent dinner in Ciudad Juarez, where they dined on a gold and silver dining service that had once belonged to the Emperor Maximilian.  This was the first international travel by a sitting president of either country.  Just 19 months later, the Diaz government would fall with the capture of Ciudad Juarez that was the beginning of the lengthy Mexican Revolution.

Three years later the Mayflower railroad car would be used by former President Theodore Roosevelt, as he unsuccessfully ran for the Presidency in 1912.  Campaigning as a "Bull Moose," Roosevelt set up a grueling campaign schedule, often speaking from the rear platform of the Mayflower as many as 30 times a day, at every "whistle stop" and train station in the country.  This schedule was prematurely halted in Milwaukee after the former president, en route to give a 90 minute speech, was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin.  Though wounded, Roosevelt still made the speech, then spent the next several weeks recuperating in a hospital.

When Woodrow Wilson toured the country in 1919 to drum up support for the Versailles Treaty, he used the same railroad car--the Mayflower--throughout the trip.  Wilson spoke from the rear  platform of the car across America.  This trip, like Roosevelt's, came to a premature end when the President suffered a cerebral thrombosis (a stroke) and had to return to the White House for a lengthy recovery.

The Federal, a 1911 Pullman business car--which was used extensively by Presidents Taft and Wilson--is still riding the rails and is available for charter.  If you even wondered how much this costs--you can't afford it.  On the other hand, since it sleeps eight (and two of the double brass beds are original), at least you could take a few rich friends and split the cost. 

In the end, however, the ultimate presidential railroad car has to be the Ferdinand Magellan, officially known as U.S. Car No. 1.  This is the only railroad car ever rebuilt exclusively for presidential use, and is the heaviest railroad passenger car ever used.

In 1928, the Pullman company built six large luxury cars, named for famous explorers, for private charter.  In 1941, President Frankly D. Roosevelt accepted the recommendations of his aides to have one of these cars refitted for his use.  The entire car was armor-plated, the windows were replaced with bullet-proof glass three inches thick, and two emergency escape hatches were added.

The resulting car is 84 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 15 feet tall.   Adding all the armor plating doubled the cars weight to 285,000 pounds.  Inside the coach are a presidential suite, two guest bedrooms, a dining room that can double as a conference room, and a spacious observation lounge.

This luxury train car even sported air conditioning. Special bunkers held 12,500 pounds of ice blocks.  Water sprayed over the ice was used to chill metal coils circulating air to the inside of the compartments.  This water was collected and pumped back to spray again over the ice blocks.  During the Eisenhower administration, this system was converted to a more modern refrigeration system.

For security purposes, the name "Ferdinand Magellan" was painted over, leaving only the "Pullman," so that from a distance, the car appeared to be an ordinary railroad car.  When it traveled, several other cars always traveled along with it, providing space for crew quarters, a kitchen, and one entire car, nicknamed "The Crate,"  that carried the massive radio and communication gear required to keep the president connected to the government while he traveled.

FDR loved his train and traveled extensively on it throughout the war.  When he traveled by airplane to North Africa--the first sitting president to use an airplane for international travel--it was U.S. Car No. 1 that took him to the airport in Miami.  Between trips, the railroad car was hidden at various secure locations around Washington (occasionally in the sub-basement of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing--a building that obviously already had excellent security.)

Sadly, the car was with FDR in Georgia when he died.  When the Secret Service tried to move the president's coffin into the rolling fortress, it proved impossible to remove any of the incredibly heavy bullet proof windows to get the coffin into it, resulting in its returning to the capitol in one of the cars used to house the train's staff.  Eleanor Roosevelt and President and Mrs. Truman rode in the presidential car, directly behind the car containing the coffin, to Hyde Park for the funeral.

Both Truman and Eisenhower used the train extensively for official business and campaign trips.  The famous photo of Truman holding the newspaper erroneously stating that his opponent had won the 1948 election, was taken with him standing on the rear of the presidential rail car. 

Even by the middle of the Truman administration, presidential planes were beginning to eliminate the need for presidential trains.  Where FDR had loved to travel across America at a stately 30 MPH, Truman demanded speed and had the trains moving along at speeds up to 80 MPH, something that terrified every engineer who found the heavy car attached to his train.

U.S. Car No. 1 was declared surplus to government needs in 1958 and sold to the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami, Florida.  The train, on display inside a large building at the museum, was directly in the path of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  The building was destroyed, and two large steel beams fell directly on top of the Pullman car.  All of the cars inside the shed were heavily damaged--including two cars that were snapped in half.  All, except U.S. Car No. 1, that is--the armor plating worked well so that the car only needed to be repainted.

This is not quite the end of the story, however.  In 1984, when President Reagan was campaigning for reelection, his staff asked to borrow the car.  For a single day, President Reagan made speeches from the rear of the car at campaign stops between Toledo and Dayton, Ohio.

Who knows?  The car is still around, the track system is still there....maybe the story is not over.